Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Turn My Geek On -- Reflections on "Star Trek" (2009)
Star Wars or Star Trek?
Has any comparison ever sparked more geek debate than this question (other than Kirk or Picard?)? Sci-fi/fantasy dweebs have lined up on both sides of the fence like Greasers vs. Socs or Capulets vs. Montagues since God-knows-when. If you don't believe me about the obsessive nature of this debate, check out these sites:
As for me, I grew up a fan of Star Wars. George Lucas' oddball universe of colorful characters, mystical religions, and badass lightsabers was the first series to pop my fantasy/sci-fi cherry. I melted my Chewbacca action figure to a light bulb once, pretending he was walking on a lava planet (I had Mustafar from Episode III beaten by 25 years). I had Star Wars bedsheets. I made my own lightsabers out of leftover paper towel tubes and gift wrap tubes before Lucas even had the idea of marketing plastic lightsabers. Star Wars was my first love affair. It was strong, passionate, and exciting.
Star Trek, on the other hand, never quite captivated me. It was like having an on-again-off-again affair with a woman you think is really hot, but the sex varies in quality. Sometimes she's eyes-pop-out-of-your-head amazing; other times, she's about as exciting as a bowel movement. I was never able to really enjoy the original Star Trek television series, but loved Star Trek: The Next Generation. And I absolutely fell head-over-heels for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but for every Khan, there was a Star Trek III, or V. Sometimes the stories of Kirk, Spock, and Bones was touching and heartfelt -- sometimes it just felt like a homoerotic love triangle.
So, it was with a sigh that I started watching the 2009 version of Star Trek, directed by J.J. Abrams (of LOST, Alias, and Mission Impossible III). I didn't expect much more than a treasure trove of classic series references for the Trekkies, some really exciting special effects, and Sylar from Heroes.
I got so much more.
Star Trek is one of the best films of 2009. It is the first of what will surely be a continuing series of films. It is the kind of film that will make Trekkies happy, and hopefully pop the cherries of a whole new generation of sci-fi geeks. I mean, I can't wait to show it to my oldest son. He'll flip.
Why is it so good? What did Abrams do with this movie that made me practically jizz in my pants?
First of all, he and the writers found a way to reboot the entire series so that they could write new stories with the new cast without making the die-hard fans feel like the franchise's past has been forgotten. I don't want to give away anything for those who haven't seen the movie, but the inclusion of Leonard Nimoy as Spock from (spoiler alert!) the future was an awesome plot device.
Including Nimoy wasn't just a great plot device, though -- it was used to develop the character of Jim T. Kirk (Chris Pine), who is introduced to us in a way William Shatner's character never was. This Kirk is rough around the edges, self-sure, brilliant, cocky, and haunted by the demon of living in his heroic father's shadow. He instigates fights he can't win as if he needs to prove to himself that he is his own man. This Kirk isn't just a drama hog with a bad toupee -- he's like the Will Hunting of science-fiction. How 'bout them apples?
As we follow Kirk's early development, we also follow the early development of Spock (Zachary Quinto, or Sylar from Heroes). We discover that Spock is a half-breed, equal parts Vulcan and human. He's not as logical as he always appeared to be. He has that human problem of passion that gets in the way when stress mounts. The early scene between Spock and his earth mother are excellent and showcase Quinto's ability to play a character not quite at ease with either aspect of his personality. I don't remember ever seeing Nimoy portray Spock with that level of internal conflict (except at the end of Khan, when he and Kirk share a very gay, yet very emotionally wrenching moment pressing their hands together from opposite sides of a glass divider).
These character's stories come together on the Starship Enterprise during its maiden voyage. All of our other favorite characters from the classic series are represented here. There's Bones (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Scotty (Simon Pegg) and the lovely Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Each plays their part with aplomb, making me forget about the original actors without thinking ill of them. But the show really belongs to Kirk and Spock.
As for the plot. It's strong, slightly preposterous, but clever and fun. The Romulans (kinda like Vulcans, but with uglier ears and tattoos) are angry and set out to destroy the planet Vulcan, which causes the Federation to send the Enterprise out to save the planet. Kirk -- not yet a captain, and in trouble for cheating on an exam -- sneaks on board the ship and knows information that makes him indispensible to the Captain so he can't get in trouble for violating all sorts of laws (why is it in hero stories that as long as the hero has good intentions and offers some good intel, they can get away with anything, including murder?). This leads to a series of events designed to promote Kirk to his rightful place as Captain of the Enterprise.
Ultimately, the plot is not quite as important as the characters here, and that is something I found a huge relief! One of the things that always bothered me about Star Trek was that the scientific gobbly-gook would often interfere with the characterization. I wasn't smart enough to know what anyone was saying. This film doesn't have that problem. You don't have to be a Trekkie (or Trekker, or whatever the fuck the fans call themselves) to understand things here.
I have to say that I am now a fan of Star Trek. Since Lucas' horrible prequels (except for Revenge of the Sith) I've been on the outs with my first love. Star Wars has become a whore, with too many toys, too many tie-ins, too many...everything! No one wants to be in love with a whore (except Richard Gere and Nicholas Cage...and Hugh Grant).
So, I guess my on-again-off-again affair with Star Trek may just turn into a full-blown relationship. This franchise has once again turned my geek on.