Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day Trekkin'

The Spawn were up early, despite dire parental threats. No breakfast in bed this year was the demand. To their credit, the boys understood. There was no Invasion of the Burnt Toast-Carrying Fiends From 0600 Hours. And I, for one, am extremely grateful.

Nevertheless, the Call of Mother's Day seems to loom large. I don't remember getting this excitable about Mother's Day as a kid, but I guess they're different. Fair enough, too. Anyway, they were up somewhere around first light, laying out a breakfast of buttered muffins, finding a cushion to go on one of the chairs, getting a nice blanket to go with it... I don't think they realised that by the time Natalie went down, a good forty minutes later, the muffins were stony cold. She ate 'em anyhow.

Then, for more Mother's Day yuks, we went through the great cycle of Louse Destruction once more. You can't just do the thing once, because any chemicals fierce enough to kill all the eggs as well as the lice would probably peel your scalp and bake your brain. So you go through a complicated routine of shampooing with evil chemistry, rinsing, repeating, and then a standard shampoo followed by conditioner, and a long, slow encounter with a fine-toothed comb. Yessir, just what a fine Mother's Day Sunday should have.

Still: I did have the foresight to check cinema times a few days back, and it turned out there was an early-afternoon session of Star Trek 90210, as I am dubbing this glossier-than-glossy reboot of the much-loved franchise. Natalie's a Trek fan from way, way back, so I figured a family visit to the new film would go over well.

It did.

I have to say that on one hand, I'm a touch disappointed. The last time I saw reviews this good for an sf/genre-type flick, it was the first of the Johnny Depp "Pirates" movies -- and that was a fucking boomer. I enjoyed the hell out of that film from one end to the other, and on that basis, I was rather hoping to be just as captivated by Star Trek 90210.

Sorry, Trek fans -- the Abrams-refuelled Enterprise isn't in the same class as that first Pirates of the Caribbean flick. It's a worthy effort. It kept my attention through almost all the film, and there were elements I greatly enjoyed, for certain. But underneath it... I think you need to be a Trek fan to really groove on the film, and to me, that's a little disappointing.

Why? Did I really have the right to expect something more? Weren't the words "Star Trek" enough of a warning?

Well -- yeah, I guess it's a bit rich for me to be expecting a film that steps up and out of the whole Star Trek thing. But, you know... I was hoping. I admit it.

To be fair, I think this is the best Star Trek film ever made. The pace is pretty good in general, though it falls off here and there. The cast inhabit the characters very well indeed. Karl Urban's take on DeForrest Kelley is so good it's unnerving, while the rest of the players step into oversized boots without missing a beat. John Cho's version of Hikaru Sulu is a delight. Simon Pegg creates a new, yet perfectly at home Scotty. Zachary Quinto's Spock is far more interesting and nuanced than the original. (Anybody else here remember Leonard Nimoy channeling a British Army Sergeant Major for his first efforts as the man in the pointy ears? Quinto is light-years better. Really.)

And of course, the new Kirk is pretty fucking good, as well he ought to be. Where his part doesn't fully come off, it's not his fault -- some damnfool slapstick stuff with swollen hands and numb tongue, a series of fight sequences in which he gets his arse routinely kicked by the same stupid roundhouse slugging punches and gormless Frankenstein's Monster strangles... Yeah, I know: original-series Kirk fought about as efficiently and convincingly as a dugong caught in a revolving door -- but that was the 'sixties, man! All the action heroes fought that way. This film -- well, shit. You should see what they let John Cho's stunt double do with a fold-out katana!

So - what's my problem?

It's really hard to convey. First, I think my problem is that even though this is the best Trek film by a long margin, it's still a Trek film. The difficulty with the whole series of films is that they've been as much about their own mythos as they ever have been about science fiction, and for many of the films, the Federation/Trek mythology has outweighed the story, the plot, the villains, and sometimes even the special effects.

The original Trek series -- yeah. Shitty SFX. Crappy sets. Hammy acting. Alla that shit. But... the Federation and the Prime Directive and the rest of it existed only as a backdrop for storytelling, and exploration. The reason that original series resonated was that they tried to do science fiction, and nobody else was doing that. They went for it: chased that sense of wonder, that gosh-wow-holy-shit! factor that has always been such a vital part of the SF literary genre. Not bigger, better, badder stunts and explosions, but ideas and themes and jeez, what if? What if?

Barnes emailed me a while back when it was announced they'd be re-releasing the original series, only with schmicked-up FX and sound and models and stuff. He asked a simple question: We hated it when George Lucas reworked Star Wars. Why aren't we pissed that this is being done to Trek?

The answer was simple, for me. They promised to leave the performances, the lines, and the stories completely the fuck alone.

With that first series of Trek, it was all about the SF, the exploration of the possible, the bold, sometimes ludicrous, occasionally poignant effort to use an imaginary future as a vehicle to explore who we are now. And for those of us who saw it back then, as kids, with the love of stories and imagination hot upon us -- we didn't see shitty sets, crappy SFX, and badly lit models. The stuff on the screen was just a guide, like a minimalist Shakespearian stage-set. What was going on in our heads was huge, epic, larger-than-life stuff that truthfully, honestly, changed us a little bit and stayed with us for years, and even decades. Why else would such a shoddy little TV show wind up spawning an entire goddam culture?

So. For me, the problem of this film is not that it treads on "sacred territory". Frankly, I think it's been enormously respectful to the original, and as a reworking, it's very effective. Plus the cunning plot device embedded in the story is such that from here, they can go on with this cast and crew without ever 'damaging' the original, if such a thing is actually possible. Full marks to Abrams and everybody involved.

No - if anything, the problem is that it's too concerned with being Trek, and not concerned enough about being imaginative, and bold, and confronting. The way I see it, if you're going to recreate a goddam legend -- and there's no other way to describe the original Enterprise and all aboard -- then you've got to reach into the spirit of that legend for inspiration.

Pirates Of The Caribbean did that. It took off from all the marvellously silly sword-and-sail swashbucklers of the past, kept the best, and stepped up a notch in performance and storytelling and scope and effects without losing sight of the sheer joy of adventure that drove those old movies. This is where Star Trek 90210 falls down, I fear -- for in ensuring that it properly enshrines the canon and the heroes and the trappings of the Star Trek franchise, Abrams has slightly, but definitely, missed the point.

He's made a film that will please Trek fans all over the world, and since we are legion, I have no doubt the movie will succeed and spawn sequels of its own. But I don't believe he's made a film that can capture the attention of a whole new generation of viewers, and touch them with the kind of inspirational madness that the original generated. It's a great Trek film, but it's still a Trek film.

I'll say this, though: if they took that same cast and let them have a cheap TV series of their own, with some decent SF writers to offer up plots and ideas... I think they might just manage to boldly go even farther than the originals, and I'd be only too happy to go right along with them.