Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

(Movie Review)

Since there's no movie theaters in my town, I always have to wait for everything to come out on video. And so with this movie as well I waited for it to come out on video. Despite the fact that my long history with Star Trek might make you think that I would been first in line opening day, I waited a few months for this to come out on video, just like everything else.

Those of you who know me well know that I have a bit of a history with Star Trek. When writing up a Star Trek review, the question is whether I go into all that baggage, or whether I just give the abridged version and skip to the film itself.
After some consideration, I've decided to go with the long version. Because I figure, if you can't be self-indulgent on your own blog, then where can you be self-indulgent? So in addition to reviewing this movie, I'm going to go into my history with the series, some of my thoughts on the franchise as a whole, and the standard geeky questions about continuity. If you don't want to read the whole thing, I've put in bold topic headlines so you can skip around.

Starting with:
My History with Star Trek

Although - I - have - mentioned - "Star Trek" - in - passing - several - times - on - this - blog - in - the - past - few - years, I've never before gone into my history with it before.
I was first introduced to Star Trek on a family vacation when I was 9 years old. We watched "Star Trek 4" in the hotel one evening, and in the space of 2 hours I went from "never even heard of it" to "fell in love with it immediately."
And that's where the obsession began.
Soon I found out that there were other movies in the "Star Trek" series. And that there was an animated cartoon (being re-run on Nickelodeon at the time) . And then I discovered the original TV show was being re-run twice a week on my local TV station.

By the end of 4th grade I was as into "Star Trek" as it was possible to be. I not only watched the show obsessively twice a week, but in the hours when it wasn't being shown I read everything I could about it. I memorized all sorts of "Star Trek" trivial facts. I read so much of the "Star Trek" pocket book novels (W) that my concerned mom eventually forbid me from reading two of them in a row. (I had to read at least one non-Star Trek book in order to get permission to read another Star Trek book).
I wrote fan mail to the entire cast of the original series. When we were assigned in 4th grade to write a short report on a topic of our choosing, I wrote this huge report on Star Trek several pages longer than any of my classmates. In fact for the next few years all my school projects revolved around "Star Trek". When I graduated middle school, my year book caricature said that I would always be known for my joint love of wolves and Star Trek. ("pointy eared creatures" was the common theme the year book staff found between the two).
I read the comic books, I collected the action figures, I played the video games...Well, you get the picture.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" came out when I was in 5th grade. By this time I had already been a die hard original fan for over a year. (Which doesn't seem like much in adult time, but for a kid that's an eternity). And like a lot of original fans, it took me a while to warm up to the new version. At first I didn't care for it. Then I tried to watch it for a while to try and make myself like it. Then I went back to not caring about it. Then I stopped watching it for a few years.
But like any franchise worth its salt, they make you feel like you're missing out on something if you don't follow the entire thing. There were an increasing amount of tie- ins between the shows. For example, when one of Worf's ancestors had a part in "Star Trek VI", I felt like I hadn't been doing my duty as a Trekkie because I hadn't kept up on Worf and the Next Generation gang. So eventually I came back to it.
And by this time, about the 5th season, the Next Generation had finally gotten over it's initially awkwardness, and had started getting good. And so I now set about trying to catch up on all the Next Generation seasons I had missed, and the obsession was now extended to both shows.

Shortly thereafter Deep Space Nine came out, and then Voyager began, and I was trying to be obsessive about 4 shows at once. (Two of them in reruns by this time, but still on the air).

And then abruptly, shortly before graduating high school, I just dropped the whole thing.
By this time (fall of 1995, about) the franchise was already beginning to go down hill. But I don't think it was the decline in quality that got to me. I think I had just outgrown it.

I was (somewhat belatedly perhaps) beginning to realize that being a huge Star Trek fan was not a productive use of my life. I had also started watching "Saturday Night Live", and had realized (again, somewhat belatedly) that huge Star Trek fans like me were not very popular with the girls, and that if I ever wanted to become popular or get a girlfriend this was a habit I should probably get rid of.
But more than that, I realized (once again, belatedly) that there was more to life than obsessing about a TV show.

I felt like I had wasted my youth, and I was determined not to repeat the same mistake at college. I knew my natural sedentary instincts were to just veg out in front of the TV if I allowed myself, so I didn't allow myself. I was very strict with myself about not watching TV or movies during the school year. Only reading and studying that was absolutely necessary for my classes, and the rest of my time must be devoted to being social.

Initially, I decided that I could watch movies with friends as a social activity, but couldn't watch them by myself. However by the end of Freshman year, I decided this was too big of a loop hole. The guys down at the end of the hall had movie night every single night, and I was wasting too much of my precious youth just sitting on their couch watching videos.

Therefore for the rest of my college career, whenever someone would turn on the TV or pop in a video, I would abruptly get up and leave the room. I was extremely strict on this, and there would be no exceptions. If we went to someone's house for the night, I would bring homework with me just in case it ended up being a video night. And while the rest of the gang was watching the video in the living room, I would study on the stairwell.

Eventually I extended this prohibition against TV to include all forms of passive activity. What was the difference between watching a two hour movie and a two hour play? So the school play was out. Music concerts were out. Lectures and talks not strictly required for my classes were out. And church was out.

It was a very strict policy that was to result in lots of arguments with friends over the next few years. Brett was very upset when I refused to go and watch him perform at dance guild sophomore year. He was also appalled when Elie Wiesel came to speak at campus, and I refused to go see him. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see someone like this, I can't believe you're not going," he said. We argued about it all week, and then eventually he went with out me. (Although when the gang got back to the dorms, Brett got flack from everyone else for sleeping soundly through the whole speech.)

And, although at any other college campus it might not have been an issue, at Calvin my refusal to go to Church led to no end of arguments, debates, and even a few botched romances (there were a couple girls at the time who liked me, but refused to date me as long as I was not going to church). Eventually I just solved the whole thing by creating my own church which, instead of passively sitting in pews, was entirely based on active conversation and participation.

It was over extreme, sure, in retrospect maybe slightly crazy. But given my sedentary temperament, the danger was that I could have spent my college years zoned out in front of the TV screen, and I'm glad I at least avoided that.

But of course college dorms are not real life. In college one never runs out of distractions. There's always more studying that needs to be done, and there's always some sort of sophomoric shenanigans going on down the hall.
Now that I'm out living by myself, without a very active social life, I find myself slipping back into my old sedentary habits, and spend an embarrassing amount of time just watching movies and reviewing them on this blog. Despite my best efforts, I've relapsed back into my geek nature, and it's probably something I'll spend the rest of my life struggling with.

Anyway, obviously I've gotten slightly off topic here. Back to "Star Trek".

Thoughts on the Franchise
Most people in my generation, if they were Trek fans, usually were fans of "the Next Generation" primarily, and the original series maybe secondly. As I've just mentioned, I was the reverse, but I'll start with the new Trek.

Since I dropped "Star Trek" in 1995, I never saw the end of DS9 or Voyager. And I never watched any of "The Enterprise" series. That came out after I was in Japan, so I couldn't have seen that anyway.

Of course, these days you can watch anything over the internet, but you know what, even though I waste tons of time watching videos off the internet every week, I just can't sit through those new Star Trek episodes. I've tried to watch "Enterprise", and I just can't make it through an episode.

Even "The Next Generation" I have a hard time sitting through these days. It just seems really bland. The characters are bland. The episodes are, well, okay I guess, but nothing I really get excited about.
And although some characters do develop slowly over time, nothing much changes from one episode to another. So you're never really in much suspense over how an episode is going to turn out.

Anytime you go back and revisit something from your childhood, and it's not the same as you remember it, the obvious question is: "well, what changed? Did I just grow up, or did the culture change?"

Perhaps "the Next Generation" is one of those shows that is a victim of its own success. It helped pave the way for a television science fiction revival, but now it just can't compete with the TV shows it inspired. If you compare "the Next Generation" with shows, like "Lost", "Battlestar Galatica", "Firefly", "Heroes", et cetera--shows where there's actually a story going on and things actually happen--"the Next Generation" is incredibly bland and boring by comparison.

I mean the show is alright, I guess. There were some decent episodes, don't get me wrong. But it's nothing you would want to rearrange your whole life around and dedicate yourself to. And yet that's precisely what Trekkies like me used to do back in the 90s.

As for the original series:
The original series doesn't hold up very well from an adult perspective. But no wonder I fell in love with this show when I was 9. What kid wouldn't love it? Every week a new adventure on a new planet, battling exotic aliens or space monsters. And almost every episode ended in some sort of bare knuckled fist fight with that infamous Star Trek fight music playing overtop.
Plus, the creative science fiction plots were just right to engage the mind of a 9 year old kid. Yes, there were some stinkers in there, but the better shows really did make you think, at least for a kid.

As a kid, I never even noticed all the flaws in this show that seem so obvious to me now.
I never noticed how ridiculously primitive all those flashing lights and manual switches looked on the bridge of the Enterprise. I never realized how bad the special effects were. And somehow (although now I wonder how I ever missed it) I never noticed that all of the fight scenes were incredibly poorly choreographed, the punches were obviously not connecting, and the jump kick Kirk would always do was just blatantly ridiculous.

Well, of course kids by definition are less critical than adults.

And perhaps the time period was a factor as well. "Star Trek" was only 20 years old when I started watching it. It's doubled in age since then, and perhaps the discrepancy between 60s TV and modern TV has become so much more pronounced that even kids can realize it.

For that matter, perhaps the fact that my own TV viewing was so restricted made me easier to impress than my classmates. Before "Star Trek", the only TV I was allowed to watch was reruns of old 60s era Disney movies on the Disney Channel. The idea of a science fiction adventure show was a real breath of fresh air to me. But my classmates, who grew up on "The A-Team", "Knight Rider", "Miami Vice" and other 80s adventure shows that I had not been allowed to watch were not so easily impressed. This may explain why, despite my repeated efforts to evangelize my classmates from 4th grade on, not a single one of them ever became a fan of the original Star Trek, and many of them openly expressed their contempt for it. (Some of them liked "the Next Generation", but no one wanted anything to do with the original show.)

Well, you're only 9 years old once, and so I'll never get another chance to view this series through the eyes of a child. So even though I don't know what kids today might think of it, all I can say is that for me as an early pre-teen it was absolutely amazing.
But I certainly wouldn't call it adult entertainment. Besides its nostalgic value, it's mainly interesting to me now as a time piece from another era of television.

Anyway, I think I've indulged myself enough. Onto the main review:

The Main Review

There was a time when the idea of rebooting the whole Star Trek universe and starting over would have absolutely horrified me. But at this point in the franchise history it seems like, "Well, whatever they do, it can't get any worse than the crap they've been doing the last couple years." The franchise seems dead anyway, and the once die hard fans seem to have all drifted off with it. (At least that's my impression. Maybe I've just been out of the country for too long, but the phenomenon of the obsessive Star Trek fan seems to belong to another era).

So, let the rebooting begin. Show us what you can do, mainstream Hollywood movie machine.

It's a bit difficult to critique a "Star Trek" film because a lot depends on what lens you want to look at it through. Geek culture in the US is perhaps defined by applying adult criticism to children's entertainment (such as superhero comic books, and space operas like Star Trek and Star Wars.)

When I re-watch the old Star Trek films or TV shows now, I notice tons of plot holes and bad science. I never noticed these when I was 9 years old.

So for the moment put aside all your adult criticism of this movie's plot, and just imagine watching it as a 9 year old boy.

From that perspective, this would become one of the greatest movies ever!

It might seem like that is giving the movie a free pass (and we'll get to some of its flaws in a minute) but remember that creating a fun and exciting movie is no easy achievement. You've got to be good to get the chemistry just right, and these guys are good. The action sequences are great, the humor is mixed in really well, and the pacing of this movie is spot on.

I got a bit of flack on Whisky's blog (link here) for not seeing this movie on the big screen. And, although I still maintain that no movie is worth sacrificing your whole day to get to a decent theater and back, I completely understand what they mean now after watching this film. There are several spectacular space battles which really deserve the big screen. I can only imagine how awesome this movie must have have been in the theaters. I would recommend everyone to see it on the big screen if you have the opportunity but, unfortunately, if you're reading this review you've already missed your chance.

The re-imagining of these characters was fun too. All of them were good. Some were exactly spot on, some were just close. But the great thing is that this is a completely new timeline, so the characters don't have to be the same ones we grew up with. This isn't the old James T. Kirk, this is James T. Kirk as he would have been if he had been raised by an abusive step-father.
And, assuming the butterfly effect would have rippled through changes in the whole universe, it means every character has the freedom to go in a slightly different direction. And some of the different directions they chose to go in are pretty interesting, such as the Uhura-Spock romance.

Plus having Leonard Nimoy back to play the original Spock is a nice bonus.

However, as Whisky stated in his review (link here) this movie is just the set-up. How well this movie will stand the test of time is somewhat dependent on where it goes from here. The entire movie is just a build-up to re-establishing the crew of the enterprise, so once we finally get to the ending where everyone is assembled, it feels like it's just the beginning.

How well this new crew will fare, what new adventures they will have, and whether they'll be able to get everyone's contract and schedules renegotiated for all the mandatory sequels remains to be seen.
The film does feel like a pilot for a new TV series, but it's not. It's trying to reboot the movie franchise. And while a TV show can support 7 characters with ease, a movie franchise is going to have difficulties juggling all these character threads. But we'll see what happens I guess.

After having read so much about how this new Star Trek was redesigned to pull in a new audience of non-Star Trek fans, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many nods to old Star Trek continuity were included.

In fact, there were so many references to old "Star Trek" continuity, I'm not sure this film did a good job of pulling in new fans at all. I can only imagine the reaction of someone who walked into this film completely cold. "Wait, what's happening now? Who are these guys? The Romul-whats? Why do they look like Vulcans? What's going on?"
If anyone out there is a non-Star Trek fan, I'd be interested in your reaction. But contrary to the hype, this story didn't strike me as newbie friendly at all.

Also, if you want to nit-pick, there's no lack of stuff to nit-pick at. I mean, sure the Grand Canyon isn't in Iowa, if we're going to be picky about that sort of thing. And alright, the villian isn't so much a character as a plot device, and sure, I will grant that his entire plan and motivation don't really seem to make a lot of sense. And the entire story seems to rely on a series of unlikely coincidences. And I'm still not entirely sure how Captian Kirk went from a suspended starfleet cadet to the captain of the whole ship. But all of these points have been raised by other reviewers, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time on them.

I don't want to let the movie off the hook for these. Every flaw in the story diminishes the movie by that much. All I'm saying is that if one were to take a careful look at any other Star Trek film or series, you would find at least as many problems.

Which brings me to:
Continuity Errors
Having already admitted that I've spent a good chunk of my life as a major Trekkie, this part of the review is mandatory. You can't have a hard core Trekkie review without some whining about continuity errors.

Of course the whole culture about continuity obsession is kind of absurd on it's face. What is it about male genes (it is usually males) who take stories that are blatently absurd like superheroes and space operas, and then obsesses about whether or not there are any inconsitencies in them?
I like Whisky's explanation that many of us develop the habit of justifying narrative inconsitencies from our Bible studies (Link here), although the less charitable explanation is that many of us do it as a substitute for having real lives.

(Via Whisky's blog, here's a link to another interesting essay about the obsession with continuity).

For the sake of brevity, I'm going to limit myself to continuity errors between this movie and the rest of the series. I'm not going to attack plot holes inside the movie itself (we'd be here all day). This is just what I notice off the top of my head, and isn't a complete or authoratative list. If you notice something I've missed, feel free to chime in on the comments.

Now, because this film rebooted and started it's own continuity, they gave themselves free reign on a lot of stuff.

I'm assuming that we're all laid back enough to allow artistic license on visual representation. That is, if some of these actors don't look exactly like their predecessors, or if the technology for special effects and computer machinery has increased since the 1960s, no one's going to get too uptight about that.

And because (as noted above) this is a new universe, the characters can even have slightly different personalities or be written in a different direction than before.

The only big problem is the concept of time travel itself.

It is hinted at that Nero's time travelling created an alternate universe. The old Star Trek Universe is still preserved out there somewhere, but a new tangent universe has gone off which we can play in without disrupting the original continuity. We get to have our cake and eat it too.

It's a neat concept, but if you're a Trek fan you know that this is not the first time the series has dealt with time travel. They do about one time travel episode per season. In fact Wikipedia has a list of all the Star Trek episodes that involve time travel (link here).
Now, to the best of my knowledge (and granted I'm not as well versed in some of the newer Trek) every single other time they've travelled back in time, the changes in the past have impacted events in the future in the current Universe. They've even done several episodes ("The City on the Edge Forever" (W) comes to mind) where the whole story revolved around trying to fix events in the past so that the future will become right again.

Well, as Whisky says "The franchise treatment of time travel remains laughably superficial, but it's much too late to correct any of that now".

Alright, leaving aside the time traveling paradoxes, there's not much to criticize because there's not much continuity they have to deal with in this alternate universe.

The only thing we're really locked into is that the respective age differences between the characters should be the same. And I think that works out. Bones is slightly older, Chekov is slightly younger, everyone else is about the same age.

I was a bit surprised to see Captain Pike as an older man, since he seems pretty young in the original "Cage" episode. But I suppose all this means is that a significant amount of time elapsed between the events of "The Cage" and "Where no Man has Gone Before".

Kirk should have an older brother somewhere around (he would have been born before Nero changed continuity) but just because we didn't explicity see him doesn't mean he's not out there somewhere I guess.

Assuming the time line didn't change until the moment Nero's ship came out the black hole and into the new time line, it's also a bit strange that Kirk was born out in space. In "Star Trek IV" he said he was born in Iowa. Technically his birth didn't happen until after the time line changed, but that would have meant even before the time line changed his mother was still heavily pregnant and out a long way from Iowa.
That's a nit-pick admittedly, but that's the kind of thing we do here.

The other major problem is the Romulans. The first time Romulans are introduced in "Star Trek", in "Balance of Terror" (W) it is established that starfleet had previously fought a war with the Romulans, but there had been no visual contact and no one had known what the Romulans looked like. It was therefore a complete shock to all (Spock included) when the Romulans were revealed to look just like Vulcans.

Ever since then, this has been a delicate line for Trek writers to walk. Romulans are somehow related to Vulcans, but the connection has to be distant enough that no one realized it for hundreds of years.

Also whether Romulans share all the Vulcan attributes, like incredible physical strength when angry, is sometimes inconsistent. (For that matter, sometimes the Trek writers appear to forget that the Vulcans themselves are supposed to have incredible strength).

In the new time line, everyone knows what Romulans look like, and everyone apparently knows they're related to the Vulcans. All this can't be explained by Nero's one attack on a starfleet vessel, however (again assuming the butterfly effect) the ripples must have somehow caused a new timeline in which starfleet and Romulan history has played out differently in intervening years when Kirk was growing up.

The only thing that really bugs me is that at one point, the communications officer says that Vulcan and Romulan dialects are so closely related that he can't distinguish between them. This strikes me as unlikely, given that, in the original time line, starfleet never figured out Romulans and Vulcans were related until they had visual contact.

But the treatment of language in "Star Trek", like time travel, is perhaps a can of worms better left unopened. I mean, then you get into the whole thing of whether the whole galaxy is speaking English all the time, or whether it simply appears that way due to the universal translator, and what is this universal translator and how does it work, and where do they keep it anyway? And how come it still appears to work after they're taken prisoner and have all their equipment confiscated?

That's all I've got for now. If you can find any other nitpicks, let me know.

Whisky, if you're reading this, sorry for linking to you so many times in a single post. What can I say, I'm a fan of your work.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Commonwealth Club Of California
Also my good friend Peter was on the radio recently talking about Michigan politics. I enjoyed listening to him, even though a lot of it was over my head. Keep up the good work Peter.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Frost / Nixon

(Movie Reviews)

Well, I'm a bit of a sucker for these political / historical dramas, so I was eagerly waiting for this movie to hit my video store in Japan. And it had gotten good reviews, so I was confident it would be good.

It's okay. Not quite as cutting and witty as I had been lead to believe, but certainly an interesting exploration of one of the most famous television interviews in history.

...Um, although I've got to admit, history buff though I am, I never even heard of the "Frost Nixon Interviews" before this movie came out. Is it just me? Did anyone else out there know about these interviews prior to this movie's release?

The Wikipedia entry on this (link here) questions the film's historical accuracy. Specifically, apparently this interview was never the huge television event the movie makes it out to be. And, Nixon was not ambushed on the Watergate questions as portrayed in the film.

The directors commentary, if you watch it, also points out that a lot of the conversations in the film were fabricated, including some of the dramatic interview moments.

Now, I hate to be that guy who's always whining about historical accuracy but....well, I'm going to be that guy for a moment and just get it out of my system.

In some movies, you care more about historical accuracy than others. As long as "Spartacus" has big battle scenes, "Tombstone" has cool gunfights and "Titanic" has a big CGI ship spectacularly sinking, you don't really care about how historically accurate these films are.

When the entire film consists of a series of conversations, and when your whole interest in these series of conversations is based on the fact that you believe it to be a pivotal moment in political history, I think the film loses a lot when it turns out to be largely fictionalized.
Put another way: this is the type of film where your interest in the events taking place is in direct proportion to your belief in their accuracy.

Now that I've gotten that out of my system, I'm going to take a step back and say that I did learn a lot from this film about a story I didn't previously know anything about. And if you're a stickler for historical accuracy (like I am) I recommend watching the directors commentary, and of course the standard geeky internet research afterwards.

At any rate, whether the original interviews were a television milestone at the time or not, this movie has pushed them back into the public consciousness again.
When Condoleezza Rice recently said:"by definition, if it was authorized by the president [Bush], it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture" every talking head on TV immediately referenced this movie.
And Rice herself had to later correct herself by saying specifically, "This was not a Nixon / Frost moment" (even though it totally was).

The film makers couldn't have anticipated that Rice would say something so stupid almost immediately after their film was released, but it shows how timely this movie is, and how it's subject matter is once again very relevant.

Because even though a lot of the conversations in this film are fictionalized for dramatic purposes, all of the subject matter and background information they are talking about is completely true. When Nixon and Frost debate the bombing of Cambodia or the Watergate cover-up, the conversations themselves may have been fictionalized but the facts they talk about are all genuine.

In fact, considering everyone under the age of 40 really has no memory of the Watergate hearings, there's a surprising amount of background information this film expects you to be aware of. For example if you don't know who Haldeman or Ehrlichman are, you can tell they're connected to something bad when Nixon and Frost throw their names around, but the movie never explains what their actual role was. Ditto John Dean, Chuck Colson, the laundered money discussed on the tapes, or a whole bunch of other details.

In my case, I had just re-watched Oliver Stone's "Nixon prior to watching this movie (see previous post), so I walked into this movie nicely refreshed on all these people and events.
Otherwise, it's still possible to watch this movie. You can still enjoy the tete a tete between disgraced former President and TV talk show host, but you have to accept that some of these little details will go over your head.

What's nice about this movie is that it takes it for granted that Nixon is a dirty lying crook.
(I remember after Nixon died there was an effort by the right-wing to rehabilitate him as a great statesman who made a few mistakes, but if this movie is any indication of pop-culture, people aren't buying it. It's somewhat unfortunate that a lot of Nixon's former associates have continued to have political careers in the Republican party, but that's another subject.)

The illegal bombing of Cambodia is one of those things that often disappears down the memory hole. (Since it is not in the history textbooks and rarely mentioned on the mainstream media, most people born after the event have no idea it even occurred). So it's nice to see this movie put that issue front and center again.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky at SOAS answering a Question on Sri Lanka