Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Movie Review Preview: the Cine-Sib on "Star Trek" Context

Consider this the prelude to his full movie review of the new Trek film. He'll have a lot to say; he and I were on the phone last night having a great time comparing notes.

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Let me preface this preface with the fact that I'm a fanboy and undoubtedly this will be obviously biased. I grew up with Star Trek, my first real introduction to science fiction. Watching The Original Series on reruns every evening as a boy, Next Generation from the beginning and then the subsequent other 3 series and 10 movies.

Unfortunately, while I continued to be a fan, the Trek machine grew too big; the studio, Paramount, keen to its business side of things was now cranking out two Trek series concurrently (Deep Space Nine and Voyager) the movies were coming out every 2 years, which eventually oversaturated the market. There was just too much: DS9 competed with Voyager, which competed with Original Series and Next Generation reruns. By the time the tenth movie came out in December of 2002, Star Trek: Nemesis, no one cared anymore. Not even fans. I was at a Philadelphia theater on opening night of Nemesis, and the only noise I heard was crickets. There was only a handful of people in the theater and I wondered, am I even in the right room? This was Trek. And no one cared. With $65 million budget, its domestic gross was only $43 million. Ouch.

Flash forward several years, and no Trek movie had been made since the failure that was Nemesis. It seemed like Trek was dying if not already dead in the water. Enterprise, the latest, and last Trek series that was on the air, was losing viewers left and right, and its prequel premise ultimately spelling its own doom with the writers writing themselves into a corner. What was supposed to be fresh came out stale, and it was unceremoniously cancelled in 2005, and that seemed like it was it.

Something needed to change. Then came along J.J. Abrams, TV veteran who masterminded Felicity, Alias, and Lost, had just been given the reins of another dying movie franchise, Tom Cruise's Mission Impossible series, and was tasked to rejuvenate the franchise. Budgeted at $150 million, MI:3 was the most expensive movie ever given to a rookie director for his debut. Abrams, with writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman (also former producers of Alias) were up to the task and delivered an action packed third volume of the series that opened up the summer movie season of 2006 with a bang, exceeding studio expectations. They managed to take the premise and make it fresh, allowing new viewers who hadn't seen the previous movies to latch on to this new story. And they did it with aplomb.

Paramount found their savior and immediately offered the Trek franchise to him and his crew. But would they be able to breath life into this 40 year old enterprise?

More to come.

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OK, it's MM now. Let me add this to the Sibling's analysis. I think part of the problem of the Trek franchise by the time of "Nemesis" and "Enterprise" was that it had grown so self-involved that it wasn't gaining any new fans. Heck, it wasn't even keeping some of its old fans. I absolutely hated "Enterprise" and stopped watching in disgust after a few episodes. (I did watch the series finale in a fit of morbid curiosity and ended up yelling insults at the TV.)

By "self-involved," I mean Trek became "so consumed with itself and its own fictive universe that it lost all sense of fun and adventure." The whole reason I liked Trek in the first place was the idea of young, energetic folks heading out into the wild unknown of space -- the FRONTIER, hello? -- to explore. It's a premise as full of danger as delight. Just think of the sorts of folks who had the daring and guts to head out into the untamed American Old West. Think of Lewis and Clark, for goodness sake.

But as time went on, the pioneering, robust, can-do, make-your-own-destiny ideas turned into endless technobabble and, even worse, bellyaching about galactic politics that would bore even the most seasoned desk jockeys of the EU and UN. The whole franchise descended into navel-gazing and self-castrating obsessions about social issues AT THE EXPENSE OF CHARACTER AND FUN. Instead of Lewis and Clark, we got space alien versions of bureaucrats. The huge open spaces of the galaxy turned into claustrophobic offices. Then, even more damning, the franchise began to obsess about moral lessons. I know, I know, this was a habit going all the way back to the original series, but a habit isn't good simply because it's old. I think science fiction and fantasy can be a great way to discuss complex moral and ethical ideas, but I resent having anybody beat me over the head with them. It's -- let's say the heresy, here -- NOT FUN.

The idea of Trek went from "Let's head into the great unknown and see what's out there!" to "Please review the protocol for the state dinner for the Andorian ambassador and his security detail." Then add: "By the way, the ambassador's daughter wants to claim asylum with the Federation because she's in love with a non-Andorian and it's against her culture to marry aliens. Her father insists it's an internal issue and forbids us to interfere. So! What do we do? Prime Directive or give a heavy-handed, thinly-veiled, preachy Trekkified moral lesson about feminism and women's rights?" The click you're hearing is the sounds of millions of fans changing channels to watch ANYTHING ELSE BUT THIS. If I wanted a sermon, I'd go to church.

The Trek universe got too small in its outlook. It became an ever-shrinking echo chamber. I think it became more interested in preserving its own little universe than in being daring, bold, colorful. It seemed so concerned with never stepping over the line of "acceptability" that it became unacceptable in its own creative passivity.

The Paramount bigshots who oversaw Trek forgot what made it great in the first place. And people noticed. And then JJ Abrams went back to basics. The result was movie magic. Oh, it had plenty of flaws, but overall, it did in 2 hours what previous efforts had not been able to do in nearly 2 decades. It made Trek fun and exciting and -- yes! -- unpredictable.

1 comment:

Ron said...

Loved the movie beyond doubt and recommend to anyone.