There’s an expression in fan chat rooms and message boards that has fallen a little by the wayside. It refers to when a classic series is updated or “improved” to be made more palatable for a modern audience. I refer, of course to: “Eat it, Grandpa!” a sort of a battle cry for those who prefer reboots to the original, etc. Don’t like that they added a scream when Luke falls down the Cloud City mineshaft? Eat it, Grandpa! Optimus Prime has lips! Aww, don’t like it? Well, eat it, grandpa! There is no series with a deeper, grayer legion of grandpas, than Star Trek, and the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek has gone out of it’s way to say “Grandfather, your opinion is important to me. You are my elder, without you I do not exist, and I hold you in the ultimate respect. I hope you will find the offering on the table palatable.”
How do you make a Star Trek movie in 2009? There’s a lot going for you and a lot going against you. On your side is an epic, sweeping, mostly-open plotline with only some basic mythological threads necessary to stick to. It’s flexible (just make sure McCoy’s a doctor and Kirk’s the Captain, etc, and go to town) You’ve got all the good will and name recognition in the world (everyone knows Star Trek, it’s the Batman of science fiction), and you’ve got international generations of fans, loyal to a fault.
Against you is brand-fatigue. Later expansions of the series sure punished the poor, damned souls who followed them, and the word “Trekkie” has been late-night talk show host code for “sexless loser” for as long as there have been late-night talk shows. You have to appease that core audience, convince the casual fan it’s superior to the last fifteen years of televised eye-murders and somehow grab the grandchildren, let them know there are zippers on the Starfleet uniforms.
They pulled it off.
What a corker of a barn-burner this new film is, with action and charisma to spare. Marvelous casting and wild, flaring action and romance. It’s rare to have a movie with so awful a plot, such an embarrassing shuttle-wreck of an opening and with such useless villains be so wildly entertaining. You like the people, so you want it to work. You forgive its massive missteps to the degree that a painful film becomes a beacon of hope for the future, and isn’t that the original purpose of Star Trek, to inspire hope for the future?
The Salmon climbed the ladder at the Ballard Locks and saw an IMAX screening this weekend in Seattle. After enduring that awful, awful open, a scene badly written, acted and shot, a complete off-putter from the get-go and rendered completely unnecessary by three conversations held later in the movie, he was able to settle in. He found it irritating and unlikely when Anakin Li’l Kirk rocked out to the Beastie Boys, (it would be like a kid today stealing a car and flying down the road to Chopin), but he liked the weird half-shadows of sci-fi landscapes in the background and the future cop. He hated the cheap-ass longface “monster” in the 99-cent store version of the cantina scene, but he liked teen-Kirk’s smirk and Uhura’s responding coolness. The pattern of forgiving the movie in favor of the cast was becoming firmly established. The bitterness of the opening was recalled by the recruiting speech Pike gives Kirk, but Pike was so gruffly likable, the bad taste was swallowed.
The Li’l Spock scenes were cute, and the goofy testing pits were equally so. Loved the idea that Vulcans feel emotions even more intensely than humans, thus their greater need to suppress them with logic. Super cool sci fi psychology. Winona Ryder looked a little older than Leonard Nimoy. She needs rest, maybe a few years of it. The Salmon offers his Brooklyn apartment for this purpose. He’ll leave sweaters out for her to steal and he’ll pretend to be an undercover cop. Spock’s mommy had been wicked, hasn’t she? What sort of arrangement might we come to, to avoid my reporting Spock’s mommy to the store manager, hmmm?
The Kobayashi Maru sequence was rendered impotent by not establishing what it was beforehand. I mean, we know, but there should have been a line beforehand to say, “That gosh-darn unwinnable test!” or maybe shown another captain failing it. In fact, the Salmon thought that tribble-dribbling open was the Kobayashi Maru up until the first awful, awful shot of the gravid Madmoiselle Kirk. Like, why overshare in some story areas and undershare in others? The whole thing needed a story editor, but the writers were the executive producers, so that wasn’t about to happen. “What, change one word of my genius? How would you like the craft services table delayed for a few days? What do you mean we have Kirk falling off a cliff every other scene? I say, it’s not enough! He needs to dangle in every fight! I’m the goddamn executive producer, and I’m into dangle-porn! Jump out of the car and dangle! Get punched off the drill platform by a Romulan and dangle! Try to jump to a catwalk in the Romulan ship and dangle! Daaaangle! Ahhh, that’s good!”
Let me reiterate the main theme here. The production of this movie was very, very bad. The thing looked cheap. The costumes sucked hard, the generic “epic” score sucked hard (do you remember it?), the sets looked like six-dollar music videos, (Rick Springfield destroyed these same smoky corridors in Bop Til You Drop), and the plot was awful. Awful. But the cast, that goddamn awesome cast, could be dropped anywhere and make you happy forever. Oh, look, the cast of Star Trek is remaking Bloodrayne, beat you to the ticket line!
The players assemble one by one, and each is more likable than the last. Scotty and Chekov are cartoonish, but they always have been. Why did Scotty make so many food jokes? Because that’s what you do with accented sidekicks (Coo! What about second breakfasts?), but who cares, he’s endearing and sweet. So they put a melted Nien Numb mask on an Ugnaught, who cares? Simon Pegg is funny and sidekicks with their own sidekicks are funnier! That worked for me.
McCoy is gruff and hilarious, really wonderfully comic and smile-bringing, Sulu is super-cool, despite their attempts to make him absent-minded. Like, make up your mind writers. Is he the kind of forgetful dork who leaves the parking brake engaged or a cool free-falling stab-master? You can be both, I suppose. Like, I can believe a character who is absent-minded at a desk but focused and calm in action, but that wasn’t really developed or established. It’s just the writers plugging characters in when they need something to happen.
Which brings us to the villains. Who were they again? The Romulans? Ok, whatever. The main bad guy can’t speak, the opening tells us. Oh, wait, he can, but he has a gurgly, thick accent, the next time we see him tells us, oh, wait, he has a regular-guy voice, the rest of the movie tells us. What? More examples of the writers plugging in whatever with no real plan. There need to be bad-guys for the good guys to shoot, and they have to be bigger and darker, so the good guys look like their whiteness gives them the power to overcome the odds. Eric Bana, that poor, goddamn, fate-cursed, sadsack motherfucker. He’s fine in whatever he’s in, like he’s not unlikeable, but everything he’s in suuuucks. Troy: he’s fine, the movie is cheesy and forgotten, The Hulk: he’s fine, but the movie is so bad it inspires Marvel to make their own studio and immediately remake it! Why did they pay an Eric Bana salary to cast him in this when it could have been anyone at all in a rubber mask? They could have spent the money on a ship design instead of ripping off the Matrix.
Or maybe punching up the plot a little.
Time travel is the refuge of the accursed. I would rather have six Chris Tuckers in a movie than even an element of time travel. Unless the focus of the plot itself is time travel (Dr. Who, Timecop!), it’s always used as a “do over it was all a dream bullshit” panacea. Hate it. Never done “right,” but…they used this inelegant, ugly board with a nail in it as a pair of sharp forge tongs with which to pass the torch and “justify” the reboot. It ended up working, like everything else, because it promised us a future with these lovable, bright, likable, lickable, people.
There’s the link to the past, the sop to grandpa with Real Spock running around (though they showed him one too many times at the end) and despite his awkward denture-impaired reading of Shatner’s rightful script at the end, it was a well-received way to establish alternate universe cred and make everybody happy. I get it. The way he was introduced, imitating the sound of a Krayt Dragon to scare off the sandpeople, was weeeeaaak, but he was welcome. When he shakes hands with the Fresh Spock at the end, it was like, “We’re not going to fuck with paradox theory or antimatter bullshit, anything’s possible!” and I dug that. You know, it’s not like he can tell Fresh Spock anything about the future, since it doesn’t exist…anymore…yet.
I love the stuff they didn’t explain, like the red matter. That was just cool and weird. Though its ability to destroy Alderaan to make black holes was a whatever moment, it was strange future tech from an untold tale, and I like that a lot. That’s sci-fi!
I haven’t said enough about the Big Two, so I’ll wrap up with a description of the two best scenes in the movie, the two scenes that establish that the series has legs.
One: When Kirk is getting his medal at the end and can’t keep that arrogant smirk off of his face. He’s like, “That’s funny, the last time I was here, I was on trial, and now you’re sucking my dick.” We’ve got a funny, young, prick arrogant Kirk who gets rewarded for it. That shit-eating grin, with his lips twitching all over the IMAX screen was beautiful.
Two: The best scene in any movie this year. The elevator with Spock and Uhura. Are you kidding me? In-fucking-credible. Perfectly written and acted. Getting chills. It’s one of the most “Eat it, Grandpa!” moments in the movie, Spock in a relationship??! With Uhura!!??? but so sensitively handled, and so essential to establishing character and tone, that Grandpa happily laps it up and goes back for more. Besides, does not Gramps have a roll top desk full of slash fic, anyway?
Her following him into the elevator, her need to follow him into the elevator, and his not knowing that he needed her to but needing it, is perfect. The way his face changes, the way he gives in to emotion for one microscopic second when he smells her neck and then recovers, masters himself, is an epic poem. It’s Homer and Virgil and Milton and Hitchcock and Kubrick. It’s genius. What do you need?, she asks. His answer is essentially, “to hide behind military discipline,” and her answering face, her knowledge that that is what he needs mixed with her wish that what he needed was more vulnerable is Penelope and Beatrice and Leia and Lyra. Magical. Human. Beautiful. True.
My answer to that question is more moments like this.
Here’s an open secret, the Andorian elephant in the room. Of the eleven previous Star Trek movies, only one was any good. Shhhhh! Don’t talk about it. It’s true. So, if they had failed with this one, it would have been in fine company. But they didn’t, and even though it’s one of the most blatant set-ups for a video game in history, they pulled it off as a super reboot for a decaying brand. I mean, the characters even play video games in it, the same ones you doubtless will be encouraged to. (Quick, lock on to the crew members and beam them up before they die, oh oh, avoid the missiles or your cargo will explode! Rescue Scotty from the tube!, etc.).
Ugh, the plot holes. Worse than the red matter could cause. Why, with that tech, would the Romulans not just beam Pike over to their ship? Why the shuttle? Oh, so the rest of the crew can sneak out (undetected, why?). Why, if they’re sending a shuttle over that the bad guys can’t detect the contents of, do you not just pack it with a thousand photon torpedoes and blow them all to shit? All sorts of crap like that. Situations altered to fit situations. Bad, bad writing. But, oh that cast, and oh that elevator. Ahh! I love how it’s set up by the first time you see him in the elevator. Like, he sort of shuts down in between floors. So, clinical and cool! Ahhh! Elevators!!
So, this movie was a cheap piece of crap with amazing people in it. It’s like your best friends pulling up to your house in a busted-to-shit Volkswagen Van. You’re happy to see them, but get that thing off my lawn. You’re absolutely welcome here, but clean yourself up, ok? We’ll give you the full benefit of the doubt.
Really looking forward to the next one. Trek is bek, and the whole family can hold hands by the dilithium fire. You too, Gramps.