Monday, May 18, 2009

Bold Going

As usual, I must apologize for my lack of updates. It turns out school requires work and study. I know I keep promising to post on Y: The Last Man but sadly I just haven't had the juice to finish reading it. It's not that the series has turned sour, in fact it has proven itself to be resilient against the strain of incoherence that tends to haunt long running serials, and I have high hopes that it will deliver a strong conclusion, which I would like to discuss with you. Furthermore, I'm afraid I have to revise my promise of weekly Japan's Finest! posts to a monthly model. As much as I love anime and manga, there are other things I want to talk about, and until I can get into better update groove, I'm just going to write on whatever strikes my fancy.

Today I would like to talk about a little film I've managed to see twice over the past week.

It's the best movie I've seen all year, though that's hardly a badge to boast about considering Wolverine is the only other flick I've seen. Some critics are referring to it as "This year's Ironman," which is a more suitable and accurate marvel-based point of reference in terms of both quality and composition. Both films have lots of action, quick dialogue, a sexy technology from the future aesthetic, impressive SFX and excellent casting. At the end of the day, Star Trek beats out Tony Stark because it has a richer cultural legacy to draw on. Don't get me wrong: Ironman is a great superhero and a rich comic anthology, but it really can't compare to Star Trek in terms of cultural impact.

Like most ought-era twenty-somethings, I've seen more of Star Trek: The Next Generation than The Original Series, but I still have a general feel for it thanks to all the pop cultural lint my brain has collected over the years. Most of the time these catch phrases and inside jokes clog practical thought or dissolve my attention span, but whenever Hollywood decides to resurrect a franchise I have no business being familiar with, this minutiae serves as an almost magical link that lets me share in the reboot buzz. I love the drama of that seems to arise in these reawakened fandoms. On the one side, you have an army of cynics and elitists, fearing that what they loved about the show will be lost or tarnished, and in the other corner you have cautious-optimists who are glad to share the experience with a younger generation.

In Star Trek's case, most of this drama was wrapped up in casting concerns. Almost all of my precious little knowledge of The Original Series concerns the characters of the show; a collection of personas, which, through decades of self-deprecation and jokey skits, have become inextricable from the actors that first played them. "The Shat" is a prime example. Then again, by the time I was old enough to start recognizing celebrities and Hollywood personalities, he had already become thoroughly ironic icon; the good humored has-been. In fact, it's hard to imagine it being any other way.

Whatever the past held, the present cast of USS Enterprise is a blend of charisma, chemistry and talent that is a joy to watch. I started getting excited about the movie when I heard that John Cho would be playing Sulu and Simon Pegg would be Scotty. They certainly live up to my hopes, though they could use a bit more screen time in the sequels. I'd never heard of Anton Yelchin but his eager, bright-eyed take on Chekov is relentless charming, even if the Russian w/v gag is a little over-done. My personal favorite was McCoy. Karl Urban does a brilliant job of capturing Bone's warmhearted cynicism and he has some of the best lines in the film. I always thought Zach Quinto was a great villain on Heroes, but he makes an even better Spock. The traditional Vulcan farewell "live long and prosper" has never sounded more like "Fuck you," and when you see the scene you'll understand how that's a good thing. He also has surprisingly potent chemistry with Zoe Saldana's Uhura, whose character is sadly a touch under-realized. Of course, James Tiberius Kirk is the central figure of the story and he gets the best character introduction since Johnny Depp rode a sinking ship into Port Royal.

To be honest I'm a little bit hesitant to examine the plot carefully, because it really was not crafted with close-reading in mind. Like Ironman, the pacing is so tight and quick that one can't escape the sense that something valuable must have been edited out or glossed over in the interest of presenting viewers with a fun easy to understand experience. Such streamlining is essential for crafting fiction, and even more so for popular fiction, but when taken to excess, the plot can end up feeling lifeless and plastic.

Manufactured plots are sadly familiar to Science Fiction. Hypothesis is the heart of the genre, and writers set out to answer questions about our society by altering it in impossible ways. Unlike researchers though, whose conclusions must conform to the results of their experiments to remain ethically and practically viable, authors are free to change or invent any element they like to adjust the final message of their story. Good authors try to make their additions as reasonably logical as possible so their story can remain relevant and valuable to society. The result are incredibly engineered worlds, crowded with specific jargon and complex explanations.

Star Trek, being a modern mythology, follows the classic heroic template, but rather than complicating the Science Fiction, it makes things simpler. Technology is treated like magic, and the emphasis is placed on two men trying to find their path in the world. It is a timeless universal theme, though the plot escapes the stagnation of classic conventions by trading it for the more complex, engineered Sci-fi approach to structure, creating a story that is grand in scale but laser sharp in terms of pacing. The story begins with what could be considered a prologue, followed by time skip and character introduction scene, followed by a second time skip and character introduction, followed by yet another introduction and time skip scene, before finally settling on the main plot arc which only takes about a day or two to reach a resolution.

This kind of chronological hopscotch is risky business, especially when the main plot is based on time travel, because it invites all kinds of plot holes and can hamper character development. Despite a few absurdly convenient plot elements, nothing crucial has been ignored or explained away, and the story survives the vacuum of space. Most impressive though, is the way the film carves it's niche in the greater Star Trek universe. The temporal twist provides a canonically sound and blissfully simple explanation for the reboot through the concept of alternate universes.

I'm happy to hear that the Enterprise's new crew is signed on for two more films. I realize that's standard procedure these days; every film is a potential franchise, but usually this is a detrimental trend. Some films that should simply be left alone suffer multiple sequels in the interest of turning a profit. Star Trek has always been a fictional universe as opposed to an isolated story however, and the end of the film begs for further exploration. There are no cliffhangers or loose threads here, just more fun to be had.