Friday, May 8, 2009

These are the voyages

In times like this, who can really afford an IMAX ticket? Or a movie ticket, period? You're asking us to shell out $13 for a two-hour film? I don't care how good it looks, that's absurd.

And since movies are often a reflection of society, what kind of dilapidated society are we living in, anyway? Last summer, The Dark Knight mowed over the competition with brute force, which means people turned out in droves to see a movie about a nasty world where our heroes are destroyed and chaos reigns supreme. The Joker took the initiative to show how flimsy the morals of the lawmakers and peacekeepers were, and that in desperate times, the only solution is to stop living by rules. And here's the twisted part. In our current economic climate, couldn't you argue that of all the characters, the Joker was the most reasonable?

It's not just the superheroes, either. Last year's Oscars were dominated by death (No Country For Old Men), greed and ruthlessness (There Will Be Blood), corruption (Michael Clayton), and past sins (Atonement). As John Stewart famously quipped at the ceremony, "Does this town need a hug?"

It very well may, and if that's the case, then we all need a hug. People are losing their jobs, their homes and their faith in the system. Confidence is sagging, paranoia is spreading and desperation is starting to set in. Our entertainment is reflecting those conditions.

The simple truth is there's not a lot of optimism in the world right now.

Star Trek hopes to change that.

I. The hull of the ship

You've seen the people with Vulcan ears and severe overbite, with Starfleet apparel and thick glasses, with plastic phasers and bad hygiene. These people -- not-so-affectionately dubbed "Trekkies" -- have represented Star Trek to mainstream audiences for four decades. Star Trek has become a nerd haven, a subject for geeks to lord over other members of society. The original series, its four offshoots and the movie franchise are a gated community, accessible only to those willing to sacrifice their "normal" reputation among peers and be labeled as true dorks.

Such divisiveness is a real shame, considering the original series was largely about coming together.

Take yourself back to the 1960s for a moment. Here was a show about space travel, a buoyant topic at the time, with a crew that featured two white men, an alien, a black woman, an Asian, a Russian (nee Soviet) and a Scot -- all during the century's most tumultuous social climate, when Vietnam, the Cold War and racial tensions were at their peak.

As the USS Enterprise zipped from planet to planet, most episodes highlighted the pros and cons of human nature. Witness "The Enemy Within", during which Captain Kirk splits into two separate beings (one gentle, one evil) due to a transporter malfunction, and later bravely declares that the evil side is an important part of mankind's ability to lead. Or consider "Arena", in which a powerful alien race seizes the Enterprise and a ship it's chasing and pits Kirk in an unarmed battle against the other ship's reptilian captain, an act that shames their primitive conflict and shows humanity still has a lot of growing to do.

Star Trek: The Original Series only lasted three years, and while there are several reasons it got cancelled, I suspect one of the biggest is that people simply didn't want to hear the truth. We are a seriously flawed race, but we do the best we can. Rarely did a Star Trek episode end on a negative note, which hints that while mankind is far from perfect, we can work together for a brighter future.

That's what director J.J. Abrams and his crew have retained. Optimism was always the foundation of the television series, the hull of the Enterprise, so to speak.

I doubt the non-dorks ever figured that out.

II. People can be very frightened of change

Those words, delivered by Captain James T. Kirk at the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, are a good way to describe reaction to the new Kirk.

In the pop culture lexicon, few roles are more synonymous with one person. Before William Shatner evolved into, well, William Shatner, he was the cocky, resourceful captain of the Enterprise with a boyish charm and the ability to make tough decisions (not to mention that speech cadence).

As the new Star Trek movie arrives, so does a group of fresh faces playing familiar roles, and none of them face more pressure than 28-year-old Chris Pine. At first glance, he's got Kirk's look and swagger. But is he a guy you'd want to follow into battle? Pine himself has posed that very question, and as it turns out, we're all going to find out together.

One of Star Trek's keynotes is the transformation of Kirk from a rebellious Iowa farm boy to the confident captain of the Enterprise, and it's a tricky role. We've never seen this story before; it dates back to before the first episode of the original series. Pine has to grow without growing too much, because part of what makes Kirk Kirk is his brash attitude and unshakable demeanor. He'll be a punk kid early on, but will Pine be able to keep the kid while losing the punk?

A large part of the movie hinges on it. Pine has chosen to retain Shatner's "humor, arrogance and decisiveness" while incorporating elements of other characters in his performance, such as Indiana Jones, Han Solo and Maverick from Top Gun.

Pine clearly understands that he's playing Captain Kirk and not William Shatner, which is most important.

And the early returns look like a welcome change.

III. G'day, mates

Captain Kirk isn't the only one being recast for a whole new generation.

Zachary Quinto actively pursued the role of Spock, Kirk's half-human, half-Vulcan sidekick science officer. Only this time, there's a great struggle taking place between those pointy ears.

The writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, breathe new life into Spock by presenting him as a conflicted youth, frustrated in his devotion to strict Vulcan logic and abandonment of human emotion. As he learns to govern those emotions, he blows up at Kirk and does all sorts of things that will likely make Star Trek purists cringe.

But that's the point. Like Kirk, Spock isn't himself yet. We know the character from 40 years of television and movies, but everyone grows up at some point or another.

Well, most of us do. Karl Urban's portrayal of Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy finds Kirk's confidante as grouchy and funny as ever, playing the skeptic to just about everything that befalls the Enterprise crew. Bones meets Kirk at Starfleet Academy, so we'll get to see how their brotherly bond developed, and also watch Urban sidestep his tough-guy background and cavort around as the cynical doctor.

Linguistics expert Uhura is given a larger role of the hands of Zoe Saldana, whom Abrams requested specifically for the part. John Cho is the new Sulu, flaunting his fencing skills and representing "all of Asia" on the Enterprise. Pale-skinned Anton Yelchin is the new Chekov, a curious choice who has already adopted the Russian's accent and oddities. And don't even get me started on Simon Pegg as Scotty. I wouldn't recommend eating before the movie, you'll probably lose your lunch laughing.

One by one, the crew we know and love will assemble on the new Enterprise. Hopefully we'll grow to love them just as much as the original team.

IV. Eric Bana and the time-tossed Romulans

No villainous alien race pestered the original crew as much as the Klingons. Thank God they're not the primary antagonists of Star Trek.

Tensions between the United States and Russia have cooled, so there's no longer a place for the Soviet parallel, and this animalistic culture got its time to shine in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock and Star Trek VI, not to mention a number of original series episodes.

This time around, the enemies are Romulans, the distant cousins of Vulcans meant to evoke a space-age Roman civilization. And in an increasingly welcome blockbuster tradition, these villains actually have logical motives and aren't all-powerful miscreants out for galactic domination.

Eric Bana plays Nero, a blue-collar Romulan driller who is tossed back to the past through a black hole. But Nero isn't a happy camper. In the future, he and his co-workers have been screwed by the United Federation of Planets, and Kirk and Spock in particular are multiple offenders.

Now, these new-look Romulans have been gifted a morally fascinating opportunity: destroy Kirk and Spock and the Federation planets before they ever screw them over in the first place.

It seems that the Romulans' gargantuan power drill does most of the dirty work, and a European teaser poster shows it plunging into the water near the Golden Gate Bridge -- an ominous image, considering Starfleet Academy is based in San Francisco.

The Romulans have never gotten their due as top-tier Trek villains, and hopefully that's about to change with their starring role in Star Trek.

V. Star Trek, for the non-Trekkie

One thing that early reviews have universally praised is the accessibility of the new film. As mentioned before, the whole franchise has become such a geek gala that the mainstream viewer has been turned off by the mere mention of the name "Star Trek."

This film, on the other hand, is Star Trek for the non-Trekkie. Abrams has openly admitted to being just a casual fan of the original series, and as frightening as that sounded at first, his rewiring of Gene Roddenberry's creation might be the very thing that kick-starts this stalled franchise.

There's a young, good-looking cast. There's a spiffed-up Enterprise, complete with an Apple Store bridge. There are no cheap camera tricks or laughable costumes with visible zippers, only big-budget visual effects and action to spare.

There's also a sizeable cameo by one of Star Trek's chief ambassadors to bridge the gap. Leonard Nimoy, the original Spock, reprises his role as the future version of Quinto. It's a good bet he has something to do with the young crew recognizing and stopping the Romulans' plan, and it doesn't hurt when Nimoy, who has long tried to distance himself from the character, picked this film to make his return and gave it his full endorsement.

Nimoy's presence is one of several things that will make classic Trek fans feel right at home. The infamous Kobayashi Maru test makes an appearance. Spock still tells people to "Live long, and prosper." Rumors abound of the most spectacular (and hilarious) redshirt death in the history of the franchise.

Appealing to newcomers and seasoned Trekkers alike is not an easy feat, and if Abrams pulls it off, it'll be an impressive achievement.

It means that people will come together, which is a big point the movie is trying to make.

VI. You've earned this

It won't be easy to watch Star Trek at first. Kirk and Spock will hate each other's guts. The crew will be unsure of one another. They'll have to deal with a bunch of pissed-off Romulans who want them dead. Abrams himself has remarked, "I didn't love Kirk and Spock when I began this journey, but I love them now."

That's the idea. Is there any better way to reintroduce classic characters than to grow with them on their maiden voyage?

That's the mindset of Orci and Kurtzman, who (Transformers involvement notwithstanding) seem to have picked the perfect vantage point to reapproach Star Trek, along with producers Damon Lindelof and Bryan Burk.

Audiences are going to earn a place aboard the Enterprise. They're going to endure the growing pains. The moment that Kirk and Spock learn to trust each other and work together will be all the more rewarding.

Character-driven storytelling is a staple of Star Trek and a lost commodity these days. The new movie won't have time to pose interesting scientific questions like the original series did, but hey, the cast and crew (excluding Abrams) are signed on for two sequels.

From the moment John F. Kennedy mobilized America in the space race, the world of Star Trek has seemed fantastic but not necessarily far-fetched. With all the progress we've made in space exploration, its vision of the future seems more and more plausible.

Maybe by the mid-23rd century we'll have arrived at that point.

For now, I'm optimistic that we'll get there.

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