J. J. Abrams Killed Star Trek

I watched Star Trek Into Darkness last night. What a disappointment. To say Abrams killed Star Trek is probably a bit of a stretch. Between the original series, the spinoffs, and the movies, we’re talking something like 728 stories. To say Abrams killed all that with two hours of dross is an exaggeration. Surely, in a few years somebody will spend another quarter billion dollars and make another Star Trek film that isn’t complete crap. Star Trek fans will be able to deny the Abrams films much like Bond fans ignore the Peter Sellers version of Casino Royale. We can hope.

Abrams “rebooted” the series. A very clever tactic on his part. He piggy-backs on his predecessors, people who spent their careers building a franchise, and is allowed to discard all that familiar back story. He gets to leverage the Star Trek name, has a cast of fully formed and familiar characters, and inherits a galaxy populated with enemies we all love to hate. Because he doesn’t have to create any of this stuff, he’s free to concentrate on story. And no matter how badly he executes, he’s guaranteed a certain minimum amount of box office success. Yes, a clever plan.

I wouldn’t call my self a Trek fanatic, but I’m sure some have. I’ve seen every episode of the original several times each. I had big sections of dialog memorized. (I’ve since killed those brain cells.) I watched all the other TV series. I don’t think I saw all the episodes of Deep Space 9, but probably caught every episode of all the others. I’ve seen all the movies. I enjoyed the great majority of it. Many of the episodes are very interesting and compelling stories. A lot of them are forgettable.

The special effects for the original series were quite primitive. Things had to be kept very simple and on the cheap. The effects could never really add to the story, but if they weren’t careful, the could have taken away. From TNG on, though, there were a lot more options. And today, a film maker can show us vision he has the capacity to imagine.

So here we have Abrams with $185 million to spend and a clean slate, a list of familiar characters, a robust setting, and the technology to tell whatever he dreams up. Which leads me to wonder how he managed to make such a bad movie. I think the entire amount was spent on colorful explosions. It certainly wasn’t spent on the script.

It was mostly a cut and paste job. Parts of old Star Trek episodes – characters, back stories, dialog, even tribbles. (Did shooting them up with Khan’s blood cause them to multiply so fast? But they didn’t get shot up with Khan’s blood before the reboot. I’m so confused!) Big chunks of Space Seed and Wrath of Khan. Even a bit of Amok Time – that was the first time they “killed” Kirk. (Was there any major character in the original that didn’t get “killed” at least once in those 80 episodes? I don’t think so.) And, finally, he destroyed the Enterprise for about the eighth time.

But they didn’t just crib from the Star Trek canon. They sampled liberally from buddy cop movies – the cop who breaks the rules and his lieutenant who takes his shield away. And old B-movies about WW II – she says he doesn’t care if he dies, he stoically tells her it’s his duty to return to battle.

Cardboard cutouts

Cardboard cutouts

By giving the characters such cliched dialog, Abrams managed to take these fully-fleshed out characters and flatten them into cardboard cutouts of themselves. But he didn’t stop there. He had these cardboard cutouts do ridiculous things.

Yes, it’s Star Trek, and they routinely did ridiculous things. But even in the context of accepting the Star Trek premise – technology advanced enough for faster than light travel, tractor beams, photon torpedoes, transporters, miracle medical gadgets – Abrams manages to jump the shark.

The movie starts with the Enterprise sitting on the ocean floor. It appear to be hundreds of feet below the surface, even though it’s only a few feet off-shore. Why is it there? We can’t allow the local inhabitants to see a star ship! But the star ship is just waiting for the shuttle to do something. Why not just orbit the planet and send the shuttle – something done dozens of times in other Trek stories? Well, if we did that, we wouldn’t get to show the Enterprise rising out of the ocean!

Later, we see a meeting of all the star ship captains and their first officers. It’s an emergency meeting because there’s been a disaster. Rules tell them all to assemble in that one room together. No using the 23rd century version of Skype here – it’s got to be face to face. I wonder what they’d have done if they were actually on board their ships, exploring or monitoring the Klingons, or doing something otherwise useful. But no, they all have to be right there. In a glass room at the top of a skyscraper. Because that’s the best place to have an emergency meeting during a disaster.

Spock is stranded in an erupting volcano. Lava bubbles and bounces all around him, towers over him thirty feet at times. Sure, he’s in some sort of magic space suit. But not one speck of lava lands on him.

Khan and Kirk are shot out of an airlock as if from a cannon to the other ship. Sulu dutifully lines up the ships. Their target is another airlock that’s only a few feet across. A very difficult shot in the best of conditions. But wait, there’s some debris between the two ships. Of course, the debris is like flying through a junkyard at mach 3, dodging old Buicks. What could go wrong?

And on and on. There wasn’t an action sequence in the whole movie that didn’t drag on for way too long.

I’m glad I didn’t spend the big bucks to see this at the theater. The biggest screen and best sound system in the world can’t help this disaster of a movie.

‘Come and See’

I watched a very powerful movie last night. ‘Come and See’ is about a 14 year old boy who joins the partisans to fight the Nazis in Byelorussia in 1943. I’d never heard of it. Genae found it in a magazine article listing eight great movies you can only stand to see once.

It was made in the Soviet Union in 1985. About two and a half hours long, in Russian with English subtitles.

You can only stand to see it once because it is ruthless in its depiction of brutality. Nothing good happened in that part of the world in 1943, and nothing good happens in this movie. The centerpiece of the film is the burning of a village and everyone who lived there. Not exactly a happy movie.

I really liked the way it was put together. It seemed like the vast majority of the film was made of very long shots with interesting camera movement. Shot after shot, thirty seconds long, forty five seconds long. In one scene, the camera sneaks up on a man, sprinting through open spaces then stopping to peer around a corner, then sprinting to peer around another corner. In a shot near the end of the movie, the camera moves with a column of marching men, then diverts through thick trees and regains the road and the men. Alongside the road we see snow on the ground but at the beginning of the shot it was still summer. A creative way to indicate the passing of time.

Reading subtitles wasn’t an ordeal. Long sections of the movie have no dialog. At one point our protagonist is shelled, deafened by the near miss. We hear his ears ring, all sounds muffled. A hollywood movie would have the ringing stop witin a minute. Here it goes on for quite a while, gradually lessening. Another recurring sound was the drone of aircraft engines. Sometimes we heard it long before seeing the plane.

I forget most of the movies on the list Genae found. One was ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Straw Dogs’ was on it too. ‘Schindler’s List’ was pretty dark, but it tells the story of how people were saved. At the end of ‘Straw Dogs’ the ordeal is over. But in ‘Come and See’ nobody is saved. When the movie is over, it’s still 1943 and the ordeal still has years to play out.

Quite the powerful movie. I’m glad I watched it, but it’s hard to recommend.

“Rush”

Saturday afternoon, after we returned from Estes Park, we headed down to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema to see Ron Howard’s new movie “Rush”.

Scan10027sThis particular screening was put on as a fund raiser for Auto-Archives. The original plan was that this screening would be the first showing after the premieres in London and LA. That didn’t work out, but so it goes. The event was sponsored by Ferrari of Denver and about a dozen other firms and was attended mostly by car club members. The theater seats 200 people and fully a quarter of those in attendance were Lotus Colorado members.

A side note here. I’m on the mailing list for Circuit of the Americas, the track in Austin, TX where F1 now holds events. I received an email about a week ago from COTA inviting me to a “Rush” premiere event which they are sponsoring at the Alamo Drafthouse. I had to look closely – this was for an event at the theater in Austin.

The evening started off with a little car show. Most of the close in parking was roped off for the car clubs. I didn’t count, but my impression was that we had more Lotus Elises than Ferraris of all models. We also had the usual assortment of Elans, Esprits, Evoras, and Caterhams. There were several models of Ferrari and a smattering of other notable cars including a Mercedes McLaren and an Excalibur. Also, in the lobby, a club member brought his Formula B Lotus 69 for display along with a bunch of other memorabilia from Auto-Archives.

We hadn’t been to the Alamo Drafthouse before. This is a chain of movie theaters that serve dinners during the movies. I was expecting a single screen facility for this but it turns out it’s a multiplex. We were in auditorium 7. For this event, we all got our choice of entree from a somewhat restricted menu and one alcoholic beverage each. We were told that this was the first time this auditorium had been sold out for a movie.

The theater is much like any other multiplex except that the rows are a bit farther apart and there are small tables attached to each pair of seats. Wait staff came through before the film started and took our orders. It took quite a while for everybody to get served; many of those around us got food before we did, but we all got served in the dark.

Rather than the usual pre-film viewing – ads and coming attractions – we were treated with a number of old car-related shorts. One was the trailer for Howard’s first movie, “Grand Theft Auto”. I’ve been saying for a while that I don’t think he’s made a bad movie. But I don’t remember seeing “Grand Theft Auto”, which looks pretty cheesy.

The food was nothing special. I had a spicy bleu cheese burger and Genae had the “Royale with Cheese”. Turns out it wasn’t so Royale and not so cheesy, either. She had asked for no mayo, no onions. She got that, but it also came with no tomato and no cheese. So it was a burger with a leaf of lettuce. Mine was better – it was constructed to specification. I always figure a burger is a risk-free item. It’s hard to serve a bad burger, but it’s also hard to serve a really good one. This was smack-dab in the middle: a mediocre burger.

Before the movie, the Alamo Drafthouse shows some rules. They’re pretty strict about talking during the film. But this was a special event, so it was announced that “this is our theater. Feel free to cheer for the good guy and boo the bad guy.” My neighbors took this to heart. They not only cheered and booed appropriately, they also talked through the entire movie. Very annoying. But I’m generally non-confrontational and didn’t tell them to STFU.

We enjoyed the movie nonetheless. I stand by my comment that Howard hasn’t made a bad movie yet. This was a fairly true retelling of the 1976 F1 season fight between Lauda and Hunt. Both actors did fine jobs with their portrayals. The action was very well done. We intend to see it again soon, in a theater with a bigger screen and better sound. (Not that the screen and sound at the Alamo were lacking, just that if we’re going to see it again so soon, we should get an “upgrade”.)

Another side note here. A number of times during the film, characters are watching TV or listening to the radio. At one point, we hear a report of the Big Thompson flood. Having just spent the day visiting Estes Park after another flood that destroyed the road through the Big Thompson canyon, it was a bit jarring.

If you’re an F1 fan, I think you’ll enjoy the movie.