Wednesday, December 30, 2009

J. J. Abrams' Star Trek - A Paradox Worthy of... Star Trek

Looking back at all the Star Trek I've seen over the years, it's difficult to point to any one film, series or episode that gets everything right. Even the really good, really classic entries (of which there are many, believe it or not) feature some situation or alien species that, when considered thoughtfully for more than a few seconds, turns out to be scientifically problematic or just plain ridiculous (see: pretty much all of the innumerable time-travel episodes, or "The Trouble with Tribbles"). But we Trekkies understand that, despite halting speech patterns, broken laws of physics and the apparent fact that almost every single extra-terrestrial race is only cosmetically different from homo sapiens, the beauty of Star Trek isn't in the specifics; it's in the thoughtful consideration and exploration of the human condition, and that's something it almost always has gotten right (see: Star Trek: The Motion Picture and episodes like "The City on the Edge of Forever" and "Mirror, Mirror").

Thus follows my most urgent problem with J. J. Abrams' new film: Star Trek is almost entirely devoid of any moral, philosophical or scientific debate whatsoever. It's epic; it's gripping; there's even a love triangle (are you serious?). It's everything a good movie should be, but it's missing the heart of what the franchise has been for over forty years. This is excusable only on the assumption that the inevitable sequel(s) will return to those roots; otherwise, what's the point? All you're left with is a massive sci-fi franchise with years of cultural baggage that tries to reconcile scientific realism with the limitations of an hour-long TV drama. Tough enough for any sci-fi, even without setting your show centuries in the future with characters who routinely travel the breadth of the Milky Way galaxy.

To be fair, other highly-acclaimed Star Trek titles have foregone the usual existential pondering; Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, for instance, focuses primarily on Khan's revenge on Kirk for marooning him on a dead planet, but instead of remaining a well-filmed but depressing Moby Dick remake, it throws in healthy portions of personal loss, mortality, and humans meddling with powers of creation, which makes for a tear-jerking but satisfying finale. Come to think of it, Star Trek is in large part a remake of Khan, complete with brain-burrowing bugs -- but without the brain-boggling moral dilemmas. The villain Nero (Eric Bana) is angry, sure, but it's hard to tell what for until we're well into the movie. Hell, I didn't even know he was a Romulan until they actually said so. Anyway, the rest of my complaints are relatively minor, but they all add up to be fairly irritating: the unnecessary and unexplained romance between Spock and Uhura (are you serious??), the repeated use of the term "black hole" to describe what could only be a wormhole (they're different things, godammit!), Kirk, Sulu and a Redshirt jumping into Vulcan's atmosphere in nothing but spacesuits (Abrams is apparently unfamiliar with planetary reentry) and a giant fiery-red monster-thing that has somehow developed and survived on a planet that is completely covered in snow (Abrams is also apparently unfamiliar with the basic concepts of evolution).

Despite all this, I really enjoy the new movie. Many of the characters are spot on, particularly Zachary Quinto as Spock and Karl Urban as McCoy (whose diction and irritability very nearly resurrect DeForest Kelley). The feel of the space travel, too, is familiar though updated, such as the eerie beeping of the starships' computers or the quiet tension as the Enterprise zooms at warp speed toward a few moments of intense battle (with a Romulan ship that looks scary but, even allowing for some cultural differences, makes no sense). Abrams' decision to create an alternate timeline is honestly the only option that can both allow artistic freedom and avoid enraging hordes of Trekkies to the point of spontaneous combustion (a concept which, amazingly, Star Trek has not dealt with to my knowledge). And of course, who can complain when Leonard Nimoy unexpectedly appears in an ice cave to save his old friend Kirk? It might be preposterously unlikely, but then, so are stable wormholes, upon which the entire story is based. Thank god for suspension of disbelief...

So, the characters are present and accounted for, the excitement of hurtling through space with a comfy armchair and a big-screen TV has been successfully revived, but I'd still like to see a lot more thought put into the next installment. Star Trek is usually full of heart and plagued by flawed writing; this time it's the other way around. An ironic paradox, one might say. At any rate, if there's anything Star Trek must emphatically not become, it's another mindless sci-fi franchise fueled by special effects and want of more revenue; George Lucas has already got that genre well in hand.

4 stars of 5.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Many Happy Returns - James Cameron's Avatar

Twenty-five years after its release, one of the scenes we remember best from 1984's The Terminator comes roughly halfway through the film, as Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is being held at a police station, post-shootout/car chase with the title character. Arnold Schwarzenegger arrives and, upon discovering he'll not be allowed to see (read: shoot) Sarah without some extra persuasive powers, he flatly states, "I'll be back." And come back he does -- through the front wall, in his beast of a 1970s sedan. After a twelve-year hiatus from feature films, the director of The Terminator is back, and with way cooler than a stolen car.

James Cameron is, I suppose, somewhat of an idol among us sci-fi/fantasy kids -- his record is absolutely packed with geek favorites, namely The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (best action movie ever?). Further still, all us Tolkien fans largely owe Peter Jackson's Gollum to technology originating with Cameron in Abyss and that most badass of all killer robots from the future, the T-1000. Needless to say, it's long been a tall order for this director to outdo himself, and for the most part, I'd say he hasn't -- but Avatar is still every bit the kind of action-packed, pleasantly-preachy Cameron sci-fi we love.

The best way I can summarize the film is as a unique mix of The Matrix, Aliens, Dances with Wolves, and a touch of Jurassic Park for a couple of quick action sequences. In its themes and sense of morality (which mostly boils down to "trees = good, genocide = bad"), we find nothing new; the film comes complete with wizened but behind-the-times native leader (voiced by Wes Studi, Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans) and belligerent military douche-bag (Stephen Lang; see his terrific performance as Ike Clanton in Tombstone). Even some of the character types of Cameron's previous films are recycled. For example, Parker, the token corporate wanker of Avatar, is essentially the same guy as Aliens' Carter Burke, who tried to attach facehuggers to both Sigourney Weaver and her orphan-girl protectorate so he could profit from research on the resulting killer aliens. Wankers, indeed.

But Avatar distinguishes itself in its literalism, in its forcefulness and urgency. It is likely no accident on Cameron's part that, despite evolving light-years apart, the many forms of life on Earth and Pandora (the alien planet) are only superficially different from each other. Here Cameron's devotion to computer-generated film lends itself most spectacularly to the overall environmentalist message -- the innumerable shots of Pandora's vast and diverse wilderness truly inspire wonder, awe, and eventually regret and anger as Major Douche-Bag (Lang) blows up the natives' home under (and inside) a beautifully gargantuan tree.

Obviously, we are intended to carry those emotions over to our own planet, which is for me the film's saving grace. Many of the scenes in which the hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Terminator Salvation) learns Na'vi culture feel very derivative, as if Cameron perhaps watched Pocahontas one too many times before writing Avatar's script. And yet even then, there's something new to look at in the Na'vi themselves, whose movements and mannerisms invoke both feline predator and Tolkien Elf-warrior. The only other mild disappointment in the movie was the relatively lackluster dispatch of Main Villain Dude -- in comeuppance for all his dastardly deeds, I was hoping for something on the order of Treebeard and Company v. Isengard (Ents: 1, Isengard: 0, in case you weren't near the telly for that match), but alas, he just gets arrowed a couple times. At least it's Neytiri, the heroine (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek) who does the killin' -- rounding out the trend of more or less equitable teamwork between she and Worthington's character.

At any rate, Avatar will likely move and entertain all but the most heartless of human beings, making it well worth your $18 ticket, or whatever exorbitant price they charge at a theater near you. One final thought: while James Cameron's previous sci-fi audiences have been fairly narrow (i.e., geeks only), Avatar avoids the heavy doses of graphic violence, convoluted plot lines and dark atmosphere that may have turned many people away from his earlier films, meaning that Avatar could appeal to a far wider demographic than he has ever reached with his more fanciful creations. I certainly hope that's true, as the whole "trees = good, genocide = bad" message seems one that still needs saying.

4 stars of 5.