Friday, May 8, 2009

Review: Star Trek (2009)

There are a few spoilers in this post, that do mention a few plot details, but nothing huge.

I heard so many good things about this film. Rotten Tomatoes gives this film a whopping 96% Fresh rating. How could it not be good?

I did not like it. I'm sorry, and I realise this puts me in a tiny 4% minority, but although I started out being reasonably open, although not blown away, the more I watched of the film, the more I started to dislike it. I left the theatre in a frustrated hurry. I hated this film.

Why, in the face of such overwhelming support?

Let's start at the beginning. The opening of the film is a good fifteen minutes long. A starfleet crew is faced with an enormous, terrifyingly ridiculously designed Romulan ship that dwarfs the starship. After the ship is crippled, he submits to the Romulan's demands to come aboard, leaving the ship in the hands of one Kirk (!). Kirk, after ensuring his very pregnant wife (and newborn son) is safely away, employs the time honoured technique of Ramming Speed in order to destract the Romulans for long enough to save the lives of the remaining crew members. In his final moments he Christens his son: James Tiberius Kirk.


A representative of pretty much everything that annoyed me about this film occurred in these fifteen minutes. However, at the time, I was still--although not impressed--looking forward to the film.

This intensely action-filled opening did not engage me in the slightest. I felt no emotional connection with these characters. The action, the desperation, the tenderness of the Kirk family moment, the loss of the lives of the crew... nothing had any meaning. I assumed, at the time, that this was because the characters were just placeholders. But I'm afraid this emotional connection was, for me, almost entirely absent throughout the film.

Perhaps this was because the film had the feeling of a poorly written thriller, where 'exciting' sequences (however meaningless) must occur at regular intervals simply because we haven't had one for a while. After a while, you can predict them. I've said it before and I'll say it again: action sequences do not make a film exciting or tense. Twice, Kirk found himself clinging by his fingertips, Mufasa style, on the edge of a cliff.

So, this film was not exciting or tense, unless you like action for action's sake. Never once did I fear for the life of a character. Weirdly, I feel like they tried to avoid the trap of all prequels, that none of your favourite characters can die, by creating an alternate universe in which all bets were off. And yet, of course, still none of the characters could die. The result: I never once imagined any of them would die, except the Very Obvious Redshirts, who, I may add, were dressed in red. (And never mourned).

Which brings me to a third complaint: unoriginality. Again despite the alternate universe thing, the script was still endlessly bogged down with in-jokes. That is to say, jokes and references that were plucked straight from the fandom of the Star Trek universe. Most of the actors were tied inextricably to their previous incarnations, still repeating the still lines, still treading the same path. When they stepped off it, they stepped off without any real background-- for example Uhura's sudden heartfelt (so to speak) need to help Spock was so sudden and baseless, the film gained nothing from their interaction.

So we come to comedy, which was plentiful. This would ordinarily be great: Star Trek has historically been funny. However, I found this film too funny. Moments of seriousness were so short lived in between the humour and action that no depth was ever achieved.

On top of that, the comedy was poor: In his television show Studio 60, Aaron Sorkin wrote a line I feel applies to this film. One character, struggling with a comedic line about passing butter, asks why she isn't getting the laugh she got before. "You asked for the laugh," her writer tells her. She asks what she did before. "You asked for the butter," he says.

Well--half of the time, the characters were tied to the old jokes and then it's hard not to ask for the laugh, because there was really no other reason for the inclusion of the line. However, this also applied for every other 'new' joke in the script. Again and again, the actors asked for the laugh-- I'd say about a fifth of the people in the theatre laughed. Director's choice; director's mistake.

One actor didn't ask for a laugh, although he had to deliver a few unfortunate lines. Leonard Nimoy, reprising his role as an elderly Ambassador Spock, brought emotional depth and strength and sheer class to the role and to the film. Karl Urban (of Lord of the Rings fame) comes in second place by managing to capture Dr. McCoy beautifully: he, above all of the newcomers, had depth and believability.

The rest of the actors? There was nothing to them: they brought nothing to the role beyond what was written on the page. And there wasn't very much written on the page.

I'm a writer, so for me, films tend to sink or sail on their writing. And this one sunk: it was emotionally dead, sacrificing emotion for action. It lacked logic: as emotional moments shrank to nothing, the movie seemed to seek out what was exciting, rather than what was logical. The biggest, newest, most shiny ship in the fleet has no one more senior than James T. Kirk, who hasn't even graduated from school yet, to take up position of first officer? I'm sorry, you lost me.

Ironically, one half of the film revolved around Spock's 'ongoing mission' (ahem; apparently it's not 'continuing' anymore) to reconcile his Human and Vulcan halves: his emotion and logic. This was swamped by the action-packed mindlessness of James T. Kirk's plot, who's character lacked even the convincing intelligence of his former incarnation, let alone logic or emotion.

I've neglected to mention the driving force of this film, the director and producer, J.J. Abrams. When I heard all the good things about this film, I thought-- maybe he's done it, maybe he pulled it off somehow, after all, it was written by other people, not by Abrams (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman). But this film has Abrams' hamfisted character-numb cliched paws stamped all over it, and that's not a good thing.

You want emotion and logic as well as action and adventure in the Star Trek universe? Do yourself a favour: watch The Voyage Home.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Why Renew Chuck?

The lives of one of my favourite television shows, Chuck, hangs in the balance. NBC, true to its Major Television Network name, is umming and erring over whether it should renew this show for the next year. Chuck falls just below the typical cut off for renewal. Fans of the show, myself included, feel very strongly that Chuck deserves renewal. The star of the show, Zachary Levi, led 600 fans to Subway (the sandwich restaurant chain) in order to demonstrate the sheer weight of support behind this show.

But why? Why is Chuck a better show than its ratings suggest?

Chuck is that rare animal, an all-around, good, light-hearted dramedy. It takes a ludicrous premise (young, intelligent but going-nowhere geek gets implanted with top secret knowledge and is thrust, unwillingly, into the super-awesome world of international spies, hijinks ensue) and makes it work. It makes it work every week.

Not many shows do this, not as smoothly as Chuck has for every one of its thirty-six odd episodes.

Chuck sustains what is, for any tv show, an immense cast. Aside from the main character (Chuck) there are more than ten characters who could be considered secondary characters (Sarah, Casey, Ellie, Awesome, Morgan, Lester, Jeff, Anna, Big Mike, Emmett, Orion), plus others who don't appear in every episode. Every single one of these characters has a solid personality and a story of their own. None of the characters do you begrudge any screen time-- all are great characters, played by excellent actors. There is never a sense that there are too many characters. It works, seamlessly and without gimmicks, in every episode.

Chuck melds comedy and drama. It's often more comedy (Adam Baldwin) than drama, but never devolves into complete silliness. There are moments of tension, and moments of genuine emotion (Sarah Lancaster). None of the characters is so continually silly that you lose track of them as a real person, and none of the characters is so serious that the humour in the show is lost whenever they come onscreen. In a world (In a world...) where the measure of the intelligence and quality of a show is often how relentlessly dark and gritty it is, Chuck proves that this is not the case.

Yeah, because it's intelligent too. What else could it be, with so many characters to keep track of and so many threads to weave together? This is not an thin show because there's nothing in it, it's a show that keeps its physique no matter how many doughnuts it eats.

Because it eats plenty of doughnuts. There are cliches aplenty, and all kinds of opportunities for the show to become bogged down in struggling relationships or neverending suspense, both the crutches of many a tv show running out ideas to keep people hooked. But Chuck does not suffer from these pitfalls. Cliches are handled so innocently they're as fun or gripping as if it was the first time we saw them. Chuck stays a slim, fast-moving show.

When you think of Chuck, you may not think of a brilliant show (clearly NBC does not). It seems easy going and light-hearted, a fun Monday evening's fourty minutes. But, as if we are watching a gymnast effortlessly doing back-flips, Chuck is deceiving. It does what is very difficult and it makes it look dead easy every week for thirty-five episodes.

It's solid, which is the best compliment I can give to any show. There is nothing I would change, nothing I wish was done differently, nothing I think is dumb, no character I want to die off (out of like fifteen!) or get shipped to Greenland, no plotline I wish would be over. It may look like a ball of fluff, but it's the best thing on television at the moment.

And that is why NBC should renew Chuck. You can do it, NBC! The sales you will make on DVDs, on associated material that could ensue while other shows disappear without a whisper once they are over, will make up for Chuck being a marginally lower-grossing show this year.

Save Chuck!