Saturday, May 09, 2009

To Boldly Go...

A crazy workload means that this 'personal' blog is languishing a bit, but I wanted to put up a quick review for the new J J Abrams movie Star Trek, which opens this weekend, and which I saw a preview of at the London IMAX on Thursday night.

I was a big fan of the original series, and am of an age where I remember the first transmission. I was dead set against it because, as a kid, it replaced my favourite programme Doctor Who, which went out at 5.15pm on Saturdays. I remember the Saturday morning paper hyping the show up with talk of 3D chess, futuristic special effects, and success in the States. Begrudgingly, I watched it to see how a show that didn't feature time travel, weekly cliff-hangers or a crotchety old guy could possibly be any good. Of course by the end of the first episode, featuring humans infected so they become 'gods' with laser-firing glowing eyes, I was totally hooked. The production values were light years ahead of anything that the ridiculously low budget of Hartnell/Troughton -era Doctor Who could afford, and the writing gave a depth that always left you thinking about the show long after it had finished.

I put my love of the TV series down to why I just don't get the whole Star Wars phenomenon. I rewatched this again recently and it was just as crap as I remembered it being when I first saw it at the cinema in the late 70's - poor dialogue, a really annoying, screechy female character, really poor pacing, and a basic, cliched, paper-thin story a five year old could have put together. This just wasn't a patch on the quality of the average 40 minute TV episode of Trek, so far as I was concerned. So yes, even before the execrable 'prequels' I thought the 'Star Wars' series was lame, and I find it astonishing that it's only now the wider opinion that George Lucas just can't write a good story, with any kind of depth or subtlety, is starting to become a popular one. But, as ever, I digress...

Of course we then had the Star Trek movies. The first one was so lame, slow and self-reverential I pretty much gave up on the franchise. More by accident than design, I did get to see the last film (Star Trek: Nemesis) when a friend couldn't use his press preview ticket. At a time when The Two Towers was the film everyone was waiting for as the Christmas blockbuster, this extremely dated film was on a hiding to nothing. On a cold December day in an almost empty cinema where even the promoters couldn't be bothered to show up and welcome us, it was pretty obvious that the franchise had run its course and was well past its 'sell by' date. The over-hyping of the movie (particularly from Patrick Stewart who, at every possible opportunity, talked up the film as being MUCH better than its predecessor) seemed like a gross act of betrayal on the part of the cast and crew.

This new 'reboot' of the franchise, is apparently down to the work of one man: J J Abrams. I'm a fan of nearly all the work that carries his name (although his TV Series Alias lost it around Series 4, presumably because the man was too busy working on other things). I love his Lost series and I don't agree with the endless whingers who complain that nothing ever gets explained. Everything gets explained - you just have to commit to it. It's a show of real depth and longevity. I love the way the show drops clues to things that they know they're not going to resolve until a season or two later. In these post-MTV days where everybody wants (demands!) instant gratification, that's not popular of course - but hell, go watch the new Doctor Who if you want instant gratifcation, ill-developed story lines and cheap stunts!

I missed Abrams Mission Impossible 3 (the idea of another Tom Cruise vanity project didn't appeal) but was pleasantly surprised by Cloverfield. The puke-making, low budget, shaky-cam trailer which debuted with the release of the Transformers movie allegedly had the internet abuzz with expectation. I just yawned and marked it down as 'one to avoid' (based mainly on still being bitter over the 90 minutes of my life I'll never get back from having gone to see The Blair Witch Project, which had similar 'hand held, shot live' pretensions). My bad! When I caught the film on Blu-Ray recently, I loved it.

The trailers for the new Star Trek movie did nothing for me. They were far too generic in a 'popcorn action movie' way that implies poor special effects, no real character depth, and minimal story telling. The trailer seemed to have lost all the 'magic' of the series which had sustained me through all the broadcast episodes of not just the original series, but also The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 (I'm afraid Voyager was a yawn, and Enterprise was just embarrassingly amateur, I left the Trek 'universe' many years ago). So I was going to wait for the DVD before I bothered to watch this one.

Then came the inspired marketing trick of the 'pre-premiere' showing to a group of fans in Texas. Before the official world premiere in Australia, a group of Trekkies were invited to a special viewing of a 'restored print' of the second Star Trek movie, allegedly to help promote the first release of the film on the high-definition Blu-Ray format. A grubby, damaged print lasted less than 10 minutes before the film apparently snapped and Leonard Nimoy walked on stage to 'apologise' and ask the audience if they'd rather see another film instead. The buzz from the original die-hard fans who'd previously dissed the re-booting of the franchise, spread over the net within hours. Against all expectations, they loved the new film, and their enthusiasm was contagious. Now THAT'S what I call brave - and great - marketing!

So, encouraged by favourable reviews from TV show fans, I went to see the film on Thursday - and the enthusiastic reviewers have got it right. It's a great movie! Not a masterpiece by any means, but a great, intelligent, thrill ride, with witty dialogue, real character depth, a superb cast (with one slight exception that really jarred) and (irritating shaky-cam aside) brilliant effects and direction.

Most important of all, it has great writing that really lets the characters breathe. Every 'supporting' character's presence in this film is justified, and they are all given credible, interesting stories. There aren't many films where a day or two later I'm thinking 'I'd really like to see that again'. Star Trek is one of those few films.

The only real problem I had with the film was Simon Pegg. He plays the ship's engineer 'Scotty' and his role is clearly that of 'comic relief'. Thankfully the film is past the half-way mark when he makes his first appearance, which really jars because his constantly shifting 'Scottish' accent is truly dreadful - seemingly because he has whole sentences where he forgets to do it, followed by others where he remembers and overdoes it! Although he has great comedic acting skills I think he's been seriously miscast in this role.

Thankfully the other characters are all - to a man/woman - superb. All of them manage to portray the strengths of the character WITHOUT resorting to impersonation. I know Michael Sheen (Frost Nixon) is continually lauded for 'getting the esence but without doing a straight impersonation' thing, but in his case I don't buy it - all his characters to me come across as a variation on his Tony Blair impersonation. But I think the Star Trek cast DO all get this in a far better way. So much so that it's impossible to single out any one actor for an astonishing performance. They're all (Pegg excepted) excellent!

There are some minor niggles - Leonard Nimoy, who originally played Spock, is over-used (and it's sad to see how much he's physically aged over the last few years) and some of the pat phrases from the TV show re-appear a few times too often. But none of that deters from the fact that this is a really fun movie, that respects the original series, but also adapts it for modern sensibilities.

I can't wait to see where J J Abrams and his crew take the new franchise next time around. In the meantime, I think the hype is justified. If you're waivering about seeing the film vs waiting for the shiny disc version - I'd say go see it at the movies (ideally the IMAX - the film doesn't suffer from the 'soft focus over-stretched' problems I had with Watchmen). This is a film that really deserves to be seen on the big screen. Highly recommended!