Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Star Trek Beyond Criticism

star trek beyond
Pew pew pew

The teaser trailer for the third installment of the new Star Trek movie series made its appearance this week (what's up with all the jackets?) and, as a result, a lot of digital ink spilled (surely those digital squids must be dry by now).

Starting back in 2009, we saw countless Trek "purists" complain that the new movies jettison everything cerebral about ST in favour of action-adventure. This hasn't changed in 2015. Just look at some of the reactions to the ninety seconds of Star Trek Beyond (STB) we've seen:
and
For Trek fans, many are surprisingly close-minded. There's a division within Trek fandom now, with some fans claiming the purist high ground, thinking themselves gatekeepers of all that is Trek. If you don't fall in line with their notion, then you're not a "true" fan. Poppycock, I say!

Can we all stop pretending that the Trek movies were all about philosophy and morals? Or even that they were great films? Sure, there are a few gems among them, but the others range from bad to meh. Like Fry said on Futurama,
"You know what movies average out to be really good? The first six Star Trek movies!"
So people are criticizing this short teaser for not being full of the philosophy that Trek is known for. Because everyone knows that a ninety second ad of people talking about the prime directive will really get butts in the seats. And to be honest, the one time they did go full-on Trek for a movie was with The Motion Picture and we all saw how that turned out. (Hey kids, you want to stare indecently at the Enterprise for five minutes! Now's your chance.)

Look, I'm a huge fan of the original series (TOS); it's in a different class compared to the spin-offs. And from what I can tell, this new movie (and this series as a whole) is trying to emulate TOS. For all the bellyaching about abandoning the core principles of Trek, people forget that TOS was mostly an action-adventure show, a Western in space. Of course, they had their share of sobering, forward-thinking episodes but they had just as many fist-fights and shoot-outs.

But we're not talking about a show. This is a movie and that's the real issue, the double-edged sword of Trek: movies vs TV. Trek's traditional ideals are better serviced in a TV series, something that all Trek fans can likely agree upon. A movie doesn't have the luxury of coming back every week to make a point about something. Paramount wants to make money with a Trek feature every few years, to get the brand out there to eventually come back to episodic TV, and talking heads won't accomplish that. If you want a weekly dose of morality, go watch The Next Generation. (Seriously, go back and watch TNG, a lot of it seems dated now; it's not as good as we all remember it to be.)

Tangent: A big reason the TNG movies didn't work was because they tried fitting a square peg into a round hole, namely pushing the TNG cast into action-adventure movies when the series was rarely about that. True, the most popular TNG movie was, yes, also its most action-adventure-y one, but that's not why it's the best. First Contact is tops because underneath the action, it's based on an emotional core established in one of the most beloved episodes of the show. 

TOS was much more action-oriented, which is basically my point: that it's okay for TOS-based movies to be likewise. Just give me an inkling of a Trek-y theme and I'll be satisfied. More on this below.

All that being said, the morals in TOS often seem pushy. How many episodes did the crew encounter some new species whose ethics didn't mesh with those of Kirk, so he takes it upon himself to force Federation ideals on these people, basically spitting on the Prime Directive? Answer: a lot! ...which is a pretty non-Trek thing to do. The gatekeepers are often silent about the matter.

And this brings me to my final point: I'm not convinced there isn't a kernel of Trekkiness to this new movie, however surface-level. We've only seen a tiny teaser, so I can be totally off-base, but I found the line:
 "This is where the frontier pushes back."
to be telling. It seems to be to be a deliberate response to the "my way is better than your way" manner Kirk often imposed in TOS. I suspect the new story is about the Federation pushing out, discovering new worlds and new civilizations, and foisting their philosophy on other cultures. That is, until one alien species is not receptive and fights back. It could make for an interesting villain, someone fighting for his people's way of life in the face of Federation imperialism.

Maybe I'm giving this movie way too much credit but if my theory (wishful thinking?) comes to pass, watch for Fox News to rip STB apart for being an anti-American allegory to Middle East foreign policy. :P

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Spectre

The latest Bond movie has been out a few weeks now and it's doing pretty well. Word was that Spectre needed to cross $650M in its worldwide box-office in order to make a profit (taking into account its budget, advertising, distributor and exhibitor cuts, etc.) and it has easily cruised past that mark, despite very mixed reviews. Some outlets raved about it, while others absolutely hated it. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, it has settled firmly into meh territory. I fall somewhere in between. It's pretty middle of the pack for me, with enough enjoyable classic Bond elements and callbacks to make it worthwhile to longtime Bond fans, but its legacy in the series depends on the next movie.

First the negatives. This movie was too long. For some inexplicable reason, it's the longest Bond movie ever made and it shows. Some parts drag, amortizing the goodwill generated by the fun parts over an extended runtime.

Let's not forget that awful, unlistenable theme song. Or rather let's. Just dreadful, a huge misfire.

Also, the romance was really half-baked. "I love you"? Come on now. Nobody sitting in that theatre bought that.

And then the colossal underuse of Christoph Waltz! More Waltz, guys. That guy just broadcasts personality every moment he's on screen in anything. He should have been more prominent than the coy way they unveiled him. Everyone knew going in that he was Blofeld. It was Star Trek Into Darkness's Khan situation all over again.

But then I feel that these last two negatives are actually setup for the next movie. I firmly believe Spectre is the first half of a two parter and judging it right now would do it a disservice without seeing its second half.

I can easily see the next movie taking inspiration from On Her Majesty's Secret Service and (possible spoiler alert for a 45+ year old movie) having Bond get married (to Swann here) only for Blofeld to have his wife killed, thus triggering a revenge mission. Bond kills Blofeld at the end, then it goes in one of either extreme: Bond quits MI6 or he doubles down and become an emotionless, killing robot of an agent. Cue the end of the Craig era, and the next movie reboots years later with a new actor and a fresh direction.

I'm beginning to think that Spectre is the mirror image of the much-maligned Quantum of Solace, a movie I didn't hate (placing me firmly in the minority), didn't love but had a couple of outstanding sequences, and benefited from being the shortest of all the Bond movies. QoS on its own is a bit lost and meaningless but when watched immediately after the excellent Casino Royale, it works much better as part two of that story. Don't forget that QoS takes place mere minutes after the closing of CR; watch them both back to back and you'll see a more complete story.

The previous Craig movies showed us a raw Bond as a new recruit, in training to become the character we all know, and he finally becomes it in Spectre. The Bond aficionado in me delighted in the familiar elements: M in the classic office with the padded door, Q providing gadgets, the cars, the maniacal bad guy who wants to control the world, the women who fall too quickly and comically in love with Bond, Spectre itself! And then other touches like the resort in the Alps (shades of OHMSS), the Spectre business meeting and octopus ring (Thunderball), an action setpiece during a large cultural event...even the fight on the train (was that supposed to be a callback to From Russia with Love?).

Spectre even had a new twist, hsaving M, Q and Moneypenny get in on the action, making it more like the recent Mission: Impossible movies: a team effort instead of a completely lone wolf scenario. The ending was especially strong, with action through the streets of London, ending with (again, spoilers) Bond on Westminster Bridge with a gun pointed at Blofeld's head. There's a telling line in Skyfall, when Bond tells Q, in the National Portrait Gallery, that sometimes you need to know when not to pull the trigger. That line is what I had in mind during that entire tense final sequence. I suspect Blofeld won't be so lucky if they meet again (especially if my fantasy scenario plays out in the next one).

Until we see the second half of this latest story, I'm not closing the book on where I fall on Spectre.  Right now, if I had to give it a score, I'm sitting at a ho-hum 7 on 10 but that will adjust up or down depending on how they conclude this one. If they go in the direction I think they will, I'll likely bump Spectre up a notch. If they completely drop the ball next time or, worse yet, ignore these events for a stand-alone adventure (is Craig even coming back?), then Spectre will have to be tallied up as a wasted effort.

For now, your mileage may vary but for me, time will tell.