Friday, May 8, 2009

Star Trek, the Motion Picture

The odd/even rule of Star Trek films is rubbish.

I say this because the worst Star Trek film, without question, is Star Trek VI. If you disagree, you are wrong. The problem with that one is that it's an ineptly handled allegory that can't help but constantly point out how allegorical it is. If there was a gigantic flashing screen that said "SEE, THE KLINGONS ARE JUST LIKE RUSSIA IN THE REAL WORLD, DO YOU GET IT???" it would have been more subtle. The shocking twists are less shocking than stupid, frequently undermining characters. It's bad partly because it uses the Trek world as a cheap backdrop, never really understanding the characters in it. It's also bad because the story just doesn't work, and the creative team is really trying too hard to be relevant.

Yeah, the fifth entry was technically worse, but really, at least there's some amusement to be had. That was just bad, full stop.

Otherwise, it doesn't hold up for the rest of the entries as well. There was nothing really wrong with Star Trek 3. Not as good as 2, perhaps, but still a decent movie. The fourth was fun, but it was more of a comedy, and Trek usually fails at comedy, though that one turned out decent at least. The TNG films, apart from First Contact, all suffered from the same problem, that being poor writing by people who were distracted by other things.

But the biggest problem with the odd/even rule is that my favorite Star Trek movie, in fact one of my top 10 movies of all time (for those counting at home, that list includes City of God and Z, perhaps one day I'll mention them all!). And that's the very first Star Trek, the Motion Picture

ST:TMP gets a bad rap. It's accused of being too slow, and of being a regular episode stretched to feature length. The first part is somewhat understandable, as it is a methodically paced movie. I will explain shortly why this is a good thing. The second part is sort of half right. It's a Star Trek film, it should be recognizable as Trek, and it is. But it's far from a regular episode.

The film is about a mysterious energy cloud called V'Ger that's going around destroying crap, and Captain Kirk must overact his way back as the captain of Enterprise in order to stop it from taking out Earth. On the way, he has to learn, with the crew, the purpose of the thing and why it's out to meet earth. The answers surprise him, and possibly you, though not me because I've seen the movie several times.

The movie starts with a star field and a bit of orchestral music. An odd choice, but it lays out the ambition of the project. This movie is going to be more than a film, it's going to be an event, and it's going to be important. Only movies that are events can get away with having an opening like that, something that lets people settle down and prepare to have their minds blown.

It also prepares you for the pacing, which is not fast, and that is good. It's not an action movie, but it's tense, and the pacing underscores that. The extended sequences of passing through the cloud, for example, ratchet up the tension significantly. You don't know what this is, and you're approaching it ever steady. If things went quickly, there wouldn't be any tension.

There's also the extended moments of exploring the outside of the Enterprise. These are there to underscore how important the ship is. At the first moment when the head-on view is seen and the score swells, it's difficult to avoid some emotion, even if this is a ship, it's the main character, and the slow build makes that scene have more of an impact.

People accuse it of being boring, but if that was the case, how is it that when it's playing I cannot look away, and get completely absorbed in the film and the ideas it's trying to present? It's astonishingly immersive, two hours that seem like one.

The other great thing about the movie is that it deals with big ideas, and major parts of all the characters, while just shying away from spelling out what they are. Kirk is a bit of an arrogant ass. That's what makes him a good captain, and what makes him Kirk, but it also causes near disasters and almost destroys the ship. Spock's pursuit of logic eventually leads to a realization about the emptiness of it.

The main thing I like about this movie is how big it seems. This is something that no Star Trek film since has achieved. It uses the screen, and the budget, in order to just seem bigger than any other movie. It tries, and mostly succeeds, to bring up big ideas and important discussions on the nature of humanity. It does what the best Trek episodes do, bringing an opportunity to have discussions about the nature of man, while being mostly positive about humanity.

Yes, there are problems. The costume design is, in a word, unfortunate. It is tight in all the wrong places, leading to the outlines of the male anatomy being quite noticeable. Shatner is on top overacting form. Count the different inflections he uses while saying "Mr. Spock!" in just one scene. Not that any of it matters.

See, this is why I like Trek. Not the action, not the big space explosions, but the attempt to portray big ideas in a space faring concept. Wrath of Khan, the one all the nerds pick, was a great piece of genre fiction. This, however, is more than that. It's an event, an important movie, one that takes itself and its universe seriously. Because of this, it's amazing and easily the best film in the series. If you disagree, I'm sorry.

No comments:

Post a Comment