Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Star Trek

Previously on Movies at Random:

I have a feeling that Star Trek: The New One will be a lot like [Wrath of Khan], albeit with better special effects and worse camerawork, given the trendiness of shaky cam. Not so much a matter of the story being similar, but the general approach, a little bit of character development and fleshing out of back story, but a lot of space adventure and little fanboy moments.

Having seen it, I nailed it.

So, with our new Star Trek, we've got Eric Bana as a tattooed Romulan from the future who wants revenge on Spock. He's gotten his hands on some something technology, which was meant for good but can destroy planets and conveniently create brand new continuity for the writers to mess around with. Lots of crap blows up and the main characters, Kirk and Spock especially, learn important lessons about themselves. It's almost a template plot, though the details are changed enough to make it somewhat interesting.

Let's start with the good then. Christopher Pine's Kirk captures all of the cocky essence of the Shatner original, Zachary Quinto does a damn good Spock and Karl Urban's McCoy is pretty much spot on. Better still, they've got that elusive chemistry that Shatner, Nimoy and Kelly had, no idea how lightning struck twice there, but it did. The writers had a fairly good handle on the essence of the characters and there was a clear connection between the younger versions and the older ones that everyone knows. For the peripheral characters, Uhura actually has a point for once - even if it's kinda weird - and Simon Pegg is Scotty, and if there's anything the world needs more of, it's Simon Pegg. The story isn't amazing, really, but it does the job and neatly sets up the new and improved universe.

Not that all the casting is perfect. Harold of Harold and Kumar is not a very good actor, and doesn't have more than one facial expression, so his Sulu never goes beyond "hey, it's that guy from Harold and Kumar, what's he doing here?" Chekov gets off much worse, unfortunately, turning into a wacky wussian Wesley Cwusher.

I could complain about Eric Bana's villain not really having much to do or an interesting motivation (or for that matter, a very good name. Nero? Are you kidding me?), but he's more a plot device designed to get Spock and Kirk fighting and doing interesting things, a job he does admirably. I will definitely complain about the stupid, pointless car chase scene, since it adds absolutely nothing to either the story or Kirk's character, introduces a step father who is never mentioned again, and which had the sole purpose of setting up a stupid running joke of Kirk constantly dangling on ledges. There is no reason why it should be in the final cut, apart from probably being expensive to shoot.

Still, I liked how the characters were handled, for the most part. Both Kirk and Spock were very complex and well portrayed, with Spock's attempts to repress his emotions leading to several fantastically written and acted scenes. While Spock often talks about logic, there's clear emotion behind what he does, and a bit of a petty rivalry going between him and Kirk that propels much of the film. It's great.

Note how I specifically mentioned that the scenes were fantastically written and acted. Normally, I would say that the scenes are good, full stop. Here's the problem though, this movie has the worst camerawork and editing I have ever seen, and I have seen Catwoman.

The opening scene is just visual vomit. Chunks of a decent action scene spewed into an indistinct mass where you can barely tell what everything was supposed to be. There's too much lens flare, the camera cuts when it should hold a shot, and swings wildly around when just cutting like a normal person would do. Scenes are shot handheld for no reason other than handheld being fashionable, the camera does crazy moves for no reason period. Shots are frequently badly composed - though at least it's always moving, so you get a wide variety of badly composed frames - and all of the polish and flare is used to try to hide that.

For an example, I'll use a scene where Spock is in front of a selection committee for the Vulcan Science Academy. I also dislike the set design here (why are they all on huge pedestals? That's illogical), but let's focus on the camera work. A competent director would set the scene with a couple of wide shots and film the majority of it with medium shots or close ups, as to not distract from the dialog. Also, they would limit lens flare.

What someone who knew what the hell they were doing would never do under any circumstances is start the scene sideways, swoop the camera up and past the selection board for no obvious reason, and then proceed to film it from weird angles and put massive amounts of lens flare all over the side of the main actor's face when an important moment in the development of his character is established.

I think you can tell what Abrams did.

This camera work is so bad that it took me completely out of the film. I wanted to enjoy the performances and the story, but the "LOOK AT MY STYLISH VISUAL STYLE!!!!" directing approach kept getting in the way. Worse still, since none of the shots are ever composed even remotely well, it looks like he's trying to cover up his visual ineptitude by slathering mediocre shots in effects and lens flare. Even Michael Bay, for all flaws, can compose a decent looking shot.

Since J.J. Abrams will likely return for the next movie, even though judging solely by this he has no clue how to direct an action scene (never watched Lost and never liked Alias, though most episodes of those are directed by other people anyway), I will give him some homework. Since Simon Pegg is on the cast, he can go talk to Edgar Wright, and watch Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. Both of those movies are demonstrations of how to edit well, both for comic effect and to increase the tension and excitement of action. He should also watch Star Trek: First Contact - arguably the last of the good Treks - and make note of how that movie didn't have space battle scenes that were an incomprehensible mess, and learn from that. He should go and watch action movies by directors who knew what they were doing, and didn't rely on a shaky cam like a crutch. Then he should fire his cinematographer, who now that I look him up is the king of films that look like shiny crap.

This movie did its job, really. It generated interest in Trek again, and it introduced a new cast that promises to do interesting things with these old characters. I hope to see another movie by them, and since this is a huge success so far, I likely will. But I'll be even more excited if they get someone who has even the slightest idea what they're doing behind the camera.

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