TrekMovie Editor Anthony is not the only site contributor who attended the Paramount "Star Trek" preview in Los Angeles last week (see his report). Also on hand was writer/producer Mark Altman ("Free Enterprise"), who weighs on the new Trek from his unique perspective and with his formidable ‘Trekspertise.’ [SPOILERS]
[NOTE: Mark’s comments contain some colorful metaphors]
KEEP ON TREKKIN’
J.J. Abrams goes boldly where many have gone before and continues the search for Star Trek
By Mark A. Altman
Last week, against my better judgment, I dropped in on J.J. Abrams private jet & truck tour (I don’t think there were any buses involved with this roadshow) to excite the world about his new incarnation of Star Trek. For months, I’ve had friends, fans and even my wife asking me what I thought of the undertaking and continually dodged the question, including during our Geek panel at San Diego ComicCon last summer while my partners-in-geekdom mostly savaged it (not Anthony, obviously). Well, after seeing about 25 minutes from the film and the new trailer, I feel I’ve seen enough to at least have some more cogent thoughts about the project.
First, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a big J.J. Abrams fan. I’ve been a fan of Alias and Lost and thought he did a great job with Mission Impossible III. But perhaps more importantly, he seems like a real mensch. He’s always been respectful to his source material, whether it be MI or Star Trek, never belittling it, and showing the proper reverence for the series as well as their respective fans of which he is decidedly one. I genuinely feel like he’s trying to do right by the franchise even if he and his co-conspirators have admitted that Next Generation was more of a touchstone for them than the original, crazy talk, for sure (and, for the record, that doesn’t mean I don’t like TNG, I do, it just means that Classic Trek is that much better). I never got the impression he actually wanted to direct this film, but somehow got pulled into like a black hole that sucked him in, but once he was onboard, he gave it everything he got.
That said, I was very pleasantly surprised by what I saw. Admittedly, I don’t think this Star Trek film is being made for me, nor should it. It’s a re-invention to introduce an entirely new generation to the franchise which is what it should be. The reality is me and my curmudgeonly ilk will be there opening day anyway so it’s not about getting our asses into overpriced theater seats but the High School Musical generation and those crummy teens who grew up on Phantom Menace and thought it was good. You know, the one’s with no taste. That aside, JJ had quite a three year mission for himself: make Star Trek cool. I’m not sure how you do that since it’s never been remotely that, but judging from the footage I saw I’m betting even money he might just pull it off.
At the end of the day, all of us complaining about how the movie destroys existing continuity, despite protestations to the contrary from the filmmakers, are right. There’s no way you can get around Kirk buddying up to Pike (an inspirational Bruce Greenwood in full-on JFK mode) as an Academy student when this was clearly not the case in “The Menagerie” or driving a stick shift when he couldn’t in “A Piece of the Action” or battling the Romulans face-to-face when we hadn’t even seen them in the flesh until “Balance of Terror.” But it doesn’t really doesn’t matter because “I am your father, new Trek audience” and this isn’t your father’s Star Trek. The only reason I find this annoying is because Star Trek continuity is sort of a cool thing, it’s something that made it really fun to grow up on and gave the series a life beyond those initial 79 episodes; first in fanzines, then in Power Records, James Blish novels, the animated series and the movies and TV series to follow. Sure, there might be some convoluted time travel explanation for why this isn’t messing with continuity, but it didn’t have to be this way. As painful as for me to say, this movie didn’t need Leonard Nimoy, it didn’t need to be a prequel and a sequel, for that matter, it needed to be a remake…or re-imagination, if you will, which seems to be the current nomenclature. It needed to be Casino Royale in which everything from Dr. No to Die Another Day didn’t exist (especially A View To A Kill, thankfully). It needed to be Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica in which Muffet the Daggit and, regrettably, Count Iblis didn’t exist. Then maybe, just maybe, us old fucking fogies, wouldn’t care what you changed and the new kids on the block wouldn’t have to listen to long, ponderous scenes like Leonard Nimoy as Spock explaining technobabble to Scotty that he’s from the future and Captain Kirk needs to get Spock emotional to take command. That’s Next Generation, guys, and as much as I loved seeing Nimoy on screen as Spock again, I couldn’t but help feeling it was like dropping Jar-Jar into a scene in The Empire Strikes Back…or if Humphrey Bogart suddenly showed up in The Bourne Identity, an anachronism.
Yes, I know you feel my pain and you’re yelling, but you’re a geek, Altman. For gods sakes, you founded Geek Monthly. You made a fucking movie about lunatic fans who tell Shatner that he should “get a life.” Who cares about all this? It’s about the movie, stupid, not the fact that you spent several decades in a dysfunctional love/hate relationship with the original Star Trek. Ah, that’s the equation! Putting all that aside then: the 25 minutes of footage I watched, kinda rocked.
And why? It starts with Chris Pine. Obviously, I’m a high priest in the church of Shatnerica and, to me, there’s no way you can recast Kirk. He’s an icon of popular culture that’s sacrosanct. It’s like Rick Blaine. David Soul can’t play him, George Raft can’t play him, only Bogart. There’s only one Shatner, the only man who could get away with asking god what he needed with a starship. But, truth be told, Pine is pretty great in the movie from what I could tell. He captures the bravado, humor, heroism of Shatner’s Kirk without being Shatner which is pretty impressive. It’s ironic considering I thought it was going to be Zachary Quinto who nailed Nimoy’s Spock and, from what little I could see, he didn’t. I’m actually a little worried about Quinto’s Spock. Part of it is because Quinto’s not Jewish and there was always something rabbinical about all the great Vulcans from Nimoy to Mark Lenard which Quinto’s Spock lacks. And that’s no slight against Episcopalians or whatever Quinto is, they’re just not Vulcans, as I once warned Greg Grunberg.
On the other hand, Karl Urban is doing a dead-on DeForest Kelley that’s a joy to behold and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is a hottie with better lines than Nichelle ever had. That said, I’m still not sure why Anton Yelchin is in this movie. Even the animated series was smart enough to jettison Chekov and given that the character never showed up till the second season of the original Trek, did we really need him in this movie? All the films have failed when they tried to service the ensemble of Trek characters not realizing at its core, despite George Takei’s whining, Star Trek is a star vehicle, about the troika of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. And by trying to get Scotty, Uhura and Sulu into the action as well as Chekov, they’re doing the big three a disservice. Chekov’s played for comic relief, much as he was in Star Trek IV, and, at the end of the day, who really needs him.
Is there anything that really bothered me? Sure. Scott Chambliss production design, for sure. The bridge looks like an Apple Store instead of the retro pulp look of Captain Pike’s original bridge and will probably date worse in a few years. It actually looks a lot like Alias’ HQ final season which was great for Alias, not so much for Trek. The rest of the ship looks like the Titanic and I’m not sure why. Fortunately, all of the rest of Abrams band of brothers (and, to his credit, he’s the most loyal man in Hollywood) does yeoman’s work from the awesome retro costumes to a great score from Lost tuner Michael Giancacchino.
At the end of the day, this movie looks expensive and epic whereas all the original Trek movies looked cheap and, well, cheap. And there’s a reason: they were. Except for The Motion Picture (which despite its litany of problems, looks and feels like a movie with the best production design of the bunch), they all suffered from truncated budgets and, in many cases truncated ideas. Star Trek II had Nicholas Meyer there to re-invent Trek and he did it with finesse – even though it only looked on screen like a glorified episode of the original (a really good one, but an episode nonetheless). Star Trek VI similarly suffered from the constraints of time and budget and the less said about the eviscerating nature of Star Trek V’s budget cuts, the better. Star Trek III, which had some of the series best character banter, looks like a high school play today and many contemporary fan made films have better production values.
In fact, if you look at that film’s scene in an alien bar and compare it to Abrams bar scene at the beginning of the new Trek film, you’ll see what a difference two decades makes. There’s an alien in that scene, who like Morn in DS9, says nothing and does nothing, but steals the scene which is a delight from star to finish (with the possible exception of when Kirk inadvertently ends up feeling up Uhura which just feels sophomoric). Like that, compare a battle atop a Romulan mining platform to the Styrofoam conflict between Kirk and Krudge on the exploding Genesis Planet. I’ve had enough of that…how can you not be looking forward to J.J. Abrams new Trek? It’s all those images that we dreamed of as kids, reading the novels and the comics, fantasizing we were on the Starship Enterprise, come to life.
Hopefully, in this fucked up world we live in, J.J. can tap into the same sense of hope and optimism that the original Trek captured in the wake of the Kennedy New Frontier and it’s no accident that Obama-mania and the resurrection of Trek have coincided so perfectly. Maybe, just maybe, optimism about the future and not cynicism can be cool again and the human adventure really is just beginning…or maybe we just need to sit back and enjoy it before we really do grow old – like part of our DVD collection.
Reprinted from the January 2009 Geek Monthly (www.geekmonthly.com) with permission of the author
As with all editorials here, this is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of TrekMovie.com.
Mark A. Altman is the writer/producer of such films as the award winning comedy Free Enterprise, in which two Star Trek fans find out their idol, William Shatner, is more screwed up than they are. He has been called the “world’s foremost Trekspert” by the Los Angeles Times and written several books on Star Trek in popular culture for Little Brown as well as numerous issues of the Star Trek comic book series for both Malibu and DC Comics.