Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek

I haven’t written about movies since I was a sophomore in college. My desire to do so was slowly stifled by a variety of external and internal influences; the advent of things like Twitter and the slow decline of things like printed periodicals seemed to signal a national (global? societal? generational?) dumbing-down of American (movie-going) culture. At school, as I began to grow into my slim-fitting twenty-something cynicism, I found myself labeled a contrarian, a misogynist, anti-fun. I was told my freshman year, by the girl I had a crush on: “Oh, Todd, you don’t like anything.” Well, maybe not anymore, Marisa.

You disagree with enough people and you start to wonder what your opinion is worth. Conventional wisdom might dictate that what plays at the multiplex is crap and what plays at the art house is, you know, fine art. I would suggest that if I’ve noticed any trend in American movie-going in the past few years, it’s that the “independent” movies are getting slowly McDonald-ized and it’s in sifting through the 25 movies at the megaplex that you’ll find the real gem. You gotta dig to find the gold.

J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek can be called many things: a reboot, a remake, a reimagining, a cash-in, a sign of the times. The film is the product of a desperate and flailing studio system that, having been accused of barrell-scraping for at least a decade, has bet 150 million dollars on a geriatric franchise that’s been a punchline for almost as long as it was ever taken seriously.

Even if they somehow made a good Star Trek movie, how can we expect anybody to go see it? Star Trek is for the nerdiest of the nerds. It survives in the hazy glow of nostalgia, swaddled by an older generation. It’s a franchise that has spawned a lot more bad movies and television than good. The heroes of Star Trek have spent decades decrying their fate: passed around at lonely science fiction conventions, artists and craftsmen who stumbled into a project from which they would never escape, doomed to be photographed with fake pointy ears for the rest of their lives.

I could barely believe, then, what was happening to me as I sat down to watch the new film this week and found myself weeping ten minutes in. And though nothing in the succeeding 110 minutes actually manages to top the cold open’s bleeding vulnerability, I can’t imagine there will be better ten minutes at the movies all year.

Abrams’ abilities as a populist filmmaker are unparalleled today. Anyone familiar with Lost or Cloverfield will see the Abrams stamp in every frame, and yet he allows the film to be a completely collaborative process, bowing frequently to everyone from the effects team to the composer (Michael Giacchino, just knocking it out of the park) to the ensemble of young actors. And speaking of the actors, Abrams and his writing team have sculpted a piece for their on-camera crew that – hard to find in the summer tent-pole action movies – is surprisingly character-based.

Kirk, Spock, Uhura? These weary archetypes-turned-stereotypes all have actual arcs with beats and wit and timing. They grow and change throughout the film. When was the last time a Hollywood cash-in did that? (Okay, it was last year: The Dark Knight) And when was the last time we found a whole ensemble of unknowns, barely-knowns and the occasional oh-it’s-that-guy … and every single one of them was actually good?

There will never be a time when Star Trek gets to sit at the cool kids’ table, and Abrams’ solution is to not want to. Just make a sincere and fun action movie and throw it right it your face. The result may have been conceived as a cash-in for the purpose of profit, but it’s been executed by a team of youngsters who are full of heart and brains. Any hint of a studio that was trying too hard is erased by the impressive quantities of talent on display from beginning to end.

Star Trek marks the first time the series has rivaled George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise (perennially Trek’s cooler, younger cousin) in several crucial spectra: coolness, adaptability, relevance. It’s also the best damn space opera since The Empire Strikes Back. You will believe, if even only for as long as the credits scroll, that there is prosperity to be had in the midst of a recession. Here’s a movie that braved a financial and artistic drought, made all the right choices and came out better and more successful than any of its predecessors. My only question now is: Can my generation keep up with Star Trek?

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

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