Wednesday, July 17, 2019

You Used to Be Sooooo Good: Star Trek Movies

Welcome to another edition of You Used to Be Soooo Good, where Justin & I, Dan Moore (@SouthieDanimal), discuss things used to be awesome but now, eh, not so much. This week is a tad different, in that we are talking about films we actually like now but they’re missing…something from the old days.

Star Trek Movies:  You Are Stiiiiiiill Kinda Good, But Used to Be Sooooo Much Better

The classic, awesome Enterprise of the original films.

DAN: Oddly enough, Justin and I both watched Star Trek Into Darkness again on the same night independently, but clearly linked in a strange psychic way. And while I do enjoy the film (except for the dumb surname) and its reboot-starting predecessor, there’s definitely a lack of character development in these new films that hurt them. These flicks boast incredible effects, great action, competent acting; they are terribly entertaining, but really dumb. The iconic Trek characters have basically no personality. They have the idea of the old characters, but nothing’s fleshed out.

JUSTIN: Right, the spirit of the characters is there (which is more than you can say for Man of Steel – I’ll keep shitting on that film till my dying day), but it's basically Kirk and Spock in action figure form.  Both Star Trek '09 and Into Darkness featured a gigantic black monster vessel as the evil ship. It's also pretty humorous how blatantly Into Darkness copied entire passages of dialogue from ST2.

DAN: I believe they call that an "homage" now, and not plagiarism. The creators of this new Trek series are playing off the existing archetype of the old Trek series characters. What we already know about them, and not doing much else. Also, Chris Pine just doesn’t do it for me as Kirk.

JUSTIN: I actually like Pine a lot as Kirk.  I think I like him better than Zach Quinto. For me, Pine’s Kirk is closer to Shatner's than Quinto's Spock is to Nimoy's.  And that's more the writing than anything else - this Spock is kind of a jerk and is pretty easily swayed into becoming emotional.

DAN: My problem with him as Kirk is he’s just sort of a generic hero man. There’s nothing memorable about his Kirk like there is about Shatner’s. I do like him, and I think he’s dreamy but there’s just not enough there for me to care about his Kirk.

Yup, they look and feel vaguely like the original characters.

JUSTIN:  True, and that's really the case with all of them.  They just took a cursory approximation of the original characters and stuck 'em in these movies.  Kirk's heroic and repeatedly defies authority (how he's able to hold onto the Captain's chair at all is beyond me), Spock is cold and logical (unless the story requires him to fly into a rage and beat the piss out of the bad guy), McCoy is curmudgeonly and spouts metaphors constantly, Uhura speaks other languages (and is now for some reason the #3 character in the pecking order), Sulu's good at fencing, Scotty's really funny, and Chekhov is Russian. It's odd that Admiral Pike has gotten more screen time than any of those guys.

DAN: I will say I do enjoy Bruce Greenwood as Pike, however. He adds the correct blend of authority figure and Dad figure. His emotion towards Kirk in these two flicks feel genuine. There’s a ton of characters and some are bound to get lost in the shuffle. But those three, McCoy, Sulu and Chekhov, may as well be any unnamed redshirts as there’s no substance to them. They are cardboard cut outs playing off what we know from the TV show and original movies.

JUSTIN: Even in the original movie series Sulu, Chekov and Uhura weren't given much to do, except ST2 where Chekov had a pretty major role.  But those movies were centered around Kirk, Spock and McCoy.  That was the heart of the original show but since it was a series there was room to explore the secondary characters.  In these movies McCoy's barely there and Uhura kinda took his spot (I guess so everyone's aware Kirk and Spock aren't in love?).

Dude, where the eff is McCoy???

DAN: To be fair, she’s nicer on the eyes.

The friendship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy are the keys to the old movies. I enjoyed how they were with each other, the antagonism, the mutual respect, the comedy. In this, it’s sorely missing.

JUSTIN: Well yes, she's nice to look at.

Right, there was a real camaraderie despite the tension between all of them (Harve Bennett who took over the reins for ST2, watched the entire series in preparation and said, "This whole show boils down to these three characters and how they relate to each other.").  In the new movies Kirk and Spock really don't seem to like each other, while McCoy is a non-factor.  I get that it's early in their careers but in both movies I'm left wondering to a certain extent why they even want to work together.

DAN: Exactly, those three, how they grew together, especially in the original series 2-5 (though 5 stunk) really showed that these guys were, despite differences, great for the Federation and even better friends. The friendship of Kirk and McCoy really came through in Undiscovered Country. You definitely got the feeling that these were two old buddies, stuck in another impossible space jam (not the Bugs Bunny one). But that is completely missing in these new films. Like you said, Kirk and Spock don’t even seem to like each other in these new ones. There’s no banter, nothing. They imply that McCoy and Kirk are better friends than Kirk and Spock, but they don’t really show it. I think we’re supposed to assume that’s the case from the prior films and TV shows, but that’s pretty weak, considering this is a new series of films with the same characters starting anew. We should SEE those relationships develop, not assume it.

JUSTIN: Kinda like Anakin and Obi in the Star Wars prequels.  They're supposed to be best friends based on what the script tells us but we don't ever see it and they clearly don't get along at all. All we really see from McCoy in these movies is that he's always concerned about Kirk's health.  But that's really just following medical protocol.

The original cast, plus Rebecca from Cheers.
BTW, how boss were those red uniforms?

DAN: I guess the assumption of the old characters is what they expect the audience to have, but that seems like lazy filmmaking to me.

What isn’t lazy is the action sequences in these films, which are extremely entertaining. J.J. Abrams can direct the hell out of these huge set pieces. And it’s not that dizzying, quick cut shit either. Cohesive movements and believable battles (I mean, it’s space and all) are really well filmed and easy to follow.

JUSTIN: The action scenes here are fun and exciting but totally (and tonally) wrong for Star Trek really.  Star Trek was never about action sequences, it was about exploring the human condition and how we relate to each other and the unknown.  JJ Abrams more or less turned this franchise into Star Wars, from the rapid-fire starship battles (which based on the speed and severity of the weapons would seem to result in the Enterprise being blown to fucking shreds in about eight seconds), to the blaster-like phaser duels.  They really took the scientific realism in which the original series was grounded and turned it into "this technology just works because the story needs it to."   Turns out Abrams is much better suited to the Star Wars universe than this one.

I still love this whole sequence from ST2.  It's simple but different
from other cinematic spaceship battles of the era.

The original series sort of likened the space battles to those of nautical vessels.  Tactical strategies, evasive maneuvers, torpedoes.  Star Trek II really took this to the next level since they end up in a nebula and both ships are flying blind.  It becomes like a submarine duel.  In the new films they just kinda fire a barrage of plasma at each other without any real strategy, except when the Enterprise gets so weakened they can no longer fire and have to come up with Plan B.  But compare these scenes to those in The Wrath of Khan.  They use the ship's weapons sparingly and have to actually, ya know, aim at each other.  The suspense ratchets up because they can't use sensors to lock on, and they have to play a cat and mouse game.  I just find battle scenes like those much more interesting than the new ones where all the tension gets dissolved in the first two seconds because they're just unloading on each other.

DAN: I get what you’re saying there, but that ain’t gonna play in this day and age, Ballard! We got Twitter and video games, it’s gotta be fast and all explosive like! The cerebral battle scenes of the old flicks will never be seen again. They just can’t. Not after kids have seen GIANT EXPLODING ALIEN ROBOT SUPER MAN BLOWING UP EARTH’S BIGGEST CITIES!

See, the evil ship is black and gigantic.  That's how we know it's evil.

Regardless, I think we both can agree the battle scenes in these flicks are fun to watch. That is not where the problems lay with these films. The lackluster characterization is the real issue. I think as long as they interject some actual feelings and emotions into these legendary characters these films could be that much better. And we’d be closer to the Federation’s idea of a world of harmony.

JUSTIN: Granted, the action scenes are fun to watch.  Damn these kids today and their short attention spans and their total desensitization to destruction and loss of life on a massive global scale!

By the way, some of you may be saying, "Wait, you guys forgot about the Next Generation movies."  Ahem, no we didn't.....

I think that about wraps up what turned out to be a column of not so much complaining, but nitpicking, like your mother coming to your room after you told her you cleaned it up when you were a kid. Join us next week when hopefully we can get back to arguing about something that in the long run is not at all important.

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