Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Star Trek

Long time readers may recall my series "Tyranny of a Construct." Of course the event that triggered these ruminations was the new Star Trek movie. Well, I finally watched it last night after my father purchased it (on Blu-ray!), so here's my reaction.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the ship sets for the Kelvin. I'm not sure if maybe they just ran out of budget or something, but the ship scenes look like they were taken in an old industrial complex. Not only did it lack interest, but at no point did it really feel like I was in the "future" on a starship. Instead I felt like I was in an old industrial complex, complete with cement walls.

The second thing that jumped out at me was indeed Nero (Eric Bana). I'm not sure if he was just miscast in this role or what (looking at his page on the IMDB, the only similar movies he's played in appear to be the first Hulk movie and Troy) but he was probably the worst actor in the entire movie. Not only did he lack any sort of gravitas for the role, I was never convinced he was a Romulan, let alone an alien from a distant star system. It almost was like he was either embarrased to be in the movie, and felt like he had something better to do.

It really goes for most of the cast on general terms. While the actors playing Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) did from an adequate (Pine) to very good (Quinto) job with their role, most of the other cast members fell flat, with McKoy (Karl Urban) needing about half the movie before he could "get" the character. The real stand-out in the entire movie was the actor playing Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Not only did his portrayal have the neccessary gravitas for the character, Greenwood ably portrayed a character than knew he was in charge and how to act like he was in charge. In the end I wish the movie was really about Pike than Kirk.

On more general terms, the movie looked very pretty, and in general the special effects were very good, everything about this movie screamed Summer Blockbuster. From the product placement (the very first scene with a young Kirk in the movie we have both a classic corvette, as well as young Kirk manipulating his Nokia carphone, complete with corporate logo and Nokia ringtone...all to the Beastie Boys Sabotage, which despite the fact that it's one of my favorite Beastie Boys songs, falls into the SF trope assuming popular music of today will still be listened to centuries from now), to the slapstick sort of humor (specifically the scene where Kirk is smuggled aboard the Enterprise by McKoy, and has several unusual and presumably funny reactions to his medicines), and finally closing with the "kick ass" scene climaxing the movie.

While the Summer Blockbuster movie meme is not neccessarily a bad thing, I really am not sure the formula fits with the Star Trek style of movie. I think Abrams missed the elements that made the Original Series great, and especially the movies (Trek I through VI, excepting V). The chief among these is dialogue. What made the original actors work so well together was not just their familiarity and delivery, but the dialogue that was written for them. I'm not sure if it was simply that they were better actors (saving Shatner's sometimes over-the-top method acting, though I think this fault is over-emphasized by critics), or just simply good writing (Spock: "One damn minute Admiral."), but it's lack was very, very apparent in the movie, with the best dialogue coming from McKoy after the second half of the movie.

That being said, there were quite a few issues I had with the script, which I think detracted from the movie.

There were three scenes in the movie that I felt added nothing to the script. The first was the scene of Kirk as a kid, racing along a dirt road in a stolen classic 'vette. What was the purpose of this scene? To show that Kirk is a juvenile delinquent (we already get to see he's a jerk later on, when he is an adult)? Overall I think the scene just didn't work, and I felt it was a bit of pandering to the classic fans (Kirk must have a momentous introduction in the movie) but in a way that decisively says "this ain't your papa's Kirk." This scene should have been an extra on the DVD, or remained on the cutting room floor.

The second was the scene where Kirk and Scotty beam aboard the Enterprise while at Warp. Kirk of course beams in fine, but Scotty gets beamed into a water tank, and subsequently goes on a joyride through a series of water tubes. Again, I'm not sure if they were trying to be funny with this scene, and while it was a necessary bit of exposition to alert Spock to Kirk's presence, I felt it was just an unnecessary scene that could have been handled better, with less goofiness.

The last was of course when Kirk is marooned on an ice world, and just so happens to find Spock (Leonard Nimoy variant) in a cave he takes shelter in while fleeing a big creepy (to be eaten by an even bigger creepy in another SF trope). Smacks quite a bit of deus ex machina, and overall while I don't have an answer of how this could have been improved, it was distracting.

This last part leads me to my biggest criticism of the character Spock as portrayed in the movie. Spock an Uhura (Zoe Saldana) apparently have a relationship, and has had one for at least some time (as suggested in the movie). While this isn't necessarily a bad thing per se, and I think it was added to further emphasise "this ain't your papa's Spock," this is a serious character flaw. Spock was both instructor to Uhura at Star Fleet Academy, as well as her superior officer. And there are no problems or ramifications from this relationship (a McGuffin if you will for Kirk to find out Uhura's first name, closing a long running gag in the movie). It also makes you wonder what else is going on? Uhura is a cadet at Star Fleet...just how old is she? How long have they had their relationship for? Was Spock also engaging in statutory rape on top of violating the ethical conduct of a teacher-student relationship? To say nothing of basic military fraternization regulations? If nothing is done with this plot point in the next movie, then I would have some serious reservations about the abilities of the scriptwriters. Overall, it makes Spock more into a creep and doesn't add anything significant to the movie. Not in the way the Original Series did (Spock's conflict between his human half and his Vulcan principles of Logic). A real opportunity was missed here, and we can only hope it is developed to some sort of logical conclusion in the next movie.

Finally, the purpose of this blog is mainly concerned with the idea of Speculative Fiction, which of course Science Fiction is its biggest (or at least most visible, if not most accessable) component. Was Star Trek Science Fictional? There were three major plot points in the movie that directly tie into the concepts of Science Fiction (most of the other stuff -- aliens, the starships, etc -- were window dressing and background).

The first is the concept of time travel itself. Although traditional time travel (as portrayed in STIV) is improbably, M theory suggests there can be up to eleven dimensions beyond our normal three (four if you count time). The 5th dimension then can be described as everything within our current universe, plus all other branching timelines. Assuming the Multiverse conclusion of M theory is correct, whenever within a timeline there comes a branching event, in which there can be one result or another (or many different results for that matter), both (or all) possible results actually occur, each creating it's own universe. Thus, Nero travelling back in time and "altering" the timeline creates a new universe in which the conditions of the original timeline have been changed. For more information on this, see the thought experiment on Quantum Suicide.

The second is the actual mechanical effect of Time Travel. In the movie, Spock (or rather "Spock Prime," as he is named within the movie, though if the Multiverse theory of M theory is correct, such an appellation is meaningless) use a McGuffin called "Red Matter" to "absorb" the impact of a Supernova which threatened the galaxy. * "Red Matter" has a property that, when it apparently interacts with normal matter, it causes it to collapse upon itself and form a gravitational singularity (aka a Black Hole). The idea was that this black hole would absorb the supernova and thus mitigate the explosive impact of the supernova.** However, the black hole created actually sent Nero and Spock's ship back in time. While a black hole per se would not have this property, a Schwartzchild Wormhole in fact would theoretically. Not only that, but a wormhole could potentially create a transversable window into alternate universes.

The third element is the nature of Red Matter. Although it might be better left in the McGuffin status, especially since I have no possible solutions for the ability (perhaps Exotic Matter?) If any readers have any ideas, let me know and I'll update my review.

That being said, there are a few problems with the "science" aspect of the movie.

While supernovas can be very destructive, they tend to be very destructive to anything within a 100ly radius from the event. According to a Star Trek map I found on-line, it would only be a threat to the Romulans.

The creation of a Black Hole to absorb a supernova has a few problems with it. First: if a stellar mass large enough to cause a supernova collapses, there is a very good chance it is in the process of creating a black hole anyway. Most large stellar masses (several sol masses for example) will eventually collapse into either a Black Hole or a Neutron star. Second: a supernova is spherical in its effect; the best result of creating a second black hole in its path is to create a small window of no effect. Considering stellar distances, at a point several ly away, this window would likely be infinitesimally small. Nonetheless, black holes (and their influence) is easy to understand: they're simply gravity wells in space, just like planets, stars, and other stellar objects. At a distance, a cluster of stars at say 10 solar masses is no different that a black hole of the same size. It is only when you get close enough to be influenced by frame dragging and of course the Event Horizon that problems start to occur.

On the subject of Red Matter, in the movie we are presented with an elaborate enegery drill that must be lowered to bore out a hole to the planet's core. Through this hole a probe is dropped with a bit of red matter to create the singularity. This seems to be an overly complex method for planetary destruction (in a classic villain trope). If you can create singularities that will collapse a planet like Vulcan within "minutes" (according to Chekov), one would hardly need to place it at the planet's core; it would simply be sufficient to impact somewhere nearby or on the planet. A singularity of that size would rapidly destroy the planet through tidal forces. However, I suspect such a solution would be less "dramatic" (Nero's ship would merely need to pop into the system, launch a torpedo, then egress).

One last bit that I am unsure of: at the very end, after Spock crashes Spock Prime's ship into Nero's ship, the red matter escapes and creates a singularity. The Enterprise goes to warp, but is unable to escape the gravitational forces of the black hole, forcing Scotty to detonate some of the warp containment coils (or somesuch) to create an explosion of sufficient force to propel the Enterprise out of the gravitational influence. The issue here is that the Enterprise is clearly outside of the Event Horizon, and thus for a ship that can not only go instantaneously to lightspeed (or even better, selveral multiples of lightspeed), escaping such a predicament should be trivial. That being said, Star Trek warp technology infact creates a "bubble" of normal space, and the ship rides a "wavefront" of spacetime that can exceed the speed of light. My instinct is that this scene was a dramatic interpretation, but otherwise would be a trivial issue for the technology of the setting.

In the end, despite the plot holes, wonky science and the like, the movie was ok. Just ok. Sure, the visuals were stunning, the special effects fantastic; but these elements do not make for a good movie alone. A good movie must be built on solid scriptwrting, and all the special effects you can throw at a budget will never save a stinker from itself.

But more importantly, is it a worthy successor to the Star Trek franchise? Going into the movie, my gut reaction was no. And while I watched the movie with an open mind, I don't think the script or the actors were able to capture the genie back into the bottle the original movies had.

But it was better than Nemesis. Or just about all the Next Generation era movies (even First Contact, and it's raping of Star Trek continuity and poor plot point that normal human beings are incapable of achieving FTL travel).


Lance Miller said...

A good read, Damon - lots of interesting points.

A thought though - Star Trek wasn't ever really a hard scifi series, was it? In that it never really justified its future wizbangs and happenings with modern scientific theory? I'm not a big Trek fan, so I might be mistaken, but I did watch a good bit of tNG.

Damon said...

No, while Trek was never really hard SF, it was much more on the plausible end of Space Opera than FREX Star Wars. The original series (and to a certain extent Next Gen) went through a lot of effort to be at least plausible. While a lot of that was dilluted by bad writing (IMHO, something that has always plagued the franchise), at least it was there. But that's beside the point: the real fun is figuring out how the SFinal elements might be possible...