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Four years ago, as J.J. Abrams' first Star Trek adventure prepared to open in theaters, Katey and Josh embarked on an experiment. Katey, who would occasionally refer to Leonard Nimoy's character as "Doctor Spock" and only knew about phasers because of a parody play called "Set Phasers to Pun!", would watch all six Star Trek movies starring the original cast. Starting with the toxically dull The Motion Picture and wrapping up with the Klingon armistice in The Undiscovered Country, Katey got a full immersion in Trek lore-- and when it came time to see Abrams's version of the story, she fell instantly, ridiculously in love.
Elsewhere at Cinema Blend but many galaxies away, there was Mack, a sci-fi hater who never bothered to see the Abrams Trek or any of the others, and who, when asked about which sci-fi he likes, can only muster up an "Inception is watchable." But this week it was clearly time for the student to become the master, so Katey forced Mack into a sit-down anyway. Mack agreed to watch the first Abrams Star Trek and test a theory the rest of us had that the movie's energy and openness to non-Trekkies would persuade him to get on board. After all, Abrams is going to have the exact same challenge when he takes over the reins of Star Wars. So why not test him on a Trek newbie first?
Our gchat mission: To Discover new worlds, or at least new genres of fiction for Mack to like. To boldly go where no sci-fi movie had gone before. These are the voyages of Katey and Mack and Star Trek Blu-rays on opposite coasts.
KATEY: At this point, do you expect to be converted?
MACK: No. I expect to be pleasantly surprised and think, "That was well made...just not for me."
KATEY: Right now,what do you know about Star Trek? Give me your list of Trek facts.
1) Captain Kirk and Steve Spock or whatever the hell Spock's first name is were originally played by Shatner and Nimoy. George Tekai was also involved in the original show along with some blonde chick who is now on Social Security retirement billboards.
2) I know their ship is called The Enterprise.
3) I know people constantly argue about what classic Trek movies are better than others, but that everyone pretty much agrees Wrath Of Khan is the best thing Star Trek achieved, at least with the original cast.
4) I know Khan is a villain .
5) I know Star Trek fans HATE being compared to Star Wars fans.
6) I know they killed each other with Phasers.
7) I know multiple races are involved including ones with fucked up ears.
8) I know Galaxy Quest was a parody or send-up of Star Trek, I think. Underrated movie btw.
KATEY: And one more thing: are there any sci-fi movies that you do like?
MACK: I can get excited about watching Star Wars now and again. I also appreciate Blade Runner, though I'd never watch that movie again. I liked Looper. I liked Eternal Sunshine. Terminator and Terminator 2 are okay. Inception is watchable. Is Eternal Sunshine a sci-fi movie? It might just be weird. [Ed. note: Yes, it is sci-fi. Yes, it is also weird.]
I don't really know the exact definition, but my wife gets VERY mad at me when I confuse sci-fi movies with fantasy movies.
KATEY: I hope that Star Trek clears some of it up. I'm tempted to give you advice going into this, but I'd rather you just jump in. Can't wait to hear what you think.
[A few hours pass. Mack puts on his copy of the movie. Katey re-watches hers for the 10th time, weeps a little over the death of George Kirk, stops paying attention to everything else entirely during the fight on the drilling platform, gets lost in Chris Pine's baby blues a few times.]
MACK: Okay. I'm ready to talk Trek whenever you are.
KATEY: Let's do it! Let's start with the easy question: did you like it?
MACK: I would say I respect it more than I like it. So much about this movie was really well done. It does a masterful job of handling a large supporting cast. It mixes in a fair amount of jokes that are well-timed. The special effects are incredible. It's really the type of thing you hope for with a big-budget, PG-13 movie, but that being said, I was left with so many questions and confusions, I have a hard time saying I really loved it or even unreservedly liked it for that matter. Maybe my questions are actual plot holes or problems. Maybe they're just me having a hard time than most getting on board with sci-fi.
KATEY: I thought about warning you ahead of time not to focus too much on the plot, and to think more about the characters. Because while I think Star Trek does a great job of introducing newbies to a few things-- the relationship between Kirk and Spock, the ideas of warp speed travel and Starfleet as a force active across many planets-- the actual plot gets really, really bogged down in the time travel, which makes the movie possible but also crazy confusing. But before we get into the plot, how did you feel about the characters? Any in particular that you liked or wanted to see more of?
MACK: Before I get into the specific characters, let me pay JJ Abrams a more great compliment about introducing the characters as a whole. Throughout the movie, he's really good about using the tone of voice of the characters to make it clear to non-Trek fans that this person is important. For example: the way Leonard McCoy introduces himself makes me, as a novice, know that this person is incredibly important to the Star Trek universe.
As for specific characters, I was particularly impressed by how much actual screentime many of the supports got including Pavel, Scotty, Sulu and Uhura. I left the movie feeling like I'd gotten a great sense of their basic personalities and the ways in which they can contribute to the team as a whole.
KATEY: And you felt like you understood why it was important that these people are a team? I think it helps to have Leonard Nimoy in there to be like "Hey, Kirk, these people will be important to you, even though you hate Spock right now"
MACK: Yes. There's a great balance on the Enterprise. Honestly, they're a team of Vulcans/ humans/ whatever the hell Scotty's ogre-looking friend is that I would actually enjoy watching work together and solve problems. For example: I like that Sulu can steer the ship but is also passable in fighting situations. The hallmark of a great team that you watch over the course of multiple movies or TV seasons is that when things happen, you instinctively know..." Ohhh ___ would be good at that." I've watched Trek for 128 minutes total, and I could now tell you if there's weird science shit going on, Scotty is the man for the job.
KATEY: I'm really happy to hear that from you, because that's something I adored about this movie-- but I had just finished this marathon of watching the original 6 movies with Josh, so I knew these characters incredibly well. It was so satisfying to me to see each of them get a moment, but it was hard to know if that gratification would come through for a neophyte. And that Sulu thing you point out is a place where the new Trek actually succeeds a little better than the old one-- Sulu never got to have that much fun in the original movie series.
As someone who doesn't really get into sci-fi, did the more fantastical parts of the story, or the way the ship worked, trip you up?
MACK: Well, I was familiar with the idea of jumping or warp speed from watching Star Wars, and I was familiar with seeing Captains speak to one another during battle situations from Galaxy Quest. So...the ship itself wasn't a big problem, but I had some serious issues with the plot. Is Red Matter something that comes up often in Star Trek? Is that like Star Trek's version of harnessed antimatter? And I still don't understand why we needed time travel. Doesn't the villain destroying an entire planet in real time work just as well? Why the added layers? I get that it's convenient to have Spock explain to Kirk that they're going to be BFFs, but I'm just not sure the pros of that outweigh the cons of confusion.
KATEY: The red matter question and the time travel question are essentially the same thing, and the answer is no, neither of them are part of established Trek canon. Both of them were brought in to establish the alternate timeline, so that you can have familiar characters-- Kirk, Spock, Bones, etc. -- and be able to tell new stories around them. You need the time travel because you need to be able to reboot the franchise, without also saying "Oh, and all the stuff that happened with Shatner never happened." It's a neat bridge between two worlds... but it's also massively confusing, even if you're familiar with Trek.
MACK: Ohhhhhh.... See, I didn't even understand they were doing that. I thought this was a completely fresh start, just a new take on familiar characters. Were the fans clamoring for that, or was Abrams just trying to cover his bases?
KATEY: So how did you explain the fact that Leonard Nimoy was in this film?
MACK: I thought Leonard Nimoy was just a fun perk for the hardcore fans who were hoping their favorite actors would be given cameos. I thought he was a convenient way to explain everyone will eventually get along.
KATEY: So the whole thing where Spock is explaining how he traveled through time and that's what kicked off all this action... too much to process in one monologue? I do not blame you if this is true.
MACK: Okay. So, I understood Spock traveling back in time 120 years of whatever, and I understood the villain traveling through time. I got that this made two Spocks essentially exist, and I definitely noticed the very heavy-handed comment where Spock tells Jim his father was proud of him in the other life, but I never thought of this as being a manufactured way of making sure years of movies/TV shows weren't invalidated. I guess I instinctively thought when you reboot something, you reboot something. It doesn't invalidate anything else. It's just a different take....sort of like how Christopher Nolan's take on Batman doesn't mean we can't all still love Tim Burton's take on Batman.
KATEY: Yeah, that definitely would have been one way of approaching it... but unlike comic books, which reinvent their characters and have them die and all the like, the Star Trek universe has all been narratively consistent. In all the Voyager and Enterprise spinoffs and the like, the adventures of Kirk and Spock on the original Enterprise had happened. So this movie fits within the established world, just with a nifty alternate universe timeline. But they get there through a villain and a time travel device that somehow get even more confusing when you look back at it.
Did you spend the whole time saying "Wait a second, what's Nero's plan exactly?" or did you enjoy the action as it unfolded?
MACK: I was under the impression for a long time that Nero was pissed at Spock's dad and figured we would get a backstory on that at some point. I wasn't really blown away by him as a villain, but the fact that everyone on the Enterprise always treated him as a real threat made me view him as a real threat and just go with it.
Since I'm not a science fiction fan, I'm forced to sort of roll with the punches when I watch sci-fi movies because if I truly question everything, I won't be able to stay current with the story. So, gigantic plot points, I'll look into. Details like exact motivations of characters or how science works, I try to hold my questions until the end of the movie.
KATEY: That's definitely the best attitude to take with this version of Star Trek, which just asks you to swallow a lot of stuff in the interest of setting up the characters the way they are at the end of the movie. Which of the action scenes was your favorite?
MACK: The scene where they jump into the middle of the battle field and there's utter chaos and broken ship parts everywhere is one of the coolest flash images I've ever seen in an action/ science fiction or fantasy movie. When it happened, I immediately thought Abrams could have gotten a 150 million dollar greenlight to make this movie based on that 45 second snippet alone. Just awesome.
KATEY: That shot really is amazing, as is the one that follows where Kirk and Sulu parachute down to that drilling platform. That scene, by the way, is an introduction to one of the best Trek running jokes-- that the redshirts always die. Notice the color of the shirt on Olson, the guy with the chargers who gets incinerated?
MACK: Let's talk about that parachuting scene for a minute.... We've touched on my plot problems with this movie, but as far as character development and formatting, I've already said I think Abrams did a wonderful job here. The only thing with character development I left the movie questioning was why the hell Olson was such a throwaway. I mean, after all, viewers like me (who I think account for a higher percentage than people realize) have no way of knowing who is important over the long haul and who is some meaningless dude. Yet, I knew instantly he was going to die because he wasn't presented as a potential main character. I thought that was a serious opportunity to up this movie's pretty impressive body count of important characters, but if I'm to believe what you're saying, the pros of doing that were ultimately outweighed by a desire to please the hardcore fanbase and get in a "red shirt" joke. Do you think that's what actually happened?
KATEY: I think that's essentially it-- every action movie is going to wind up with some kind of collateral damage, and a lot of movies have a tradition of inserting someone who's immediately going to die off. The term "redshirt" has transferred over to a lot of other properties for a reason. Olson's death gets in a redshirt joke, but it also puts Kirk and Sulu in even more dire straits and makes the movie more exciting. Upon r-watch I also realize that the contrast with Olson-- who's so reckless it gets him killed-- is important for getting to know Kirk as someone who is cocky and reckless but not a moron.
MACK: If the important part here was to draw a contrast then you may be right. I'm not sure it would have gone over very well with audiences if a fully fleshed out character we'd hung out with for a solid portion of the movie recklessly died from his own incompetence.
KATEY: Oh absolutely-- but I think the Olson moment works. One of the things I love best about this movie is how well humor mixes in with action and character development. The movie never really takes a breath.
Were there any moments when you felt like it lagged?
MACK: Not particularly. I felt like it lost a slight bit of momentum when Kirk was marooned with older Spock, but with a great call to the bullpen, the movie brings Simon Pegg out of left field and his high energy lifts everything back up. For a two hour run-time, it zips by.
KATEY: Were you as moved by the opening 10 minutes as people familiar with the franchise were? I kind of get weepy every time I see it.
MACK: No. I thought it was a very well done, very smart introduction that made me view the older Captain Kirk as a hero, but it wasn't the main thing I took away from the movie nor the most invested I was at any point.
KATEY: It's funny to realize that when Chris Hemsworth was cast as Thor, we wrote the headline "Captain Kirk's Dad Cast As Thor." [Ed. note: OK, close enough] He's come so far!
MACK: I know. I was shocked to see him and wondering why he would take such a small role. Then I realized this was a big role in his eyes at the time.
KATEY: It was-- and he sells it really well in that short period. When it got so emotional like that so early, did it sell you on the idea this might be sci-fi you could invest in?
MACK: Yes. It sold me on the idea that this was a sci-fi movie for everyone and that an honest attempt was being made to reach out to people like me.
KATEY: See Mack? J.J. Abrams really cares about you!
Is Nero a regular character in the Star Trek Universe, or are he and his planet totally new inventions?
The Romulans are a race that has existed since the first Star Trek series, and have always been either antagonists or vaguely unfriendly to Starfleet-- there's a joke in Wrath of Khan about Kirk acquiring some Romulan ale, which is banned because of trade embargo. Nero, on the other hand, is a total invention for this movie.
I now understand the origin of the phrase "Beam Me Up, Scotty." Is that mostly what Scotty does in the other movies, or does he also solve crazy science problems like he does here?
There's definitely more of an emphasis on seat-of-your-pants problem-solving in this movie, but Scotty was the go-to guy for anything in engineering, which also included his other famous catchphrase, "I'm giving it all she's got, Captain!" (You see that in the big final scene where they shoot out the missiles to avoid going into the black hole). Any time when Kirk wants to do something weird that involves the way the ship is built, he uses Scotty, and Scotty is usually a good conspirator the way he is here.
Going into this movie, I was under the impression that the female characters in Star Trek were sort of there to look pretty. I'm not sure where I picked that up, but over the years, that's the viewpoint people gave me. After seeing this movie, I wouldn't say that at all. Uhura might not be Captain Kirk, but she has clear and necessary skills. Is that something this film changed, or was the impression I had going into this movie completely wrong?
Uhura always had clear and necessary skills, and her role on the Enterprise-- as the translator of languages and communications from other ships-- is the same as in the original series. She didn't always have a ton to do in the original movies, at least not as much as the central trio of Kirk and Spock and Bones, but she was definitely as important as Chekov and Sulu. And she's actually a major part of Star Trek's role in history-- she and Kirk shared one of TV's first interracial kisses.
The original ideals of Star Trek were very much about imagining a better future, so that there was a lot more racial and ethnic diversity on board the Enterprise than anywhere else on television, and also that women were a bit more equals than elsewhere in the 60s. That's one of the ideals that a lot of Trek fans miss from the new movie as well, for what it's worth.