Saturday, May 16, 2009

"It's only a movie!"

I'm going to revisit the new Star Trek film one more time, because I'm catching a lot of flak for criticizing it. I don't mind that, except that the flak consists primarily of the following platitudes:

"It's only a movie!"
"It's only Star Trek, what do you expect?"

And various similar comments aimed at getting me to "lighten up." Those kind of comments really push my buttons, for so many reasons, but primarily: 1) the speaker is making excuses for the filmmakers' bad storytelling (and encouraging more of it), 2) they're implying I shouldn't expect a good story in a movie, and 3) they're trying to make me excuse/accept bad storytelling.

No, I will do nothing of the sort. "It's only a movie." "It's only a book." "It's only fiction." "It's just science fiction" or "It's just fantasy." What, fiction in any media form isn't expected to be good? Why not? Entertainment isn't supposed to be good? Why not? If it's to be consumed by the masses, the standards automatically lower? WHY??? That's ridiculous! Of course it can be good. Blockbuster movies can be smart, entertaining, funny, and still rake in the big bucks for the studio. And smart, entertaining, funny blockbusters shouldn't be the exception, they should be the rule every summer. Because there's really no excuse for bad storytelling. There really isn't. Telling a good exciting story is not that hard. Except, for some reason beyond my comprehension, it seems to be too much to ask of Hollywood.

The new Star Trek film fails badly for two reasons: poor plot and poor world building. I skimmed the surface of the myriad plot problems in the last post. There's a lot more (all of it fixable too, which is what bugs me the most). But there's world building problems too. There's the big stuff (ie: the emasculation of Star Fleet, a mining ship boasting better offensive armament than warships) on which the plot hinges but that blows suspension of disbelief (again, all fixable). And there's little stuff that's almost more annoying. Take that scene where Chekov is telling the computer to do something and it can't understand his Russian accent. My, isn't that cute and funny? Let's all laugh now and watch him try to get it right! What I see during that scene: the Enterprise (or other Star Fleet vessel) being blown out of existence in some future battle when Chekov (or one of any number of other alien Federation races who might be serving onboard) gets flustered and can't pronounce their Vees or whatever letters/numbers/commands in proper English fashion and the computer fails to understand the order in time. No culture with that many aliens/languages would rely on something that arcane. That's poor world building and lazy writing.

But it's a ten-second throwaway scene, so what? So what is that they could have accomplished the same "look at Chekov's cute widdle accent" in any number of other scenarios that wouldn't compromise the believability of their world. The audience still laughs (so they've achieved their apparent goal), but without some of us thinking, gee, what happens when that command is a little more urgent? That's what writer's do. They use their skills to weave plot and character and world together as seamlessly as possible, in ways that do not dump their viewers out of the story every five minutes. And that's what these writers failed to do.

The thing is, you produce an intelligent script? The average viewer who doesn't give a damn about anything other than the cool action factor? They're still wildly entertained. They're still going to love the movie, probably love it even more because an intelligent script usually increases the cool factor. And the rest of us with brains, who aren't sheep, who refuse to love something simply because we're supposed to, or because, awww, it's Star Trek and isn't it fun to revisit that universe? We love it too. Win, win.

So, to clarify. What I hate about this film is that when handed one of the coolest universes to play in, when given great characters, a big budget, and time to do it right... those involved squandered the opportunity. That is what I truly deplore, not the film itself. That they could have given the world two hours of fabulous entertainment, and we're stuck with two hours of crap instead. It may be fun, it may still be entertaining if you check your brain at the door. But it's still bad storytelling exemplified.

And the alternate history thing? It disappoints me because they could have "rebooted" the series, still stayed within the original history, and still grabbed new viewers. Would it be harder to write? Sure. Could it be done? Of course. Look at Back to the Future II. They fit a completely different storyline nearly flawlessly inside an extremely tight existing history, and it's brilliant and glorious and it makes watching the first movie even more exciting. But the other thing is, if you're going to go with an alternate history, goddamn it all, use it! Holy smokes, do you know how exciting I find exploring an alternate history? It's why Mirror Mirror is such a good episode in the original series. The things you can do, the places you could go, the expected events/outcomes you could rewrite in eye-popping new ways. I aim this more towards the next movie, less towards this one. Because there will be a next one, and it could be the best movie of all. They got the setup out of the way in this movie. Now, go to town in the next one. But hire an intelligent writer first, please.

[ETA: I should mention that I have also now seen this movie twice. I went a second time because just about everybody I know loves this film, and I wanted to see if the problems I have with it wouldn't jump out at me on the second viewing. I wanted to see if I could join the mindless masses, stop thinking, and just enjoy it for what it is. I succeeded to a certain extent. However, I also noticed more problems I'd overlooked the first time. So, I liked it better and worse than I had the first time. Will I go see it again in the theater? No. Will I buy it on DVD? Hell no. But will I object to watching it down the line with family or friends who want to see it on DVD? No. ]


  1. Take that scene where Chekov is telling the computer to do something and it can't understand his Russian accent.Oh my, I'd forgotten to mention that in my little rant. I saw the film in a half-full theatre, and that scene probably got the biggest laugh - from everyone but me. Me...well, I was doing my best not to hurl my pack of M&Ms at the screen. (Oh, and while I'm naming brands, I should just say that the cheap, nasty bit of advertising for Nokia at the start REALLY pissed me off.)

    And you're right - there are so many bits in there that just scream laziness on the part of the writers, and so many of them are easy to fix. The "red matter" for example. I mean..."red matter?" What, was it really so difficult to come up with a proper name and maybe a ten-second bit of science to explain it? Really? Red fricking matter indeed. I was almost waiting for someone to say "you've got red on you" when Simon Pegg came along. Which would have been funny, actually. But would have required a writer with a brain. Gah.

  2. Would you believe that of all the crazy not-science, the concept of the red matter bothered me least? But making up something completely new is far preferable to me than supernovas threatening the galaxy and building gigantic spaceships on earth. However, when one drop is enough to destroy a planet, I did chuckle at the sheer massive SIZE of that ball of red matter Spock's got in his ship. And wonder why when the whole kit and kaboodle finally goes, it's not a little more... cataclysmic? rip-an-irreparable-hole-in-the-space/time continuum impressive? Something a little wild? But then again, maybe that much negates itself, as it seems to cause less damage rather than more. One drop and Vulcan collapses in on itself in a matter of minutes. Giant ball and Nero's ship does not get destroyed, it just sort of sits there half-in/half-out for a bit so we can hurl final insults at each other and then shoot at him. With red matter, less is more, it appears.

    Were those peanut or normal M&Ms? :-D

  3. Oh, normal M&Ms, naturally. The peanut ones make so much noise in a quiet cinema... ;-)

    Yeah, you do have to wonder exactly what Spock was meant to do with the rest of the red matter, don't you? If a drop's enough, why not just give him...I don't know...a fricking drop? I mean, did he have a whole load of other galaxies to try and save or something?

    Oh, and (sorry, ranting again) did we really need to have that bizarre close-up of the red matter drops clumping together after Spock crashed the ship? Quite apart from the fact that it was a RUBBISH SPECIAL EFFECT (Ahem. Sorry.), I couldn't help but be put in mind of Ang Lee's Hulk. I mean, make the drops see what I'm saying?

  4. Two of the biggest movie-watchers in my real life both LOVED this movie.

    (For the record, neither one of 'em ever watched the TV show.)

    I'm not wild about STAR TREK and stuff, so I haven't seen it, but don't let any blogger or commenter or person, etc. tell you to lighten up: as a writer, you have every right to write whatever you damn well please. :)

    And of course we all have the right to share our honest opinions.

  5. Glad I'm not the only one to have this reaction. I also reacted to all the other elements they changed with no explanation. Stuff like the fact that starships are built in space, yet Kirk rides his bike up to one being assembled in Iowa. Or the fact that the Kelvin is a ship without nacelles, which are crucial to the way warp fields work and have been part of every ship design since Zephram Cochrane's first ship built out of an old missile. The alternate reality bit doesn't explain away those issues because those are things from before the split into the alternate timeline.

    When I heard that Star Trek was being rebooted, I was highly ambivalent. I could understand that the franchise needed a new spark, but there are hundreds of hours of live action story and thousands upon thousands of printed pages ranging from novels to technical manuals in the Star Trek universe and rebooting could mean potentially throwing all of that away. Unfortunately, my fears were confirmed. Roddenberry and his original staff worked really hard to build an internally self-consistent world where the science and technology was plausible and the society made sense. That tradition was carried on by when he launched TNG and followed by the people who followed in his footsteps. I don't get the feeling that Abrams knows or cares to know about any of this stuff. It's all just mumbo-jumbo to him and he didn't want to deal with it, apparently. I can say that if there are any more movies or shows or whatever following this new story line, I definitely not watching any of them.