Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek Movie Review (Caution: Spoilers)

It is fitting that I watched the latest Star Trek movie on Mother's Day. With only slight exception, I have watched every Star Trek movie with my mother. (For some reason I cannot remember, we missed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in the theater, and she passed away before Nemesis was made.) She was an original trekkie and fueled my innate desire to become one as well. We did not have cable when I grew up, but somehow I managed to watch most of the episodes of the original series.

When I turned in straight A's in First Grade, she took me (just the two of us) to Fort Walton Beach (a thirty minute drive) to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I remember very little of that evening, except an image of the part of town at night and my emotional excitement at seeing this movie. When the movie was released much later on VHS, I it became one of my favorites. (In fact, I can highly recommend the Director's Cut, which improves many of the visual effects without giving the movie an adversely different feel.)

To sum up the new Star Trek simply: I think my mother would have liked it as much as I did, though for perhaps different reasons. After watching Generations, she decided that it was the end of the old and the beginning of the new. She did not watch much of the new, though it did not stop her from seeing the Next Generation movies with me. The new Star Trek would have put her back in familiar territory.

As I write this review, I watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (My wife is away in D.C. through the evening, so it is my night to watch what I want.) I can tell you that the writers for the new Star Trek integrated many little details that were developed in the shows and in the movies. For instance, in the new Star Trek, Kirk has an allergic reaction after McCoy inoculates him with a particular vaccine in order to sneak Kirk to the Enterprise. Do you remember that the elder Kirk received spectacles as a gift because he was allergic to the available vision-correcting drug? The elder McCoy nodded knowingly and said, "Exactly!"

There are a few things I dislike about the new Star Trek, and some things at which I shook my head at their Hollywood triteness. But that which I liked far outweighed these few things.

That which I shook my head at:
1. They really don't observe black hole physics. To the scientifically informed, this is unconscionable in a good science fiction story. As this movie is more about characters and action, I can understand the choice to jettison known reality.

2. Why do we have to have monsters on the ice planet? Isn't a successful 16km trek across the ice pretty much guaranteed? Kirk could have met the future Spock at the outpost. That's where they ended up anyway. And not to dwell too long, the big bug monster looked a lot like a similar bug monster in Attack of the Clones in the arena scene.

3. Kirk being made captain of the Enterprise before graduating from Starfleet Academy. He may have scored off the charts on the aptitude tests, and may have saved Earth (I suppose this is the first of now three times), but is that really sufficient experience to manage a crew of hundreds and spend the next five years dealing with entirely new and novel situations? This will pose a credibility problem for the writers of future movies, as they must allow Kirk's lack of experience and wealth of bravado to cause problems, or else be accused of creating an unrealistic superhuman character.

4. The main ensemble characters came together very quickly--too quickly for credibility. It takes time to build good teams and to get them to perform at a high level. This is even more important given the raw brilliance of each main character. They did a good job of rapidly working out the usual team-building dynamics, so my criticism is limited to the low likelihood of the short timing.

5. Why does Scotty need a midget alien sidekick? Haven't we milked the short sidekick thing too long already? And why does he get treated like a dog or child? Didn't Warwick Davis demonstrate long ago that little people can act well?

Now the few things I did not like:
1. Why did the engineering spaces on the Enterprise look like a 20th century factory? In every episode and every movie of every series (including Enterprise), the engineering spaces were spartan and high tech. I hope that this was a funding problem and not a failure of imagination.

2. Why is ejecting the core the magical solution to so many Star Trek plots?

3. I could add "Yet another Time Travel plot" to this list, but it worked in this movie, being narrowly focused. The creation of an alternate timeline is exactly what was needed to make this reincarnation of Star Trek believable. The destruction of Vulcan and the death of Spock's mother will definitely shake things up, as will his meeting with (and continued existence of) his future self.

4. What is Star Fleet doing sending all but nine ships completely out of range of Vulcan (and completely away from the story)? Yes, the galaxy is large, and Vulcan is relatively close to Earth. But what about commercial vessels? They did not expect an attack; they were trying to prepare an emergency evacuation of 6 billion Vulcans and solve the seismic problems. Hundreds of cadets lost their lives in seconds, and nothing was said of this in the end.

To the best of my limited memory, that is all that I had a problem with in this movie. The rest... I liked it! I'm looking forward to the next installment in the new movie series. (Just please don't screw them up! And don't fall prey to the Odd-Even Curse!)

The Things I Really Liked:
1. Admiral Pike: Excellent character, and well-played by Bruce Greenwood. In the alternate universe, he is the reason Kirk joins Star Fleet. In the original universe, it was Kirk's father. I got the impression that Pike had watched out for young Kirk for at least part of his post-adolescent life, providing some fatherly stability. Did you pick up on the fact that he ended up in a wheelchair? He did as well in the original series, though under different circumstances. A small detail, but a familiar one to us original trekkies.

2. The opening scene was well-done. It balanced the anguish of the no-win moment with enough exposition of Kirk's mother and father to make us empathize with Kirk later and to give a foundation to Kirk's intelligence and future loyalty to his friends and crew.

3. Leonard Nimoy's role as the elder Spock: Serving as the bridge between the former future and the new past, he provides perspective to young Kirk and Spock on their need for one another. This was not a cameo, nor was it played tongue-in-cheek. The contrast between the elder Spock and the younger Spock was well drawn, and demonstrated that even Spock was young and wild (in his own way) like Kirk.

4. Uhura never got a big role in the series and movies. I was happy to see that she had special abilities that made her essential to the high-performance of the team we know and love. She is no longer a radio operator and secretary, and I hope that she will continue to play an important part in future installments.

5. Uhura and Spock are lovers? This did not work for some people I know, but I appreciated it for many reasons. First, Spock is a complex blend of Vulcan and Human emotions controlled by a continuing act of will. To see him love another on a regular basis is a refreshing break from Pon Farr every seven years, which is animalistic and hormonal, not loving. It also makes Spock more like his father, who admitted to marrying Amanda for love.

6. Sarek and Spock are loving to one another throughout the movie. The movie does not show whether Sarek was angry with Spock for going to Star Fleet (which is made clear in episodes and movies before this one), but their rapid reconciliation and understanding of one another following the destruction of Vulcan makes likely that we will be able to see this relationship develop in ways that it could not (until Star Trek IV) in the original timeline. Beginning with Star Trek IV, we got to see the fruits of reconciliation between father and son (a situation not unfamiliar to me), and I wished then that we could have seen more. (The Next Generation was able to do some of this before Mark Lenard's death in 1996.) I do hope that the writers will take advantage of this change and develop the father-son dynamic. (And Ben Cross is a good choice for Sarek. I first saw him as Harold Abraham in Chariots of Fire, then as King Arthur's nemesis in First Knight. He has aged well and brings gravitas to a highly-respected character.)

7. Dr. McCoy: When I heard that Karl Urban was playing McCoy, I was skeptical. I did not like how he played Eomer in the Lord of the Rings (nor how the character was altered by the writers), but I liked the way he played McCoy. The humor was classically McCoy, re-using the best jokes and one-liners from vintage DeForest Kelley days. He was at once new and familiar. I thoroughly enjoyed watching him run after Kirk (during Kirk's allergic reaction) yelling "I can fix that!" And I enjoyed watching him quote rules and regulations in order to get his way--again, classic McCoy!

8. In the original series (and movies), Kirk, McCoy and Spock make up the triumvirate about which most plots revolve and among which the best interplay occurs. The future of plots highlighting other characters is likely to be much like the past--they will likely be excellent supporting characters again--but the actors chosen for the "main three" will do credit to the roles and give us cause to continue spending our hard-earned money at the theaters to see what they do next.

Star Trek is going where no Star Trek show or movie has gone before. They have erased what was and must now live in a significantly altered universe thrust suddenly upon them. There are certainties only regarding the inborn nature of each character. The experiences that shaped them to become what we are familiar with are no longer certain. We get to experience this new past with our characters, and that is going to be half the fun!

I hope you enjoy(ed) Star Trek as much as I did. See it again if you can manage. In the meantime, Live long and prosper!

Friday, May 8, 2009

What kind of buyer are you?

I came across this excerpt from Geoffrey Miller's book Spent via Marginal Revolution and couldn't resist passing it on.

Some common themes emerge from these slightly whimsical suggestions. One is that buying new, real, branded premium products at full price from chain-store retailers is the last refuge of the unimaginable consumer, and it should be your last option. It offers low narrative value -- no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events associated with the product's design, provenance, acquisition, or use. It reveals nothing about you except your spending capacity and your gullibility, conformism, and unconsciousness as a consumer.

Are you "unimaginable", or do you take delight in the "people, places, and events associated with the product's design, provenance, acquisition, or use"?

I'm not generally a big consumer, and I do not think I possess a knack for choosing fine things. Yet as I have traveled around this country and overseas, I think more about the hands that made the objects I buy.

When in Germany I read "Made in China" on many supposedly local items, I realized I was about to be duped and had the sense to leave well enough alone.

In Hungary, I had a different experience: All of the items I bought were handmade by local artisans. They were indeed crafted goods, and I held them in greater value.

I have brought these thoughts back to the United States, and now look for where something is made. I eschew "Made in China" unless I have no ready substitute. I see names of countries that I did not realize made such a product as an export, and I think of what I know of these countries and the people that inhabit them.

Sometimes, it makes me more likely to buy, to bias the circular flow of money in their direction. Economic growth, it has been asserted, is the greatest means of lifting vast numbers of people from poverty.

I can take comfort in a smart buy.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Jeff Sessions to replace Arlen Specter on Senate Judiciary Committee

This is good news (from Reason Magazine). The Republican senators are putting the RINOs on the back burner and putting forward solid conservatives.

In my opinion, the RINOs have split the ability of the Republicans to have a coherent message. Rather than have a nuanced approach in order to have a larger tent, I prefer that each party be somewhat pure. This gives rise to multiple parties (or even better, no parties and just legislative caucuses). The Federalist Papers (No. 10) covers this topic rather cleanly, and is a recommended read. (Wikipedia has an excellent write-up, and here is a link to the text for No. 10.)

It is regrettable that we strayed from this wisdom so near the beginning of our Republic.

Government Intrusion: Yard Sales

This item from Reason Magazine (a libertarian source of news and analysis) touches on new guidance from the Consumer Product Safety Commission claiming that their reach includes your yard sale.

Is there no end to the nanny state?