Thursday, 28 May 2009

Park Your Brain At The Door

I went to see the new Star Trek film last night. Most reviews I've read have said it's very good. But not all of them - see here, here and here.

I thought it was complete nonsense.

It looks good - mostly. The special effects are state-of-the-art. The cast all do a good job with their parts, although Karl Urban probably nails the essence of Bones McCoy from the original cast better than the others do with their roles. And yes, Simon Pegg's Scottish accent is a bit suspect.

I'll forgive the "sounds in space" thing. It's scientifically impossible, but it's become a convention of science fiction cinema. And I'll willingly suspend my disbelief for the black hole which allows Spock and the Romulan Nero to travel back in time. Likewise for the "red matter". It's a daft idea, but it's a maguffin in a science fiction film so it doesn't really matter.


There are many things I didn't like in Star Trek - not just in the science, but in the plotting, the characterisation.... They played Chekov as a joke, which was not entirely fair. And quite a bit of the humour in the film appeared at strangely inappropriate moments. I'm all for livening up scenes with a bit of wit, but some of the jokes in Star Trek just seemed to fall flat.

And then there are the outright stupidities. The following comments will necessarily include spoilers.

If you stick a spaceship on top of a chemical planet, it doesn't look like a spaceship dock. It looks like a chemical plant with a spaceship stuck on top of it. Far too much of Star Trek was filmed inside a chemical plant. Those scenes looked like they belonged in some cheap straight-to-DVD sf movie.

James T Kirk is about to be drummed out of Starfleet Academy for cheating on the Kobayashi Maru test. But then evil Romulan Nero appears, and he gets smuggled aboard Starfleet's new flagship, the Enterprise, and - sigh - goes on to win the day. So at the end of the film, they pin a medal on Kirk's chest and make him captain of the Enterprise. Hang on. He's a cadet. He didn't even graduate. And they make him the captain of their best ship?

And speaking of cadets being unfeasibly promoted to high rank: Dr Bones McCoy is also a Starfleet cadet, but when the trouble caused by Nero kicks off, he is assigned to the Enterprise as Senior Medical Officer. A cadet as a Senior Medical Officer? Where do they get the junior ones from? Kindergarten?

And then there's Scotty. He's no longer an engineer but an engineer and a genius theoretical physicist. But Starfleet still exile him to some out of the way planet - Delta Vega, in fact (see later) - because of an experiment/prank that went a bit wrong. But then they give command of their flagship to a cadet, so why not exile their best brains?

Oh, and did I mention that Kirk is also described as "genius-level"? He had me fooled.

The planet Romulus is destroyed by a supernova which "threatens the galaxy". Must have been a pretty big star which exploded, then. The Milky Way contains approximately 200 billion stars. And some of them are huge. But not big enough to destroy all the other 199,999,999,9999 or so stars should they turn supernova. But the silliness doesn't end there. Earth's nearest star - other than the Sun - is Alpha Centauri, which is 4.24 light years away. If Alpha Centauri went supernova, and its wavefront were powerful enough to destroy the Earth over that great a distance, it would still take four years and three months to reach here. That's plenty of time to find a solution if you're as advanced as the Romulan Empire or the Federation.

It's fortunate Romulan mining ships are as well armed as battleships. Otherwise Nero would have had trouble exacting his revenge. It's also fortunate they're absolutely enormous and very spiky - even though their "mining" seems to consist of dangling a platform in the planet's atmosphere. Which is, well, illogical. Since they need to keep the platform's giant laser firing at the same spot on the planet's surface, the ship would need to be in geosynchronous orbit. For Earth, that's 35,786 km above mean sea level. Space effectively begins 100 km above sea level (travel higher than that and you can officially call yourself an astronaut). So at the very least the Romulan ship needs a cable that is 37,686 km long. In the film, you can see the ship from the platform. It's a big ship but not that big.

When Kirk and Sulu fall from the mining platform dangling in Vulcan's atmosphere, and Kirk's parachute is ripped from his back - I think they should make them a bit sturdier like, well, like present day parachutes - Chekov manages to transport them as they fall... So, they'd hit the transporter pad with the same velocity at which they were falling. Which would make for a nice splat and a somewhat abrupt end to the film. Or perhaps - and this is probably what earlier Trek films would have done - they'd have mentioned something about converting their velocity into energy in the transporter buffer or something. You know, completely bogus science. But at least they'd have made an effort to explain why the conservation of momentum didn't apply. Whatever they did, Kirk and Sulu wouldn't have hit the transporter pad as if they'd just dropped a metre.

Spock is marooned on the world of Delta Vega, and from there he sees the destruction of Vulcan. The two planets are not celestial neighbours, like the Earth and Moon. Which means Spock must have amazing eyesight in order to magnify a view of a planet located at least several light years away. And time-travelling eyes too, in order to see the destruction in real time rather than many years later when the light actually reaches him.

So, not so much a reboot as a lobotomy. It has been said - by John Scalzi among others - that it's a bit silly to expect correct science in a Star Trek film. But I disagree. There's no reason why Abrams had to get it so wrong. The sfnal devices - time travel through black holes, red matter - are maguffins to make the plot work. Giving command of the flagship to a cadet is rank stupidity. Suggesting that you can see a planet implode from another planet in an entirely different system is rank stupidity. Imagining that a mining ship will have sufficient armament to defeat the whole of Starfleet is rank stupidity. It is, when you think about it, insulting. The makers of Star Trek clearly have nothing but contempt for their audience.

As if all that weren't bad enough... I saw in the foyer of the cinema something which persuades me Hollywood holds people in even greater disdain than I could have possibly imagined.... G-Force. "Gizmos, Gadgets and Guinea Pigs". Yes, Disney have made a film about anthropomorphised guinea pig secret agents. And one of them is supposed to be a femme fatale spy. Yes, that's a sexy female guinea pig. Voiced by Penélope Cruz.

Western civilisation is well and truly doomed.


Cliff Burns said...

Ah, Ian, that's bloody good. I went after the film in general but I think you've dealt with the particulars and done a far better job. Movies are now aimed at the XBox generation, people who think Carl Dreyer and J.L. Godard are clothing lines. All the positive reviews I've read are from fan-boys, socially retarded and intellectually challenged arseholes with access to the internet. The pros have been less than kind--Anthony Lane's dissection of "XI" in THE NEW YORKER was particularly enjoyable.
But not as enjoyable as yours, chum. Nothing like a good garroting to start my morning off...

Karlos said...

Yeah, it was a bit weak in the explanatory bits. But good ol' suspension of disbelief kicked in.

Powerful mining ship? Whatever, it's from the future so that explains it, jack-hammer more powerful than shovel (plus the weird low orbit stuff).

Kirk getting the XO is a bit Gen-Y over-entitlemently (target market bulls-eye) but the Fed seemed to be VERY understaffed so perhaps it was a boy-scout-ship-cannon-fodder-last-resort sorta thing. Can't see there not being a more experienced officer somewhere around though so it still felt wrong.

The Scotty thing, I reckon Chekov's transporter prowess was originally Mr Scott's, if you look at the characters they're interchangable, funny accent, comic relief, running around yelling. Bet Abrams forgot about Chekov and had to jiggle the script a bit. Scotty doing it would lead on to ship to ship beaming quite nicely (Chekov effectively dissapears after that).

Bones "senior medical officer"? simple, he was bluffing to bamboozle the bureaucrats. And perfectly in De Forrest style.

The nova? They happen all the time this one must have been reeeeeally anomalous, no background details mentioned though shoulda called it something else?.

Delta Vega? thought they'd chucked Kirk off towards the Vulcan system? (the nearest? maybe I missed something)

Abrams seems to have cut out every "so Professor, how does a flux-capacitor work?" moment that he could... good thing too in an action movie. In a let the fan's explain ol'style Klingon's vs TNG sort of way... I almost forgive him ;)

Ian Sales said...

Jack-hammers may be more powerful than shovels, but Nero's ship was equipped with photon torpedoes. Not, I would have thought, usually found aboard your typical mining ship.

Interesting point re Chekov and Scotty. I hadn't spotted that.

Even if Delta Vega were in the same planetary system as Vulcan, it would have to be less 250,000 miles away for Vulcan to appear so large in the sky. But it was not shown in the shots of Vulcan, and the Enterprise had already gone into warp when Kirk and Spock fought...

I'm all for cutting out info-dumps, but that's still no excuse for stupid plotting and stupid science.

Lucasdigital said...

I loved Star Trek. Even went to see it a second time. There's no argument against any of your points - Abram's effort is hugely enjoyable, bit it's dumb all the way down. Nero finds himself back in time. "Marvelous!" He thinks, I can send delayed Letter to Ambassador Spock telling him to start on the Romulus rescue mission a week early...everyone will be saved. Horrah! Erm... Even an enraged Romulan is going to see this makes far more sense than blowing everyone up. I didn't see the Romulans doing a good job of saving themselves against this natural disaster, It doesn't make sense that they'd fair better sans Federation.

I'm hoping the sequel can reduce the knuckle bitingly stupid stuff and concentrate on what this improved zing formula is good at, namely exciting, fun action.

Karlos said...

Ah! Thought I might have missremembered the order of events in the Delta Vega thing...

Good one about the missed opportunity to get Spock to start the rescue mish early (chuckle) Nero's crew did seem to think he was a bit nuts, bet there was a few harsh words in their staffroom at lunchtime :)