Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lens flares, plot holes, and the new Star Trek.

Some people have complained that the screenplay to the latest Star Trek movie is pretty stupid, and those people make a good point. Trek is one of those movies that starts to fall apart if you think about it too much on the ride home from the cineplex.

I've also heard complaints about all the lens flares in the movie, but the flares are kind of brilliant. Trek director J. J. Abrams is a smart guy, and I think he built on an idea from another successful science fiction remake--the Sci Fi channel's Battlestar Galactica. Ronald D. Moore (also a smart guy) and the rest of the Galactica creative team (full of smart guys and gals, I'm sure) employed ragged, hand-held-style camera work to "film" their space ship battles, and it made the stuff seem more like a documentary and less like what it really was--a bunch of pixels beefed up with some nice sound effects and music.

The practical shots in Trek--especially on the bridge of the starship Enterprise, which is lit up like a Christmas tree--are chock full of lens flares (these are crazy anamorphic lens flares, mind you, not piddly little spherical flares). When there's a cut to some exterior shot of a space battle or a planet getting imploded or whatever, the lens flares added on top of the underlying pixels add a certain weight to the shot that I don't think you'd get any other way.

And flares aren't the only trick Abrams uses to sell his computer-generated images. Our now young Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) gets chased by a couple of big monsters during a small-scale blizzard. These critters would likely look pretty goofy on a sunny day, but all that snow blowing around almost makes you believe something really is chasing Kirk. I say "almost" because some of the compositing seems a little off in the Kirk v. Monsters scene, but the story has built up so much momentum at this point in the movie, I don't know if any but the most nit-picky (like me) will notice.

Yeah, I said earlier that the script is pretty dumb, but it ain't slow. The movie's two-plus hours feel a lot more like 90 minutes. Add a terrific and game cast to all that gorgeous real and virtual camera work (and meticulous sound design/mixing--I expect this movie will kill on Blu-ray), and you get a movie that's a textbook example of "crowd pleaser."

How good is that cast? I'll just say that I'm a big fan of the original Trek television show from the 60s, and I accepted the new Kirk, Spock (Zachary Quinto), Scotty (the always-welcome Simon Pegg), et al, from the get-go. In fact, I was ready to see this cast in a sequel or two about 45 minutes into the movie. A month ago, I wouldn't have foreseen a world where there is room for more than one James Tiberius Kirk, but Pine proved me wrong. And is it too much to ask for some more Bruce Greenwood ("Captain Pike") in the sequel? That guy doesn't get nearly enough work.

If there's a problem with Star Trek, aside from those plot holes, it's that it sometimes feels methodical in its efforts to entertain. Is J. J. Abrams too smart for his own good? If a director works too hard to show us a good time, does that make a movie a little less fun? Well, maybe. But I saw Trek a week after watching Wolverine, a quarter-assed flick that strives for half-assedness in its best moments. If Abrams' only sin is putting 110 percent into every frame of Star Trek, I think I can forgive him.


Andrew Bellware said...

"piddly little spherical flares"? I'll not hear such nonsense! Spherical lens flares are AWESOME!
Also, can't we get Joss Whedon to make a Star Wars movie instead?

Chance Shirley said...

I love spherical flares, too. It's just anamorphic flares seem to take over the whole frame.

And Joss is great but busy with the Avengers. I think it would be nice if they let someone else have a shot at "Star Wars." I heard Affleck's name come up - I could go for that.