May 25, 2009

Star Retread

I went to see Star Trek opening night a few weeks ago at a multiplex an hour away. From the opening scene to the closing credits I was enthralled. The Enterprise has never looked better. The special effects have never been more spectacular. All the actors chosen to play the famous original crew are perfectly cast, young doppelgangers through and through. Pacing is swift with just the right amount of dialogue. Humor is fresh and lively. And did I mention Leonard Nimoy making a final curtain call as Spock? Simply poignant. So you can imaging my surprise driving home when I was overcome with a feeling of disappointment, a let-down that only became more pronounced as I made my way down the dark highway.

Been there. Done that. For all the great casting and special effects the undeniable truth remains; there's nothing new under the sun or in the galaxy to be found in Star Trek. There's time travel. Unlikely as always. Check. Please see Voyage Home and First Contact. There's a nasty villian bent on revenge. Check. See The Wrath of Khan and Nemesis. Nero goes around blowing up planets with an eerie looking drill. Near the film's climax he attempts to destroy the Earth. Evidently the planet has no defenses for it's just the Enterprise that intervenes made of a crew of recently graduated cadets. Plot hole. Check. See all other Star Trek movies.

What there isn't much of is a story. It's almost as if the narrative simply exists to give the young crew of the Enterprise something to do as they get to know eachother and we them. Trouble is, we already know them, and after Star Trek there won't be any remaining mystery to unravel.

There was an episode from The Next Generation featuring the Enterprise crew as children. It was a fun gimmick for one show, but I wouldn't try and build a series around it. Sadly, that is what the new movie does all too successfully. It regurgitates with exquisite detail the beloved characters from the 1960s and pumps them up with up with 21st Century CGI as well as overused plot devices. An argument could be made that each successive generation of Star Trek is simply a slightly new version of the original, incorporating all the basic elements in a new wrapper. Spock=Data=Odo=7of9. With the new movie, however, any notion of a new wrinkle or appearance is discarded in favor of blatant nostalgia. U2 had a song from the early 1990s titled Even Better Than the Real Thing. That's what Abrams' film is, and it is both its success and ultimate failure. In the absence of any new idea or Roddenberry philosophical dilemma we get slickness and action. Lots of it. The cast is good. Maybe a little too good. If you're like me you won't realize what you've missed until later, if at all.

Star Trek boldly goes, alright, but it goes we've already gone before. At the end of the picture as the lights came up and the credits rolled the audience members began to applaud spontaneously. I think I've only been in a theatre once or twice when that has happened. When I was a boy of twelve I went to see Star Wars. The audience, including my cousin and I, applauded with abandon, mesmerized by what we had just seen, even transformed. Never for a moment did I think of clapping for Star Trek. Now I know why.

With all that said will I see it again when it comes to my local theatre? You betcha. Will I buy the DVD when it comes out, hopefully with lots of extras? Without a doubt. Will I enjoy every minute of it despite my reservations? Damn right I will! Will I still pine for an original cinematic idea instead of sequel after sequel after sequel. Of course.

June 6, 2008

REM Xcel

Listening to REM in the 1980's and the early 1990's was a simple joy. The boys from Athens, Georgia could no wrong. They somehow combined jangly guitars, wonderful haunting harmonies and lead singer Michael Stipe's simple yet evocative lyrics into one musical masterpiece after another. If they didn't invent alternative rock then they certainly perfected it. For a decade or so they spoke for a generation and found themselves in the unlikely position of being rock superstars. Then the wheels started to fall off the track.

It began with 1994's overwrought Monster, and continued two years later with what was to be drummer's Bill Berry's swan song. Success was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to the band. Without a drummer the three remaining members soldiered on. The result was a string of albums that could at best be described as interesting and at their worst bland. They were a band in name only, however, and the fire was long gone.

Enter Accelerate the new CD from REM. It is perhaps the best thing they have done in 16 years. It's fast, and furious and doesn't have a drum machine or synthetic sounds (thank god). REM bring this new-found energy and tunes on their world tour. They made a stop in St. Paul on June 5th. Perhaps it was the fact that Stipe, an Obama supporter was playing in the same arena that only two days before saw the democratic nominee accept the party's assumed nomination, but the band was clearly energized. The first few songs were blistering and full of focus. Stipe was in fine form, striking playful poses and singing his heart out. And the crows loved it. We were all on our feet. I felt like I was witnessing the rebirth of REM. Somewhere in the middle of the set they took their eye off the ball just a bit (blame guitarist Peter Buck) who picks the songs for each night's concert. One too many slow songs in a row crept in and stole the momentum before the band finally put things right near the end and went out with a bang. With such a great back catalog do we really need to hear Auctioneer? Still, the band played cuts as far back as Murmur and a bunch from the new disc.

The next CD from the band may determine whether the three-some has found their footing again or whether it was a last gasp. My firm conviction is the former. Now if they can only perfect their already great live show with better song selection and sequence then fans will really have something to shout about. For the time being we'll have to content ourselves with the fact they they're singing a decidedly different tune.