This editorial contains spoilers.

I am proud to be a discerning movie viewer. I don’t understand the
desire to turn off your brain at the movies; I understand the desire to
be completely transported from the theater into a new world, to have my
everyday problems and issues drop away while I am amazed, delighted and
moved by what I see on screen. I understand the desire to laugh and
cry, to be thrilled and scared, to learn something about myself or to
have the opportunity to see things in a new way. But I don’t go to the
movies for a hypnotizing light show. I don’t go to the movies to stare
slackjawed at images that have no relation to me or the world simply
slide across a screen. I go to the movies not to be numbed but to be
stimulated; a good movie is one that fills me with electricity and
excitement, that makes me think or makes me feel, that sends me out of
theater dizzy… not like I just got off Mister Toad’s Wild Ride but
dizzy with the sheer joy of filmmaking and communication, a movie that
showed me something I had never before seen or introduced me to someone
I would never otherwise know. That’s why I go to the movies and why I
spend my whole life seeing them, thinking about them and writing about
them.



This means I’m unable to just sit in a movie and not think about it. And I
definitely can’t walk out of a movie without thinking about it. For
many movies – especially summer movies – this is fatal. A single plot
thread hangs, and tugging on it makes the whole thing come undone.
Spectacle movies are constructed backwards; if they were the
roller coasters to which they are so often compared by idiots, they
would be built from the highest peak down, creating an engineering
disaster. These movies can’t support their own weight, and they’re
often not just dumb, they’re downright anti-intellectual. They proudly
spit tobacco through the gap in their front teeth, kick some shit with
their boots and sneer at city boy faggots like me. ‘Don’t yew know how
to have fun, son?’



So how is it possible that I have seen Star Trek twice now – the second
viewing coming after spending lots of time dissecting the movie’s
gaping, moronic plot holes – and liked it both times? This is a movie
that, on the surface, should be one that I find insufferable; I should
be writing nothing but complaints about the shockingly bad script, the
asinine plot contrivances and the nearly debilitating lack of internal
logic. Yet I really liked Trek the second time through… perhaps even
more than the first time. Have I become a complete hypocrite?



The answer, it seems, is magic. Or at least alchemy. The movies, at
their base, are alchemical things, transmuting a myriad of elements
into something else. Sometimes you can start with all the best elements
and find that instead of transmuting into gold they become a heaping
pile of shit. And sometimes you can have a suspect series of elements
that, through seeming sheer magic, become dazzling when transmuted
through the camera.



This weekend I happened to watch a movie that, while it couldn’t be more different from Star Trek, is a perfect example of an
alchemical transmutation that simply didn’t work. Popeye has, on its
surface, all the elements that would be needed to make a damn
entertaining movie. Director Robert Altman, while seemingly an odd
choice for a musical comedy based on a cartoon, was coming off a bad
streak and needed to prove that he could do something even half as good
as Nashville again. And he had the best possible tools at his disposal:
a script by cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who not only knew the world of
Popeye but whose plays (and the screenplay for Mike Nichols’ Carnal
Knowledge
) showed that he knew his way around a script. Altman had
brilliant songwriter Harry Nilsson crafting classic tunes for the
soundtrack. He had Robin Williams at the height of his comedic powers
and Shelley Duvall, a woman seemingly born to play Olive Oyl. More than
that he had boatloads of cash, enough money to create the entire
fictional town of Sweethaven on location on the island of Malta. And
behind the scenes he had the great Robert Evans, one of Hollywood’s
most powerful producers. Yet the movie that resulted is barely
watchable; often more irritating than charming, Popeye is a noisy,
busy, formless mess.



Then there’s Star Trek. With a script by two of the least interesting
writers in Hollywood, the go-to guys for true stupidity, Roberto Orci and
Alex Kurtzman, the movie seemed doomed from the start. And then there
was the fact that director JJ Abrams had not yet shown himself capable
of delivering a movie that felt like a movie, and that the cast was
made up of either unknowns too pretty for their own good – Chris Pine –
or actors who had proven they simply couldn’t act – Zachary Quinto – or
actors who felt wildly miscast – John Cho and Simon Pegg – and you have
a lot of elements that seem to be stinking up the joint. Season that
with a plot that attempts to reboot the franchise while also giving
more than just lip service to the old canon and continuity and it
seems obvious that you’ll end up transmuting this into a solid log of
dung.



But it didn’t turn out that way. Watching Trek for the second time I
was amazed at how the movie just kept working, even though the script
was obviously shoddy and half-done*. And it’s an example of that
alchemy in action. Abrams, stepping up to the plate, realizes that when
your overarching blueprint doesn’t quite work you have to fill each
scene with truth, excitement and humor. To that end Star Trek is less
of a whole than a truly inspired series of parts; the movie is made up
of great scenes that work on their own and that, when strung together
in a row, make for something that tricks you into believing they’re
part of something bigger. It’s the persistence of vision on a story
level – just as film tricks you into believing that a series of still
images projected at a high rate of speed are moving, Trek‘s series of
great scenes tricks your brain into thinking you’re watching a much
better movie. It’s alchemy. It’s magic at work.



I have to wonder if maybe Abrams was aware that his script simply
sucked (he’s gone on the record as saying he was unhappy with it, but
it’ll be decades before someone comes out and admits that they went
into production with half a script that they couldn’t rewrite due to
the strike) and as a result poured himself into making every individual
scene work on its own. It’s almost like the level of challenge forced
Abrams to take things to the next level.



That level wouldn’t have been possible without his cast. This is an
important part of all movie alchemy; we’re willing to forgive a lot if
we like the actors who are transgressing against us. And Abrams’ Star
Trek
crew charms completely; it’s almost a pity that this movie, which
feels sort of like a pilot for a TV series, isn’t really one. These are
actors who I would like to visit every week, and the nature of modern
franchise economics tells me that we’ll probably only get two more
films with these people. But as individuals they work, and together as
a group they mesh. You’ll be watching a scene and wondering why the
fuck any of this is even happening, since none of it makes sense even
by the terms of the movie itself, but then Chris Pine will say
something or John Cho will arch an eyebrow and you’ll be willing to let
it slide.



The problem with most big dumb summer movies is that they don’t even
give half the effort this deeply flawed film does. They’re happy to
coast by on some improbable action, half-finished digital FX and
seat-shaking soundtracks, hoping to beat you into submission with sound and fury. But
Abrams comes from the opposite direction. Instead of overwhelming you
with sight and sound he overwhelms you with charm; he’s the host who is
throwing a party so good you don’t even mind that the last keg has been
tapped. It’s because of this that so many people are willing to
overlook gaping plot holes with Star Trek while X-Men Origins:
Wolverine
‘s amnesia bullets have already become a geek joke. Gavin Hood
just didn’t throw a very good party.



A big element of what lets people go with Star Trek‘s intellectually
stunted flow is the optimism Abrams brings to the film. While he didn’t
invent that – it’s a part of the Trek franchise from the very start –
he does understand what ‘The human adventure’ means, and in this era of
The Dark Knight, where grim and gritty and dark is the order of the
blockbuster day, that positivity is refreshing. Abrams realizes that
you don’t have to lose the stakes or the repercussions – he kills 6
billion people in his movie, for fuck’s sake. Try and beat that, Joker – in order to make your
film pleasant and upbeat. The characters may often be facing tough
situations, but it’s obvious that they can always surmount them –
without losing themselves while doing it. Later in life Gene
Roddenberry decided that the Trek universe should be free of almost all
conflict, but in his earliest days on the show his philosophy was one
where flawed humans were able to step up and get the job done with
intelligence and courage. That element, more than any other, is what
Abrams captures from the original show, and just like with the original
show it’s an element that makes an audience willing to look the other
way when the Enterprise flies through a plot hole or two dozen.



In the end Star Trek makes a lie of one of Hollywood’s cozy little
homilies, that your movie is only as good as your script. That’s a
homily nobody has ever actually believed anyway (if they did, they’d
write better scripts and wouldn’t start filming until they had a script
finished), but it’s one that’s often proven true. Summer after summer
we are assaulted with movies so dumb that they boggle the mind, and
while those films make plenty of money they’re essentially discarded
once the weather gets cold again. Star Trek, while riddled with
problems, feels different. I don’t know that this film will end up
being something people embrace in a few years, but unlike other recent
blockbuster franchise starters, it feels more like something people
will really want to revisit in a sequel as opposed to being browbeaten
into revisiting through oppressive marketing. And with Abrams’
surprising ability to make gold with the elements he was given, the
idea of him coming back with better building blocks is exciting.



If they don’t make the next movie so fucking stupid, that is.



* a second viewing makes me believe that the script was caught directly
in the middle of a rewrite when the strike hit. It almost feels like
the latest draft ended at page 65 and then the old draft, with some
minor spackling, was added. Many of the huge plot holes and problems
come in the second half of the movie, and many of the scenes in the
second half feel like they’re paying off a completely different film.
Why, on Delta Vega, does Kirk tell Spock Prime that coming back in time
to change history and save everyone was cheating when Spock came back
in time completely by accident? These characters are obviously having a
conversation that grew out of a discarded draft of the script.