Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Review: the World Premiere that wasn't (Star Trek XI)

Well that was a random 24 hours that just took place in the world of Star Trek, Paramount, Austin, Sydney, and me. Yesterday morning I headed down to Sydney’s Intercontinental Hotel for the Star Trek XI junket hosted by Paramount Australia, in town was director J.J. Abrams, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, John Cho and, of course, Eric Bana. Bana was the only cast member I didn’t request an interview with mainly because he’d just done so much press for Love The Beast I wasn’t too fussed and was more focussed on getting time with Abrams. All my interviews went really well, Abrams was lovely and I got extra time with him thanks to those nice people at Paramount and the sheer amount of articles I’m writing on the film. But during my interview with Pine and Quinto something quite bizarre happened, something I’ve certainly never experienced before in the middle of an interview.

So there I am chatting away with the new Captain Kirk and Spock when Bryan Burk (producer) and a couple of random guys from the studio come in and sorta hijack my interview with news of a “standing O” in Austin. Everyone in the room is smiling cheek-to-cheek, slapping high-fives and hugging, the room is completely abuzz and I’m wondering what the hell is happening to my interview. Bryan Burk introduces himself to me and explains that they just premiered the new Star Trek movie at a surprise screening in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse (my beloved former local cinema), introduced by Leonard Nimoy, writers Orcia and Kurtzman and producer David Lindelof, and that it had been received with a spontaneous standing ovation. It’s awesome, I mean all-time outrageously awesome. Knowing the Drafthouse this is the exact kind of stunt I came to know and love from Tim League and the team there – though perhaps the coolest thing in this instance was that not even the town’s famous cinephile had any knowledge of the con going in to the screening (thinking instead they had programmed a screening of Wrath Of Kahn).

Once the moment had settled it occurred to me: ‘well I suppose that is technically the world premiere of Star Trek then’, sure enough seeing the introductions on Youtube from Nimoy and co calling it that and reports on the net from Wired to the New York Times doing the same. But what of the hugely lavish event at the Sydney Opera House? It was effectively ‘reduced’ to Awesome Red Carpet Australian Premiere of the film, which you better believe we should count our lucky stars to have been treated to. But it’s not the world premiere: that honour belongs to those lucky audiences members in Austin. I’ve been accused of being “astonishing negative” in this regard already, but when history looks back, it will be the surprise screening in Austin people will talk about, hence none of the international press I’ve read have so far covered the event in Sydney. Really I think it is a bit of a shame for Paramount Australia because the Opera House screening was nothing short of spectacular. Perhaps they don’t care, perhaps they knew what was happening all along, but considering what happened next I suspect not.

Hearing news of the Austin screening I knew that Aint It Cool News’ Harry Knowles would be in the house (accompanied by Quint as it would turn out), also most likely Film School Rejects’ Neil Miller and any number of other websites/bloggers. I kinda suspected that because of the nature of the screening no-one would have been asked to sign embargos that all the media in Australia had (21 April), myself included, and no doubt elsewhere internationally. Sure enough, upon getting home reviews of the new Star Trek movie were here, there and everywhere, they were of course uniformly gushing – hardly surprising giving the events of the evening and the likely audience of hardcore Trekkies. Opening my email this morning, heading off my objections at the pass was an email from head of publicity for Paramount in Australia stating: “Overnight, a review has been published in the US, without our prior knowledge. Given this, we have argued that it would be unfair to hold Australian media to the embargo. We have been advised that the review embargo has now been lifted.”

Having already had fingers pointed at me about my issues with this on Twitter I think it’s necessary to reiterate that the Opera House event was stunning, I went there with tickets given to me by my editor (I wasn’t actually invited personally I’m sorry to say), and it was my first time at Sydney’s world famous venue. However, I must confess that knowing it had already screened in Austin took a little magic out of the event for me. I’m a complete romantic at heart, one though with a strong streak of cynicism. Maybe I’m missing the point, but for me the world premiere – which is the first time a film screens publicly – took place in Austin. And in a way it does bother me that tickets were sold to people for the world premiere in Australia at $100 a pop and that people flew around the world to see it under that impression. Cynical indeed, but perhaps not as cynical as being in the Opera House having the film introduced as the world premiere after it screened to a public audience five hours earlier, which (call me a spoil-sport) is misleading at best and false advertising at worst.

Now, once again, let me say that I love that Paramount did this and I’m jealous like crazy I wasn’t there – though that is as much my heart yearning to move back to Austin as it is my opinions on the semantics of what makes a ‘world premiere’. Don’t know how much flak I’ll catch for this, but I suppose after so much hard work I kinda feel like Paramount Australia got the carpet pulled out from under them, whether or not it’s something they give a damn about having had all the talent over to start their world tour and a massively expensive red carpet affair at the Opera House.

To say a little more on the Opera House experience itself: there was an almost ethereal quality to seeing Star Trek in this most iconic of performing arts venue. First of all the shell roof evokes the Starfleet insignia which is a wonderful coincidence only enhanced by the projected lights everywhere of famous symbol. Having walked more than my fair share of red carpet in London’s Leicester Square I can confirm that the Opera House wins on length, width and steps. All of which added to the epic feel of the experience. Inside the reception hall glass windows frame the view of the Harbour Bridge, perhaps the visual cousin of the Golden Gate Bridge as featured in Star Trek by Starfleet HQ (which I think is so appropriately located in San Francisco, I mean of course it is at the centre of the high-tech corridor and American liberalism – though Star Trek is less liberal than it may seem, and more a example of liberal-imperialism), and night cityscape of Sydney and the habour itself which certainly inspires in its combination of the majesty of human technological ingenuity and the beauty of the natural world. Inside those wonderful expressionist corridors are vast concrete walls that look as though they belong in the Vulcan high council chambers, lacking only great statuettes of legends passed.

Okay, I kinda feel like I’m digressing badly into stuff no-one wants to read especially as I don’t have pictures. Allow me to lastly say this of the Concert Hall, getting the acoustics right took an unbelievable amount of work and boy did those guys succeed. From where I was sat in the lower hall, just below the cast and studio folks, the sounds of the movie was incredible (just remembered that I actually got swiped by a metal detector on the way in, which was new). Despite the huge ceiling and issues with echoing they have there the crew did a remarkable job of turning the Concert Hall into a movie theatre. The sound effects of explosions (yes, explosions in space) ripped through my body, phasers fizzled in my ears, and submarine pings echoed in my mind. Perhaps the biggest thrill though was hearing Michael Giacchino wonderful score, occasionally riffing off the original series music, boom out its epic orchestral tones inside this traditional musical coliseum.

And then there was the movie. Let me first say, depending on time allowance, this may or may not be my final review. I would like to offer you a few reactions having seen the film twice now, but considering this post cover the Opera House premiere it’s a time sensitive situation.

J.J. Abrams has broken the curse of the odd-numbered Star Trek movies and in the process made a film that I think ranks up there with First Contact as the next best Trek movie after Wrath Of Kahn. As a reboot it succeeds in arguably all it’s goals whilst never losing grasp of what made the series so beloved by so many over several generations. And as a piece of entertainment Abrams has delivered a movie that is every bit the popcorn, joyride spectacular demanded by audiences to achieve true blockbuster status.

From the moment we see the opening salvo involving the USS Kelvin and a massive rogue Romulan mining ship with a captain hell bend on revenge, Trek kicks into the high gears going from space battles to bar brawls to atmospheric sky dives to transporter trickery with dizzying ease. Abrams has certainly reached for a ‘roidy, warp injection of a movie after the at times lacklustre, dreary and formulaic formality of much of the series and in the process he has almost entirely reset the clock on Star Trek mythology.

Remember those humous Star Trek: 90210 comments a couple of months back? Forget about them. Abrams greatest success is the one that could so easily have been his greatest failure. Against all the odds really the director has managed to assemble a young cast of icon stand ins almost uniformly filling the shoes of the original Kirk, Spock, Bones, Ohura, Chekov, Scotty and Sulu in what could easily have been called Star Trek: Origins. Firstly the not so convincing: John Cho never quite convinces as Sulu, but then he’s really not given very much material in order to establish a character who was always on the periphery. It might be that knowing this Orci and Kurtzman decided not to spend much time with the Trek universe’s sole Asian-American representative. That said, Cho gets to show off his action chops and Sulu’s fencing skills even if the production team seems to have mistaken a rapier for a samurai sword.

The second misfire for me is Simon Pegg as Scotty. Being a Scotsman myself, James Doohan was always my favourite character on the show (I’ll never forget him trying to talk to the computer then through the mouse in Voyage Home, hilarious) and it just felt as though of all the actors Pegg was the one trying too hard. The accent isn’t really on the money and in the early scenes he’s given some peculiar alien umpaa lumpaa as a comedy sidekick that just doesn’t work.

Walter Koenig’s Chekov was of course another favourite for sheer comedy value and Anton Yelchin has a lot of fun swapping his ‘v’s with his ‘w’s. He has that look of innocent awe that I remember from Koenig accompanied by great comic timing. The other supporting success comes from Zoe Saldana as Ohura, she is never anything less than convincing as a strong natural foil for Pine’s Kirk. I didn’t know much (anything?) about Saldana prior to this but I’ll certainly be looking out in future – Hollywood could certainly do with hiring more talented young African-American actress because off the top of my head I can’t think of a single one featuring prominently in a film this year or of any significant names from last year.

Finally there is the trifecta of Kirk, Spock and Bones, the hardest and most important roles to fill. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all three are home runs, but I would be hard pressed to think of anyone better than messers Pine, Quinto and Urban. I think of all three it is Urban’s realisation of Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy that is the big winner here. From the moment McCoy sits down next to Kirk and threatens to puke on him as the disgruntled doctor expresses his dislike of technology before revealing his nickname's origin, Urban owns the cantankerous curmudgeon who would go on to be the third wheel in Kirk-Spock’s beautiful friendship.

Speaking of which, Pine and Quinto play off each other so well as Kirk and Spock in this changed universe. Pine is a youthful and damaged Kirk whose swagger veers closer to youthful arrogance and masochistic appetite to rebel. He is off course a Kirk whose father dies at the beginning of the movie as the Trek timeline is altered, robbing him of a guiding influence into Starfleet where he would famously pass the Kobayashi Maru test of the unwinnable situation. Pine’s Kirk retains the magnetic charisma of William Shatner whilst avoiding follies such as attempting to emulate his speech patterns. The physicality is there though and don’t doubt for a second the moment he slouches in that captains chair is anything less than a geek-thrill.

Quinto probably has the hardest job of all, not only attempting to take on Leonard Nimoy’s mantle, but doing so in a film which the great man appears as, well, Spock. Given Spock’s physical manner and logic-obsessed character it’s near impossible to completely avoid a high level of imitation in this role, but Quinto manages to convey those classic Spock traits whilst also inserting a real sense of conflict, of internal growing pains of a man who is has not yet come to terms with his human-vulcan lineage. Quinto does really solid work realising those little mannerisms and excellent job of sparring with Kirk.

Outside of the central cast the movies most underwhelming element is Eric Bana’s Nero who is never drawn out in a fashion that is discerning to a three-dimensional character. Some exposition explains his motivations for revenge, even though they’re not entirely logical and kind of extreme under the circumstances. The reasons for his anger are understandable, but his apportioning of blame not so much. He never really seems like a man on the edge of madness or someone who is ever close to Kirk’s equal (miles from the adversarial level of say Kahn or the Borg). Sure he’s got a massive, technologically advanced ship that is otherwise an outrageously formidable opponent – but is all brawn and no brain, a combination that’s never quite as satisfying. We know Kirk can take a beating, that he can brawl with the best of them, it’s when he uses his brilliant tactical instincts and creativity that we get excited. As such the film's climax is basically pretty muted, and in a way so is Kirk’ s elevation to captain – more the result of collective conspiring than divine destiny.

I hate that this reads entirely like a blogger review, but this really is a bit of an after thought on my post regarding the film’s premiere. I could go on to talk about the stunning CGI on display here (which is nothing short of jaw-dropping), or Abrams’ obsession with lens flare (which is constant), and his vision of the sci-fi future (which is truly aspirational), but I’ll save all that for something a little more formal as a review closer to the release date. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I really liked the red carpet premiere a lot, but my love remains with the Alamo Drafthouse. Congratulations on the Star Trek world premiere coup.

Star Trek is released worldwide 7 May, 2009


ms_monk said...

i cannot think of a more appropriate quintessentially perfect environment for a world premiere for star trek. too bad it was fake.

i agree with your stance & if there was going to be a bridesmaid that ran off with the groom the alamo drafthouse is certainly a most worthy contender with probably the most theatre cred on the international block. but a 2nd choice for this event it surely was.

this momentous event should have belonged to utzon's inimitable interscape & the hardworking team who transformed it into a transgalactic dome for just one night.

Daniel Crichton-Rouse said...

Don't worry about this being a "blogger review", I think you've written an amazing account of what was a spectacular night. While Alamo may have been a lot more fun in spirit and spontaneous (compared to the staid formalism of Sydney's event) seeing Star Trek at the Opera House was an experience in itself.

(Note: You did forget to mention how awesome it was to hear Beastie Boys blaring out across the Opera House's speakers.)

If the US branch of Paramount planned the whole thing, they did so brilliantly (for them). After all, what has the world of cinema been talking about today? Star Trek. Whether it's by reviewing the film or by talking about Alamo's scoop. Win, win after all.

I agree with you about the misleading title of 'World Premiere' being attributed to Sydney, but at the end of the day we all got to see the film, we got to see Abrams' quick-witted response to Fangirl and Bana step up to deliver the opening line of the national anthem.

I do have one qualm: where was the complimentary drinks? It's not like you can't find an alcohol sponsor willing to fork out, say, 1,000 bottles of beer and 1,000 glasses of champagne at a so-called 'World Premiere' of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Anyway, my comments almost as long as your post.

Cibbuano said...

hey, great review... I never thought about the Opera House being reminiscent of the starfleet uniforms.

I agree with you about the underwhelming aspects: Simon Pegg and Eric Bana never really seem to get going. And Pegg's accent struck me as being a little fake - but I wasn't sure!

That being said, I thought Pegg had the right face for Scotty... if he had dialed down the accent a bit...

You know what I liked? The little touches that would not have appeared in the original, but Abrams took the time to put in. Like little drops of frosting. I'll write more about this.

Unknown said...

What a great chronicle of the whole saga!

I think all your points are valid - and I do wonder how Paramount Australia is feeling behind closed doors. But what a coup for you to be right in the thick of it when news of the 'real' premier was announced!

Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts - be they formal or informal. I wonder if stunts like this are the way of the future for global film distribution?

Unknown said...

BTW for more Zoe Saldana, grab your ballet shoes and check out Center Stage (go on, you know you want to). Otherwise you can suffer through Britney Spears in Crossroads, or Saldana's pretty small role in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.

Sounds like she's due a real role.