Friday, June 05, 2009

Abrams' Star Trek and Raimi's Drag Me to Hell: Genre films with histories

I'm not a Trekkie. At best, I'm a fan of the series, and its ostensible universe, by proxy. I've known some people who grew up with the series, and I've watched it with my own family from time to time, in its various forms... I feel deeply familiar with the characters and settings of The Next Generation, even though I couldn't recount even a single episode. So I was excited for Abrams' reboot of the original Star Trek. At the very least, I was enthusiastic about a robust, immersive universe, placed in the hands of a really talented director.

As a disclaimer, I often find myself on the negative end of debates over this new Star Trek movie. After hearing the initial rush of enthusiasm, I grew some vastly inflated expectations, and I ended up looking for a masterpiece with a coating of mass-market sugar. I spent a week or two after seeing it arguing largely against my own unrealistic expectations for it, and I often heard myself saying, "I mean, it was okay, but I didn't think it was anything special."

I think it's time I stepped back and reframed my experience a little, in the spirit of this blog. If somebody asked me if they should see it, I would tell them they definitely should. I'll take a moment now to tell you why.

It might help (strange as it sounds) that I also saw Sam Raimi's new film, Drag Me to Hell. I'm familiar enough with the Evil Dead series to understand why it's so iconic, and this new addition to Raimi's repertoire got tons of good reviews. Despite my general lack of enthusiasm for horror, I couldn't resist checking it out. Incidentally, although it was in stark contrast with Star Trek, I think the two films shared some particular advantages that made them both popular with their audiences... and made them successful films for other reasons, as well.

The key might be that both films were fashioned for general audiences, but that they also understood and respected their peculiar roots. In fact, almost all of the reviews of Star Trek were about how the film gave the series a fresh face, but still provided enough references and fidelity to the original that it kept its serious fans happy. I rolled my eyes a little when I first saw this... I said to myself, "Demographic pandering doesn't make a movie good. It just helps ward away the complaints." In retrospect, I think I was wrong about that.

Of course, I brought up Raimi's movie because it shared the same quality. The film wasn't a throwback B-movie or a spectacle of kitsch... it had the right camera angles, the production values, and the pacing and continuity necessary to appeal to a 21st-century movie-watcher. It had Justin Long, for Chrissakes, using a Macintosh and being his charming 20-something self.

(as a side-note, this movie could have been a very well-disguised Mac commercial... in a chaotic world of degenerating sanity, crossed wires, and bugs, both literal and metaphorical, the mac guy is the one steady force, offering solace and love when everyone else has gone haywire. Allison is the business woman, trying to be highly functional but ultimately just confused and self-sabotaging, opposite Justin's hip, lovably nerdy demeanor.)

Anyway, despite the postmodern polish, Drag Me to Hell definitely had elements beneath the surface that smelled distinctly of vintage Raimi. Its scares were cheap, sudden flashes and loud noises after long, obvious build-ups, and the film comes out as bad horror that makes a mockery of its viewers. Raimi's horror style dictactes that the movie is self-conscious shock schlock that turns the audience into a comedy show. Indeed, in our theater, the only thing that rivaled the on-screen screams and crashes was the howling of the audience.

Likewise, Star Trek had an obsessive loyalty to its fan-base, a vein of faithfulness beneath its beautiful young stars, its intense CG, and its abundance of saturated color and lens flares. Bones was the perfect casting job, a pinpoint match to his older Original Series self. Chekov may have been reimagined, but he was reimagined as the kind of guy we WANTED him to be as a young man. There was even a joke about Enterprise, that short-lived prequel series starring Scott Bakula. Star Trek was "reimagined" (with the help of some time travel gimmickery), but it was firmly rooted in a universe that my dad knew better than I did. I think it would have stood up to his critique.

So what am I saying? Just that these were good popcorn films with the added bonus of being able to fool the fanboys into enjoying themselves? No, I think I'm saying more than that... it's that any work of art is better (deeply, aesthetically) when it can stand upon a history. I think part of the reason that these are genuinely good films is that they were conscious of their roots, and they integrated those roots into the fabric of the films. It may be crazy, but I think you would have been able to appreciate the histories of these stories even if you weren't remotely familiar with the originals that they reference. I think the foundations that hold up these stories show through the slick modernity of their production, and I think that's the real way to build on a tradition... make it part of the present, rather than just a memory.

That's enough turn of phrase for now. Next time, I go back to talking about old movies again. Peace out.