Pain and Gain

Well, that was painful.

I made the mistake of going to see Star Trek Beyond a few days ago. My brain still hurts.

Yes, a couple of movie mini-reviews. Since the movies are still in theaters, please be aware that spoilers lurk below.

Don’t think I–a Star Trek fan since the mid-seventies–am dissing the reboot for being a reboot. I liked the first reboot film and enjoyed the second one despite its problems.

No, my objection to Star Trek Beyond has nothing to do with its place in the canon. Pure and simple, it just didn’t work dramatically.

I’m not even talking about the extended sequences in which shaky-cam was combined with dark rooms and loud music in a futile attempt to build tension*.

* Seriously, folks, that doesn’t work. It’s never worked. Why do you keep trying? And in this case, those sequences were so long and unproductive, I kept expecting somebody onscreen to stop, look around, and say “You know? This is stupid. Can’t we just turn on a damn light?”

What I’m talking about are the plethora of plot threads that lead nowhere, the logical gaps, and the abuse of coincidence.

Consider, for example, the first scene of the movie. Kirk is trying to broker a peace treaty between a couple of races of aliens, at least one of which obviously has no interest in peace. OK, nice idea for a movie. Lots of room for action and thoughtful discussion, with a goal that emphasizes the Federation’s peaceful intentions.

What happens? Kirk’s efforts come across as hugely half-assed and the negotiation fails within a couple of minutes. End of scene, neither of the contesting races appears in the film again, and to top it off, instead of returning the artifact that was at the center of the peace proposal to its owners, Kirk confiscates it for the Federation! And then he compounds the offense by keeping it on the Enterprise instead of turning it over to whichever archival organization is supposed to hold onto the damn thing. (Hint: starships exploring the unknown are not safe places to keep unique, possibly dangerous, objects.)

If the writers–and IMDB lists five of them, not counting the obligatory credit to Gene Roddenberry–couldn’t think of a way to use those aliens later in the film, why even bother to include them? Just to get the artifact into Kirk’s hands and give him a chance to demonstrate how burned out he is?

Fine, then. Skip the aliens, let the Enterprise find the artifact in open space, and give Kirk the chance to bitch about how bored he is with scooping up relics of vanished civilizations.

I could go on–if you’re heading into unknown space where your detectors don’t work well and where rocks are bouncing off of your hull, why don’t you put your shields up, rather than waiting until the hostile force appears and starts shooting at you? If the villain has weapons that can overpower the Federation’s newest, most powerful ship, why does he need the Federation’s “advanced technology” to conquer them?–but it would be too depressing.

My advice: accept that the whole movie is just as bad as the opening, skip it, and go see Sausage Party instead.

No, I’m not joking. Yes, Sausage Party is rude, crude, and juvenile. It’s also funny, beginning to end, and the writing is, within the limits of the movie’s universe, consistent and coherent.

OK, I exaggerate a little. The last scene is an uncomfortably tacked-on epilogue that’s either a sign of a unnecessary sequel or a failed attempt to parody unnecessary sequelitis. Even within it’s context, the script overuses the F-word. And the film uses the obnoxious “the ugly guy can only find happiness with the ugly girl” trope.

But despite those failings, the story works on a “gang of misfits sets out to save the world” level, as a parody of that genre, and as a loose framework to support a collection of jokes.

And ideas don’t get dropped. Recurring jokes not only recur, but in at least one case a character indulges in meta-humor, commenting on one of the major running jokes. AliensJokes introduced early in the film are brought back in new forms later on.

Despite what some reviews have suggested, Sausage Party isn’t all that deep, philosophically-speaking. But it’s an enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half, unlike Star Trek Beyond, which simply steals two hours of your life and refuses to give them back.

Time Machine: 1977

Blame this post, aka “wallow in nostalgia,” on John Scalzi. As a time/space filler today, he asked his readers to document their favorite piece of media at age 12.

I had an instant answer to that: “Star Wars”. As I mentioned in the first post on this blog, I was part of the horde of obsessed Star Wars fanboys. And when I say “obsessed”, I mean seriously – to the point where I demanded visits to Burger King in order to get the series of Star Wars posters they had as giveaways. (Mine has never been a fast food oriented family, so going to Burger King was a significant deviation.) I’m pretty sure I’ve still got at least some of them, tucked away in one of the boxes of wall decorations that I don’t have wall space for.

But having answered the question, I started to think that there was probably more going on that year. Obsession or no, I couldn’t imagine I spent all of my free time on Star Wars. I started taking a walk around the Web looking at what else was going on in 1977, and there was a heck of a lot. Join me in a ramble through my memories please.

One of my ongoing media obsessions was the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. For several years, I listened to it most nights, and recorded a number of shows on a cheap cassette recorder sitting next to my radio. CBSRMT ran from 1974 until 1982 – just shy of 1400 episodes. Shows varied wildly in subject and quality, but had such wide appeal that there is still a core of fans devoted to locating and digitizing the episodes. I didn’t follow the full run, having come to it late, but since my favorite episode, “The Forgetful Ghost” aired in January of 1978, it’s virtually certain that I was listening to the show in 1977.

The first part of the year was marked by a couple of space-related items. The prototype Space Shuttle (named “Enterprise” in homage to Star Trek) was unveiled in late 1976 and I followed the progress of testing eagerly. In March, the rings of Uranus were discovered. Finding out that Saturn’s rings were unique only in their size and complexity was a huge shock to the world (or at least that part of it that paid any attention to astronomy). Lots of beautiful pictures.

1977 was the Seattle Mariners’ first season. I probably didn’t go to as many games as my memory suggests, but I know I went to several. I suspect that some of those Burger King visits were on the way to or from ball games. I do know the Mariners took a lot of my attention through April and May (Star Wars was released at the end of May).

August brought the so-called “Wow! Signal”. The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project monitors radio signals from space looking for intelligent transmissions. The Wow! signal met many of the criteria SETI was watching for, and the initial reports, at least in the popular press, was that it was a signal from aliens. The fact that it was of short duration and has never been seen again casts significant doubt on that belief, but at the time it was a big deal to the space-obsessed, especially coming as it did against the background of the ongoing Enterprise Shuttle tests and just before the launch of Voyager 1 on its way to study the outer reaches of the Solar System. The Voyager probes, by the way, carry a message to any aliens who might stumble across them in the form of special gold-plated copper phonograph records with nature sounds, speeches, and music.

A rather more popular record was the soundtrack from “Saturday Night Fever”, which was released in November. Popular culture “Religious Wars” didn’t begin with Mac vs PC, Emacs vs vi, or even Star Wars vs Star Trek; the rock vs disco struggle was probably the most vicious during my teenage years. Disco fans were thrilled with the SNF. Rock fans were horrified. I was largely neutral, as I listened to more Swing-era music than anything else at the time; massive overexposure of SNF and the Bee Gees however, inclined me towards the rock side of the battle lines.

If memory serves, the first LPs I owned were Christmas gifts in 1978: Jeff Wayne’s musical version of “War of the Worlds” and – wait for it – the “Star Wars” soundtrack.

1977 clearly shaped a large part of my life with major baseball, space, and science fiction influences. Thanks for the reminder, John!