“Shouting Fire” will have you seeing red

I recently saw the new documentary “Shouting Fire: stories from the edge of free speech.”  I must say, it’s well-worth watching.  The film is about the First Amendment and free speech in the United States.  More specifically, it’s about the perceived endangerment of free speech in the US.  It consists of a collection of stories, each revolving around the use and abuse of free speech.  There’s even a Facebook page for people to find out more about the film and engage in discussions.  There is a clearly political tone to the piece: it’s makers seem staunchly in favour of the First Amendment as an inviolate tenet of American life, to be sacrificed for no one and nothing.

You may find yourself at once attracted and repulsed by this documentary.  I certainly was.  The story of  Debbie Almontaser, for instance, is a great example of how a thoughtful, caring person – who happens to be Muslim – was torn to shreds by the mass media.  Although Ms. Almontaser always represented herself thoughtfully and intelligently, she was naive enough to speak in ways that were easily twisted by certain news outlets and anti-Muslim racist groups in the US to appear to suggest exactly the opposite of what she actually meant.  Here is a case of good words, utterly in perhaps the wrong context, or with a lack of appreciation for the peculiarities of certain segments of American culture, becoming bad ones.  Perhaps Ms. Almontaser was too naive.  But it appears quite certain that a significant number of New Yorkers displayed ignorance on a cosmological scale, a streak of malice as wide as the Mississippi River, and a nearly clinical lack of empathy.

The documentary also covers the story of Ward Churchill, who was removed from his post as a Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder for “research misconduct.”  Churchill’s writings are intentionally controversial and inflammatory (check out his titles in Google Scholar).  The man is clearly well-educated and has an excellent grasp of English.  It seems, then, that he intentionally chooses to write and say things that piss people off.

This isn’t what professors do.  Once granted the status of professor, one is expected to uphold a certain code of conduct – at least in matters of intellect.  This code includes, among other things, communicating in the most rational and reasonable way possible.  And communication is a vital characteristic of the professoriate: knowledge is useless if it cannot be communicated, and professors are the keepers of knowledge.  They may be passionate, but they must abide by the centuries old rules of good, meticulous research and its communication.  Time and time again over the centuries it has been shown that those who implement slash-and-burn policies of self-expression, writing, and speaking end up being ignored and, often, proved wrong.

It seems evident that Churchill intentionally abdicated this responsibility.  The question in the Churchill case is: does free speech trump a professor’s responsibilities?  It seemed that the makers of the documentary thought it did.  I disagree.  Churchill was granted the right of free speech as an American citizen.  But he chose to be a professor, knowing full well what the professor’s responsibilities were.  (I refuse to believe anyone would subject themselves to the personal suffering needed to achieve a professorship without knowing what they were getting themselves into.)  No one forced him to be a professor.  He could have gained just as much notoriety and disseminated his ideas just as quickly without being a professor.  His ideas would have been no more praised or vilified without his professorial standing as with it.  Because it was his choice, then he also had to accept the responsibilities that require, not a muzzling of his right to free speech, but rather a choice of language, tone, and vocabulary that is designed to not be inflammatory and intentionally confrontational.  He chose instead to abdicate those responsibilities.  This demeans the professoriate.  To maintain the status of the professoriate and the trust that others should have of it, he just had to go.

These are just two examples of the stories that are covered in this documentary.

You might love it, or you might hate it.  But whatever else, you’ll be glad you watched it.

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Trek is back, baby!

I’ve connected with my inner geek, seen Star Trek XI, and must write about it.  Sorry.  And there be spoilers here.

star-trek-xi-poster-1I saw the newest Star Trek flick on opening day.  Having enjoyed J.J. Abrams recent work – especially Lost and Fringe – I was quite excited to see what he’d do with the most successful SF franchise ever.  While I can see what he was aiming at, I think he didn’t quite hit his target.

The new movie is a complete reboot of the franchise.  The problem with Star Trek is that it has become mired in its own history.  It was just no longer current, its technology was a giant kludge to make up for discrepancies between modern science and what Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, had available to him 40 years ago.  (Perfect example: the Heisenberg Compensator.)  Similarly, the overall tone and shape of the show was burdened by a history, of both characters and backstory, that had become at best prosaic and quaint in light of world events and cultural development of the last 40 years.

Abrams’s take on the show is certainly targeted to a younger crowd, which is fine by me so long as the overall message doesn’t change: the future is good, and we can create it ourselves.  I’m also pretty sure he borrowed this “reboot” trick from Battlestar Galactica.  But where the “re-envisioned” Galactica was a brilliant series based on an absolutely gawd-aweful original, STXI is building on a show that has generally been regarded as above-average in all its sundry incarnations over the years.  And let’s face it, trekkies and trekkers are perhaps a bit more obsessive and certainly more widespread than are fans of the original Galactica.  So Abrams has quite a challenge: refresh the franchise, without pissing off all the loyal fans.

Now, I really have only two criteria for movies:

  1. Do I notice the passage of time during the movie?  This tells me if the movie managed to fish me in.
  2. Do I still feel good about the movie the next morning?  This tells me if, upon reflection, the movie really was as good as it seemed.

STXI certainly meets criterion #1: its 2 hours and 6 minutes passed in an eyeblink.  But it didn’t fair as well on #2.

There’s some very good things in this movie: it’s fun, its funny moments generally hit the mark well, the special effects are grand, and the acting is, surprisingly, mostly superior.

They certainly “fixed” some things that have nagged me about Trek for decades, like doing a far better warp speed effect, and generally toning down the histrionics.  Chris Pine is actually very good as J.T. Kirk; while being careful not to just channel William Shatner, he still let out an occasional glimmer of Shatneresque behaviour – especially in the closing scene.  Zachary Quinto‘s Spock, both in terms of physical appearance and behaviour, is absolutely uncanny.  The chemistry between Pine and Quinto is excellent, and I really look forward to more “teamwork” between them in the next movie.  And Karl Urban is quite possibly more McCoy than DeForrest Kelley was.  John Cho plays Sulu in a quiet way that is very refreshing, and Anton Yelchin plays an exuberant Ensign Chekov with a great Russian accent.  Indeed, all the cast was just fine.

The problem, though, was that the story and script weren’t up to the task of giving the cast what they needed.  The villain of this piece – Eric Bana‘s Captain Nero – was totally underdeveloped.  And without a good villain, Star Trek always stumbles.  Also, Uhura, played by Zoe Saldana, was written too plainly.  In the original show, Uhura was a mysterious exotic.  Abrams’ version is of a rather conventional career-oriented, highly skilled, successful female-in-a-mostly-male setting.  Just not interesting enough.   Simon Pegg‘s Scotty was a bit weird; like he was on speed or something, although he started to get it right by the end of the movie.  Perhaps the greatest disappointment was the role that Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) played.  He seemed to be stuck somewhere between the Chorus in a Greek drama and Shakespeare’s Puck, filling in backstory with mind-meld speed, and occasionally muttering things to no one (except the audience).  Quite frankly, it’s unclear to me why they even bothered with this part – except to get Nimoy involved for the sake of connecting the dots to the original series.  Not only was it unnecessary, but it really didn’t honour the character.

And then there were the things that really burned my toast.  And in keeping with Trek tendency to nitpick, here we go.

First and foremost: the music sucked! The main theme only showed up at the very end – after a very awkward cut in the soundtrack.  The rest of the music may as well have been Musak.  There is, in fact, only one instance of a nearly perfect score for a Star Trek movie: the soundtrack of The Wrath Of Khan.  Written by James Horner, that music combined the original Star Trek theme by Alexander Courage with motifs more typically heard in pirate movies (Roddenberry originally pitched Star Trek as “Horatio Hornblower in Space”) and some of the Klingon-esque electronica from the horrendous Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  It is absolutely brilliant music that enhanced every moment of the movie.

Michael Giacchino’s music for STXI, on the other hand, could have been replaced with whale farts, for all the good they did the movie.

The phasers looked surprisingly good, but sounded more like guns.  Definitely a no-no.  Violence is not supposed to ever be nice in Star Trek (unless it’s a barroom brawl started because someone puts down the Enterprise…).

Uhura took off her uniform to reveal underwear far too frilly to be Federation Regulation stuff.  No need to cater that way to adolescent wankers – learn from the example of Starbuck or #8 from Galactica; hotness without frill.

Couldn’t they find a proper alien-like name for the bad guy?  I mean, “Nero”?  It’s not even appropriate: the real Nero fiddled while Rome burned; the STXI Nero certainly didn’t want to watch as his world was destroyed.

The proportions of the new Enterprise seem off.  The shots of shuttles entering and leaving the Enterprise’s hanger deck suggest the ship is much smaller than it was 40 years ago.  And what’s with the transparent pipes for water circulation?  Clearly, this was just another contrivance to facilitate a goofy plot element.  Not to mention the Enterprise is too white.  Do you know how hard it is to keep white walls clean?  And the controls are too blue.  These are just a popular 21st Century colour palette – rather like websites like Delicious.  Too faddish for me.

I really don’t know what’s to be gained by blowing up Vulcan.  It would have been much more interesting to see what the reboot would have meant for Vulcan’s history too.  There’s a yin-yang-iness to it: the brash, emotional humans and the cool, logical Vulcans.  It would have let writers of future movies (and there’s little doubt that there will be future Star Trek movies) juxtapose the two perspectives much better if Vulcan stayed.

The “drill” on Nero’s ship is just plain wrong. It looked like it hung halfway to the ground from orbit, but was constructed out of junk.  That just won’t do.  It would have to hang from a carbon nanotube cable, or some such suitably futuristic thing.  And why hang the drill halfway down from orbit?  There’s no particular reason physically for this.  Just fire the drilling beam straight from the ship!  And Nero’s ship is never mentioned by name; this is bad because any captain worth his salt loves his ship.  Nero might have been the bad guy, but he was a good captain.  His ship deserved more from him than it got.

The whole notion of falling into a black hole as an easy way to time travel is puerile, even in science fiction.  Since one reason for the “reboot” was to get away from the chitzy quasi-science of the original, why couldn’t the writers come up with something a little more reasonable for triggering the time paradox?

And why didn’t temporal police/agents – who showed up regularly in Deep Space 9 and Enterprise – come back to the past to (try to) fix things?  (Note that Abrams could have avoided these problems by doing a clean reboot instead of pulling in aspects of previous Trek incarnations.)

There was surprisingly little time spent on the Enterprise itself.  When young Kirk stops his motorbike near a construction yard and eyes the half-built starship there, I was sure it was Enterprise.  Yet it turned out Enterprise was already in orbit.  Kirk, we all know, loves the Enterprise.  For him to have been present somehow during her construction would have been a fitting start to their love affair.  There’s only one nice shot of Enterprise – which Kirk, ironically, cannot really appreciate because of a certain condition that McCoy caused – but there should have been more.  It would have been a good “give,” a tip of the hat to the trekkies.

There should have been better “tah-dah” moments, those heroic moments when things go exactly as they should, and still get you to cheer.  There were a few good possibilities, but Abrams blew them all.  One was when Enterprise arrives at Saturn. Another was when Enterprise springs the trap on Nero.  A third was Sulu’s sword fight with the Romulan guards on the drill.  Each of these scenes could have – and should have – been done much better.  Again, it’s not the acting, it’s the shot, the pacing, the music, the choreography.

And Kirk’s mom seems all wrong.  After the death of Kirk’s dad, she remarries someone who is apparently a total asshole.  This makes her seem quite weak.  Which doesn’t make sense, if she was really a member of Starfleet.  Wouldn’t it have been better to have her be a strong single mom?  Or is the strong single mom a cliche these days?  And was the boneheaded stepdad just a cursory explanation for young Jim getting into all sorts of trouble?  Again, it just seems like they didn’t think things through, like they decided what elements they wanted in the movie, and only then figured out a plot that would stitch it all together.  That’s the wrong way to do it, and it shows.

One last thing: the whole story seemed rushed. Early on in the movie, Kirk tells his mentor, Captain Pike, that he’ll finish his studies at Starfleet Academy in three years, one year faster than Pike told him.  It takes about three years to make a movie these days.  So I very rationally figured – and it still makes sense to me – that the first movie would be about his days at the Academy.  The next movie would start at his graduation, at which time Lieutenant Kirk would begin his apprenticeship under Captain Pike aboard Enterprise.  Instead, at the end of the movie – so, basically at his graduation – Kirk is immediately made Captain and given command of the flagship of Starfleet.  That’s like a computer science major being given the CEO’s job at Microsoft ten minutes after graduation.  It just doesn’t make sense.  And even science fiction has to make sense.

Still, and this is the important part, this movie is ‘way better than all the other Trek movies, but one.  The Wrath of Khan remains the perfect Trek movie: lots of action, fantastic music, a great villain, some decent drama, a couple of subtle gags, lots of uncontrived tah-dah moments, unique situations that move the whole Trek lore forward, and, most importantly, no cheats.

So while it’s not perfect, it sure is a step in the right direction.  And with the next Trek movie scheduled for 2011, that’s a good thing.

It may not be perfect, but Trek is back!