Friday, 13 March 2015

Opening My Doom-Wings Takes A While

V The Final Frontier

Shatner is directing and the budget has been cut.

It's super short, only five minutes long. It manages to pack and lot of dumb in for its five minutes. The blue space house makes a return with a scotty voice over to introduce the new Enterprise. The little diddy shuttles make a return and they are somewhat awful, buzzing around like shitty little bees.

None of the methods used by previous directors to trick us into believing in the size and mass of the Enterprise are in use now. The lighting is bland, the ship is rarely seen from any interesting or unusual angles, the camera is not interested in her either as an object or as a character. The intro shots have all the dull familiarity of a sitcom scene opening with an exterior of an office building for a bit set in an office. Clearly the script said 'EXT. THE ENTERPRISE HANGS IN SPACE' and thats all it fucking said because thats all they fucking shot.

Last time the Klingons turned up they had a bad guy scene where they blew up a ship made from the gribblies from the model makers buckets. This time they seem to blow up the voyager space probe, considering that the film had budget problems its slightly embarrassing that Shatner spent money on what is, literally, a cheap shot against the first film.

The Voyager space probe makes a little Star Wars style 'sad robot' sound as it get blown up, which sets the emotional tone quite nicely, or accurately anyway.

There it another embarresing scene where a diddly shuttle about to be blown up escapes by suddenly moving superquick, something we have not seen shuttles do so far. It crashes into the landing bay set which looks as if the people building it didn't quite get it finished before the scene.

There is more of the landing bay. The Enterprise feels more like a special effect than she ever has before. There is one scene with a blue space curtain where she simply moves wrong, like an Enterprise cursor being moved against a screen.

Eventually we reach a kind of lava lamp planet wich looks momenarily beautiful. its the only good thing in the film. Klingons shoot god. End.

VI The Undiscovered Country

"After three years I've concluded my first assignment as master of this vessel, cataloging gaseous planetary anomalies in beta quadrant." Sulu made captain and they gave him a shit detail for three years I mean good god.

ok we have a bit more dynamism with the camera here. We approach Space House from below with a shuttle, which is nice.

The lighting and Enterprise shots are slightly better than last time, which isn't saying much.

An old-school bird of prey shows up, we haven't seen those since TMP.

Ahhhh, here we have the in-ship view-screen shot. A shot I think I will come to hate. the camera doesn't place us in the ships bridge, then turn to the view screen as if it were part of the natural scenery, instead it locks us in a static shot facing the view screen, a screen which itself shows only one view, that going directly forward. This is a terrible shot, its like having a scene in a film where you watch someones television in their house, the camera sits in front of the television and doesn't turn. But the television is only showing things directly behind the television. Its like a reality inside a reality and possibly there are cool ways to do that but this film doesn't use them.

Because camerawork and direction essentially creates space and time within the film and because space combat is essentially about space and time, the worse the direction is the more fucking stupid the choices made in space combat are.

Parts of this are not that awful. Space is shadowed again, the Enterprise swoops past the camera so fast the camera has to turn quickly to keep up and loses sight for a second.

We have the pov of a Klingon viewscreen for the first time, and from inside Sulu's ship. Now we can actually see crew members and captains looking at the same screen we are looking at.

A slight resurgence before the end for the TOS crew.


A very short 'glory' shot of the new Enterprise. The spot lamps, shadows and skating-past of gantries has returned.

Computers can't simulate weird things in space as well as some ink in a tank, at least not by the time this film was made. The loopy 70's lava lamp space-things from TMP and FF both seemed more real than this CGI space thread.

And we are back with the view screen shots.

The camera is actually moving boldly here, it clings to the hull, allows the ship to drift partly out of shot to indicate size and loss of control. Shadows have been attempted. Yet this still feels like TV. Why does it feel like TV? Is it the strange glimmering of CGI? Yet I am pretty sure that a model is being used.

Slow camera pans treating the ships mass as a landscape and showing azteking and ship damage allowing us to actually see inside the structure with little people there to show scale. These are all good ideas yet, for some reason, I'm not feeling it.

I wish I could explain this more clearly. Perhaps it is the ease with which ships are thrown around the screen, the lightness with which they move. Perhaps some barely-perceptible shift in detail in the move from models to CGI, or the combination of CGI with models. If you just write down what happens in this film, and the techniques and shots used I would be impressed, but nothing feels dramatic. The mass is gone.

I wrote these posts to try to explain things like this but I can't quite explain the loss of feeling in this film. It is a more subtle thing than I first supposed.

First Contact

Picard locked in an infinitely regressing Borg nightmare shown in one shot is something you can only really do with CGI and is conceptually the exact opposite of the V'ger scenes from TMP, in those you are endlessly going into something alien and its dangerous but beautiful. In this you are already trapped there and its endless and consuming. And this is an opening shot I think. So thats good, it shows Frakes is wrestling with the technology, making it do things instead of being lead by it.

This is really a surprisingly good film for Frakes. I keep thinkin 'Johnathan Frakes directed this?'

There is dust in space now and someone has jammed some shots from hubble in the background so its not just stars.

The opening shot for the new enterprise isn't set in space dock but other than that it uses all the classic lighting tricks. There are spot lights from the ship itself, an outside  light source, not vague and polarised, but casting a specific gleam on one section of the ship, pushing the rest into shadow, in the darkness of the shadows the ships widow lights highlight the shape. This means the same mass is created in the eye in two different ways for the same object depending on how dark it is, either as a solid thing, lit from without, or as a 'filled' or 'full' but perforated object with light inside that leaks through. The combination of the two sensations, at once, as an organic whole is very powerful. The ship is moving and turning and the shadow is moving across it. The Enterprise is darker here than I have ever seen it before, almost charcoal grey.

This still feel a bit like TV but it feels like really good TV.

Whatever they are doing to create a sense of structure in the surface of the ship it doesn't quite work, it looks like a render over a 3d frame. Like a very fancy sheet stretched tight over a tent.

The Borg cube might look cool as fuck but it doesn't have James Horner trumpets to remind you that its cool like the Klingons did, and a conventional orchestral signature really doesn't suit the borg. They should have banged in some Aphex Twin.

In the big fight we have more starfleet ships on screen together than ever before, clustering around the borg cube like flies. White on black. The view screen shots almost work well here, the battles are 'loud' and the in-screen shots are 'quiet' which makes them feel sombre and serious.

Seems no one anywhere can make things blow up in space in any way other than the first death star in star wars. Strap it to the ceiling, put the camera underneath pointing up and film it that way, been a classic technique for 20 years by this point.

There are some real bursts of creativity here with the Enterprise seen very far off as if witnessed from the ground, then an elegant camera swoop that turns the ship upside down and shows the little space man figures of the crew walking on it like a white desert, (we are back to the little men from the first few films) then cuts to their point of view in which the hull is literally a landscape to be traversed and walked over. Seriously well done to whoever came up with this part.

It starts looking super-cheap almost right away but its still a bravura concept that knits together a lot of scale-creation techniques from previous films in an original new way.

Then Picard has to blind his own ship because symbolism.

The white swarm motif is repeated by a bunch of escaping life pods.

The rest is a curious mix if filmic and televisual styles. I imagine the supreme effort of will it took to make the ST production team produce anything that doesn't look totally like TV was abating at that point.

Television is about getting something very complex done as quickly as possible, with serious time constraints, and using effects and objects that can be re-used in a useful way. Both as in the models and lighting effects, but also the story telling techniques. In a serial show a nice conservative shot that tells a TV audience 'The Enterprise is here' or 'The Enterprise Is Doing This Now' is financially viable and also lessens the cognitive load required to understand and lets the show do other things with the same brain space: you can see where the Enterprise is and have Picard tell you about some difficult negotiations at the same time and easily get both ideas at once because the shot is like a familiar meal.

In film you are trying to take the same structure of effects and almost make it do the opposite thing. You dont need to worry about the audiences attention so much. They paid money already and are sat in front of a huge screen. You have the take the technology and culture of thought and action you used to make the impossible familiar for a TV audience and use it to make the familiar (another alien world, the Enterprise in a dust cloud) strange and beautiful. You want the shot to require cognitive energy. What was a part in a machine must now become a work of art.


Frakes is back, but not the same.

Ohhhhhh first Enterprise shot is PLASTICKY. My god computers hate shadow and depth.

The hubble space backgrounds mean that for the first time our imagined outer space has its own geography and depth, and that is because we actually know more about outer space, which is interesting to think about.

We have Nimoys clouds back a little. Data has a little-man-in-ship shot that doesn't quite work, or at least doesnt really seem to do much.

Shuttles usually go weeee buzzing about near the enterprise to highlight the fact that the big ship is *not* buzzing about. But now the little diddly ships almost have their own show. They are as annoying as they were before but the CGI gleam has made them even more weightless, and there is a lot of them. They also don't interact with the clouds they are in, or with anything until they hit the ground.

Top Gun is all about making you feel the mass and gravity of men in small things going super fast. Star Trek is not. The Star Trek shuttles are big enough for Picard to have a bonding moment with Wesley in, they are stage sets first, not vectors of dramatic motion, they do not feel good moving fast. The most important thing in a Star Trek shuttle is usually not how fast it is going but the conversation people are having inside.

The organic surface of this world as seen from space is more beautiful than any world seen thus far, and actually feels like a planet rather than the representation of a planet.

Oh god there is a super-long ship-unfolding sequence.

Because data is almost always calm as shit the shots from inside his little fighty shuttle, from behind his head look exactly as if he is playing a computer game on a plasma tv.

There is a tiny flash of the old Trek hippie weirdness as a planetary ring is transformed to cloud, Nimoy and Rodenbaerry would both have liked that.

The Enterprise is bigger and meaner and sleeker than ever in this film and never feels like anything other than a toy being waved about by a child. Sometimes a likeable and energetic child, but nonetheless.

And it is now gery enough that it is dark against space, they need to highlight it against a bright nebulae in order to trace its departure, before it was always white against the dark. Sigh. Dad bought a leather jacket.


aaand the azteking is back in the opening shot. It still doesn't look quite right.

Ah crap there is more shuttlecraft dicking around on-planet. There is at least a half-interesting pov shot. But then an awful stunt.

Shuttles crashing, shuttles being too fast, shuttles having little shuttle adventures, all these are bad signs.

The bad guy ship has the same general format as the classic Bird of Prey, but not as elegantly made. They have just made it bigger, blacker and  more angular. The Enterprise is bigger than a motherfucker now so to be correctly scary the bad guy ship has to be super super big.

It does appear quite neatly with its wing bisecting a planets curve. The death ship has a head-on profile like a friendly woodlouse and some nice ocean-view windows running down its side.

Oh god there is a diddly little ship-INSIDE-ship escape scene. Its more like a computer game than anything has been so far. Why did you put a handy cathedral escape window on your super-black death ship?

A load of vaguely lit, super-light mega ships wail on each other for ages in green space with zap guns. The super weapons of the future feel like they do nothing at all. They boy with his toys has invited friends to play. Its like watching giant wrestlers fight by flicking rubber bands at each other whilst racing around on roller blades.

Hey a guy gets sucked out into space! Thats a first!

The viewscreen shot has now been replaced by a shot through the hull of the ship with a force field providing structure. The tear in the ships hull is exactly the same shape as a viewscreen and the behaviour of the other ship is exactly the way it always is on these situations: perform and almost ritual swingaround and some to a stop directly in front of the Enterprise, facing it dead on, thereby turning the strange dissonance of seeing outside space through a tear in the ships hull into a completely familiar experience.

The Enterprise headbuts they death ship but the death ship was meant to be basically a giant knife and you are not meant to headbut a knife.

For some reason the soft round enterprise has a more powerful superstructure than the black bladelike ship built for WHHAAAARRRRR. Its like watching a hipster with an iphone punch out a squaddie with one blow, you can't quite believe it happened.

This does show massive in-ship damage in a way unlike any other Trek film has, the ship has giant internal spaces that are crushed and there are little alien dudes in the big spaces to give scale to the immensity of the action. Its a brave stab but doesn't quite work, its probably the most interesting shot in the film though.

At 8.36 the death ship starts opening its doom wings, from now until 9.46 when it explodes there are about (I think) 16 separate shots of it JUST OPENING ITS SUPER WEAPON. Thats not the time it takes in the actual film, thats just the effects shots showing the endless unfolding. Roughly one minute and ten seconds

From the blue beautiful self-indulgent 70s mystical V'ger to the clenched, grey-black desperate-to-be-cool CGI of Shinzons hateship, it seems fitting that we end where we began: watching a physical thing unfold for fucking ages.

(We finally end the film with a too-long series of shots of the grey enterprise being greyley repaired in a slightly sad orbital space dock.)

Its hard to kill a dream but they will greyley fade away with the coming of dawn and thats exactly how Star Trek dies in screen, like a dream being forgotten as grey light fills the ceiling and street noise seeps in through the window.


  1. what about the new trek? or do you refuse to acknowledge it?

    1. Well, no-one has done 'ships only' Youtube cuts of the new films so I can't really review them.

  2. A ships only version of the new films would probably improve them.

    1. I think a ships-only review of the new films would be mostly:

      "Aaaaah! Lens-flares! May eyes!!!"


      "When did the Enterprise become a Spitfire strafing the Nazis?"

      Patrick Stuart, a wonderful series, thank you for doing this. :D