Monday, November 30, 2009

Nominate, And Choose, J.J. Abrams' “Star Trek” for Best Picture

By Lars Trodson

The Academy Awards situation is rapidly and predictably reaching what we will call the “Dark Knight Dilemma.” The dilemma can be described this way: how does the Academy recognize the most popular films of the year even if the top movie critics in the country disagree mightily with the public.

“The Dark Knight”, of course, is the Batman sequel that broke box office records two years ago but was generally shut out at awards time (Heath Ledger notwithstanding). The low-grossing and utterly laughable “No Country For Old Men” won the big awards that year, a decision that history will no doubt regard in the same vein as rewarding “Forrest Gump”, “Chariots of Fire” and “Shakespeare In Love.” The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences knows that it has to start finding a way to recognize those films that make $300 million at the box office but are generally realized to be lacking in the artistic department.
The attempt to bridge the gap between box office and critical acclaim was apparently behind the decision to expand the Best Picture category from five nominees to 10. (This was the way it was done decades ago.) That way the big grossing pictures could sit alongside the smaller, critically acclaimed movies that few people got to see.

But I doubt, for a second, that a nomination for, say, “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” is going to change anyone’s mind about the acuity of the Academy voters’ minds if the movie doesn’t actually win a big award.

The Academy also chose to expand its list in a year when the gap between the popular and the critical is wider than ever.

There is, delightfully, a terrific bridge between both critical acclaim and popular acceptance in J.J. Abrams’ adaptation of “Star Trek.” This is a beautifully made film - classically structured, wittily (and knowingly written) and lovingly performed. There is much warranted skepticism about modern Hollywood - does anyone know what they are doing? Well, the answer, in the case of “Star Trek” at least, is yes, there are some people who know what they are doing.

I have been utterly non-committal when it comes to the "Star Trek" TV series - any of them. They've never mattered to me. I did, however, get hooked on the big screen versions when director Robert Wise visited the campus of Muhlenberg College, where I went to school, and showed some early footage of the original "Star Trek" adaptation back in 1980. Then I was hooked on the big screen adventures.

And the 2009 version I watched twice in a row. Abrams and his crew did a fascinating job bridging a recognizable 21st century world with its 24th century counterpart. The massive, smog-blurred edifices seen in the background of the flat Iowa landscape where a young James T. Kirk grew up was a brilliant touch. The Romulan spaceship, which defies conventional design technique, invites mystery.

The script, by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, may or not be faithful to the origins of the “Star Trek” myth, I suspect that it is, but it isn’t bogged down with convention. The script feels light on its feet, even while echoing the time-traveling conundrum of the Robert Wise “Star Trek” of 1980 and referencing a famous “Saturday Night Live” one-liner about Spock’s frame of mind.

It is a particularly happy coincidence that actors Zachary Quinto (Spock) and Chris Pine (Kirk) have managed to make both their characters more human than their antecedents. And while I could have used less of the let’s-laugh-at-the-Russian’s-funny-accent characterization of Chekhov (Anton Yelchin), Karl Urban’s portrayal of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy was recognizable without being reverential. It was good that Abrams and the actors felt a little free to breathe life into the icons without leaving them behind completely.

This movie captivated me. If it was nominated, and won, the Oscar for Best Picture, it would also be a chance for the industry to recognize that franchise films, which comprise so much of Hollywood’s income, are not necessarily a ugly thing art-wise.

According to, the top grossing films of 2009, as of Nov. 29, were: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince”, “Up”, “The Hangover”, “Star Trek”, “The Twilight Saga: New Moon”, “Monsters Vs. Aliens”, “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs”, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, “Night at the Smithsonian: Battle of the Museum”, “The Proposal”, and “Fast and Furious.”

Eight of those 12 films are remakes or sequels, so Hollywood has no choice but to get better at them. The world may not tolerate awful third versions of “Pirates of the Carribean” or “Spider-Man” or “Beverly Hills Cop” or “Back to the Future” (never mind the second installment of those franchises), much longer. You can only fool the public so often.

It will also do the Academy no good if it nominates and rewards a film like “The Road” (I haven’t seen it) for Best Picture if it grosses a total of $38 million at the end of its run. That kind of move will further diminish the Academy’s place in popular culture.

J.J, Abrams’ “Star Trek” sets the sequel/reboot/franchise bar very high. It boasts new-age effects and old-school craftsmanship, and is, in its own way, a perfect bridge between the past and the future; a link between the business as it was and as an art form of the future.

And if any of you think that nominating -- and awarding -- such a film as “Star Trek” as Best Picture is unworthy, then I recommend the following Best Picture winners for your viewing pleasure: “The Great Zeigfeld”, “American Beauty”, “Amadeus”, “Around the World In 80 Days”, “Braveheart”, “Chicago”, “Driving Miss Daisy”, “Cavalcade”, “Going My Way”, “Gandhi”, “The Greatest Show On Earth”, “The Last Emperor”, “Out of Africa”, “The Sound of Music” and the aforementioned Worst Best Picture Winner Ever, “Forrest Gump.”

Good luck making the argument that this new “Star Trek” doesn’t hold up.