Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Star Trek: 10 Lessons About Hollywood Screenwriting
I recently watched J.J. Abrams' reboot of "Star Trek" for the first time on DVD. I had skipped it in theaters, but was well aware of the mainly enthusiastic reviews it received. Recently, Quentin Tarantino named this the best film of the year. Well, let me tell you that watching "Star Trek" was fascinating on some level. You can even say it was educational, so I will attempt to convey to you what I learned.
I want to concentrate on the screenplay which I believe exhibits some of the most cynical tendencies of screenwriting for Hollywood blockbusters today. Here are 10 lessons I took away from "Star Trek" where I attempt to enter the screenwriters' minds to understand their thought process:
1. There Is Never Enough Backstory
When given the task of writing an origin story with iconic characters from an old television show like "Star Trek", we have to start back. Way back. So, I guess we should begin the story when Kirk and Spock have just entered the space academy, right? No, we should start earlier.
Maybe we should begin the story when they're teenagers? Probably not. You can't possibly understand what drives these characters unless you start earlier. Okay, how about this? The first time we see Spock, he's about 12 and getting bullied by other Vulcans for being half-human. Perhaps, they'll give him a Vulcan wedgie which will make you understand why he's so tormented later on. No, too subtle.
But what about Kirk? We see 10-year old Kirk in Iowa driving a car he stole off a cliff, but jumping out just in time. That will convey how reckless he is, which, of course, demonstrates his ability to captain a ship and a crew of hundreds. Now, I see it coming together, but you know what? I think we can start Kirk's story earlier. We need to see Kirk as a baby. Actually, we need to see him coming out of the womb. And, to make this much more dramatic, his mother will give birth to him at the same exact moment his father dies!
Wait a minute! It's not dramatic enough. His father should die a hero, having become captain of a star ship only 10 minutes earlier, but managing to save 800 lives in the process. That will hang over that poor innocent little bastard Kirk's head for the rest of his life, as he tries to live up to the Dad he never knew. If we weren't restricted to a PG-13, we could have seen Kirk's tiny head pop out of his mother's vagina just as that explosion takes out his Dad. You know, the circle of life.
Though I wonder if there's a possibility we could have started earlier. The first scene could have been Kirk's father and mother conceiving him. When we see Kirk's father show his O-Face, you will know that sperm was destined for greatness. (Foreshadowing alert: Foreshadowing destiny will play an important part in Lesson #4.)
2. Who Needs Drama When You Have Nostalgia?
So, we have this famous property that everyone knows about. A great deal of the audience will be comprised of those who are familiar with these characters even if they didn't watch every episode of the series. I mean, this is pretty ingrained in pop culture, isn't it?
Perhaps, we could have just told this story straight without winking to the audience every other minute with an inside-joke reference to the series. But, taking cues from George Lucas and his widely beloved Star Wars prequels, we will make references to stuff that will occur later in the narrative timeline. We want those schooled in the way of Trek to go, "Oh, snap! Reference!"
Sure, it breaks up the narrative flow and some non-Trekkies may not understand the awkward pauses to allow others in the audience to remember stuff that has not happened yet. But, I'm sure these non-Trekkies will understand that the experience is best when you view this movie as if you had dropped in from a time machine.
Who wouldn't want to travel back in time to watch Kirk cheat on the Kobayashi Maru test? You don't know about the Kobayashi Maru? You need to watch "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and then watch J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek", so that when Kirk cheats on the Kobayashi Maru test, you can exclaim, "Ohhh, now, I get it!"
3. I Don't Think These Characters Are Vapid Enough
We could have written a Star Trek movie with weighty themes with characters who clearly had a great deal of life experience. You know, like the various series bearing the Star Trek name. But, that would be too boring. Think of the Starship Enterprise as the newest setting for MTV's "The Real World", except they know how to operate computers. Sure, perhaps Spock acts more like an adult than the others, but every party needs a party pooper. I mean, nobody out there is going to relate to these characters if they're too old. (Note to Producers: We are replacing this cast once they hit their 30's, right?)
It matters more that these people are fun. We wanted to create a Star Trek crew that you would have expected at the last kegger you attended. Couldn't you imagine Kirk and Bones chugging beers while Sulu smokes a bong and Uhura dances topless after a few too many Jagermeisters? Life experience is overrated when running a ship the size of several football fields and having skirmishes with bad guys from the future. Or did those bad guys come from the past? Dude, who cares? Stop thinking! Give me another tequila shot and let's see if Kirk can score with the Hot Green Woman!
4. I Am Destined for Greatness
Even though any person out there knows that James Kirk will become captain of the Starship Enterprise, that will not stop us from reminding you and teasing you that this will happen again and again. I mean, we witnessed this guy's birth like he was the baby Jesus. We should have this older character, who we will call Captain Pike. (Note to Producers: Remember to cast this role with an actor who exudes authority, someone like Bruce Greenwood who previously played John F. Kennedy and actually looks like he could command a ship which will make Kirk assuming his duties look more unbelievable.)
Pike will constantly remind Kirk that he has the ability to live up to his long-dead father, you know, the guy who saved 800 lives in 10 minutes. Not only that, we should somehow have the Future Version of Spock (I know you're confused, but I will explain that later...maybe) meet up with Kirk to tell them he has to find a way to captain the Enterprise or else Future Spock, Future Kirk and Future Everything will go completely to hell. Think of Kirk like he is the main character in "Slumdog Millionaire", except with considerably less financial hardship. For Kirk, It Is Written that he must become captain of the Enterprise. Or, at least, it has been written during the 59 episodes and 6 movie spinoffs of the original "Star Trek" series.
I know full well that ramming this notion into the ground every 5 or so minutes will probably mean the latter sections of the movie will generate little surprise and involvement since even the slowest members of the audience will figure out what will happen. But, like our lord and master George Lucas did with those Star Wars prequels with his epic foreshadowing that Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader, we want audiences to sit in the theater to say, "It's coming. He's going to be captain of the Enterprise soon. I can feel it. I cannot hold back my excitement anymore. Oh my God, it's going to happen! It's going to happen! Holy shit! Kirk is captain! Now, I can breathe easier! Whew!"
5. Make 'Em Laugh!
An easy way to make the audience relate to the main character is to have a joke or two at his expense. So when we have Kirk faking an illness to get on the Enterprise and running around with swollen hands and cotton mouth, we will recognize all the leadership qualities he exhibits to fulfill his destiny. (Remember Lesson #4?)
It is much like the scene at the beginning of "Batman Begins" when Ra's al Ghul, for fun, sticks a "Kick Me" sign on Bruce Wayne's back while his henchmen repeatedly boot the future Batman in the ass, cracking each other up in the process. Wait! There no scene like that in "Batman Begins"?
6. The Plot Went That-Away!
So this Mad Evil Guy comes from the future to try to get some red stuff to exact revenge on some Vulcan Dude who failed to save his planet resulting in the death of his family. In the process, he winds up killing the Heroic Father of the Destined Captain exactly at the same time Destined Captain is born. So, Mad Evil Guy travels back to a different time than at the beginning and puts the Future Version of the Vulcan Dude on a random snowy planet. Then Mad Evil Guy stays in that time to blow up Future Vulcan Dude's planet in front of him and, while he is there, kill the Present Time Version of the Future Vulcan Dude for a double whopper of revenge.
At the same time, the Destined Captain of some ship happens to be banished to the same exact planet by the Present Time Version of the Vulcan dude. Future Vulcan Dude tells the Destined Captain to take command of the ship away from the Present Time Version of Himself to save mankind and thwart the Mad Evil Guy. Older Vulcan Dude also warns the Destined Captain that he cannot tell the Present Time Version of Himself that he exists, a rule that he breaks at the end of the movie by casually showing up and introducing himself to...himself.
So we got a few people traveling back from the future to different times running into different versions of the same people, though not leaving a version of themselves in the time period they originated in. They change the future in many ways, though it would not matter because there doesn't seem to be a future version of themselves. Or maybe there is. Okay, I'm confused, but does it matter?
We are fully aware that "Back to the Future" understands the theories of time travel better, but that kind of logical storytelling complete with relatable characters is too old hat for us.
7. What a Coincidence!
Did I mention that Baby Kirk is born at the same exact moment that his heroic father is killed by the villain who will time travel so that Present Time Kirk will be able to command a ship and take revenge?
Did I mention that the Present Time Kirk is banished to the same exact planet that has Future Spock on it who then lays out the entire third act for Present Time Kirk to complete?
Yes, it is understandable audiences will allow you considerable leeway in terms of credibility for science fiction and the world of Star Trek in all its various presentations, but how the hell are we going to make that overly complicated plot work if characters don't find themselves within the right square foot at the right millisecond?
8. How I Got My Job or Character Motivation (With A Little Help from the Grim Reaper)
Kirk's father should die, so that young Kirk will live forever in his shadow until he becomes Captain Kirk to fulfill his destiny or because everyone kept telling him that was the case. Spock's mother, who looks about 5 years older than him, should die just before he is able to save her, which makes him angry. Kirk can then use the anger Spock feels about his mother to get him to relieve himself of his command.
You would think we would have Kirk would use his alleged smarts to orchestrate Spock losing control. No. We'll have him taunt Spock like a schoolyard bully. I mean, Spock is susceptible to bullying as the scene during his earlier years demonstrates. (See! The backstory in Lesson #1 paid off!) Then, the supposedly cool and calm Spock falls for this transparent attempt to faze him easily and storms off because his poor, whittle feelings get hurt. Yeah, I think that's pretty consistent with his character. But Kirk sits down in the captain's chair, as we all wanted. It Was Written. You can't stop destiny. That's vanity.
Let's see how we can get all the other characters to assume their permanent job positions within a matter of hours. Whoever the nameless and faceless doctor of the Enterprise should get killed offscreen so Bones McCoy can take his place. Uhura replaces the crew member on the deck who is under-qualified understanding foreign languages. I'm surprised we won't have whoever Scotty must have replaced in the transporter room instantaneously combust like the drummer in "This is Spinal Tap". Apparently, Kirk's destiny was not the only one that Is Written. Well, Sulu seems to have gotten his gig through merit, but also seems to have basic problems starting the ship on the first voyage. But, you got to make 'em laugh! Incompetence is funny! (Remember Lesson #5?)
9. Seeking Antagonist; No Interesting Traits Required
Employing Lesson #8, kill off his family and watch him get mad. You may be thinking that one motivation doesn't create an interesting, three-dimensional antagonist, but, uh,...(Note to Producers: Think of Eric Bana for this role. If his previous roles haven't completed stripped away the electrifying presence he showed in "Chopper", this one will seal the deal.)
10. Stick To Your Principles
You know that even moderate Star Trek fans may have thought the various series over the years were about space exploration for furthering the knowledge of mankind. Notions about faith and destiny were not nearly as prevalent as moral quandaries and science. But, that's not exciting enough considering all the money we are spending. So, let's turn these characters into mostly arrogant kids way over their heads who seem more willing to create havoc than try to maintain the peace. A "Star Trek" where, instead of characters being forced to engage in battle, they seem to travel space looking for a fight.
Going against the ideas of the various series, the characters should be worshipped like false idols simply because they are iconic television characters which results in all this stuff about destiny. (Never forget Lesson #4!) If there is a chance we could have ended the film with Kirk and Spock nailed to wooden crosses, we could have. But let's face it. We're not making a movie that is actually about this world. We are selling a product of nostalgia rather than creating a new world with new characters that doesn't have to depend on a brand name to justify its existence.
That's the ultimate lesson to be learned from this. Formulaic Hollywood screenwriting isn't really about the exploration of new ideas and worlds, but repackaging the familiar with a bow tie of cynicism on top. This is why when posing the questions "What is this movie about?" or "What ideas does it have to present?" to myself about this movie, I was at a loss for words.
P.S. I am not a Trekkie, but casually watched some of the various series, mostly "Next Generation", which I enjoyed the most, by far, out of all of them. I also watched more than half of the movies with varying reactions to each of them.