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Trek on Trek: Demo-Gratification

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009
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Star Trek

Director: J. J. Abrams
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban, John Cho, Winona Ryder, Ben Cross, Simon Pegg

(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 8 May 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 8 May 2009 (General release); 2009)

Review [8.May.2009]

They say it takes all kinds. That’s definitely true of a Summer blockbuster. Movies like The Dark Knight or Transformers don’t just ‘happen’. Their success is not the by-product of niche audiences constantly returning to the box office to reload the coffers. No, a big fat mainstream hit has to cross several demographical boundaries, affecting the committed and casual film fan in more or less the same way. If you can tap into that kind of creative universality, if you can get your movie to resonate with all members of the disposable income crowd (not just teens and college kids), you just might have a major monster on your hands. That’s what every producer is hoping for. It’s what most movies fail to generate. After all, if a success was simple, everyone would be able to make one.


In that regard, SE&L returned to Star Trek this week for a second screening. Our goal - find a few people willing to discuss their investment (or lack thereof) in the classic science fiction series and give us some pre/post opinions. For the most part, the six people questioned (four individuals and one couple) were aware of the franchise. At least two didn’t care about the previous mythology or motion picture entries. Many had not seen the original ‘60s series in many, many years, and at least one admitted that the only reason she was there had more to do with lust than a longing for to see her favorite Federation members up on the big screen. Since it was a press screening - tickets were a hot commodity and several dozen people were turned away when the theater filled up quickly - there was a predisposition in place. But for the most part, the subjects were open and honest.


What’s clear about the concept, outside the movie being shown, is that a blockbuster has to lurch way beyond its fanbase and those who might favor it. It has to tap directly into the sadly conformists mindset of a society that cops to a sheep-like sense of celebration. We don’t want to be left out if something is spectacular, but we also have a tendency to bail when the rest of the citizenry makes a commercial determination. So will J.J. Abrams have a massive hit on his hands, or will his reboot of Star Trek only speak to a certain segment of the movie-going public? Perhaps the following perspectives will clarify its potential popularity.

#1 - Earl and Peggy (older couple, both in early 60s)
Before the screening:
“He wouldn’t let us eat if Star Trek was on,” Peggy said, her now sightless eyes showing the slightest glint of sarcasm. “He’d come home, sit down, and if Trek was on, dinner had to wait.” If you listen to the former military man, someone who survived two terrible tours of duty in Vietnam, Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi social allegory was a reason to hope. “We’ve been married 45 years,” Peggy beams, “and Star Trek has always been a part of our life. I often joke that he loves (it) more than he loves me.” Earl just looks away, smiling. “It is a fine show,” he sighs, before settling back in his seat. “It was filled with wonderful ideas. I hope they don’t screw it up.”


After the screening:
“I was actually crying there for a bit,” Earl offered, his face registering the embarrassment of a generation not used to showing their emotion. “When (Nimoy) showed up, and he told the new Kirk about their friendship, I lost it.” While she was unable to see most of the movie (legally blind, she still has some limited vision left), Peggy concurs, but for different reasons. “I could tell how much he loved it,” she says, grabbing her husband’s arm. “It was everything he hoped for…and more.”


The consensus:
They’ll be seeing it again, sometime after the opening weekend.

#2 - Pauline (early 50s)
Before the screening:
“I’m dreading this,” the well turned out woman said, hands wringing a napkin that came with her popcorn, “I’m all Shatner.” Indeed, as Pauline explains, the reason she loves Star Trek has little to do with its solid stories of space existentialism. Nor does it have anything to do with later incarnations of the franchise. “I couldn’t stand Next Generation,” she confesses, eyes narrowing as if to accent her disavowal. No, for this widowed mother of four, her love of Star Trek revolves around her admitted sexual fascination with the original Captain Kirk. “William Shatner was just so sexy back then,” she murmurs, “it’s easy to see why he got all the girls.” Dragged by her son to see the new film, she appears disgruntled and uncomfortable. “I just don’t buy this new guy,” she asserts, “he can’t beat my Kirk, and that’s that.”


After the screening:
“WOW! That (Chris Pine) is cute!”, Pauline gushes, her face forming what looks like the first hints of a new school girl crush. “The movie itself was amazing, but I never thought they could find someone to play my Kirk as a young man. But they did.” In more candid terms, she expresses a small amount of disdain for the “hyper” filmmaking and editing, and she clearly only cares about one character here. “Everyone else was okay. But my Kirk…”, she drifts off. Reclaiming her thoughts, she adds, “I can see why it would be popular.”


The consensus:
They did a good job”, Peggy states, enthusiastically. “I might see it again.”

#3 - Will (just turned 40)
Before the screening:
“I’m too young to remember the first series,” he shrugs, glasses poised precariously on his slightly puffy face. “I was born in ‘69, and it was cancelled that year, I think.” Will is a typical screener ‘rat’, someone who makes it his goal to see as many free films as he can on the studio dime. “And frankly, I couldn’t care less about Star Trek.” It might seem shocking to hear someone who is about to spend 130 minutes with a movie dismiss it’s subject matter so, but that’s the standard when it comes to these studio-funded freebies. “I come to hang out with my friends (people who also habitually attend press previews), maybe get a prize.” Trek is just not the draw for him. He’s not sheepish about being so mercenary. “Hollywood makes this crap,” he winks, “but I ain’t going to pay for it.”


After the screening:
“Fantastic…just great.” In some ways, his reaction resembles being born again. “Is this what the whole Trek thing has been about? No?” When it’s explained that, for most, the franchise has been faltering and on creative life support for many years, he seems even more excited. “They did a damn good job then.” He cocks his head as if to tell a secret. “If they can get me to care about this, they can get anyone to.”


The consensus:
He’ll be back - and he’s telling his friends to check it out as well.

#4 - Jeri (24 year olds)
Before the screening:
“Why would they revive this thing?” It’s an honest inquiry from a truly perplexed young woman. “I mean, who gives a **** about Star Trek, really?” In several more incomplete thoughts, a clear judgment is formed. “I’ll give it a shot, but I’m not sure it’s my cup of tea, you see?” In many ways, Jerry is Star Trek‘s biggest hurdle. She’s a female unfamiliar with the intricacies of the series who can’t see herself liking something that doesn’t have “lots of funny stuff” in it. She favors the standard RomCom (she “adored” Ghosts of Girlfriends Past), Twilight, and was particularly impressed with the Sex in the City adaptation last summer. “That’s how you make a TV show into a movie” she barks, her voice confirming her obviously cemented opinion. 


After the screening:
“It was actually pretty good, yeah” she offers, her voice not enthusiastic or overly dismissive. “I don’t know why people were clapping at the end. Who claps at a movie? But it was good.” Before she can chat more, her cellphone goes off and she’s instantly involved in a deep personal conversation that has nothing to do with the film she just saw. A wave of the hand and she’s gone.


The consensus:
Glad she saw it for free. Will tell her friends it’s “good”. Is personally looking forward to other films this Summer season.

#5 - Kyle (15 years old)
Before the screening:
“My friends read on the web that this was good, not geeky” the gangly young man states, his demeanor offering the typical teenage disdain. In between looks that suggest he shouldn’t be bothered, the prime example of marketing demographics offers a gloomy prediction for Star Trek‘s success. “It’s an old people’s thing,” he says, shrugging his shoulders as if to doubt his own thoughts. “My dad likes it. So does my uncle.” The look on his face suggests that he thinks that both men are idiots. When pressed, the desire to speak more or less stops. Kyle returns to his seat and starts shooting odd glances at his interviewer. Clearly, he’s never had to think about a movie as much as he did during the three minutes he was required to speak about it. Once it starts, he is instantly lost in the visuals onscreen.


After the screening:
“Cool…cool” is all he will offer. He seems dazed, as if he just exited an intense thrill ride at a theme park and is looking for a place to sit down for a second. It’s hard to tell if it’s the reaction to the film, or the response to seeing some stranger walk up to him and ask for another opinion. He doesn’t look unhappy. In some ways, his reaction can best be described as “breathless.”


The consensus:
Impossible to gauge specifically as he got lost in the crowd and literally disappeared.

It’s hard to say if these five entries are typical. The first screening of Star Trek, which occurred early on a Saturday morning, was barely full. This one was overflowing with people. The reaction the first time was enthusiastic but rather reserved. This time, the audience clapped, cheered, and audibly followed the film every step of the way. As they were leaving the theater, the local studio rep couldn’t keep up with the comments, almost all of them extremely positive. One person even blurted out SE&L critical consensus about the film - “It’s going to be hard for any other film this Summer to top that.” And perhaps the surest sign that a film had made its point? In the parking lot, conversations and discussions a’plenty. People arguing over plot points and character beats. Couples reminiscing about the parts that they thought were the “best”.  So Star Trek certainly has a chance of being a massive mainstream hit. The trajectory from popular to phenomenon however, will have to remain a marketing mystery - at least until the weekend.


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