And so begins the summer of ’09: prequel, prequel. The first of these, opening Friday last, is X-Men Origins: Wolverine, entrusted to director Gavin Hood of little Tsotsi from South Africa. (How much say does a director have, anyway, in fireballs, motorcycle stunts, computer composites, and the like?) It seeks to answer all your questions, assuming you had any, as regards where and when and why the titular superhero got his switchblade knuckles, his leather bolero jacket, his pent-up rage, his blank memory, among other esoterica. Starting back in 1854 (heavy sigh), two mutant brothers, aging up to forty and no further, fight side by side through the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War — “That’s enough!” — and thereafter fight head to head for a run-of-the-mill revenge motive, a slaughtered girlfriend. In the build-up to the main event, the already immortal avenger (Hugh Jackman, oiled, watered, undershirted, shirtless, briefly pantless) is made indestructible for military use — a metalized skeleton — and then targeted for destruction when he refuses to be used. The end, by which is meant the coda after the full scroll of credits, reminds us that if there’s still a megabuck to be made, there’s no end. The style of the film, far from suited to a simple prelude, might be described as apocalyptic hyperbole. It could make you tired in itself, or suicidal at the thought of forthcoming backstories for the rest of the X-Men and -Women.
The next prequel, opening Friday this, is Star Trek, the title of which exhibits extreme cheek, extreme lack of imagination, or extreme amnesia, being the eleventh entry in a series that began in 1979 with a film titled Star Trek. (Don’t give me any colon The Movie.) Once over that, I found this prequel more enjoyable than the other, no doubt in part because I’ve found more enjoyment in the Star Trek series than in the X-Men. Certainly the former series had undergone enough degradation, through depleted story ideas, expanded waistlines, eyelifts, spinoffs, and whatnot, to soothe any fears of sacrilege. Let come what may. The chaotic and incoherent prologue might somewhat smother the emotional punch of the birth of James Tiberius Kirk at the same moment as his father’s death, but the reintroduction of the old familiar characters — the assembly of the changeless crew for the maiden voyage of the U.S.S. Enterprise, with Scotty a late arrival in mid-flight — can’t help but be fun for initiates. Chris Pine’s Kirk, sounding as though modelled on no weightier a prototype than Christian Slater, starts out an obnoxious punk and for my taste fails to advance very far beyond that. Zachary Quinto’s Spock, on the other hand, has some big ears to fill and fills them fully, achieving that elusive goal of undemonstrative intensity. Karl Urban’s snappish Bones (“Are you out of your Vulcan mind?”) is so close in face and voice to the original as to pass for an impersonation, while Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, having delightful trouble articulating his vees, has his own special charm. Sulu and Uhura, in the persons of John Cho and Zoe Saldana, are rather more physical than their predecessors, or anyway more than in my memory of them. And Simon Pegg in the role of Scotty is more an outright comedian than merely comical.
If it’s fair to say that the film, rather than stand on its own, benefits from the groundwork of its forerunners — if it safely and securely goes where others have gone before — it would also be fair to object that the speedy evolution of special effects since the last Star Trek outing, seven years ago, serves to render the “ensuing” adventures anticlimactic. Topping what came before (a petty enough creative impulse in the first place) is in effect topping what came “after.” That may not constitute disrespect, but it constitutes disproportion. All of this amped-up sound and fury could be objected to, as well, without any point of comparison. Director J.J. Abrams’s preference for the rambling Steadicam and the trembling closeup reveals him further to be a man of trend as opposed to a man of tradition. With its gigantic hands-of-Freddy-Krueger enemy spaceship, its Mad Max-y tattooed heathens, and its gratuitous CG monsters, the film is, by the standards of the franchise, skimpy on ideas, apart from a bit of time-travel abracadabra that enables Spock to be two places and two ages at once. Which is to say, enables Leonard Nimoy to play a part.
Out on the fringes: Love n’ Dancing, most reasonably a contraction for Love Not Dancing, is a telegraphed musical romance clean enough and sweatless enough for the Lifetime Channel. Maybe also the Hallmark Channel. A slim, pretty, blond schoolteacher, saddled with a preoccupied, stocky, bald fiancé, finds a new love and a true lover when a hearing-impaired swing dancer visits the school for a motivational speech. Amy Smart looks as if she could have gone far on a season of Dancing with the Stars, but she hardly looks ready after a few weeks’ practice to contend for the national championship in West Coast Swing. (Not the pro-am division, the all-pro.) Neither does her smooth but almost slow-motion partner, Tom Malloy, although the actor’s bio claims he’s a competitive ballroom dancer. The actor, in any event, is additionally the scriptwriter, so if he says they’re in the running, well, then, they’re in the running. The director, Robert Iscove, is not sufficiently clever to cover for them.
Enlighten Up!, a breezy informal documentary by Kate Churchill, sets up a completely artificial situation to document. The filmmaker, a seven-year yoga practitioner, or in other words a bare tyro, wants to test the transformative powers of the practice, picks as a guinea pig a photogenic newbie of the opposite sex (a self-described “godless guy from New York City”), and lays out for him a round-the-globe smorgasbord of yoga disciplines: a healthier sort of Super Size Me. The gathered evidence, we can see right off the bat, is going to be not just anecdotal, but a single, extended, meaningless anecdote. Constantly checking to see whether a transformation is taking place (“I don’t expect any earth-shattering changes,” predicts the skeptical subject) scarcely seems conducive to transformation. And no seeker is likely to find out how far he can progress on a path when he keeps jumping to a new path after every few paces. What Churchill ends up documenting more than anything else is modern American restlessness, her own included. Nevertheless, we vicariously encounter a number of gurus, some of whom are surely the real deal and others of whom are surely not. To watch our complacent hardhead make the rounds is to feel a pang for the wasted opportunity and in particular for any envious spectator who would have cut off a toe to be in his shoes.