Star Trek: what it teaches film makers about special effects

JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot continues to mop up cash around the world, and Simon reckons it could teach some filmmakers a few lessons about effects...

The Enterprise: zooming our way in May 2009...


When the Starship Enterprise drops out of warp speed and stops at the planet Vulcan in the midst of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, the big screen carnage that greets it is the kind of effects spectacular that the Star Wars prequel trilogy only, for my money, got right once. The opening sequence to Revenge Of The Sith was the only one that came close to capturing the fun and energy of the original Star Wars movies. And yet while George Lucas got bogged down in intense mire and deathly seriousness with his second trilogy of films, Star Trek has now, surely, wrestled away the initiative when it comes to thrilling, spectacular blockbuster science fiction on the big screen.

For I finally caught Star Trek over the weekend, and can’t help but add my voice to the loudly singing chorus of praise for the film. Never mind the Star Trek canon or the science fiction genre in particularly: when was the last time we had a blockbuster summer movie of any genre as downright entertaining as this one? I loved last summer’s The Dark Knight, but it’s a far darker and intense beast. Star Trek was rounded fun of the first order, and my congratulations go to all involved.

But of the many factors I found impressive, the one that particularly stuck out against the tide of blockbusters in recent years was that there was barely a special effect wasted. Granted, there were lots of special effects in the film, but each had a purpose in the greater scheme of things, and at no point did I get the impression that someone was playing a videogame before my eyes, or showing me what their computer could do. Coupled to the fact that there was no ridiculously over-the-top slow motion gimmickry, along with no unnecessarily confusing edits, and I left with the real impression that this was a film made by people who absolutely, top to bottom, knew what they were doing (there was, I acknowledge, shaky-cam work, that Martin has talked about here).

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But it’s the special effects I want to talk about. Because for the past decade or so, more and more the effects in big films have been utilised as some kind of willy-waving exercise, with the emphasis on putting something impressive in the trailer. Yet too many times, when you got to the film itself, they stood out like a sore thumb, as integral to the story as a fridge is to the middle of a football field.

The key offender in recent times has, for my money, been Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. What was particularly disappointing about that film was that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were making all the right noises in the build up to the film, that it wouldn’t be effects driven. But they were leading us a merry dance. We had computerised snakes, computerised bugs, we had computerised fridges flying through computerised explosions. And that ending. Everywhere you looked in the midst of the latest addition to an action franchise whose best moments were recorded via a camera lens, there was a special effect, often for no clear purpose.

It’s not alone, either. Just how many times have we had effects for the sake of effects in past summers? I’m not averse to putting some computerised spectacular on the screen, but numerous times, for instance, during the last Pirates of the Caribbean film I just thought they were showing off (and I do concede there were some terrific sequences in there, too). Transformers? It looked terrific, granted, but the effects were in charge there, and it didn’t help the film.

Also, there’s the problem that when a film is reliant on a special effect, it has a habit of going badly wrong. The back end of I Am Legend was significantly diluted by some bizarre computer creations running amok, the arrival of the Scorpion King at the end of The Mummy Returns induced titters when I saw it, and Martin has listed several other candidates that I could happily chunter about right here .

The trick to Star Trek, for me, was that it stayed focused, and chose carefully. Appreciating that JJ Abrams had a sizeable budget at his disposal, there was still little doubt in my mind that it was all up there on screen as I walked out at the end. The last time I think I’d seen such concentrated focus on wringing the most out of an effects budget for the benefit of the film itself was with Danny Boyle’s underrated Sunshine, and I long now for other blockbuster directors to pick up some of the lessons that Star Trek has clearly demonstrated.

Because special effects exist to enhance a story, not be the story. They’re there to add a dose of magic to what happens on screen, rather than become the primary focus of it. In Star Trek, the battle around Vulcan is the standout example for me, but even something like the drilling sequences worked a treat, and whenever JJ cut to a wide shot of the Enterprise travelling through space, I bought it every time. It actually mattered.

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Here’s hoping that then Star Trek marks some kind of sea change in how effects are employed. Let them no longer be used to plug gaps in shitty films, and instead get back to what special effects were supposed to be there for in the first place.

And JJ? Get working on the sequel while you’re there, please…

See also:

Star Trek on Den Of Geek