Wednesday, 10 September 2014
Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar (Fan Film Review)
Even years on from its inception, the Star Trek reboot has been extremely divisive among fans. While most seem willing to accept the idea of a reboot given how the universe was handled, the often plot hole ridden scripts with a focus on action over substance have caused eyebrows to be raised. It's hardly without reason either. Praise what you will about Into Darkness, but even the most ardent fan would have a very hard time arguing that they beat the likes of The Inner Light or Tapestry when it comes to human exploration or handling weighty themes.
Some fans have been hungering for a return to the old universe, and now it looks like they will be given that chance in Star Trek: Axanar. Crowd funded via kickstarter, Axanar is a fan film following the original war between the Federation and Klingon Empire, and is backed by a surprisingly talented cast of actors. With fairly solid CGI and the promise to show what the new films have been progressing towards from the style of the older franchise, yet at the same time showing a part of the universe we have not seen before. Even before it has been released however, the creative team behind the film opted to release a short film building up to the conflict, the battle upon which hinged the future of both sides.
Set two decades prior to the original Kirk episode of Star Trek, the film is structured as if it were a series of interviews from a documentary recounting the Four Years War leading up to peace between the two powers. Speaking about the conflict's escalation, the initial failings by the Federation to defend its borders and the eventual push to strike back with new ships, the film paves the way for the Battle of Axanar to take place.
Right off of the bat it's obvious the creative team behind this knows who their audience is and how to appeal to them. Along with Gary Graham returning as Soval from Enterprise, J.G. Hertzler, Kate Vernon, Tony Todd and Richard Hatch play key figures in these interviews, known for their contributions to science fiction and their talent in front of the camera. The benefit of this is twofold, while the science fiction community gets giddy over who will be playing key characters, it also means that a great deal of dramatic weight can be left up to the actors.
While there might be a good few battle scenes in here, they are just fleeting glimpses and it relies upon the actors to convince the audience of the length and desperation of this conflict. For the most part the film does this extremely well, and while it leans a little too much towards the more stylised depictions found in American documentaries there is a definite effort to present events as being genuine. Rather than just sticking to the core facts there is an effort to give a personal touch to each account, referring to personal encounters, histories or sometimes becoming sidetracked by secondary details. For as few opportunities to truly show it as they are given there is a clear sense of the personalities behind most of the characters and their own personal quirks.
Along with the individuals we are given an impression of both sides through their representatives, and it's definitely on the right track. The Federation shown here is less one of Picard or Janeway's era than it is Kirk's. It's far rougher around the edges, more akin to today than would be seen in the utopian society, and while the idealism is there it's more tempered than in other depictions to reflect upon its era. Better yet, the Klingons here are more the Imperialists seen earlier into the franchise and less the space barbarians they would devolve into over time. There's little mention of honour, houses or the usual tropes, lacks the bombastic yelling nature of their other variants, and even the makeup has been scaled back a little. Admittedly that last one is more to keep it in line with the classic series than anything else, but much as it did in The Undiscovered Country, it's definitely a good choice.
Despite being a relatively low budget production, the assets they have on hand have been used well. The framing device helps to justify the lack of big sets while at the same time the CGI'd settings, while looking a little dated in areas, do offer plenty of money shots. For every one which looks outdated or a little too obviously green screened (and there are sadly one or two) there are plenty which make up for that, and the ships themselves look great. While the director is having to shoot around the actors and a green screen, they have a clear idea on how to handle filming starships in flight.
Unfortunately the low budget does show through more around the costumes. While the Federation outfits are more justifiable given how they are reflecting more upon the classic series than anything else, the Klingon uniform does look surprisingly cheap by comparison with its more armoured look. It's not entirely clear at first thanks to the choice of lighting and the camera shooting around it, but focus upon it long enough and it becomes a little hard to take Richard Hatch seriously. The guy is a great actor, but anyone wearing obviously fabric armour is going to look more than a little goofy. This is just the start though, and watching more than once can cause you to quickly notice where the budget has obviously caused the team to skip over certain details in order to make this film a reality.
Beyond some of the stranger editing choices however, there's also an issue with how the characters speak. As mentioned before, despite being done up as a documentary there's an obvious degree of stylistic flair going on with the film which can be distracting. The editing would be one thing, but almost every actor keeps resorting to lengthy dramatic pauses during certain takes, especially Hatch and Todd after Kharn is introduced. No, not that Kharn.
Really, the only thing to seriously criticise for Prelude to Axanar is that it feels as if it doesn't go quite far enough and could have used reworking before being publicly shown, but it's hardly bad. The creative team wanted to both build hype for Axanar while also proving that modern Star Trek doesn't need a blockbuster budget to be interesting, and on that front it definitely succeeds. There's clearly potential here for something great and it achieves the right balance of fan service while also attempting something new. It's more akin to Bablyon 5's Lost Tales compilation than anything else: Obviously on a tight budget but with the right mindset perfectly enjoyable.
If you're at all interested the entire prelude can be found on Youtube, it's well worth a watch for any Trek fan wanting to see things done a little differently than under J J Abrams. Here's hoping that what follows proves to be just as impressive.