Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Project Terrible (Second Opinions): Star Wreck:In the Pirkinning

Welcome to Project Terrible: Second Opinions, where Al and I re-review films each other have reviewed and found particularly intolerable.

We've each got two films for you this round, and first up for me is Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, a Finnish 2005 parody of both Star Trek and Babylon 5, which probably explains why despite being a huge trekkie I didn't get what they were referencing roughly half the time.

For Al's original review, see here.

Star Wreck is...interesting. Allegedly, this is a parody, but there's honestly not that many outright jokes, aside from some references that the filmmakers evidently thought were funny just because they were slightly altered (i.e. Kirk becomes Pirk, Worf becomes Dworf, Data becomes Info...you know, if you also made "Dworf" short, that might work, but they didn't, nor do they joke about him not being short, so it doesn't). Apparently this is the sixth in a series of parody films. You would think by their sixth try they would have learned to make a joke.

Here's the basic concept. Captain Pirk was stranded in the past with, evidently, precisely two members of his crew--who by the way are based on Worf and Data, who would be from Picard's enterprise, not Kirk's...I guess you could argue that they're doing a blended Kirk and Picard and that's why his name starts with P, but I'm not going to throw them a bone (especially since he acts nothing like either one of them). After years on past Earth trying to blend in to not screw up the timeline (Pirk's idea of blending in being telling people blatantly that he's from the future and showing off his technological gadgets, but it works anyway because no one believes him), they discover that something has gone wrong anyway and the history leading to the creation of "P-Fleet" is circling the drain. To ensure the creation of P-Fleet, he decides to make it himself via the very reasonable plan of world conquest.

I might be wrong on the "two members of his crew" thing since I think a guy who shows up later, Fukov, is probably Chekov, and there's an obvious Scotty reference late in the film, but the movie is never quite clear on that. I imagine that's something I'd know if I'd seen the five previous films, though.

Not that I plan to.

I'm guessing P-Fleet stands for Pirk-Fleet, by the way, unless maybe Finnish for "star" starts with P. Nope, it's "tähti," apparently, according to Google Translate. Oh, and evidently there's some cool Finnish paper stars people make for Christmas over there, so that's neat. So Pirk-Fleet makes sense after he conquers the world, but they refer to it as such even before he comes up with the plan. Was he already emperor in earlier films? Oh, well.

I already need a break, so here's the Monty Python "Finland" song...in Japanese...over Finnish war movies. For some reason.

Anyway, after Pirk takes over (which isn't exactly a spoiler as it's handled by a montage only a couple minutes long about, oh, fifteen or twenty minutes in to the film), they discover a "maggot hole." Not exactly sure why just changing "worm" to "maggot" is funny, but maybe that's hilarious in Finland. On the other side of said hole is apparently another human culture, so since Pirk's fledgling empire is strapped for food and resources now, he decides to go a-conquering again.

So, now that my very long intro is out of the way, how's the quality?

Well, to be honest, the CG is one very strong point. Ignoring for the moment that the starship models are not so much parodies of the ships from Star Trek as direct rip-offs, the film has some pretty strong CG and effects work, especially considering that it is an indie production. Costuming is also good, in that it is again taken directly from Star Trek, either by making costumes to match the ones from the ST:TNG movies (the gray ones used starting with, if I'm recalling correctly, First Contact) or maybe just by purchasing the actual costumes from somewhere. Wouldn't put it past them. The makeup is less impressive but generally fairly acceptable. "Dworf" has the distinctive Klingon head ridges and is pretty much fine. Info's "Data" makeup looks pretty fake, though.

The soundtrack sounds suspiciously familiar too...but I digress.

Furthermore, the action sequences--both the ship-to-ship combat and the combat with foot soldiers on the space station--are actually quite good as well. Aside from a few problems in some cases with determining just where certain ships or people are in relation to the other things going on (a factor in part of the scenes just involving too many people or ships), the overall fight strategies of each side are clear and generally make sense, the action is nicely plotted out, and in the scenes involving soldiers, the people involved do a fair to good job of having a gunfight. The action scenes in this are good enough, honestly, that I kind of wonder why these people made an alleged comedy instead of making a flat-out serious sci-fi film. They actually have the chops for it.

The lone lower-quality action scene is a fistfight between Pirk and the commander of the space station, and even that is actually quite acceptable--it just makes too much use of the technique of one character striking at or near the camera and the other then reacting in a separate cut, rather than showing actual interaction. Still...this is a major strong point for this film. I've seen a lot of indie films fail massively at action...heck, I've seen a lot of professional films fail massively at action. That Star Wreck not just manages it, but succeeds quite well, is a real accomplishment and deserves some real praise.

I've also been a bit unfair...there are some actual jokes, funny ones even, when the film isn't trying to just draw humor from references. Some are hurt a bit by translation, I'm sure, but there are bits where the film elicited actual laughs from me. They were just few and far between. A good example is an exchange between the commander of the Babylon 5 parody and his chief security officer, wherein the security officer barely stops himself from revealing that he failed to stop a pilot from taking a ship out for a joyride because he was drunk. It comes off as natural but funny, and just flows naturally. Similarly, there's a good bit with the captain of the space station making a bold speech about defending it from invasion, only to have to follow it immediately with asking someone to move their ship out of a handicap spot that got a giggle from juxtaposition. More rarely, the film manages to make a joke with a reference rather than just expecting people to laugh at the reference itself--such as a bit where a security officer on the space station is killed and the commander grieves, while Pirk (fleeing) spouts a quick line questioning why anyone cares if a security guard dies (referencing, of course, Star Trek's infamous "redshirt" rule).

Unfortunately, most of the film's humor isn't to that level. Aside from just kind of referencing Star Trek and expecting people to laugh,the film specializes in low-brow "humor" like Pirk zipping his fly in full view of his crew, Pirk walking on to the bridge with toilet paper stuck to his shoe, Pirk digging for gadgets and looking like he's masturbating, a diplomat taking off his mask while people's backs are turned to pick his nose... Aside from that, it mostly consists of references to Pirk being quite a poor leader. He gets beaten up by people when his laser gun runs out of batteries, is mocked to his face by subordinates, and is clearly disrespected by every single person in his organization. Yet somehow no one rebels against him, despite the fact that he has, at most, two loyal people (Dworf and Info) and it is never portayed otherwise. Seriously, how is this guy in power? I'd get it if they made it more evident that he had a strong personality cult set up, but it really doesn't feel like he has an effective one. Heck, of his two crew members, Info clearly doesn't agree with what he's doing, so...someone take over already?

Acting is...a mixed bag. Most of the actors are actually pretty good, but there's a lot of over-exaggerated gestures and expressions. I'm inclined to call it a direction issue rather than an acting issue for the most part (or perhaps a producer issue, since the guy playing Pirk is also the producer, directed the previous films, and probably had a role in setting the tone). When the actors are going for a more dramatic tone, they manage quite well. When they go for comedy, it varies. I ended up particularly liking Atte Joutsen as Captain Sherrypie, the commander of the Babylon 5 parody space station. Aside from his first scene and his "comedic" insistence that long speeches are his duty, he actually does a great job in a role that is kind of a serious character placed in a comedic universe. It works.

The worst...mm...probably Samuli Torssonen as Pirk, though honestly not because he's actually doing that bad of an acting job. He's a reasonable comedy commander character and even when he's going too far with his facial expressions and reactions, it wasn't to a level that made me want to find him and punch him like with certain other actors.

It's just...okay, you're playing a Star Trek captain parody, right? Would it kill you to act more like either Kirk, Picard, or both? Instead, Pirk really just comes off as your typical incapable commander, the sort you'd see as a bad guy in a comedic military film instead of a more direct parody like this. He's never does anything particularly Kirk-like...in fact, as a fleet commander rather than an adventuring captain, he's pretty much the antithesis of the Kirk concept...but not in a comedy way, just in a "why the heck is he even named after Kirk" way. You could totally do a "Captain Kirk would be a horrible commander / fleet admiral" joke...build up him constantly trying to do things on his own when he has literally whole additional starships to do things for him, and that sort of thing, maybe crack a joke or two about fleet rules being that officers beam down first in dangerous situations, etc, etc, etc. This film doesn't play with the "adventurer as commander" concept at all. Neither does Pirk do anything much like Picard...he definitely doesn't share his more sedate or official persona, and there's no jokes in there about tea or anything like that...Pirk really is just kind of your typical bad commander, and that's a real missed opportunity.

The plot is absolutely flat-out stupid. I don't mean comedy stupid, I mean brain-dead idiotic. Actually, that's not fair. The plot barely exists to be stupid. Here it is. Pirk went back in time and got stranded. Pirk gets a ship built (very quickly). Pirk takes over the world (via montage). Pirk is a terrible ruler. Pirk invades Babylon 5. Battle. Battle. Battle. Battle. Battle. Battle. Battle. Battle. Battle. Battle. End.

Seriously. The starship battles start at 43:37 (very little of interest happens before that), and aside from a brief digression when Pirk is tricked (easily) into taking "shore leave" on the station during a slight lull where it looks like he's won, they continue for the remainder of the movie. Which is 1 hour and 36 minutes long. So yeah. It's basically 40 minutes of setup, and then over 50 minutes of starship or troop combat, with very little in the way of plot otherwise. I know that actually sounds like a good thing because I praised the action above, but most films try to, you know, break up action with an actual plot from time to time. It really gets old watching starships blow each other up, especially when there's only a few characters we actually know much of anything about...we can only really get invested when they're in danger, and so all the other ships getting blown up or people getting shot may be well done fights, but they aren't ones with real emotional impact.

There are two ways large-scale fight scenes work well. One is the model used in the original Star Wars--we show a large scale fight, but we're primarily focusing on one guy--Luke Skywalker in that case. He's the hero we care about, and we care about the rest of the fight by extension because how the battle goes directly impacts how much danger he's placed in. Star Wars quite nicely shows how the rebels are divided into fighter groups, and each group in sequence is going to have to try a massively dangerous mission (the trench run). Each group that fails puts us closer to Luke, our hero, facing that mission. There's a palpable, ascending sense of danger for him, so the scene works. This model is used frequently by films with a singular hero or small group of heroes, but it can work at starfleet and starships level too: just replace "Luke Skywalker" with "Starship Enterprise."

The other way is exemplified very well by Red Cliff, the John Woo film about one of the greatest battles of the Three Kingdoms era of ancient China. Brilliant film, by the way. Red Cliff features some enormous battles, but makes it really easy to care about everything going on everywhere on a personal level...by making use of a large cast of characters that it carefully establishes beforehand. In the gigantic battles, it's able to place a character we care about just about everywhere, so every time it changes scenes to show another part of the battle, there's a character we recognize. This model is followed by a lot of war films.

Star Wreck definitely doesn't use the latter method, but it doesn't quite manage the first. There aren't really that many cases where we get a clear sense that "if this happens, then Pirk's ship is in greater danger." It isn't until the fight is getting closer to its conclusion that we really get the sense of it being directly a danger to Pirk's ship. The film does a slightly better job showing the danger to the space station, but the scenes still mostly feel like battles between the underlings on both sides...underlings we often don't even see in person at all, and definitely don't get names or storylines for.

In case I'm not being clear...the reason this is a problem is really just because the fights go on for so long. There are plenty of movies where large groups of faceless minions on both sides get trashed...but the longer your fight scene goes on, the more people you need to make me care about on each side. Star Wreck's fight scene goes on for about 50 minutes...so it really...really...needed more people that I cared about.

Which brings me nicely to my last major point. This is another in a slew of movies I've watched that has, to put it frankly, irredeemable scumsucking jackasses as main characters. Pirk in particular is a cowardly, arrogant, murderous, violent jerk with delusions of grandeur, and even as a comedy character, it is impossible to like him. I spent most of the movie really, really hoping he would take a laser to the face at some point. That means I wasn't rooting for him in any action scene...which is a problem, since the movie's main source of tension, comedic or otherwise, is Pirk trying to survive various action scenes. Sure, I was invested (in rooting for the people trying to kill Pirk) for some of the movie, but the more they kept coming back to that, the less I cared. He's not a credible commander or threat of any kind, and he's definitely not a hero. That extends to, well, pretty much everyone on his side with the possible exception of Info, who I can at least excuse because, well, he's a robot, so he's probably programmed to serve even though he sometimes suggests plans that are a tad more...moral.

So basically this is a movie about people you would never, ever want to win any fight ever trying to win a fight. Yeah. Thrilling.

A few final thoughts:

  • Why the hell are the phasers called "twinklers" and the photon torpedoes "light-balls?" That's just stupid.
  • Fukov is clearly Chekov, and basically shares with him the trait of being Russian. And nothing else.
  • There's a Scottish engineer who is Scotty in that he's Scottish. Scotty was a major character in Star Trek, and had large chunks of episodes...and in fact, whole episodes that focused on him. Here? This guy gets two brief scenes that are barely more than cameos.
  • Pirk's ship is named the Kickstart...is that a joke? I honestly don't know. Is it saying that nowadays Enterprises are funded by Kickstarter? Is that it?
  • I don't get why the "rustbucket" known as the Kalinka exists in the movie (other than, of course, to use the Constitution-class Enterprise model). Pirk describes it like it's some outdated ship, but he had his entire fleet built after coming back in time, so that seems a little stupid! Was it an early experiment on the way to developing the Kickstart? But the Kickstart is built in a matter of a few years, from the sound of things, from designs based on a ship that Pirk lost when he went back in time. Why would you build a rustbucket model?
And why in the heck is there a Lord of the Rings reference in this movie?
  • The characters all make a point of acting bored when Sherrypie gives his speeches, but...they generally aren't actually all that long, and they're delivered pretty well. Furthermore, the characters start acting bored like two lines into them, even when they don't know Sherrypie gives speeches all the time...that doesn't make a lot of sense. To bring another Monty Python bit into this, if they wanted to make it funny they could have him absolutely unable to be interrupted while giving a speech, going on and on regardless of anyone's attempts to say anything.

Look...Star Wreck actually isn't an entirely awful film. It is capably made, particularly on the action front, and is actually pretty impressive considering it's an indie film. The problem is that it isn't really funny. It isn't an utter disaster of a comedy like Harry Knuckles and the Pearl Necklace or a complete confused mess of a parody like The Starving Games, but it just isn't funny...and unfortunately, since it is in fact a parody film, that's kind of an essential element. Beyond that, there's not really any reason to invest emotionally in the film. There's no reason to care about any of the characters--in fact, I mostly hated the ones they wanted me to care about--and no real effort to build up any of them beyond Pirk, Info, Dworf, and maybe Sherrypie. Large portions of the film concern events happening to characters and ships that barely exist beyond the scenes in which they are in danger...and the film as a whole basically abandons the idea of having a plot for upwards of 50 minutes for an extended battle scene that, while well-made, is nowhere near enough to sustain interest in watching a movie.

Though it is far better than the ending space battle in War of the Robots, I'll give it that!

It could always be worse.

Far, far worse.
The central premise is actually not all that bad for a comedy...an incapable dirtbag ends up as emperor of a fleet and decides to go conquering to solve his problems. They could've made something with this, with a few changes. First...drop the Star Trek and Babylon 5 references--they're not necessary since you didn't really end up using them for parody all that much. Second--either give the "Pirk" character some redeemable qualities that make us want to see him succeed, or focus on someone else, either on his side or on the other, who does have some admirable traits. Third...even if your space battles are great, don't focus 50 minutes on them to the exclusion of an actual plot.

Unfortunately...Star Wreck is a big pile of wasted potential, and not a very fun movie despite being made by some people who are clearly very capable. I really hope that these people can hone their craft, understand what went wrong, and make a better movie in the future. Don't chain yourselves to Star Trek, guys...parody doesn't appear to be your game, but you might be able to do something else quite well.


  1. Yeah, this one is...yeah.

    Going in slightly-more-blind than you (as a casual Trek and non-existent Babylon 5 watcher), I still had most of the same issues.

    Why is half of this supposed to be a joke? Why is Pirk such an asshole? When will the battle end?

    If it helps, the first 3 'Films' are apparently just CG Footage of ships flying around and fighting, while the fourth is a Short. So this barely sort of qualifies as the THIRD Film.

    What I have learned in hindsight is that these folks made 'Iron Sky,' which is still a confusing mix of Comedy and Sci-Fi, but not a Parody.

    They apparently also do a thing like Lloyd Kaufman's 'Make Your Own Damn Movie' to help young Finnish people make Films with CG.

    Good for them. I still don't like this Film all that much better though.

    1. I really had quite an odd reaction to this--it's one of those strange cases where the film itself just isn't all that good, but you still really want to praise it because certain parts are nicely done and you can see some real potential.

      These guys seriously just need to drop the comedy side, which they aren't very good at, and do a serious sci-fi film. I'd actually love to see what they could do then...their action and CG are pretty good.