Space Quest Written by Bertie Gilbert
Two reviews of Space Quest on Letterboxd describe it as a piss take of Star Wars/Star Trek and the hype over their next films, the most anticipated of these being Star Wars: the Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan), which Abrams has directed. And he deserves it. Looking back at Abrams’s Star Trek reboot films, Star Trek (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) and Star Trek Into Darkness (Orci, Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof), the story isn’t the strongest element, but Abrams directs them with a vision, almost like Star Wars: the Force Awakens test footage. Say what you will about the Alternate Reality – which I regularly criticise – but it’s not entirely Abrams’ fault.
A director might have creative authority over a film (apart from the producers), but what Abrams did was to not alter elements that clearly weren’t working, rather than create those faults himself. And yeah, those new films did cause a rift in the fanbase, and it’s for a good reason, but it shows that Abrams, when applied to something that already works on its own, can make it even cooler. Look no further than the final shot of the first Star Wars: the Force Awakens trailer. That shot on its own could be a whole trailer by itself.
To be honest, it looks more “realistic”, in the visual sense, than any of the other Star Wars films. That’s not just because of advances in digital technology, but because of the choices made in using it. Already, I’m sold on a franchise that didn’t really appeal to me before. I do like Star Wars, but the matte boxes and jump-cut/crossfade explosions were always a bit weird.
But I’m not going to judge a sci-fi film on its special effects – pulp appeals to some people. And, as someone who used to think Doctor Who was pretty neat – especially the Classic Series – I’ve come to see special effects as simply a story-telling mechanism. So Space Quest, then. And not the video game series, either.
Space Quest is a television series within the short film Space Quest, and is clearly an homage to Star Trek. And I do think it’s an homage. Why? Because making a film so accurate in spirit yet also with such a precisely-controlled Roger Corman-esque B-movie feel to what inspired it takes so much INSANE passion for that subject that dismissing it as a piss-take would be to accuse the film-maker of having instead an insane hatred.
There’s that shot of the door closing, which I guess was done through rota-scoping? And the simulated English dubbing of what’s supposed to look originally “foreign”. The reason genuine B-movies include these production methods is because of low budgets and unimaginative film-making. But with today’s access to technology, none of that comes-up unless done… deliberately.
There’s a myth that film-making is difficult. But it’s not. Making a film is easy. What’s difficult is making a good one.
And what takes even more skill is making a film resembling one that isn’t. A film so good it doesn’t look it. My previous review acknowledged the fun pulpiness of a film otherwise terrible – but the difference was, that was supposed to be good. Whereas Space Quest is a step-backwards to a more primitive style of film-making.
In an age of going forwards, going backwards requires more creative acrobatics than simply making a good film with special effects that aren’t laughable. So in creating special effects that recall cult sci-fi, when it’s easier to make them professional, they’ll actually not laughable at all. They’re applaudable. Abrams has been openly promoting his use of practical effects when making Star Wars: the Force Awakens, rather than digital effects.
One can only hope so. It makes “Episode VII” aesthetically consistent with its preceding instalments. Even though there’ll still be digital effects, simply because it’s more convenient in some places. Every mainstream film uses digital effects. Even genres that wouldn’t obviously seem to require digital effects use digital effects.
They’re shooting it on film, too. Actual film! Which means that Star Wars: the Force Awakens isn’t just called a “film”, but really is one. And I care about film more than digital, because it’s less convenient for shooting.
Yes, there’s a better picture quality, and every other reason you can find listed in Mark Kermode’s The Good, the bad and the Multiplex, but apart from that – it requires more care and precision. Which means, if a production’s using celluloid, it tells me the film-makers are of a certain mindset that ensures at least some immediate quality. There’s that question of – so if Space Quest didn’t emulate B-movies, would Space Quest be any good? But that’s question’s invalid.
Because, if Space Quest didn’t emulate B-movies, Space Quest would be pointless. I think. But that’s how I’ve read it. Just about every Bertie Gilbert film is about contrast in some way – contrast between the sane and the insane, contrast between one time period and another, and in some ways, contrast between between two ends of an infinite spectrum.
The contrast here is between digital and film, with digital being a bookend to the “main event”, like old cinema programmes that would present the feature with a shorter, less impressive piece, a… “B-movie”. And although the digital scenes are more presentable, ticking the boxes of YouTube’s video player, the Space Quest film itself is a better achievement because there was more to get right. It’s easy to reassure yourself with the knowledge that something can be added later, but it takes real balls to say “We’re doing it NOW!”. There’s a reason Gilbert’s considered the new Wes Anderson.
Anyway, point is – if these were two films, the Space Quest act in the middle is obviously the bigger achievement, because mimicking a specific style takes a certain kind of skill that requires a film-maker to go inside their own creativity and emerge on the other side having proven they can do minimal. And if I come out of Star Wars: the Force Awakens impressed with it, it’ll be because it looks like the Episode VII that should’ve already been released thirty years ago. The reason Star Trek Into Darkness is so controversial is because, even though it’s a good-looking film, it’s got “Star Trek” in the title, but doesn’t try to actually justify that on screen. And that’s the story here.