P. Z. Myers Needs to Get Out of the Movie Review Business

A while back P. Z. Myers wrote a snotty, obnoxious post about how much he hated the big Les Miz movie. Now, I happen to be a bit protective of Les Miserables. I regard the original novel as the finest ever written, and I think the stage version of the musical does a good job of capturing the novel's spirit (far better than any of the many non-musical movie versions). The movie musical certainly had its problems (Click here for my review), but overall it was pretty good. If it was truly the worst movie experience of his life, as P. Z. claimed, then I must assume that he sees only the very best movies.

Still, I held my tongue. Different strokes and all that. He doesn't have to like the same movies that I like. But now he has a review up of the new Star Trek movie, and I find myself growing vexed. He didn't like it:

I was off in the big city (Alexandria, Mn) to run some errands, and I figured as long as I was there, I’d catch the latest summer blockbuster. I went in with low expectations: I’d heard it was just a fun action movie, mere mindless entertainment. The reviews underestimated the movie; it wasn’t just mindless, it was in a vegetative state. This movie was so stupid it was stillborn with acephaly. This movie sucked so bad it was a miracle that the Hawking radiation didn’t kill the audience.

Now, that was pretty much my view of the first J. J. Abrams Star Trek movie. But this one was much better, I thought. Of course, the story does not hold up to serious scrutiny, but that's true of any action movie. If you're making complaints like this, for example:

  • Listen. If you’re on a flying vehicle weaving at high speed through the sky, don’t stand toe-to-toe with someone else and punch them. Especially not with the flailing haymakers that everyone tosses around in this movie. You’ll fall off.
  • If you jump off a flying vehicle weaving at high speed through the sky, planning to land on another flying vehicle weaving at high speed through the sky, you probably won't. You’ll miss, fall thousands of feet, and go splat. If you do fall 50 feet and land on top of another flying vehicle weaving at high speed through the sky, you will bounce, slip, and fall off to go splat and die. You will not land, scrabble a bit, catch yourself and stand up, and then start punching someone.

then just stop going to action movies. You might as well complain about Spider-Man on the grounds that getting bit by a radioactive spider doesn't actually give you spider powers. The correct criticism here is that the scene is unoriginal and too frenetic to be enjoyable. But that it's implausible? Really?

At least on the merits of that one P.Z. is right, even if it's just silly and churlish to point it out. But most of his other points are just flat stupid. Let's consider a few:

At the very beginning, a protagonist is being lowered into an erupting volcano on an alien planet. No, not lowered — careening at the end of a cable dangling from an out of control, damaged shuttle craft. His cable melts, he falls. Does he fall into magma, aaaaiee, hisss, die? No, he lands on a solid rock floating in a lake of magma. Does he splatter, bounce, break, fall into magma, aaaaiee, hisss, die? No, he drops his tools, gets up, gathers them, goes about his business.

Vulcans are actually pretty good at controlling their emotions and going about their business. They're also physically much more resilient than humans. And why shouldn't he land on a solid rock? Something similar happened in an episode of I Shouldn't Be Alive. As for careening at the end of a cable, that's because the plan was put together very quickly and somewhat recklessly, which is relevant to understanding Kirk's character.

Meanwhile, two other protagonists are running frantically away from alien primitives who are throwing spears at them. Why were they even in the village? Don’t know. All the important action is going on in the volcano. This is something the movie often does: if a problem does not require gratuitous physical conflict to solve it, people will be thrown into it anyway to flail and thrash around.

They were in the village specifically to lure the villagers away from the danger. They accomplished this by stealing an artifact that was precious to the people living there, knowing that the villagers would then chase them. This was explained, albeit very quickly.

This volcano, which is actually on the smallish and mostly unprepossessing side, has a small village of aliens at its base. When it erupts, it’s going to destroy the entire world and the aliens will go extinct. It makes no sense. Somehow corking up one volcano while two crew members run through the jungle will save the planet.

That volcano sure looked pretty big to me. As for it wiping out the aliens, why is that implausible? Has P. Z. never heard of Pompeii?

The aliens are doomed anyway. They all seem to be male.

OK, that was just the opening scene. It has no bearing on the rest of the movie at all. I’ll be less specific for the rest.

I guess P.Z. missed the part where the opening scene established Kirk's recklessness, which led to him losing his command and reevaluating his priorities, and which also led him into a gross violation of the Prime Directive, which set up the dramatic tension between him and Spock, which added to the emotional impact of later events. No bearing. Sheesh!

Some of his points are reasonable. In movies like this, the plot never really hangs together, after all. (Why does the American head of Starfleet have a British daughter?) But for the most part I thought things hung together well enough. If you're reduced to making points like this, then you're really getting desperate:

The warp core of a giant starship can get “out of alignment”, which can then be fixed by a guy going into the core and kicking it back into place.

Oh please. The audience has to be able to follow what the characters are doing. Kicking the warp core back into place was a big improvement over what you usually get in scenes like this, where the characters frantically rearrange circuit boards, or fiddle around with wires, or mix random chemicals, or do something else that is completely incomprehensible to the audience. You are allowed to use a little imagination here. The point was that Kirk heroically sacrificed himself to save his ship. Who the heck cares about the minutiae of how he actually repaired the ship?

And to top it all off, just try to believe that P.Z. actually wrote this:

Giant interstellar spaceships can get shot up, suffer massive internal explosions that tear them up internally and rupture their structure, and then fall out of the sky to crash on earth. They can be of a grossly non-aerodynamic design in addition to having massive structural damage, but they will still manage to skid into San Francisco Bay, bounce a few times, then go sliding into San Francisco, shattering skyscrapers and leveling entire city blocks, before coming to a stop.

Then the sole occupant will jump out of a hole in the side to jog through the city. He will have one small scratch on his cheek.

Non-aerodynamic design? It's a spaceship, you idiot! It spends most of it's time flying around in a near-perfect vacuum. And when the sole occupant is a genetically-engineered superman, perhaps it's not so unreasonable that he could get out largely unscathed.

For a much better article about some of the implausibilities of the Star Trek universe, have a look at this. P.Z.'s blog post was strictly amateur hour.

More like this

I finally saw the new Star Trek movie — I really do live way out in the boondocks, you know, and we only have one theater, with a single screen, and we had to wait for the Hannah Montana movie to run its course before we could bring in something interesting. Although, I'm afraid, it ultimately wasn…
The big Monty Hall book has finally been sent off to OUP, so it's time to get back to blogging. We begin with lighter fare. I caught the midnight screening of the new Indiana Jones movie last night. Did it live up to its billing? No. It was terrible. A true disaster. Cringe-worthy. Hard…
Chad notes, in response to PZ's rather absurd assertion that biology is the only Dumped Upon science, and that physics is so well treated in movies and TV, that "Most of the SF movies I see are lucky if they can get Newton's Laws right, let alone any of the finer points of astrophysics." Indeed,…
I've never been much of a Star Trek fan. But given the subculture of nerdery in which I've been proud to spend much of my life, I've managed to pick up a fairly tremendous amount of the lore by osmosis. I've seen a pretty good percentage of the original series as well as the two good films (II…

Non-aerodynamic design? It’s a spaceship, you idiot!

In fairness, I don't think that was actually the criticism. Of course spaceships can be non-aerodynamic. I believe the intended criticism was that when you drop a non-aerodynamic spaceship with massive structural damage into a planet's atmosphere, they don't tend to hold together long enough to reach the ground and make a survivable crash landing.

"You might as well complain ...."
You might as well complain that the protagonists in a western never miss their aim, from say 80 years ago until now.
The goal of stuff like this is to get entertained. Are you? Or not? Please explain why. That's what matters.
If you care so much about realism go see drama (absolutely nothing wrong with it) with character development and such.

The movie was fun. I was not awed. My biggest complaint was when the ship's internal gravity failed, they had to run on the wall of the hall instead of the floor. Did the gravity doohickey rotate 90 degrees?

You made a perfunctory attempt at “different strokes” but the rest of your post is just an angry complaint that someone else didn't enjoy something you liked, rejecting PZ's ability to have a different opinion. Shades of middle school…

By Chris Adams (not verified) on 30 May 2013 #permalink

Perhaps the single biggest scientific violation of Star Trek is faster-than-light travel. Arguably, every time they exceed Warp 1 they should go back in time, but only after having gained all of the mass (and spent all of the energy) of the universe, plus several other impossible things.

If you have a big enough problem with scientific accuracy, you should avoid Trek for that alone.

Admittedly, I sometimes feel frustrated by scientific mistakes in film myself. My rough criterion for which errors bother me is this: Is the audience likely to already misunderstand the science in the same way, and does this have consequences in real life? By this standard, The Day After Tomorrow (a movie I've never seen) is much more harmful than any old apocalypse flick, because it specifically misrepresents a particularly important scientific issue, anthropogenic climate change.

On similar grounds, when it comes to Star Trek, my biggest problems are with its take on "evolution." It often has notions of "higher and lower" life forms, or even pre-ordained paths for evolution to follow. And of course the whole idea that the galaxy could be populated by humanoids with varied foreheads is absurd, even if we allow for the one Next Generation episode that tried explaining it as the result of ancient aliens seeding the galaxy with some DNA. (Either the DNA would be non-functional, in which case it would turn to junk, or functional, in which case it would simply respond to selection and evolution would proceed as if nothing had happened. The same episode even has a hologram message encoded in the same region of three different species. Oh well.)

The truth is, if we actually encountered Klingons or Vulcans, then after ruling out prosthetics, we would still be confined to the hypothesis that they were human, or human in origin. (For example, maybe some aliens abducted ancient humans and plopped them somewhere in space?) It definitely couldn't be the other way around (humanoid aliens giving rise to us), because humans are obviously apes, which are primates, which are mammals, etc. all the way to single-celled creatures. (Likewise, Vulcans are clearly apes as well, whether they would admit it or not.) The randomness of the process makes it non-repeatable, and the selection side of things makes it confined to the original environment.

As for physics, I suppose violations in that domain sometimes bother me as well. Especially the common ways for action heroes to avoid danger, like jumping into water, which is always a magic cushion for any fall. (It happens in Into Darkness; I accept it as part of the story, but wish they'd made the cliff much shorter for realism.) Action movies constantly lie to us about the degree of safety of a dangerous situation. In some ways that's worse than having sound in space (although that one still bugs me, even if it doesn't follow my "rule" for which violations should bug me). Plus, action scenes are boring in their repetition anyway. Each major event of the scene should be accompolished in a single step, not in ten instances of the same thing (swerving around corners, punching a monster, etc). It's like if "talky" movies always had ten-minute scenes of people saying variations of "Hello" to each other. I guess it works if you really like hellos.

Anyway, out of all the problems PZ noted, one really caught my eye as especially surprising complaint for a biologist to make: "The aliens [of the planet Nibiru] are doomed anyway. They all seem to be male." Yes, it may be obvious that the humans playing them are all men, but that doesn't mean the aliens themselves are. Why should every species be sexually dimorphic? Heck, here on Earth a great many (possibly most?) animal species are not dimorphic. One may as well complain about the unrealism of a movie depicting dogs that are "all male" as opposed to, I don't know, dogs of whom half have breasts and the other half mustaches.

Which is actually a bigger problem I have with Trek and a lot of other science fiction, even more than the notion that aliens would be humanoid and could interbreed with humans: That aliens would always follow human patterns of dimorphism, and furthermore, that any lacking this dimorphism must be male by default. Just imagine if the Nibiruans had all been played by women. People would be talking about that all the time! Yet this could mean they were "actually" all male, or a mix of male and female, or a group of sexless drones serving a bee-like society.

Furthermore, just imagine the reaction if, instead of a pair of cat-woman twins, Kirk had been shown waking up after a hot night with a seemingly-male alien. We would learn that a surprising number of people who have no problem with Kirk's repeat bestiality or participation in apparent incest -- basically, a guy who will screw anything that moves -- still find something unpalatable, un-masculine, or anti-Trekkian about possible bisexuality. And that's assuming that male-looking aliens could really be considered "male" in the first place!

You might have missed PZ's point about the volcano. Kirk and McCoy are engaged in subterfuge to get the aliens to leave their village, on the presumption that the village will be destroyed by the volcano. But later, it's mentioned that the volcano was going to destroy the entire planet, or at least the biosphere. It wasn't a Pompeii-level volcano--more like a super-volcano causing massive species extinction.

So luring the aliens to run a few hundred meters away from their village wouldn't have saved their lives. They were doomed no matter what.

Except of course that Spock had a cold fusion bomb to freeze the volcano. Never mind that that's not the way cold fusion works, but it sounds cool.

And never mind that for no known reason they 'hide' the Enterprise in the ocean (do thrusters really work underwater? Can the necessarily light structure of a starship withstand the pressures of all that water?) instead of parking the ship in orbit like they do in every other episode.

And never mind that they had to lower Spock into the volcano from a shuttle rather than just beaming him in there due to something about magnetic fields, but then they beam him out of there with no problem.

And why put Spock at risk at all? We won't have remote control technology in the 23rd century?

I agree that complaining about the physical capabilities of action heroes is silly given the genre, but there's plenty in this movie to criticize as making no freaking sense.

By James A. Brown (not verified) on 30 May 2013 #permalink

So luring the aliens to run a few hundred meters away from their village wouldn’t have saved their lives.

The point of luring them away was so that they wouldn't notice the shuttle flying above the volcano. This was obvious to me. I don't remember if the characters spelled it out in words, but really, I don't think they should have to. The prime directive was explained. There were numerous references by the characters to a desire not to be seen. They're flying a big honking shuttle over the volcano. Put two and two together.

The warp core of a giant starship can get “out of alignment”, which can then be fixed by a guy going into the core and kicking it back into place.

[JR responds] Oh please. The audience has to be able to follow what the characters are doing. Kicking the warp core back into place was a big improvement over what you usually get in scenes like this

The entire scene was clearly meant to be a parallel to the one in Wrath of Kahn. While its terrible physics/engineering and I can see how that can take away from someone's enjoyment of the story, Abrams' storytelling in this case is very classic parallel worldism: while many things change, these individuals get drawn together in similar ways over and over again.
You see this literary device being used pretty much any time there's a parallel world story. Its used in dramas, in love stories, and, yes, action flicks.
I think a much more valid complaint about the scene is that Wrath of Kahn is such an old movie that a lot of the current audience probably missed the references. So these parallel scenes - aside from the physics problems - don't do the storytelling job they are supposed to do either, because for many audience members they won't evoke the emotional response they were intended and written to evoke. For a sci-fi movie, that is probably a much bigger problem than using action movie physics.

@6: I'd point out that your three "And.." complaints all arise from the star trek universe's single largest plot device problem, which is wildly inconsistent use of transporter technology. Like cell phones to horror movies, a working transporter is pretty much a death sentence for any action movie. Used consistently, it would eliminate the need for probably 90% of action scenes. So movies and shows just can't use it consistently.

I'm not defending the movie on those points - it should still try and be more consistent than the movies and shows that have gone before. And Abrams dug himself a deeper hole than previous star trek movies by introducing transwarp beaming (begging the question: why have starships at all?) But the whole star trek fiction-verse is operating with a big handicap, which is that tansporters tend to remove the need for action scenes. So whenever i watch a star trek anything, I often have to tell myself "Ignore the transporter solution. Ignore the transporter solution. Ignore the..." Its just a part of the entire star trek fictive universe that the transporter beomes plot-useless at the drop of a hat.

A while back P. Z. Myers wrote a snotty, obnoxious post ...

"Go with what you've got."
He's right about STID though.
BTW, if you want STID to seem better, rush out to see After Earth.

By Reginald Selkirk (not verified) on 30 May 2013 #permalink

James A. Brown #6: And never mind that they had to lower Spock into the volcano from a shuttle rather than just beaming him in there due to something about magnetic fields, but then they beam him out of there with no problem.

Right. They needed a "direct line of sight" to get the coordinates to pull that off. That's why they had to fly their starship in front of the natives, even though that would violate the Prime Directive (which they were busy violating anyway with the volcano suppression prank).

By Reginald Selkirk (not verified) on 30 May 2013 #permalink

I have to agree with PeeZed because, you know, Star Trek's previous incarnations were *so* plausible .
My real disappointment with STID was twofold:
1. They lifted their story from one of the best (and beloved) Star Trek movies rather than come up with an original idea. Further, the actors playing these characters haven't got the history that Shatner, Nimoy, Doohan et al. had with the fan base and so I think most would not be as affected by the crucial scene in this movie
2. That Damon Lindelof is allowed anywhere *near* a beloved science fiction franchise after the abomination that was "Prometheus".
Still, I enjoyed the movie. I loved all the Trek universe references. Anyhoo, what a ridiculous post.

By Kurt Helf (not verified) on 30 May 2013 #permalink

I expect P.Z.'s Superman review to complain about why no one can figure out that Superman is Clark Kent minus glasses.

By deepak shetty (not verified) on 30 May 2013 #permalink

STID and Wrath of Khan dual existence proves that parallel universes do exist in an SF way. I do not think they have approval to use a tribble as an experimental subject. Perhaps it is more humane to use a tribble rather than a lab rat.

I can't past the fact that a group of children are given the most advanced starship in the fleet and are allowed to joyride around the galaxy, particularly given young-Kirk's demonstrated immaturity and incompetence.

I also can't get past the fact that Star Fleet is so freaking incompetent.

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 30 May 2013 #permalink

Cool. Based on PZ's review I was going to skip the movie until maybe TV. But now I can go again - plus I get to go with my son which is always good!

PZ myers also needs to stop fornicating internet polls.

By Guardian of the Poll (not verified) on 30 May 2013 #permalink

My take on all this is completely different.

This movie was essentially a remake of “The Wrath of Khan” from the original franchise – but with obvious differences because of the altered timeline.

If the new franchise is going to follow this sequence, they won’t be able to remake the third movie from the original franchise, because (spoiler alert) Spock doesn’t die in the end this time. That means they will have to move on to the fourth movie – “The Voyage Home”.

If the ‘new crew’ goes back in time to collect the humpback whales like they did in the original franchise, they will go past the point in time when the timeline was split, and they will therefore end up on the original timeline. Will they meet the original crew who has also come back to collect the humpback whales? And if they go forward in time again, because they are now back on the original timeline, they will have to go forward on that timeline, and not on the altered timeline. That means they will disappear from the altered timeline, and there will be two Enterprise crews on the original timeline.

Mind. Blown!


This movie was essentially a remake of “The Wrath of Khan” from the original franchise – but with obvious differences because of the altered timeline.

If the new franchise is going to follow this sequence...

I don't think that was the intent at all; I think they just wanted to introduce Kahn because he's a cool villain. And since star fleet is now keeping him on ice, I'd expect his return to the screen in some later movie.

Now, they clearly wanted to repeat-with-variation at least a couple of the more indelible moments from Wrath. But as I said in @7, this is very very standard for parallel universe stories, and you see it in all genres (parallel universe love stories, parallel universe dramas, and so on) and in both books and movies - not just mediocre science fiction. :)

All of which is a long way to say: if you expect a remake of IV, don't hold your breath, because I very much doubt that is Abrams' plan.

I kinda stopped paying attention to PZ a while ago. While I appreciate his passion and focus on skepticism and atheism, he's just too grumpy, confrontational, and mean for my liking. When I realized his writing was creating a dark spot in my day, I removed his feed from my reader and dumped him from Twitter. I haven't been sorry I did, either.

Oh, I skip most of PZ's articles after reading the headlines. The way he debunks creacrap remains quite funny though.

I read P.Z.'s review of Les Miserables and it was an illustration of why only certain people, such as Jacob Bronowski, can comment with equal authority on both the arts and sciences. I get the sense that his post was a rant; a burst or squeal based on a very precise amd narrow aspect of the film that made his bile rise up and choke. Aside from that, I haven't bothered seeing Star Trek Into Darkness oin the basis that it is a shameless rehash, and i'm allergic to the swill that Damon Lindelof serves up for the delirious audiences of CG pap, but complaining about the science in Abrams' (or any other) Star Trek is as futile as critiquing the social realism of Harry Potter. For the people trying the old chestnut of 'spacecraft can't travel faster than light' on here, the enterprise isn't travelling faster than light, the space around it is. The clue's in the name, so you can stop worrying about something that's used as a plot device in popular fiction. You sound both ignorant and pedantic.

..."then just stop going to action movies."

Not the worst thought you ever had. However, this recommendation is about as likely to find takers as would the suggestion that the Catholic Church's authorities abandon prayer.

Action films are insipid but the people who flock to them either seem not to care about that or seem not to be aware of it. They find the films diverting, a distraction maybe so that what might come into their thoughts if they didn't have the distractions doesn't come into their thoughts--but I doubt that any significant number of them would ever happen to think, 'Whatever this film is, I need it for distraction, so I don't have to think about stuff that would make my head hurt if I thought about it.'

But, the films do much more because the audience is so brain-dead: action films are advertisements for technology as a panacea--even, yes, when the film seems to imply that the technology is the problem. This is because even such films present technology, whatever its harms, as inevitable and something is impervious to any resistance.

With rare exceptions, Hollywood's action flix are junk. But, then, action flix in general are rarely other than junk. As for their "entertainment' value, you might as well argue that using tobacco is a form of entertainment. Tobacco, too, is a distraction. Both action films and tobacco do real harm to both individual "consumers" who "buy and use" the "product" and to the society as a whole in which these people live.

But this point is lost on them and on almost everyone else.

Abandoning action films, giving up on tobacco use or on a belief in prayer--all of these are positive steps which most currently distracted customers won't take.

By proximity1 (not verified) on 01 Jun 2013 #permalink

As someone who goes to action movies to have something to do with my teenager, I suspect Jason and PZ are engaged in a ruse to increase eyeballs!

By Kevin Dowd (not verified) on 01 Jun 2013 #permalink

RE: # 23

Though I loved movies as a kid (1960s) , I cannot recall a single film I watched (in those days in a commercial cinema theatre, of course) with both of my parents or one of them alone. Certainly there must have been some, but I can only guess: they must have taken us, their children, to see, "Bambi", and "Babes in Toyland", "Pinocchio" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves", or "Cinderella", for example. It's just that, while I'm sure I saw those films and that they or one of them must have been there--if not some other child's parent-- I have no clear recollection of either of my parent's presence at the film's screening, or even going to or returning from the cinema or talking about the film afterward--which we must have done.

From the same years, I do remember their reading stories to me, their telling other tales of family lore; I remember their going with us on walks in forests and fields, at sites in mountains or at seasides. I remember their taking us to the library, the zoo, going fishing, going to the planetarium, to the art museum, and, most of all, to live concerts, lectures about history or travel, and to see dance performed--we saw and heard classical music, ragtime, jazz, big band, with my parents and I remember having been there with them; but I cannot recall a single film--action film or other which I, as a child, saw with them.

Will your children or' theirs read your e-mail messages to them? Will their "E-Books" bear your inscribed dedications---such as certain of my books, which read for example, inside the cover, "Merry Christmas, 1967, with love, Mom and Dad", as do some books I still have in my library---?

By proximity1 (not verified) on 02 Jun 2013 #permalink

The man doesn't like Game of Thrones! Enough said.

Yeah, and he should shave too.