Prelude to Axanar premiered at San Diego Comic-Con, and for its Kickstarter backers, the premiere was well worth the wait. This short fanfilm really sets the new standard in fan filmmaking with a slick production filled with CG and excellent performances from well-known science-fiction actors. As far as the idea of building heroic worlds goes, these filmmakers are definitely doing it right!
View the trailer here:
Or, go to their website at www.startrekaxanar.com to see the entire film.
(Yes, you can find it on Youtube, but I’d rather see their website get the traffic, and there’s a lot of other cool stuff there for fans to see. Anyhow, on with the review.)
Prelude to Axanar takes a faux-documentary approach. The film brings together several key people from both sides of the four-year Federation/Klingon war to offer their perspectives on what happened. Ambassador Soval (Gary Graham), Federation Admiral Ramirez (Tony Todd), and Klingon Warlord Kharn (Richard Hatch) all contribute their interviews to the documentary on the start of the war.
To bring the non-Trek fans up to speed, this movie takes place two decades before the adventures of Captain Kirk and the Enterprise. Although this setting is when Kirk’s hero, Garth of Izar, rises to prominence, the film actually deals with the political and military actions leading up to the most important battle of the four-year war between the Klingons and the Federation. Even if you’re not a Trek fan, there’s plenty of eye candy and excellent acting to more than make the film worthwhile.
If you are a Trek fan, however, there’s a lot of “red meat” for you. Prelude explores the world of Star Trek in ways that the original series never did, and paints a rich and deep canvas of the Federation. The film paints in details that hint at a larger whole, blending everything together with Trek fans’ own knowledge and imagination. There’s lots of little “A-Ha!” moments and easter eggs in there for Trek fans.
That having been said, there is a lot of “telling” rather than “showing.” As an example, Kate Vernon’s character, Captain Sonya Alexander says: “It was like a Klingon Maneuver” before there’s a cut to a scene of the U.S.S. Ares blasting a Klingon D-6 to bits. What I wanted to know was: What made it a Klingon maneuver? What was this tactical brilliance? Show it to us. Give us the context of how the fleets maneuver, and why Garth’s maneuvering is so revolutionary.
Fortunately, the film does explain the importance of the Ares class, the D-7, and Axanar itself.
The Acting of Axanar:
As far as the acting goes, Gary Graham and Richard Hatch prove to be great treats for the brief moments they have on screen. Graham reprises his role from Star Trek: Enterprise as Vulcan Ambassador Soval, and he is a delight to watch on screen. He is able to convey Soval’s emotions all while maintaining the traditional Vulcan mask of stoicism. I watched this over and over, constantly discovering new facets to his performance.
Richard Hatch also turns in an excellent performance as the Klingon Warlord Kharn. The interview with the “Enemy General” makes for an interesting storytelling device. However, Hatch uses this device to create a character that very nearly steals the show. Even under the Klingon makeup, he is able to bring out the complexity of his character. The scenes where Kharn’s rage and frustration almost spill over show a character whose wounds run deep, and at the same time, create a Klingon from a culture that is far more nuanced than anything that has ever been shown on anything Star Trek has done to date. I really like the fact that Kharn is played as something other than “evil foreigner” as on TOS, or “Samurai caricatures with face ridges” as on pretty much everything TNG touched.
Tony Todd’s performance as Admiral Ramirez is the one issue I have with the acting. While he performs very well in the interview segments, his “speech” strikes me as coming very close to a parody of what he thinks a military leader’s speech should sound like. It’s really the weakest part of the film. His character is supposed to give a speech to rally the Federation – and the other characters all comment on how rousing and important this speech is – but the speech and the delivery left me cold. Another example of tell rather than show.
JG Hertzler and Kate Vernon both put in solid performances as Starfleet Captains, fleshing out the Federation command structure. Alec Peters as Garth of Izar is a real treat, appearing for all intents and purposes as a younger Steve Ihnat, the actor who played Garth in the TOS episode “Whom the Gods Destroy.”
How it looks:
Just about every single frame of film has been touched by computer generated imagery — all of the actors appeared in front of greenscreens, and have been composited into backdrops ranging from the Klingon homeworld. And it looks stunning.
I’ll confess that I watched the space scenes with no small amount of envy. I know what goes into those scenes, and how much horsepower is needed to bring those scenes to life. I saw scenes of starships flying in gas clouds and muttered: “Now, you’re just showing off.”
The starship scenes have an otherworldly, painterly look to them. This gives Prelude a distinctive and impressive look compared to a lot of other science fiction shows and movies. It is reminiscent of the JJ Abrams versions of Star Trek while still charting its own course. The CGI is as much a star of the show as any of the actors.
Prelude to Axanar is the first project in this setting, with a longer 90-minute project being planned to delve deeper into the battle and Federation-Klingon 4-year war. That’s something I’m really looking forward to seeing when it is released next year.
From a Fanfilm Perspective
Fanfilms themselves run a huge gamut in terms of talent, production values, and quality. The people behind Axanar have shown what is possible in terms of fan filmmaking, especially when supported by fans and Kickstarter crowdfunding.
But Axanar also shows a more interesting development in fan filmmaking. Past fan films and fan webseries, such as Star Trek Continues, Starship Exeter, and Star Trek: Phase II have tended to try to recapture the old series, even going to far as to try to make their films look like they were shot in the 1960s with the same color grading and same look and feel to the effects. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that approach because it gives fans of the classic series and opportunity to get in touch with their nostalgia and enjoy the films as if they were part of the original series.
Where Axanar differs is that it feels very much like a modern project. Gone are the Technicolor 1960s-era film stocks, and they are instead replaced by brilliant, bold colors that grab viewers by the shoulders and say: “Come and See!” They take the threads woven in the original series and tease them out into a whole new tapestry that expands the Star Trek Universe by an order of magnitude. They have an expansive view of the Star Trek franchise and are willing to explore more than just the adventures on a single ship/space station/colony – thereby falling into the old formulas that have kept Star Trek preserved in amber. Axanar gives us not just a new crew, or a new ship. It gives us a whole new perspective that shows us things we’ve never really imagined before.
Basically, franchises are either open-ended (expansive) or closed-ended (restrictive). Battlestar Galactica is a closed-ended franchise – any story pretty much has to be about the war with the Cylons or the rag-tag fugitive fleet looking for Earth. After that, it’s no longer a story that fits into what we know about the BSG universe. The same applies to Stargate SG-1. Even though it’s a huge world out there, and there have been multiple franchises – every story has to relate back to people going through the Stargate. We would not be able to tell a story strictly about the Jaffa and expect to have it resonate with the same depth as a story about the Klingon Empire.
Star Wars is more open-ended. Granted, much of the storytelling is about the Empire and the Jedi (or the Old Republic and the Sith), but there is a bit more room to explore there.
Star Trek, on the other hand, because of the multitude of cultures it has shown and the rabid fanbase that insisted on continuity is actually a very open-ended franchise. Fan Filmmakers don’t need Captain Kirk, or Captain Picard, or a ship called Enterprise in order to tell a solid and compelling story in the Star Trek Galaxy. Axanar takes the idea that it’s a big galaxy out there and runs with it.
I hope other fan projects remain open to this expansive approach.
About the image at the top of this post: This was a screengrab from the Prelude to Axanar trailer, and shows off the amazing level of artwork that the team has brought to this production.