Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: Roberto Orci & Alex Kertzman
Running time: 127 Minutes
“I like this ship! You know? It's exciting!”
An alien walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Why the long face?" Trust me. When you see the movie, it's very funny.
Once upon a time, I was sitting in the movie theater, waiting to watch the latest adventures of the Star Trek crew (The Next Generation crew that is). The friend of a friend leans over and gleefully asks who among us was a Star Trek fan (fan, fanatic, nut, in-need-of-therapy-because-the-Enterprise-is-real, I can't remember which word he used). I replied that I am. Then my brain caught up with me and I asked, “Define 'fan'.” He said something along the lines of watching Star Trek in any and/or all of its incarnations.
I'm a pretty big fan of Star Trek (OK, Trek Geek), most especially, the Original Series that ran from 1966-1969, and found the series to be a groundbreaking science fiction show that was made for adults and explored the human condition as well as current sociological issues. But like all things that I've become a fan of, if it begins to become watered down in the creative or even remotely interesting department, I check out and move on, cherishing the love that I began with. In other words, by the time Star Trek got to the Voyager T.V. Show, and after a few samplings of their episodes, I didn't waste my time. And although I was told I'm not giving the show a chance, I counter by asking how many cups of coffee do I need to drink in order to know that I hate coffee?
But, Paramount Pictures, not wanting to let a good cash-cow go to waste, has commissioned yet another foray into the universe created by Gene Roddenberry. What perplexed me is that it's a film based not on the “Next Generation” and its sister series, all of which are preferred by a large amount of modern Trek fans, but based, instead, on the Original Series, which was oft derided, frequently unfairly, for its cheesy sets, silly plots, and acting of Shatnerian proportions.
The film begins in space, that final frontier, where the Starship Kelvin has encountered an temporal anomaly (Yeah. I know. In Star Trek. Who woulda thought?). Before you can say “opening credits” an intimidatingly designed ship emerges from the anomaly. This ship is incredibly massive, totally black, and all of its protrusions end in lethal looking spikes. Think of a monstrously large, black, very sharp pine-cone and you get the idea. Is it dangerous? Well if the above description wasn't a hint, maybe the accompanying ominous music and the fact that it immediately attacks our lone starship will clue you in. We quickly learn that the ship is from the future, crewed by Romulans, and captained by a Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) who is carrying a big grudge for a famous Vulcan named Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Needless to say, Nero's appearance in the past has drastic repercussions on the life of one James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), whose father is stationed on the Starship Kelvin (but not be for long), and as a result, changes Kirk's entire life and brings into question if he can even be part of Starfleet as well as become the legendary starship captain of yore. More drastically, Nero's appearance and actions will ultimately change the course of the most important members of the Federation (outside of humans), the Vulcans, and more specifically a half human/half-Vulcan by the name of Spock (Zachery Quinto). While Nero bides his time over the next several years awaiting the arrival of his most hated foe, and finally exact his revenge, the film explores the lives of our favorite Starship Enterprise crew and reveals how this happy band of immortal characters will come together to become the legends of both Starfleet as well as film and television.
This new Trek film's existence was clearly a move motivated by a studio that wanted to squeeze more money from the Trek franchise, and not from any overwhelming esteem for Star Trek in general. I'm not a particular fan of J.J. Abrams. This has nothing to do with his work, it's simply that I haven't had the time to watch Alias, Heroes, Lost, or much else that he's involved in, and while I know that he is very famous in the industry, fame does not a good Star Trek film make. As I understand it, he signed on to this project not knowing much about the original show. This isn't the first time this has happened. Star Trek II Producer, Harve Bennett and director, Nicholas Meyer, were brought into the Star Trek fold having not watched the show either, but they clearly came across as ones who studied and came to Respect the Trek.
Abrams, on the other hand, came out with offhand comments of “This is not your father's Star Trek.” or “...not for Trekkies.” As a result, by saying these things and by using the word Trekkies, a term originally coined to deride Star Trek fans, he showed an amazing lack of respect towards those who kept the franchise alive for all those years. I just wasn't getting that respect vibe. And when I saw Abrams and the cast at Wondercon in San Francisco, shortly after Abrams had made these comments, he was clearly is spin control mode. Sad to say, he nor the cast came across well during that panel. Trek has always tried to appeal to a broader audience, but this isn't exactly the smartest way to do it.
In addition, it most certainly wasn't looking like my father's Star Trek. My father's Star Trek was about adult characters who were heroes that we could look up to and strive to emulate. My father's Star Trek was, at times, thought provoking. My father's Star Trek was- oh, who am I kidding? My father never watched Star Trek. But I did! And the trailers for this new Trek were emphasizing everything that Star Trek was not centrally about. With it's new youth appeal towards action, sex, action, action, action, was I really interested in spending time with a bunch of college students?
So, based on the above comments, was I looking forward to seeing this new Trek film? Beep once for “yes” and twice for “no”.
Sometimes, I love being proved wrong. This is an incredibly fun and infectious film that, thankfully, is indeed, respectful to Star Trek. And to my great joy and surprise, although the action is well done and at time emotionally moving, it's not the action that makes this film so good. No, the strongest aspect of the film also happens to be what is most important about Star Trek, its characterization. With all of its lofty goals and achievements about commenting on society and prejudices; with all the ways it redefined science fiction by moving beyond the conventions of the genre by, for example, making an alien more than just a monster of the week that needed to be killed; with all the positives that came out of Star Trek, mainly that we, as a species, will live to see a brighter future, devoid of prejudices and fashion a society that is focused on the betterment of humanity; the core of what made Star Trek work was that we cared deeply about these characters and their relationships to each other. This was especially true of the Kirk, Spock, and McCoy triad. From the travails of a young Spock dealing with the prejudicial abuse of his peers and Vulcan society; to Pine's Kirk, who whether in a bar or on a Starship, is still wonderfully and brashly charming, this movie is chock full of entertaining character moments. Indeed, there is only one scene that I can think of where I would run out for popcorn.
And while I usually become less than enthused about reboots as they indicate to me that the filmmakers think that something is wrong with the original conception, as if it's inconvenient or irrelevant, sometimes a reboot can be done well. For Star Trek, while it is technically a “do over”, it “does over” while not displaying a derisive attitude towards the original series. In this reboot, the film does something unexpected and toys with the ultimate dream of fan boys and legitimate historians by utilizing the “What-if Scenario”. By playing “what-if”, the filmmakers have given themselves the ability to move beyond what has been established by changing the historical circumstances of the Trek universe and not put themselves in the position of poo-pooing what has been done before. This frees them up to create a new series of adventures while at the same time respecting the past (of the future). This is a Star Trek that asks, “What would have happened to Kirk and the gang if their history had hit a fork in the road, and instead of turning right, it turned left?”
Concerning characters, most of the press has been covering Zachary Quinto's Spock. Already famous for playing Sylar on “Heroes” and personally approved and introduced at ComicCon by uber-Vulcan, Leonard Nimoy, Quinto did have a heavy task at hand. Feel sorry for any actor that takes on a role that was created and defined by another actor, especially when that original actor happens to be in the film. To pull off a satisfying performance is a nigh impossible task. It is clear that of all the actors cast in the film, Quinto looks the closest to the original character. But it takes more than dashing Vulcan looks to make a good Spock, and in the performance, Quinto is more than up to the challenge. He creates a Spock that is steeped in the inner conflict of trying to live down his human half without projecting an ounce of disingenuous imitation. All of his actions, statements, and, yes, emotional reactions are very real and Quinto comes out from under the shadow of Nimoy's Spock even while sharing the role with him.
But as good as Quinto is, Chris Pine's Kirk comes off as even better. Because of the often unfair ridicule that is leveled at William Shatner and his frequently imitated acting style, what gets lost is the complete character that Shatner created. He crafted a Kirk that was larger than life, completely in command of his ship and crew, yet still dealt with the inner conflicts of the weight of command to make Kirk a living person and not just a type. Consequently, Pine, in crafting his Kirk, had to accomplish more than just being a better actor than William Shatner was. Pine's Kirk masterfully captures all of the major character aspects that Kirk embodies. He's bold, completely confident in himself, brash, woman obsessed, but always focused on the mission. Not for a second does Pine come across as one who could not be the leader to those around him and I loved watching every minute of his performance.
Prior to the film's release, all of the adds, posters, and annoying Burger King cups did their best to give me the impression that McCoy was a secondary character. “Where's McCoy!? McCoy is just as essential to Kirk as Spock!” Once again it was a pleasure to see that Abrams took great care in the casting, and that Carl Urban's McCoy probably achieved the most accurate portrayal of DeForest Kelley's original, while, again, not being an imitation. Abrams also smartly alleviated my concerns and made certain that not only was McCoy in the film, but was quickly established as Kirk's closest friend. If there were any problems with the character, it's that he was saddled by having to utter the necessary McCoyisms, especially when he came to butt heads with Spock. Though they are amusing, the fact that Urban was required to say, “Are you out of you're Vulcan mind?” as well as the other well known exclamations, pulled his character out of being a real person and pulled me out of the film as I mentally checked off each phrase. It's like the boredom I begin to experience when every actor who plays James Bond is required to say, “Vodka martini, shaken not stirred.”
Another surprise was that finally, after years of Trek, the film created an Uhura who was actually a very relevant character. This is not a comment towards Nichelle Nichols. Nichols created an iconic character who, despite being often sadly underwritten and frequently saddled with 1960's ideas of how women reacted in situations (“Captain, I'm frightened”), still managed to break down barriers and promote racial equality by portraying Uhura as a competent professional. But with the role that Uhura was given in this film combined with the wonderful acting of Zoe Saldana, I actually liked this Uhura better than the original. And though her role creates one of the most surprising developments in the film, it was also one of the most enjoyable.
As for Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Scotty (Simon Pegg), they come off well but not incredibly memorable or essential. While there are some lovely nods to Sulu's history from the show, and Cho does get to show his action chops, sadly, the character is fairly bland. Chekov is mostly there to get some yuks from not being able to pronounce the letter “V”, an old joke in Trek. And I find it amusing that Star Trek was often the butt of jokes for the caricaturish nature of its ethnic characters, especially James Doohan's Scotty, but Simon Pegg gets away with a portrayal of a Scotsman that is miles more stereotypical than Doohan could ever have managed. However, Pegg's Scotty is the best of the minor characters, and the only reason I could think of that would make me want to see the film going in.
And what can be said of Eric Bana's Romulan villain, Nero, except that he looks intimidating, but ultimately, none too impressive. Though his performance does give the impression that he could have been a good villain, sadly, the way his character is written leads to his ultimate undoing as any kind of interesting threat. First of all, I don't know who came up with his dialogue, but whoever said, “When you introduce yourself to the Enterprise crew, read your lines as though you're a Walmart greeter,” should be made to watch “Star Trek V” fifty times as punishment.
To make a villain work properly, especially the best ones in space operas like Star Trek, one simply needs to look at Chang, the Borg Queen, and especially Kahn to understand that the film needs the hero to have a personal stake in the proceedings in order for the film to work. With the hero and villain at odds, verbally and physically sparring with one another, it not only makes the drama more interesting, but it also helps to draw the audience in on an emotional level. The fact that Nero has deeply changed the lives of Kirk and Spock should have led the screenwriters to mine vast amounts of potential conflict. I was waiting for the scene where Kirk says, “I will go up to the pointed eared man and say, 'Hello. My name is James Tiberious Kirk. You killed my father. Prepare to die.'” But when the inevitable mano y mano moment comes, it is not even really addressed. And since the film creates this dramatic situation by crafting Nero as this type of villain, I must admit that the film ultimately fails in using this dramatic situation more fully than it did. You don't have to create a film with this type of conflict but if you do, it must be adequately addressed or the film suffers. Bana is given a moment to rant about why he's mad, but that's about it. And his “I'm a simple worker who loved his wife and wants revenge for her unfortunate death” not only seems Court TV but brings a new low to Blue Collar vengeance. The rest of the time, he exists to create events that move the plot, and the film suffers.
From the original series to the first six films (Ok. We'll omit Star Trek: The Motion Picture), care was taken to create the sense that the Enterprise was almost another member of the cast. The ship was not just a machine, but like a classic car, was something that was valued and loved, especially with Kirk and Scott. But there are many areas where the film suffers from a less than impressive set design. If one remembers the sterile and bland interiors that were from the Motion Picture, this new Enterprise, for the most part, comes across with the same lack of warmth. The bridge of the Enterprise does almost feel like the world's whitest and brightest Apple store, with components that look to be extremely breakable. The hallways appear the same way, basking in a clinical brightness. And beyond the bridge or the hallways of the Enterprise, there are many other less-than-stellar set designs throughout the film. Why do I say there are design problems? Could it be because the interiors of Nero's ship suffer from a chaotic look of non-centralized functionality? Is it the remote Star fleet outpost that's so low-tech that it includes a standard gray metal door with a Rim exit latch I could buy off the internet as well as walls comprised of good old fashioned tiles in desperate need of Scrubbing Bubbles? Returning to the Enterprise, is it because it's engineering section looks like a large sewage plant and nothing like the high tech locus that powers the ship? Could it be because at one point, I saw on the wall a plain old metal-plated light switch? Are these questions really rhetorical? There are some impressive touches, most notably the bridge's forward view screen being an actual window, the Vulcan hall of cultural preservation (or whatever it's called), and a beautifully realized transporter room, but some of the lapses cannot be forgiven.
And should I join the ranks of the hard-core cannon Trekkies and complain that in reality, Chekov could not be in the film because he would only be, maybe, twelve or thirteen years old? Should I whine about the fact that no one in the film seems shocked to learn that the Romulans look like Vulcans because no human has ever seen one before? Or should I join the one Trek nerd who complained that he didn't like the film's Enterprise because it had the photon torpedo launchers at the base of the connecting dorsal and that didn't come into being until Star Trek: The Motion Picture? This, of course, ignores the fact that this film's Enterprise also had a tiled surface, domed phaser arrays, and shield deflector grids along the primary hull, just to name a few designs that didn't appear until The Motion Picture. In short, how many and which nits should I choose to pick?
In other words, who cares? This is a respectfully breezy film, so joyously taking the audience from one set piece to another, that I'm willing to forgive its shortcomings. I don't know how it happened. Whether Abrams is a good study, or very smart by allowing people who do understand Trek to freely give advice that he followed, the end result is that the respect is there. And that's what the success of this Trek film ultimately stems from. It respects the universe. It respects the characters. And finally, it respects the fans. This film nails what I find to be one of the most important aspects of the original Star Trek, and that's the characters, specifically the relationship between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. And when I see that respect is there and honestly intended, I am willing to forgive and overlook much.
And for you hard-core cannon Trekkies, take comfort in the fact that it's still the same universe and you can look forward to the neural parasites from the episode “Operation: Annihilate!” spreading through the galaxy, the coming of the Doomsday Machine, the return of Nomad from “The Changling”, the giant space amoeba from “The Immunity Syndrome”, the giant sing-along when that nifty whale probe arrives, and finally the return of V-ger and a new feature length Enterprise flyby.
As for myself, I will be taking multiple treks.