Director: J.J. Abrams
Stars: Christopher Pine, Zachary Quinto, et al
So I did in fact go to see the new Star Trek film on opening weekend after all, thanks to an invite from some friends (I had planned on catching a matinee after the hype died down a bit). As a long-time “Star Trek” (the original and animated series only) fan and a former professional movie critic, I tried to come to the film with several different mindsets going on at the same time.
First, as a TOS “Star Trek” fan, I expected not to like this. Sure, the casting looked good, but even the trailers had a few “continuity” errors (Kirk drives a stick all of a sudden?) which added to the trepidation.
I also approached this as someone who didn’t really identify with the Braga/Berman era at all, and was glad it was over. To be sure, I’ve watched a number of episodes of each of the various spin-offs from “TNG” to “Enterprise,” and couldn’t warm up to them. I more-or-less gave up on the film franchise after the seventh one (Generations) and saw the remaining three films on cable (and thought they were all crap). I didn’t know much about this Abrams guy, but it was new blood and that’s often a good thing.
Third, I tried to approach this new film as a film, or perhaps as someone who had heard of “Star Trek” but didn’t “grok” it (heh) might see the movie. As pure entertainment.
Finally, I am not just a geek, I’m also a nerd. Which means I have enough scientific understanding of physics and space and black holes and whatnot to be annoyed with every sci-fi movie or TV show to some degree, because they never get the science right. I won’t dwell on this part too much, as others have done a better job of dissecting this aspect, but it should be mentioned that this film did try to get at least one aspect sorta-kinda right (hint: silence can be very dramatic), and I applaud that even as I raspberry them for the other much more egregious science-sins. I will even freely forgive them making a “bang” noise when the ship enters warp speed, even though it wouldn’t in “real life.” For the most part SF films should really try harder than they do to get this stuff right, but we’re highly conditioned to “bang” noises that accompany explosions or massive displays of power, so we’ll forgive them that one and ignore the entire ludicrous concepts (as seen here) of warp speed, teleportation, ray guns and so forth.
If you’re going to read any further, I have to issue a spoiler warning, since this film is still in cinemas as I write this. We’re going to get into the plot, twists and all, so be forewarned.
So, they asked after all that, how’d ya like the movie? 🙂
My summary review (the kind of brief and incomplete platitude you get when you ask “how are you?” to someone) is that Star Trek is good fun, well worth the money, a kick in the ass to a franchise that had gotten very stale, and on the whole faithful to the heart and soul of Roddenberry’s ideals and (more than I expected) to the TV series.
Once the excitement of the initial viewing fades away, however, there are some pretty serious flaws in this thing that bug the heck outta me. But overall the good outweighs the bad, more so for younger people than diehards like me.
The main Good Thing is the casting. Every one of the leads does a good job capturing the spirit of the character (and actor) they are portraying, in particular Karl Urban as Leonard McCoy/Deforest Kelly (let’s face it, these people are inseparable from their characters on this show). I was thrilled to get hints of McCoy’s backstory (sadly just hints) as we discover the origin of the nickname “Bones” (which is not the obvious one you’d think — a contraction of “sawbones” that has traditionally been used for military doctors for centuries — and thus felt a bit contrived to me), and I thought Urban stole every scene he was in.
Almost as good was Zachary Quinto, an inspired choice for Spock who passes both the look test and (in my opinion) studied hard the *early* Spock we saw in the pilots and first episodes of the TV show (as this *is* meant to be early representations of these characters, right?) and nailed it pretty well.
Zoe Saldana plays Lt. Uhura, who is given an expanded role in this movie, and I think I would have encouraged her to be just a bit more soulful, but her part is more surprising than important to the story so her actual performance is secondary (blatant spoiler: she is Spock’s love interest — surprise! — in what is sure to be the most controversial aspect of the film). In terms of what she actually does viz the plot, it’s pretty much the same thing as the original Uhura — make a dashboard full of coloured lights look good.
A fellow of my acquaintance, comic actor Simon Pegg, shows up late to bring us his Montgomery Scott. His take on the young engineer (which leads back to some directorial comments I’ll save for later) is different to the others, in that he doesn’t really try to ape James Doohan’s portrayal much at all (other than putting on a Scottish accent), but still does capture the mischievous nature of the character and will be accepted going forward.
I’m a bit compromised here as I know the fellow and generally like his work, but I have to confess that a) his Scottish accent is a bit variable and occasionally absent (most non-Scots won’t notice this, however) and b) someone should have slapped a wig on him. Pegg’s pretty bald, and Scott … you know, wasn’t. If you’re going to take the care to give Quinto the regulation Moe Howard/Beatle cut (Vulcans, apparently, never change hairstyle — ever!), then I do not believe that we make it to the 23rd Century without a cure for male pattern baldness. Put a fucking wig on, Pegg. That goes for the otherwise-very-enjoyable Anton Yelchin as Chekov too.
In some ways, John Cho as Sulu had the toughest job. Sulu was a secondary character to start with, and never got that many lines or plots in the original series, so Cho has to remind us of him while having very little screen time or dialog to work with. I thought he did well with what he had, and hope Sulu gets more of a plotline in the next film (and oh yes, you read it here first, there will be a second film!).
I’m still trying to figure out why a ship with teleportation needs to skydive Kirk, Sulu and the obligatory Red Shirt (guess what happens to him!) down to a mining platform (okay this bit has been explained, but how did they avoid burning up when entering the atmosphere? Again, magic won’t cover this one!) where they fight with … swords and fists? (good catch, Ebert!), but at least it gave Cho an extra scene.
Which leads us back to Kirk. At the risk of stating the obvious, Chris Pine is no Shatner, and that’s both good and bad (but mostly good, at least for him). His performance is a star-making turn to the point that he will probably bed as many women-of-suspicious-origin in the next few months as Kirk did in the TV show. Oddly, he does the worst job of the entire cast at channelling his predecessor (beyond having a passing resemblance) — I can only imagine this was a deliberate choice on Abrams’ part — and only pays lip service to the Shatnerian qualities of the character (yes, “Shatnerian.” Look it up).
Of course, Pine is far too busy running, jumping, fighting, hitting on women, and particularly dangling off slick platforms and/or being choked (repeatedly!) to bring much subtlety to the performance, and I suppose in that sense he is Shatnerian (heh), but I was disappointed that Pine didn’t at least incorporate a little of that Trademark. Halting. Speech. in his performance. Just a touch, man, is that too much to ask?
The second Good Thing about the film (and the thing that forgives most of its flaws) is the clear and unmistakable love of the original show Abrams, his writers and cast put into this. There are plenty of references that the general public will recognise, a lot of one-liners only the hard-core will smirk at, and a healthy littering of homages to the original TV series. This gives the movie a charm and familiarity even as we are asked to follow Abrams to somewhere a bit “new,” and saves Star Trek from being just another space action movie (albeit one with iconic characters in). Abrams is in my view (based primarily on this film and Cloverfield) not really a very good director, but he has a very clear idea about what he wants to see on-screen and won’t let a little thing like physics or sense get in the way of that.
His obvious choice to let the actors themselves incorporate as much or as little of the original characterisation as they see fit and re-use of some of the same ideas as his earlier work speaks of some laziness on his part, as though he was satisfied that the look and feel were sufficiently new and didn’t care if they got everything exactly right. How one could work diligently to make sure the music was just right (and it is) and yet do something flatly impossible (in any century) such as build a starship on the ground for the sake of a nice-looking matte shot is the kind AADD sloppiness that probably works in his favour with the target market (ie, AADD sci fi fans).
The final Good Thing about this film is that it covers a lot of ground and concepts, just as any good sci-fi movie should. After an initial sequence covering Kirk’s (alternate) birth story, we jump around from Iowa to Vulcan, to San Francisco for some Starfleet stuff, then off to deep space, Delta Vega, black holes and back and forth with epilepsy-inducing rapidity. I’m old and used to the slower pace of the TV series and previous movies, but the rapid-fire editing didn’t bother me as much as I feared; most of the time (note: most), the quick gasps of exposition were sufficient for me to follow the tale and of course younger viewers are very much used to the minimal-information-maximal-action style of today’s movies and TV. But I do have to pause here to give out my first Film Flaw:
Brickbat #1 – Steady the Fucking Camera Already!!
Probably because I have sensibly skipped most recent “high action” flicks like The Fast and the Furious etc., the overwhelming use of what I call “shakycam” is highly annoying to me. There are moments when the effect is quite desirable: when a torpedo hits your ship, for example, and the theatre (or your home stereo) is capable of complementing this with powerful Dolby 7.1 surroundsound, you want “shakycam” to add visual punch. I get that, and enjoy it when applied judiciously.
The problem is that Abrams uses that technique nearly continuously, so much so that non-shakycam sequences are actually noticeable, which is bad. In their effort to make the CGI effects and such look more realistic, Abrams decided on the same unrelenting “documentary” feel that made Cloverfield hard (for me) to watch and is what prevents sensible people from ever seeing The Blair Witch Project more than once. Shake, wander, lens flare, jitter, handheld — the entire universe of Photoshop cam effects are present and accounted for. Does this make those sequences more realistic? Perhaps. But the “amateur/handheld” feel has a different effect on me; it reminds me that this is artificial, that it’s a deliberate move, and thus disturbs my suspension of disbelief greatly.
That said, the film does finds time to touch on many of the fundamental pieces of Roddenberry’s philosophies, from the role of Starfleet to the struggle of progression in civilisation and how we balance logic and emotion in that. New-Age Trekkies will be pleased. Next, let’s look at something that I get the distinct feeling is less important with younger fans than it is with me:
Brickbat #2 – The Plot is PATHETIC!
One is often too busy “drinking it all in” on action-and-sfx-orgies like this one to really think too much about the plot, but even as I was sitting there I had more than the usual number of “wait a minute …” moments. Now, this is hardly the first time a Trek plot had some problems, but most of them could at least be followed. This one is damn near incoherent, and that’s not just my opinion — I dare you to try to get anyone just out of the theatre to explain in a meaningful way the whole “revenge of Romulus” plot in a manner that makes sense. Hint: they won’t be able to, in part because the SFX, pacing, non-linear editing and general cacophony distract one from the details, but also because the details don’t make a lick of sense. It is *required* reading to pick up the comic-book prequel, Star Trek: Countdown (!!) in order to follow the actual storyline, and even then there is a fertiliser truck’s worth of incredulity to spread around. You can download issues of this digital comic onto your iPhone, which would be helpful before going to see the film. Pity they don’t tell you this.
Here’s what else the movie doesn’t tell you: ironically, the character that “died” first in the original movies (Spock, in Wrath of Khan, though he is reborn in the next film) lives far longer than any of the other crewmembers (a feature of both his Vulcan heritage and rebirth, apparently). Very late in the 24th century, Spock is still alive and still active as a diplomat in the Federation (this is the time period “Next Generation” was set in, and the comic features plotlines involving those characters).
All of the above is not referenced in any way in the film.
Spock goes on a mission to stop an “imminent supernova that threatens the galaxy” (science-nerd note: bullshit!), planning to use “red matter” (a complete Macguffin, but never mind) to create a black hole to “absorb the explosion” (more bullshit!), but he fails (!!) and Romulus (home planet of the Romulans, duh) is destroyed, but Spock’s ship gets sucked into the black-hole-now-worm-hole (coughBULLSHITcough) along with the Romulan miner-ship Narada.
Really, Starfleet couldn’t find anyone other than a 200-year-old Vulcan to handle this job??
The captain of the Narada, a Romulan miner named Nero, is enraged by the destruction of his home planet. He and his crew shave their heads and tattoo themselves in mourning, and vow revenge on Spock, but somehow (MAGIC!!) Nero came out of the wormhole 25 years before Spock’s ship will, though he doesn’t know this quite yet. In a fury, the Narada attacks the science vessel USS Kelvin, on which are Kirk’s father George (as first officer) and his very pregnant mother Winona Kirk (played by Jennifer Morrison). The attack completely alters the timeline from that point forward, creating the “familiar but quite different in places” alternate timeline in which the entire movie takes place (so that’s why Chekov has curly hair!). George Kirk sacrifices himself and the ship to buy the crew of the Kelvin (including Winona) time to escape, and Nero discovers that Spock’s ship will emerge from the wormhole in 25 years, so they wait for it (!!).
Now, before we go any further, ask yourself this question: Imagine you are Nero, and you have just been flung into the past in your very advanced technological spaceship because of the traumatic destruction of your home planet and its people. Do you:
a. Head to Romulus, show off your ship as proof of your claim you are from the future, and help the Romulans to escape their terrible destruction, or do you
b. Sit around for 25 years and wait for the guy who didn’t save your planet to show up so you can extract revenge?
Yeah. It took me a while to notice this gaping huge plothole, but there it is. But sit tight, it gets stupider later on …
This is the point at which the Star Trek movie actually begins. Apart from a painfully brief and thoroughly confusing bit of flashback, much of Spock’s mission, the reasons for its failure and the timeslip are just glossed over in a too-short interlude before the explosions and killing start up again. We sort of gather at the end of the first scene in the movie that Nero (played very TNG-esque by Eric Bana, quite correctly in light of the hidden backstory, but if you didn’t read the comic book seems very out-of-place) is in the wrong time period, but not much else.
We take a break from that to watch Kirk and Spock grow up in their wildly-different worlds. Kirk is a snotty tearaway seen driving a Corvette (in the 23rd century!) using stick (!!!) and seemingly deliberately trying to kill himself, while Spock is the picked-on über-nerd his fan base will strongly identify with (constantly catching logical flak because his mother — played by Winona Ryder, well hello there stranger! — is human). Jump forward ten years or so (because apparently nothing else of interest happened between 11 and 21 years for these two), where Kirk is being a snothead at the local bar (trying to hit on Uhura, whom he doesn’t yet know) and Spock is turning down a spot in the Vulcan Science Academy. Both are persuaded to head for Starfleet training (this is where Kirk meets McCoy), and then we jump again another three years and now Kirk and McCoy (and everyone else who are completely unaged from three years earlier — tell me, did you look exactly the same at 21 as you did at 25?) are pals (a bonding we don’t get to see), Uhura is still unattainable and the Kobeyashi Maru test referenced in Star Trek II is brought to life. This is one of the most purely entertaining bits of the film, at least for a diehard Wrath of Khan guy like me.
Suddenly there’s a problem on Vulcan, so we all have to get on the Enterprise and go zooming off, because apparently Starfleet doesn’t have anyone else but a ship full of green cadets and Captain Pike (very different from the TV version, older for a start and more of a father figure to Kirk — in the TV series they’d never met until Spock’s court martial — damn that alternate timeline!).
Herein we get to the nub of what’s wrong with this movie, and it’s surprisingly not the huge chunks of missing backstory, the implausible physics or the hackneyed time-travel thing: the problem with this film is that it’s just a series of (very, very well-done and enjoyable) set-pieces that don’t hang together at all. The car sequence is well-done (though silly), the bar fight is well-done, the brief pre-ship Starfleet sequence is well-done (and funny), and many of the ongoing set-pieces (the parachuting to the mining platform, the Delta Vega sequence, the climax and so on) all click beautifully as individual scenes, but often don’t connect together or serve the story very much, even after the plot settles down and becomes linear in the storytelling.
The film’s addiction to action sequences also gets in the way of deeper understanding. In particular, the scene on Delta Vega (Kirk has been marooned there by Spock — they don’t get on well at first, which is a brilliant idea) could have been a perfect opportunity to slow the film down for a bit, chew over all that’s been revealed so far and — particularly once Old Spock shows up — act as a intermission/prelude to the non-stop eye-candy orgy that’s coming. But no, they have to make it an action sequence. A particularly ridiculous one too, I might add (think Star Wars ep V meets Jurassic Park). If this was the moment where they were paying homage to the original’s sometimes campy moments and dodgy special effects, then they got it spot on. Otherwise, it’s pretty embarrassing.
So by an amazing coincidence (MAGIC!!), young Kirk happens to stumble across Old Spock, who (we discover in the one-and-only moment of true stop-everything-here’s-some-plot-exposition goodness) finally came out of the wormhole 25 years after the Narada, was duly captured by Nero, and deposited on this planet so he could watch helplessly as Nero — in revenge, remember — destroys the planet of Vulcan and its six billion inhabitants (and this does in fact happen — a lesser film would have made this the whole focus of the movie). Somehow (MAGIC!), Spock inherently understands that all this has altered the timeline, that “his” past has now never happened and that this young Kirk in front of him is a somewhat different version of his (now long-dead) friend. You’d think that would get a reaction, but this is Spock we’re talking about (Spock is, however, the only one who calls him “Jim”). Leonard Nimoy returns with the same casual elegance as he always had (and some nice “aging” makeup!), but I wish he had enough of his youthful vigour to squeeze out more — ahem — “logical” explanations of what’s going on.
Having just been responsible (indirectly?) for screwing up the universe’s entire timeline, Old Spock quickly sets about deliberately messing with the future (!!!) by letting Kirk in on what’s going to happen and by manipulating him to influence events in a particular direction. This strikes me as very UN-Spock, but hey he’s 200+ years old now, who’s to say. Let it go.
Old Spock and Kirk journey to the conveniently-nearby Starbase Outpost, where they meet Scotty. Spock again manipulates the future by revealing to Scotty the secret of “teleporting to or from a moving target,” the very thing young Engineer Scott was famous for inventing (in the “original” timeline) — normally I’d assign another (!!!!) to this, but I’m almost out of exclamation points and besides, they did something like this before in Star Trek IV, so that makes it … um, okay? Let it go.
Kirk and Scotty (but not Old Spock) beam back onto the Enterprise into one of the handful of purely-comical scenes which is very amusing but also shows up a serious design flaw (more about that later) and we’re back in the thick of the ongoing attempt to stop Nero, who (having succeeded completely with his evil plan for revenge — I think that’s a sci-fi first isn’t it?) has decided to now destroy all the Federation planets (bwa ha ha!), and is still in need of stopping.
Kirk, on the direct advice of Old Spock, tricks Spock into giving up the captaincy of the Enterprise (Pike is being held hostage, forgot to mention that sorry) and assumes command. Spock, having moments ago been ready to (literally) kill Kirk, does a 180 and offers to help, and with newcomer (and whimsically funny) Scotty given — completely insensibly — carte blanche over the engines (was there no chief engineer before?), we’re off to something of a predictable confrontation and (rather hollow, really) victory over Nero.
This review is already longer than the screenplay of the movie its reviewing, but I have one more brickbat to give out:
Brickbat #3 — Design consistency? What’s that?
One of the reasons I hated the last Trek TV series (“Enterprise”) so very much was that even though that show was set 50 years before the original “Star Trek” TV show, everything was (of course) newer and cooler. This is because designers (apparently) hate doing actual retro, as in homework, as in thinking about what the 1960s set of the Enterprise would look like if it were actually 50 years earlier. They did this again (perhaps accidentally, I will grant) in “The Next Generation,” where the Enterprise of 70 years post-TOS is a cornucopia of beige and touchscreens which while definitely more modern than the old show, nonetheless painted a vision of the 23rd century where taste is as rare as unsynthesized Earl Grey tea.
The “new” set for the bridge of the young Enterprise is of course nothing like any of the sets that have come before it, a glitteringly clean white-and-blue affair (and a nightmare to keep clean!). Very nice, but if I’m supposed to believe that this bridge came at least a decade or two before the bridge seen in TOS, then Houston, we have a problem.
Adding to that is of course (and again) the inability of the visual team to make the exterior of the original Enterprise or other ships look more primitive than they did in the 60s or even in the movies of the 80s. I guess most people don’t care and maybe I shouldn’t either, but I grew up watching historical recreations on the BBC and “period detail” was of paramount importance then, and that feeling transferred to me and applies even to relative periods of the future. In other words, a story set in X-50 years should look more primitive and cheap than a story set in X, even if X was made first and X-50 was made later.
It’s too much to ask from Hollywood, apparently …
Worse still — and really unforgivable as this is within the same very high-budget film — once you leave the bridge and living quarters of the Enterprise, the rest of the ship’s interior looks for all the world like a sewage plant. The “clean white everything” look apparently costs big bucks, because Engineering is as full of bare pipes, stark lighting and minimal tech as the back room of your local Costco. It’s one thing for Engineering to have a different aesthetic than the Bridge (though they’ve usually shared a common sensibility), but this engine room looks like it’s from an entirely different movie! And don’t even get me started about the “Yoyodyne” design of the Romulan ship’s interior, right down to the random puddles of murky water!
Oh, and while we’re ranting, will someone please explain why almost every threat to earth in all the Star Trek movies have to take place within view of Starfleet Academy in San Francisco? When Nero decides to blow up the Earth — which for some reason (MAGIC!) requires drilling a hole to the core to put the Red Matter in, you couldn’t just explode the Red Matter on or above the surface — he just happens to choose the exact same spot where the whales were released in Star Trek IV? Right next door to Starfleet?? Really???
Most incredibly of all, the film seems to end triumphantly — the crew is complete, everyone’s pals, Earth is saved, Nero is destroyed, etc. — but in fact if you think about it, the film ends horribly. No attempt is (or will be) made to restore the timeline back to where it “should” be (and remember, Old Spock has plenty of knowledge and experience on how to do this!), the planet Vulcan remains destroyed (but Romulus will now be spared — I think — because now everyone knows the future fate of that planet), which means the crew failed their first mission!
Spock’s race (six billion people!) and planet is all but wiped out (Old Spock leaves to start a colony with the few remaining survivors), and the past we (the audience) all know and love is gone. Nero’s revenge is complete and untouched, and though the future is now more “wide open” than it was because the “original” continuity has been wiped, we won’t see these “new” versions of the characters grow into the ones we remember.
I might add on a personal note that even all this time after 9/11, watching someone deliberately set off a (kind of bomb) that kills indiscriminately and leaves only a smoldering ruin behind was a little hard to watch. The imploding Vulcan was just a little too much like the collapsing towers for my taste. Effects are getting too real, I guess …
None of this, even with all the extensive nitpicking I’ve done, takes away from the overall effect of the movie: good, funny (and the funny is much appreciated), well-executed space opera that gives us plenty of big-screen, expensive-looking thrills and laughs that will entertain and amaze you, especially if you don’t think about it too hard. So, “boldly” go see it, and let me know what you think; I’d be very interested to hear.
ADDENDUM: Just thought of this yesterday — at the end of the movie, we are left with two Spocks, both of whom are known to the Federation (and thus living proof that time travel works) and one of whom has extensive knowledge on how to manipulate time and history. But the Federation are just going to let Old Spock go off and start a Vulcan colony? Oh I don’t think so …