I’ve now seen the new Star Trek movie a couple of times, and, for what it’s worth, my opinion remains virtually unchanged from the brief comment I made the other day.
Here’s the short and spoiler-free version: J.J. Abrams’ update of the venerable sci-fi franchise is a fun and exciting summer popcorn flick that frankly surprised me (I didn’t expect to like it at all, let alone as much as I admittedly did). However, it’s also a movie with a lot of problems, both from a film-making and screenwriting perspective, and also in terms of how well it succeeds at being, well, Star Trek.
For the spoilerized and sure-to-be-incredibly-nerdy longer version, voyage below the fold…
By this point, it seems as if everyone I know has already seen it, but in case you haven’t yet, the movie begins with the Federation starship USS Kelvin encountering a “lightning storm in space,” from which emerges a very large, very scary, and very hostile alien vessel. The aliens — Romulans, actually, although with their shaved heads and facial tattoos, they don’t look much like any Romulans previously seen in the Star Trek universe — are looking for another ship piloted by none other than our old friend Spock, last seen in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that took place some 120 years after the setting of this movie. Yes, kids, it’s a time-travel story, and the events of the next couple of minutes will radically alter Trek‘s internal history and free director J.J. Abrams from the scourge of having to deal with 40 years’ worth of established lore.
When the Kelvin‘s captain tells the Roms he has no idea who or what they’re talking about, Nero, the Romulan commander, flies into a rage, kills the captain, and orders the destruction of the unfortunate Federation ship. The Kelvin‘s first officer, a clean-cut young man named George Kirk, assumes command and fights a desperate rearguard action while the rest of his crew evacuates their crippled and massively outmatched vessel. Among the refugees running for the lifeboats is George’s wife, who is in the process of giving birth to their son, James Tiberius Kirk.
You can guess how this turns out (and if you can’t, you need to see more movies): in what is probably the best scene in the movie, George Kirk nobly sacrifices himself to distract the Romulans while the crew of the Kelvin, his wife, and his newborn son escape. But that act of heroism is the turning point where history is changed, and instead of growing up to be the Jim Kirk we knew on the original TV series — a man whose backstory painted him as a painfully serious and driven student at Starfleet Academy — George’s son in this new timeline becomes a juvenile delinquent who’s going nowhere fast. A chance encounter with a Starfleet captain (and surrogate father figure) named Christopher Pike sets him back on the path to what we Trekkies know is his first, best destiny (to borrow a line of Spock’s from an earlier film) and he joins the Academy, where he’ll befriend a slightly older medical student named McCoy, find a way to beat the infamous Kobayashi Maru “no-win scenario” test, and encounter for the first time a pointy-eared half-human, half-Vulcan called Spock.
All of these events could have filled a entire movie on their own (and probably a fairly good one, too; I apologize for all the nasty things I’ve said about Harve Bennett’s “Starfleet Academy” idea over the years), but this is only the first act. Now, 25 years after the Kelvin incident, the scary Romulan ship suddenly reappears and attacks Spock’s homeworld with a powerful drilling device that’s burrowing down to the planet’s very core. Starfleet’s newest vessel, the USS Enterprise (of course!), is deployed to investigate, and before all is said and done, the beloved Star Trek characters — Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov — will assume their usual positions on the bridge.
J.J. Abrams and his screenwriters, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, took on a daunting task with this movie. Pretty much everyone agreed that the existing Trek franchise was exhausted and, if it was going to be revived — which I’m not convinced it should have been, but then I’m an avowed curmudgeon on these things — it needed a serious makeover. They could have simply reinvented the wheel, as Ron Moore did with his take on Battlestar Galactica, but that would’ve risked alienating the existing Star Trek fanbase (which is much larger and more vocal than the fanbase for the original Battlestar, about whom nobody much cared if they offended), and of course Paramount couldn’t risk losing the fanboys and their famously deep pockets. So what Abrams, et. al., set out to do was walk a thin line between making the franchise new and accessible to a mainstream audience who didn’t know anything about Trek except for the cliches (and moreover didn’t really care to) while still somehow satisfying the old-school fans. Given the unusually high rating the film has received on Rotten Tomatoes and various private blogs, it appears they’ve succeeded.
Abrams’ Trek is a definite crowd-pleaser, with an unrelentingly fast pace, a good sense of humor about itself, and lots of action: space battles, bar fights, hand-to-hand combat (Sulu gets to use a sword for the first time since 1966), phaser shoot-outs, rampaging monsters, and planetary-scale catastrophes, all the elements of a good, old-fashioned space opera. It’s also refreshingly light on the “technobabble” that plagued the later television incarnations of the franchise (hence the mysterious phenomenon encountered by the Kelvin is described as a “lightning storm in space” rather than a “temporal rift” or a “reverse-tachyon flux” or some such nonsense), and Abrams has put an end to complaints of Trek movies looking like TV episodes blown up for the big screen (i.e., cheap).
But while the movie is a spectacular ride and even quite emotional in several places, the script leaves much to be desired, in my opinion.
For example, are we really supposed to believe that neither Vulcan nor Earth has any kind of planetary defenses that can shoot down the big-ass Romulan drilling platform that’s dangling several miles deep into the atmosphere? I guess we can cut the Vulcans some slack since they didn’t really understand what the thing was doing, but after what happens to Vulcan, Earth should’ve been well-prepared with ground-based phasers, missiles, some atmospheric interceptor planes, something. Hell, get the robot cop from the early scene with the Corvette to kamikaze his speeder-bike into the thing. Scramble an antique F-15 from the Smithsonian. Something. But no. The entire planet sits there helpless until the Enterprise and Spock’s little whirligig ship happen along to save the day.
Or, here’s a good one: when “Spock Prime” (i.e., the future version of Spock that the Romulans are chasing, the one from the original timeline who’s played by Leonard Nimoy) saves Kirk on a desolate ice world with no sign of vegetation… where does he get the wood for his torch and campfire? This is not a nitpick; it’s something so sufficiently stupid as to pull me right out of the movie and make me say, “Hey…”
Even more frustrating than this type of simple dumbosity, though, are all the places in the story where the implausible happens because the screenwriters need it to, rather than events arising organically from the situation. For example, it’s established in the film (as well as in older Star Trek lore) that Starfleet Academy is located in San Francisco; why, then, would a whole bunch of Academy cadets be hanging out in a roadhouse in Iowa? So Jim Kirk can be there and get into a bar fight with them, of course! Because we all know from Star Trek IV that Kirk is from Iowa. Except… he doesn’t have to be still in Iowa at this point in the story. He’s a restless young man; why couldn’t he have left home and wandered his way to Frisco a la Jack Kerouac? In fact, since history has changed in this version of Trek, he doesn’t have to be from Iowa at all anymore. I can accept that destiny or the Force or whatever may still be calling him to the Big Chair of the Enterprise, but it doesn’t mean his life will have followed the same general pattern it did in the “prime” timeline.
There are other examples, too. Why would something as big as the Enterprise be built on the ground instead of out in space? And in Iowa no less? Answer: so Jim can sit on his motorcycle and stare at it and feel inspired, naturally. (For anyone who’s about to point out that the shipyards give the cadets a reason to be in Iowa, yeah, whatever… I just don’t buy that there’s any good plot-based reason to have the shipyards there other than so we could have that one Top Gun shot of Kirk. And I know the Federation has anti-gravity technology that could lift the finished ship into space, but it still seems dumb to me to build something like that on the surface rather than on orbit.)
Here’s another: Why would Spock put Jim off the ship in a lifepod instead of just locking him in the Enterprise‘s brig? Answer: so Jim can encounter Spock Prime and get an exposition download, as well as meet up with Scotty.
Speaking of Scotty, why would he so quickly believe this ridiculous story that Spock Prime tells him about being from the future? Why does he go with Jim on an untested and possibly suicidal “transwarp beaming” back to the Enterprise? Because he has to, of course, because Scotty has to be part of the story to make it Star Trek. But there’s no good reason based on the character or the story itself.
Why is Kirk, who hasn’t even graduated from the Academy at this point and is considered a disciplinary case, allowed to take over the friggin’ ship just because Spock has had a bad day? Is there no other officer on the ship, no chain of command that could compensate for the loss of the captain and first officer? On the original series, Sulu or Scotty could assume command when Jim and Spock were out of the picture. The answer is that Kirk is the movie’s hero; he’s got to be in that chair regardless of whether or not it’s realistic and/or organic to the story. And why is Scotty allowed to take over the engine room? Five minutes earlier, he was a scruffy exile in civilian clothes and now suddenly he’s in uniform and calling the shots? What happened to the Enterprise‘s own chief engineer? I have a hard time buying that other officers on the ship would happily step aside for this pair of interlopers, one of whom wasn’t even on board when the ship left Earth.
The answer to all of these “why’s” is, of course, because the screenwriters need things to happen this way to reach their end goal, and that’s what we call poor writing out in my neck of the woods. The most far-fetched of all these moments comes at the very end of the film, when Kirk is made captain of the Enterprise — “the Federation’s newest flagship,” according to an earlier line of dialogue — for his valor, a highly unlikely development in any real military organization given his age and relative inexperience. In the original series’ “bible,” the guide book that spells out all the established details for the writing staff, Kirk was defined as a “Horatio Hornblower in space” who’d served for years on several different ships before becoming the youngest starship captain ever at age 30. That’s realistic, and it says something about the character. Kirk Prime is someone who earned what he’s got through hard work and determination. He’s as much a hero for that as he is his famed impulsiveness and tendency to bend the rules. But now, in the revised timeline of Abrams-Trek, Kirk is the youngest captain ever at 25, and after only a single adventure, too. And that says something, too, that instead of working for a goal, it is sufficient to rely on luck and “destiny.” Viewed this way, it appears that Kirk 2.0 is yet another of the “chosen one” characters that’ve been so popular in genre movies and TV for the last decade or so. He’s not the captain because of the quality of his character or any special effort on his part; he’s the captain — and the hero — because he’s supposed to be. Because the audience expects him to be.
Actually, now that I think about it, Kirk’s unrealistic promotion — as well as the way all the other characters just leap into their familiar positions without much effort — says something about the movie itself, which is that despite all the talk about changing history and reinventing the franchise for a new century, etc., the whole point of this flick is really just to get us right back into the same old formula by the end, only now with younger faces and flashier visuals.
Now, I know I’m the guy who hates change and I’d be the first to start bitching if they’d really shaken things up. But I can’t help but think it was somewhat cowardly for this new Trek to be in such a hurry to resume the status quo. A far more interesting approach would’ve been to stick with the Hornblower-in-space route and end with Kirk being promoted to a lieutenant. Then, in the next movie, he could’ve been first officer under Pike (who I really liked in his small handful of scenes in this), only attaining his captaincy for the third film of the Trek 2.0 trilogy (because you know everything is a trilogy these days). That would’ve been realistic, and it would’ve given the film-makers an opportunity to really explore the origins of these characters instead of just glossing over them so they get on with the same ol’ same ol’ in the inevitable sequel. (I’m already hearing rumors about some kind of rebooted version of Khan appearing in the next one… come on, guys, you’ve got limitless possibilities for new stories now, you don’t need to go mining the old show!)
Or, they could’ve bagged the prequel-ish aspects of the story altogether and just started with a whole new cast already on board the ship and doing their jobs, just as the original series began. I sometimes think audiences today — or maybe it’s the film-makers — are too hung up on origin stories. Hm. There might be another blog entry in that idea…
I’ve got much more to say about this new Star Trek, but I realize I’m running long, so I’m going to cut myself off (accompanied by much rejoicing, I’m sure) and resume in the next entry…