Star Trek

  • star_trek_xi_ver19Year:  2009
  • Director:  J. J. Abrams
  • Series Rank:  #4
  • Year Rank:  #20
  • Oscar Nominations:  Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Score, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Makeup
  • The Enterprise Crew:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood
  • Villain:  Eric Bana

There is talk in this film about cheating.  That’s because Jim Kirk cheats on the Kobayashi Maru test.  Do you know what that test is?  If you haven’t seen Star Trek II, you might not, in which case this might not mean anything to you, and that says a lot about my feelings on this film.  J. J. Abrams cheats.  That is why this film holds an almost unique spot in my personal appreciation of films.  I have seen over 13,000 feature films and very few of them do what this one does – fill me with pleasure and joy and delight while at the same time making me scream in anger, frustration or irritation.

I will begin with my complaints about the film, because while they are plentiful, they don’t outweigh the joys, which is why this is still one of the best of the Star Trek films, in spite of the lens glare (see endnote).  My first complain is about how Abrams cheats.  Abrams doesn’t simply remake a film that he loved in his childhood (that would be what he did with The Force Awakens – I love it fiercely, but it was immensely obvious, even on first viewing, how much it is a remake of the original Star Wars it was).  That’s because Star Trek wasn’t his passion; Star Wars was.  Instead, what Abrams does is take the past and decide to re-write it however the hell he wants.  The problem is that this isn’t a remake and it’s only sort of a reboot.  This is supposed to the be the story of how the original Enterprise crew got together, ignoring the fact that the characters are vastly different ages and didn’t come to the ship at the same time.  To some extent, Abrams is able to work around that by introducing a Romulan vessel that travels back in time and sets in motion a chain of events that changes history from what we knew in the original Star Trek franchise, through the different series and the first ten films.  That way, Abrams could make whatever changes he wanted and chalk them up to the changes in history from the Romulans.  That’s not cheating, although it’s irritating.  No, what is cheating, is that Abrams clearly relies on certain moments in Star Trek history for us to key in on.  If you don’t know them, they change things.  The Kobayashi Maru test is the perfect example.  If you are familiar with it from Star Trek II, then it all makes sense.  If you aren’t, he doesn’t give you enough to go on in this film to make a dramatic moment of it.  So, my problem comes down to this: Abrams wants to go his own direction with the characters, which is understandable, but wants to rely on our pre-knowledge of those characters, which, if you want to do your own characterization, is total bullshit.  Either make the characters your own or don’t.  Don’t try to get away with moments that rely on emotions we already had about the characters while also re-writing their history.

If that were all that is wrong with the film, then it would be much more of a personal complaint.  But there is considerably more, beginning with the acting in the film.  There are ten main actors in the film.  One of them, Leonard Nimoy, is continuing his character and of course does it quite well.  One of them, Eric Bana, is a brand new character and if he gives a terrible acting job, we can either lay the blame on Bana (who has been very good before – see Munich) or on Abrams (or even on the writers).  Bana either completely overplays or underplays every single scene.  His character’s motivation is outlandish (Spock failed to save my people, so I will destroy his people and other planets, killing countless billions) and his performance is a big letdown – a major reason why the film isn’t better.  The third actor is Bruce Greenwood, who is playing a character that most non-Trekkies are unfamiliar with.  That works well in two ways – first, because it gives Greenwood more of a blank slate to make the character his own, and second because Greenwood is one of the best actors in the cast (if you have never seen his performance as JFK in Thirteen Days, you absolutely have to – it’s brilliant) and he provides sound leadership until he is shunted away for plot reasons (more on that below, in my biggest complaint).  But then we have the seven main actors, the ones who are playing the seven main characters from the original series.  There are five different levels of their performances, and those range from, appallingly wretched (Anton Yelchin as Chekhov), rather disappointing (Chris Pine as Kirk), quite solid from actors I like, but unable to really see them as that character (Simon Pegg as Scotty and John Cho as Sulu), eerie performances that almost seem to channel the original actors, except, and no disrespect to DeForest Kelley and Leonard Nimoy here, from actors who are clearly more talented (Karl Urban as McCoy, Zachary Quinto as Spock) and a performance that transforms a character who was often the sixth or seventh wheel of the original group into the real beating heart of the new film franchise (Zoe Saldana as Uhura).  That Saldana’s performance in the first two films is also by far the sexiest in the whole history of the Star Trek franchise, on film or television, is simply an added bonus for me.  So, while we have several strong performances, there are the two performances that almost kill the film for me – Bana’s terribly written and acted villain and the horrid, painful performance of Yelchin (yes, I know he just died, in awful circumstances, but I’m criticizing his acting here, not him as a person).  The uneven acting even extends to very small parts – Chris Hemsworth is quite good as Kirk’s father (that scene apparently makes Veronica cry every time she sees it) while Ben Cross is almost completely pointless as Spock’s father, a massive disappointment when compared to the solid performances Mark Lenard always gave.

The writing for Bana’s villain now brings me to the main problem with this film – the writing.  The writing isn’t always a problem – there are a lot of moments that really make us feel like we’re watching classic Star Trek and some of the characterizations are spot-on.  But there is also a lot of lazy, plot-driven writing, while at the same time there are plot holes big enough to fly a Romulan mining vessel through.  To have Zachary Quinto in a film beset by lazy plot-driven writing is both unfortunate and appropriate.  Quinto was the villain in what was, for one season, one of the best shows on television, Heroes.  But, in the second season that was truncated by the writer’s strike, and the third season that destroyed the show, Heroes was crippled by the choice of the writers to have characters do things in order to move the plot forward rather than what would logically fit with the previously established characterization (Mohinder was the primary victim of this).  In this film, there are a number of characters who do such things.  Pike, for instance, who goes aboard the Romulan ship even though he knows they will likely kill him simply because the plot needs him to do this.  Or Spock relieving himself of command in the middle of a crisis because Kirk is able to provoke him into an emotional response.  Or Chekhov racing away from the bridge so that he can be the hero with the transporter (something which the original Chekhov had never shown any ability towards – they decided to make this a super Chekhov who could do Scotty-like feats) even though he is in command of the ship.  Or the ship being handed to a 17 year old ensign in the first place.

Aside from the lazy writing, what about the plot holes?  Like, how could red matter exist without simply causing a black hole in the first place?  Or, if Spock’s ship was built for speed (which we know because he says it is), why does it have so many weapons, and why are the Romulans able to catch up to him twice in a ship built for stationary mining?  Or, how is Spock able to so easily witness the destruction of Vulcan from Delta Vega, which the Enterprise has to travel for a stretch, at warp speed, to reach before marooning Kirk there.  Or, how about the absurd coincidence that Kirk would end up, not only on the same planet, but the same cave as Spock?  They might try to write it off as “destiny”, but even Dickens would think that was too much of a stretch.

There is also the big problem with the reboot of the franchise that is apparent both here and in Star Trek Into Darkness and looks like it will be an even bigger issue in Star Trek Beyond.  Star Trek is not an action franchise.  It has ideas, and it explores the galaxy.  But, somewhere along the line, the filmmakers lost sight of that and have decided that the new franchise is just an action franchise set in space (this is all on Abrams, by the way – after writing this review, but before publication, my newest issue of Empire arrived, complete with Star Trek insert, that included their original article on the film from the time of its release, and this very telling quote by Abrams: “Star Wars was always full of action.  If I had one criticism of the original Star Trek, it’s that the show was often a lot of discussion about things that were happening and not a lot of action depicting it.  So we looked at the ships, battles, action and flights and all the stuff that makes a movie like this so exciting.”).  It’s clearly worked, as, even accounting for inflation, the new films are vastly bigger financial successes than the first ten.  But it betrays the ideas that Star Trek relied upon.  In re-watching these films, I sat through every minute of the first and fifth Star Trek films, but during this film I felt the need to fast-forward, not only when Kirk was being chased by the monster, but also during the (too-long) scene when Scotty is stuck in the water tank.  This film is simply trying too hard – too hard to be exciting, too hard to be funny, too hard to hit all the notes it thinks it has to hit (it’s eerie how Urban says “Are you out of your Vulcan mind?” but the line is clearly just in there to be said – it doesn’t actually fit that well in the scene in which it is used).

So, those are my complaints about this film.  They are many, and they are more vocal in my mind because I am a Star Trek fan and I do care about these characters, no matter what Abrams might decide to do differently with them.  But in the end, I do think this is a very good film, one of the best in the franchise’s history, and there are several reasons why.

Let’s start with the look of the film.  It looks great – there’s a reason this was the first Star Trek film to win an Oscar.  I’m not just talking about the way that they really recreated the original Enterprise, with some modifications (though that is part of it – it is reminiscent of the recreation of the Rebel Blockade Runner in Revenge of the Sith).  When they decided to reboot the franchise, they decided it was worth spending money.  They spent $150 million on the new film, almost as much as had been spent on the three previous films combined.  It looks it, every inch.  Even if the Romulan ship is ridiculous (how did this mining ship suddenly become so ridiculously powerful, not to mention so obscenely large), it’s damn impressive.  Every inch of the Enterprise looks great.  When the torpedos are being launched by the Romulans and shot down, either by the Kelvin (at the beginning) or the Enterprise (at the end), these are effects that are far more advanced than anything we ever saw in any Star Trek prior to this film.  But, there are also the things about this that harken back to the original show – the look of the phasers, the look of the costumes (my favorite costumes in any Star Trek film by far), the way it looks when someone is beamed up.

Let me also speak of the music for a moment.  When the first Star Trek film was made, it was decided to create a new score rather than rely on the original music from the show.  That original score by Jerry Goldsmith, is one of the all-time great film scores.  In the second film, James Horner gave us an entire film’s worth of music that holds up against almost any soundtrack in film history.  The music in this film is almost as impressive.  This is the first Star Trek film in a long time to earn a Nighthawk nomination, and the composer, the immensely talented Michael Giacchino only loses the Nighthawk Award because of the music that he composed for the film Up (which also won the Oscar).  His music is part of the reason that the trailer for this film was my Nighthawk Notable winner for Best Trailer of 2009.

Perhaps the most important thing this film does right is in the casting of Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban.  Neither of them is a mimic.  Instead, they inhabit their characters in a way that is eerily reminiscent of the original performances.  They remind me of the moment in Attack of the Clones, just before they go into the nightclub where Ewan McGregor seems to be channeling the ghost of Alec Guinness.  Karl Urban really finds the soul of cantankerousness that lived in Deforest Kelley’s performances and in spite of finding great ways to bottle up his emotions, Quinto’s is still a more passionate Spock than Nimoy ever was.

That brings up the last thing which makes this film as good as it is.  Certain changes were made to the characters that really don’t work (who the hell is this Chekhov, because he’s sure not the character we knew in the original), while some are things we just didn’t get to see (Pike still ends up in a wheelchair, but through vastly different circumstances).  But the best actual change, to my mind, is the love story between Uhura and Spock.  I liked the original character of Uhura, but she never had any particular interest for me aside from being one of the main crew.  This Uhura knows her stuff, doesn’t buy into Kirk’s bullshit and she is passionate for Spock because she sees those emotions he pushes below the surface and she knows the power of them.  The original crew didn’t really have long-lasting romantic relationships (Chapel’s love for Spock had to be dropped when she was barely in the first film and basically dropped from the rest).  In the TNG films, they finally put a permanent seal on Riker and Troi’s relationship though they had the stupid love interest for Picard in Insurrection.  But here, this is something good that these films have developed and I sure hope it keeps going in Star Trek Beyond because it’s the best thing about the new franchise.

Endnote:  When this film was first released, Veronica and I were not that familiar with the work of J. J. Abrams.  By now, of course, especially given how many times we have seen The Force Awakens, we are well aware of his tendency towards lens glare.  I joked early on that we should get drinks and have to drink every time we see lens glare.  It’s good that we didn’t do that, as it quickly become apparent that we would be dead before anyone even gets on the Enterprise.

Endnote:  I did not look on the goofs page for this film on the IMDb before composing this review.  So, all of those plot holes I found were things that occurred to me while watching the film.