Spoiler Alert. This review talks about details of the plot of the new Star Trek movie.
Part I Hope Springs Infernal for Old Star Trek Junkies
One may wonder why someone of my age and interests would be writing about Star Trek. Well, I consider it a part of the collective consciousness of my generation (baby boomers) and the one that followed. The Star Trek phenomenon is worth reflecting on for what it tells us about where we have been and where we might be going. Popular culture can sometimes do that.
I won’t go through the litany here of all that this show may have meant for those who followed it. Let me just say that it embodied an Enlightenment sensibility about the future that had been very much a part of our culture. The future could be better, not only technologically, but ethically. For those of us shaken by the Cold War and the Vietnam War, Spock’s rationality certainly appeared preferable to Dr. Strangelove. And now, of course, there is the Spock/Obama connection, which has been much talked about. A president who might be rational (and feeling, but in a deep sort of way)? Very cool. So, a new Star Trek movie seemed like just the ticket in the spring of 2009. I really wanted it to work.
Part II The Reboot
The producers and writers of the new Star Trek knew what they were doing. They wanted a reboot. They got it. They wanted to reach a larger audience. They have. People, young people, appear to love it. They are going to make some big bucks. Hats off to the big Hollywood corporate establishment.
I am not one of those old fans of Star Trek that feels that any tampering with the “brand” is necessarily a bad thing. (As a matter of fact, I like what I have seen of the upgrade of the first two seasons of the original Star Trek. The improvement in special effects is welcome.) But I do resent the attempt by Abrams, the new movie’s director, to dismiss criticism by claiming that 10% of the old fans won’t be satisfied with anything that he does. The new Star Trek movie may be a success financially, and it may provide entertainment for some, but it certainly doesn’t measure up to the old series, and not because 10% of the old fans are cranky. Deflecting criticism in this fashion won’t cut it.
Part III The Trailers
I have a list of reasons for why the new movie is problematic. But first I recommend that you take a look at a trailer for the new Star Trek and compare it to the trailer for The Wrath of Khan, a movie that many have claimed is similar to the new one. And then as a treat, check out a third trailer. It was done by a fan, Dustin, several months ago. (According to his bio, he’s 24, so clearly not a boomer.) He didn’t like the trailer for the new movie, even before he saw it. One of the things that makes his edit interesting is that it invokes a sense of wonder, as well as an anticipation of the new, that was part of the old series, and which is totally absent from Abrams’s movie.
It’s too bad Abrams didn’t make Dustin’s movie.
Notice in Abram’s trailer that there is only a short image of the latest villain, Nero, while the older villain, Khan, fills the screen with his voice and personality. (How novel is this one? A Romulan named Nero. Give me a break. Both Nero and Khan are seeking revenge, but Nero looks like a tattooed motorcycle gang member, who’s fuming about someone stealing his bike. While Khan is, well, Khan.)
Part IV The Dozen Reasons (although there could be many more)
Okay, I promised a dozen reasons for why the new movie doesn’t cut it as a satisfying member of the Star Trek universe. Not in any particular order:
1. Suspension of disbelief. There are limits. This movie requires one to believe that a frustrated Spock, instead of sending Kirk to the brig, throws him off the ship to land on an ice covered planet, where in all likelihood he would die. Low and behold, Spock prime, the real Mr. Spock, is on this very planet. After being chased by a monster, Kirk just happens to run into a cave in which Spock has been hanging out, having been marooned by Nero, the tattooed villain. Spock then takes Kirk to a Federation outpost, where, low and behold, he meets Scotty. And how did Kirk get into the Star Fleet? No exams for this young man. Just a dad who was a hero and a note about his being a genius. I won’t go on. This is not only poor science fiction; it’s poor fiction. And it doesn’t work as fantasy, because even in the latter genre there are some rules.
2. Cavalier attitude toward violence and genocide. Okay, there are times that planets have to be destroyed in science fiction, but in this movie, two of them are gone in a New York minute, each with billions of people. In one case the apparent need for this plot device is to create a madman, Nero, in another, to make Spock emotional. You don’t go killing off billions of people, even if they are Vulcans and Romulans, in order to account for the psychology of two characters.
3. Pacing. The T.V. series was paced in a way that was often hypnotic. (This is less true of the movies, but there are some exceptions.) Time slowed down. One had time to look around and see what this new world looked like. The new movie assumes that everyone in the audience suffers from ADD. Look another star ship just blew up. Look people are falling off ledges. Look at all the lights….
4. Humorlessness. The humor in the writing is contrived and characters at times appear to parodying lines from the series. I simply don’t understand those who have talked about the humor in this movie. It is weak. It is saccharine. And a Star Trek without humor is like space without time.
5. This movie could have been made with virtually no reference to the Star Trek universe. It’s bang and shot em up vision of space would have worked just about as well with another cast of characters.
6. If the villain is not a tattooed member of a motor cycle gang, then he is an escaped patient from a mental ward who is off his medication. He certainly has nothing of the Romulan in him. (He doesn’t even look like one.) Special effects can not compensate for weak villains. And weak villains undermine the character of the heroes. (The worst Star Trek films all had weak villains.)
7. The music is claustrophobic. Check out how different Dustin’s edit is of the new trailer, in part because he is using music from older movies.
8. The young Kirk is caricature of the original Kirk. Again, lack of humor is part of the problem. The character is one-dimensional. He might as well be a bad boy who turns star football captain. (And the bits with the little convertible and then the motorcycle…..This guy is not James Dean, and neither was Shatner.)
9. There wasn’t one original science fiction idea in the entire movie. Every single “idea” can be found in countless movies. (Did we really have to see the ship saved by dumping the warp core? Oh, no, not the warp core again. And then there was “the ledge.” Just how many times did the young Kirk find himself hanging off a ledge of some sort?)
10. The movie had nothing to say. This is fine if your aim is simply to entertain. But you would think that the reboot of a series that did have some ideas would have tried just one or two.
11. I prefer Apples to P.C.’s, but really, did the Bridge have to look like it was designed by the Apple folks. (There were times that I thought I might have seen an Apple logo or two.) This is a small quibble, but I believe that it reflects a lack of imagination on the part of the film’s creators.
12. This movie was not about boldly going where no one has gone before. It was about staying close to a formula that has succeeded in recent action films. It is bread and circus of a particular vintage, post 9/11 escapism.
Good or great movies (or series) leave us with scenes to remember. What will you remember about this film 10 months from now? (Young Kirk hanging on to some nondescript ledge?) Oh, I know. At least I know for boomers: Leonard Nimoy’s face as the aged Spock saying to Kirk, you have always been my friend and always will be my friend. And the only really funny line in the movie, when the older Spock tells the younger Spock that he was messing with Kirk’s head when he claimed that a terrible paradox when ensue if the two Spocks met. A terrible paradox did not ensue, unfortunately. That might have been fun. Just a weak movie.
I rest my case.