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Non-Review Review: Star Trek (2009)

This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.

Star Trek was not in a healthy place at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. The last film, Star Trek: Nemesis, had been box office poison – partially due to the terrible script and direction, and partially due to the monumentally stupid decision of opening it during a winter season including The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Die Another Day.

On television, things hadn’t been much brighter. Ratings had been in decline since Star Trek: Voyager hit the air, and Star Trek: Enterprise went through both a re-tool and a creative shift before becoming the first Star Trek television show since the eighties to be cancelled before running a full seven seasons. Even the most ardent Star Trek fan would have to concede that the franchise did not appear to have a bright future at that point in time.

And yet, against all odds and despite all the goodwill the franchise had lost, JJ Abrams and Paramount managed to reinject both an energy and a vitality into the film, producing one of the best blockbusters of the decade.

A commanding Enterprise....

A commanding Enterprise….

Abrams’ Star Trek is exhausting. It moves with impressive speed, covering an incredible amount ground in a short amount of time. There are no lingering briefing room scenes, no padded exposition. When characters debate and converse, they tend to move – whether it’s Pike briefing Kirk and Spock on his way to the shuttle or even Spock explaining temporal paradoxes while pacing the bridge. Abrams’ most significant contribution to the franchise is speed and pace, hoping that pacing will potentially off-set any plot holes or logic problems.

This principle can be seen quite clearly in action. In the finished cut of the film, Nero arrives back in time to kill George Kirk and a significant portion of the Kelvin crew. He then seems to wait twenty-five years doing nothing before Spock arrives. There was a whole subplot in the early cut of the film which explained what Nero was doing – that he spent the quarter-of-a-century in a Klingon prison colony, only escaping when the time was right. These scenes were cut from the film, presumably to maintain the pace, sacrificing a tighter plot for a faster speed.

Scaling quite a mountain of expectations...

Scaling quite a mountain of expectations…

Seeing Star Trek as a summer blockbuster takes some getting used to. It’s strange, for example, to see product placement in Gene Roddenberry’s socialist utopia. (Apparently the Nokia ringtone won’t change much in the next few centuries.) In a remarkable demonstration of on-the-spot thinking, this prompted screenwriter Robert Orci to suggest that both Nokia and Budweiser would have been nationalised by the time period when the film is set.

Still, despite these concessions to blockbuster cinema, Abrams does a remarkable job of taking Star Trek back to its roots. I don’t just mean the decision to distance the movie from the scores of spin-offs and the somewhat daunting continuity. I mean embracing the attitudes and atmosphere unique to the original Star Trek. Abrams pitches the film as a science-fiction adventure, rather than a political drama or morality play. This feels quite in line with the pulpy aesthetic of the sixties Star Trek show, as compared to the rather sterile atmosphere of some of the spin-offs.

Getting everything ship-shape...

Getting everything ship-shape…

“I like this ship,” Scott concedes at one point. “It’s exciting.” Abrams takes his cue from those very early adventures, from a time when William Shatner would wrestle a lizard man or the Enterprise would engage in submarine warfare with a Bird of Prey. Discussing Kirk’s father, Pike remarks, “You know, that instinct to leap without looking, that was his nature too, and in my opinion, it’s something Starfleet’s lost.” You get a sense that Abrams would agree, more comfortable with the dynamic action of the original than the philosophical hand-wringing of the spin-offs.

It’s interesting to contrast the depiction of space exploration in the original Star Trek to the movies and television shows that followed. In many ways, the original series seemed to consider space as a darkness that hid horror in equal measure to beauty. Shape-shifting salt vampires, giant system-eating amoebas, vampire clouds that can travel at the speed of light, ancient civilisations leaving their robot factories unattended and Jack the Ripper tripped through time and space.

Talk about a tough working relationship...

Talk about a tough working relationship…

Here, McCoy advised Kirk, “Space is disease and danger after darkness and silence.” That was much truer in the classic show than in the spin-offs, when space became a known quantity. Abrams seems to embrace that philosophy. Space is eerily silent for several key scenes. The camera twirls and shifts, as if to remind the viewer that there is no gravity – no up, no down, no right direction. Lens flares flash across the screen, as you imagine they might outside an atmosphere.

Abrams and his script writers do borrow quite heavily from the Star Trek canon. In particular, and quite strangely, Abrams seems to be quite fond of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which would seem to be the antithesis of his approach to film making. Spock contemplates undergoing kolinher here. The first appearance of the Enterprise in orbit is a clear homage to that shot from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The real McCoy...

The real McCoy…

Other references abound to various piece of Star Trek lore. In most cases, Abrams cleverly avoids latching on to items due to any perceived importance to continuity. Instead, he trades in the franchise’s iconography, the powerful images that tend to stick with the viewers. For example, hi use of the same flats the show would regularly visit, most notably for Kirk’s fight in Arena. The arrival at the starship graveyard evokes the Enterprise’s arrival at Wolf 359 in the spin-off episode The Best of Both Worlds, probably the most iconic episode that isn’t part of the sixties show.

Other nods to memorably pieces of the mythology abound. A red shirt first to die. When Nero seeks to interrogate Pike for vital information, he uses a technique that prompts memories of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. “Centaurian slugs,” he helpfully explains. “They latch unto your brainstem, and release a toxin that will force you to answer.” In a display of franchise magnanimity, the film even finds a way to honour the more recent and less popular spin-offs, with a quick reference to “Admiral Archer” and his pet.

Emotional attachments...

Emotional attachments…

It’s a smart approach to the material. After all, Star Trek had – at this point – forty years of striking imagery to draw from. In terms of constructing a functioning summer blockbuster, drawing on those familiar elements and structuring the film around them helps to maintain the franchise’s identity. It offers a way of sharing the franchise’s delights with casual movie-goers, a much wider audience. There is a reason those moments and images stick, and it would be foolish not to draw on them.

Of course, Abrams isn’t limited to Star Trek as a source of inspiration. Throughout his career, Abrams has been heavily influence by the blockbuster directors of the seventies and eighties. Star Trek: Into Darkness opens with a tribute to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Super 8 is an ode to Stephen Spielberg. Here, Abrams blends Star Trek with Star Wars, in a touch that feels strangely appropriate. After all, it was the blockbuster success of Star Wars which led to the commissioning of The Motion Picture in the first place.

Another character you can Chekov the list...

Another character you can Chekov the list…

So Kirk gets menaced by monsters on a harsh planet in a way that doesn’t really advance the plot. The villain constructs a giant planet-killing weapon, with the destruction of a hero’s planet serving as an emotional hook. In fact, there’s even a fighter-flying sequence as Kirk and Spock hijack a craft much smaller than the general Star Trek ship of choice. These are elements which don’t feel at odds with Star Trek as a whole.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest weakness is Nero and the time travel subplot. It might have made sense for the writers to break completely with the established Star Trek history. Certainly the references to continuity like Spock’s role on Vulcan in Unification aren’t going to convert any die-hard Trek fans put off by the reboot. It’s nice to acknowledge the importance of Leonard Nimoy to the franchise, but the plot contrives to justify the reboot of Star Trek, which is something that doesn’t really matter.

Great Scott...

Great Scott…

Trying to have the best of both worlds merely convolutes matters. Suggesting that the universes were the same up until Nero arrives feels like an unnecessary contrivance, particularly as it can’t possibly explain things like the presence of product placement or the fact that Starfleet builds ships on Earth. The film would probably have been stronger had it eschewed those links to the past and just embraced the fact that this was an alternate reality with a different version of the classic crew.

Let the hardcore fans justify it as they see fit, or to complain as they will. Certainly they will do that either way. After all, time travel is so crazy in the Star Trek universe that it’s quite possible that any adventure in the past could have wiped William Shatner from existence and replaced him with Chris Pine. How about the Temporal Cold War on Enterprise? Or Quark’s crash in Roswell in Little Green Men? Or even the Borg presence in Star Trek: First Contact?

Why the long face?

Why the long face?

In reality, the time travel plot explains things that don’t need explaining, and it seems like an attempt to appease the sorts of fans who will take umbrage at the fact that this is no longer their version of Star Trek, spoken with a committed bitterness which suggests that their copies of the original series were all magically wiped from existence when this film was released. This is an attempt to build a new Star Trek to appeal to a different generation and a new audience, as radical as the shift from the classic Star Trek to Star Trek: The Next Generation.

And, truth be told, I can never understand fans so obsessed with their possession of the material, and so resentful of having to share, that they can’t appreciate an attempt to broaden the appeal of the film. This version of Star Trek might not be their cup of tea – and, truth be told, it isn’t my absolute preferred version – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t Star Trek. It doesn’t befoul the memory. I’ve never understood how fandom can be so entitled and so possessive.

Dealing with things on the fly...

Dealing with things on the fly…

So the time travel stuff feels a little convoluted. Perhaps as a result of this, Nero never really feels like a character in his own right. He’s a convenient two-dimensional revenge-motivated bad guy. The Star Trek films have never had that strong a record when it comes to villains, but Khan, Chang, the Borg Queen and even Soran all seemed more developed than Nero. The closest he comes to developing a personality is his informal way of engaging in ship-to-ship communication, with a casual “hi.”

What is Nero’s end game here? He’s motivated by the death of his wife. He seems to want to prevent her death in the future. One would assume that the best thing to do might be to inform the Romulan Star Empire that there’s a supernova coming in the future. Of course, the reality of the situation would seem to be that he could accidentally disrupt the timeline so greatly they’d never meet. But that’s never really discussed, because it would disrupt the flow of the movie.

Nero fiddles while Romulus burns...

Nero fiddles while Romulus burns…

There’s no indication he has made any contact with Romulus. “We stand apart,” he observes when Pike mentions the Empire. Instead, he engages on a rampage of revenge against the Federation. He destroys Vulcan (and makes Spock watch), which makes a reasonable amount of sense. This feels an extreme reaction given Spock didn’t cause the supernova, but let’s stick with this. He then targets Earth, because… well, that’s what Star Trek movie villains do, apparently.

He seems to have no interest in the politics of the Romulan Star Empire. After all, an expanding unchallenged Romulan Star Empire won’t stop a supernova from happening. There don’t seem to be any humans involved in the destruction of Romulus. He does mention Starfleet didn’t help, but that seems a bit random. One assumes the Klingons didn’t either. Maybe he’s destroying Earth because Spock is half-human. Although that never comes up in dialogue.

Raising the bar...

Raising the bar…

To be fair, Nero’s an intentionally shallow creation. His name seems to evoke Jules Verne’s “Captain Nemo”, another angry outsider who led his ship and crew against what he perceived to be an imperialist force. Here, Nero simply serves as a convenient adversary, and one who won’t compete with the main characters for development. Nero is not well characterised, although Bana is fairly game in the role. I like his design, and the use of tattoos (and bald heads) to distinguish Romulans from Vulcans. It is an impressive visual, as is the Nerada itself.

Abrams knows how to construct a film, and probably the best aspect of the time travel subplot is the way that it ties into the theme of destiny. “James Kirk was a great man,” even Nero concedes, and Star Trek cleverly acknowledges the weight of expectation bearing down on this version of James Tiberius Kirk. Abrams does an excellent job creating a sense of “destiny” around the characters, suggesting that any plot holes or improbabilities about the characters meeting and interacting can be explained through some subliminal force tying them together.

Talk about a turn Pike...

Talk about a turn Pike…

Of course Kirk meets Scotty on Delta Vega. Of course Leonard McCoy is on his shuttle to the Academy. To be fair, this makes sense. Star Trek has never really subscribed to one vision of time-travel. However, the most celebrated time-travel plots in the franchise, like The City on the Edge of Forever, hint that time is relatively elastic. Damaged and disturbed, it will try to return to something approaching its original shape – explaining contrivances like the way that The City on the Edge of Forever brings the trio together at the most vital moment.

That force seems to be at work here, and Abrams weaves it into the fabric of the story. Kirk is destined to be a leader, he suggests. Not even the loss of his father or a listless youth can really hold Kirk back from becoming what he was meant to be. It’s a nice idea, and it also provides a handy internal justification for all the references and overlap – this version of Star Trek isn’t an exact copy of the original show, but it is still Star Trek.

Kirk of fate...

Kirk of fate…

In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Abrams even suggests that fate itself conspires to draw various important figures into the life of Kirk, and that various sequences play themselves out with mild reversals. And, naturally, it seems that Christopher Pike can’t catch a break no matter which universe he is in. That said, it is nice to see Pike developed as a character, and to see the two captains of the Enterprise interacting together. Bruce Greenwood is also pretty impressive.

Abrams uses that recurring plot thread of destiny as an excuse to play some nice tricks with recurrence. Structurally, Abrams knows how to construct a blockbuster, and he cleverly includes lots of internal references and callbacks that ensure that even small moments pay off. There’s a strange satisfaction to seeing Kirk encounter “cupcake” again, or seeing Kirk live through a scenario eerily similar to his last stand, complete with a walk to the shuttle pod, or even the sight of Kirk being dragged along a surface, grabbing for something to hold on to.

Jumping on board...

Jumping on board…

Again, this is a tool Abrams would use well in Into Darkness, using it to construct a surprisingly tight sense of continuity between the two instalments. When Scotty outlines how difficult it will be to jump from the Enterprise to the Vengeance, Kirk references the jump to the mining platform. Pike’s last conversation with Kirk mirrors his first, with Pike even acknowledging that they keep meeting in “dive bars.” These are nice structural touches which lend the movies an endearing stability, a sense that they have been constructed with some measure of thought and care.

It is also worth noting that Star Trek is primarily a character-driven film, which is great. I would very sincerely argue, for example, that the relationship between Kirk and Spock in this film is better developed than in any other single live-action production. Pine and Quinto don’t yet have the chemistry of Shatner and Nimoy, but Star Trek builds both characters from the ground up. Unlike the spin-offs, the cast of the original Star Trek television show never really got an “origin story” so to speak, an account of how the gang got together. So this film feels like it fills a valid niche.

A view (screen) to a kill...

A view (screen) to a kill…

And, at the risk of being controversial, pretty much all of the cast are developed here very well. Sulu and Chekov are arguably the exceptions, but we learn a lot more about the histories of Uhura, Scotty and McCoy than we did in any episode or film. It’s telling that Uhura only gets an official first name here (with the movie itself acknowledging that). McCoy’s divorce – part of the writers’ guide, but barely acknowledged on the live-action television show – is mentioned in his first scene. Scotty’s crazy “miracle worker” tendencies are acknowledged here, as the movie suggests that he really wouldn’t fit in anywhere but alongside Jim Kirk.

It helps that Abrams knows how to film an action sequence. The dive to the mining platform remains one of the best action sequences in the franchise, and storming the Nerada is visually impressive. The threat to Earth might feel a bit rote at this point in the franchise’s history, but Abrams does give the movie a bit of scale.

The franchise is ship shape...

The franchise is ship shape…

Star Trek reinjects some of the fun into the franchise. It’s a completely different beast from anything the show had ever done before. It’s novel and fresh. While it lacks the depth and sophistication of some of its predecessors, it is a fun and exciting ride, with enough humanity and heart to keep viewers engaged.

Check out our reviews of JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek series:

2 Responses

  1. Saw this movie when it first came out, loved it. Saw it again about 2 years later just for a little reminder, loved it even more. Can’t say I felt the same way for the sequel, but gosh did this movie do its job. Good review Darren.

    • I think Star Trek holds up very well in a fun blockbuster sort of way. Abrams is very clearly a student of the eighties blockbuster mode, and he’s really a successor of Lucas/Spielberg. Which is great.

      I actually really liked Into Darkness despite the big problems with the third act, I must concede. Cumberbatch was great. I really liked the clumsy social commentary, in an awkward-but-endearing sort of way.

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