Tonight was the opening of the new Star Trek movie. With IMAX tickets booked well in advance, my girlfriend and I and some friends went out for dinner and conversation, then joined an enthusiastic audience for the long-awaited and much-publicized film. It was a lovely spring evening, and overall we had a good time.
I just wish we’d seen a good movie.
I approached Star Trek (no number or subtitle) with cautious optimism. I’d had some cause for apprehension, as I’ve written about, based on the design aesthetic of the new Enterprise and the tone and style of the early trailers. A more recent TV spot tag-lined “Forget Everything You Know” wasn’t encouraging, either: I’m a Trek fan from way back, and I’m showing up to see a new story set in the Kirk/Spock era because of everything I know, because of my affection for those characters and concepts, not despite it.
But hey, most of those things could just be chalked up to marketing choices and visual sensibilities. They didn’t necessarily bode ill for the movie as a whole. Certainly the last few years of the Trek franchise under former producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga had been fairly disappointing, on both the small and the large screen, so some new creative blood was called for. Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were reportedly sincere Trek fans: the L.A. Times went so far as to ask them about their favorite prose Trek novels, and they actually named four—and good ones, at that. So even if director J.J. Abrams admitted to not being a Trek fan, professing more of a Star Wars sensibility instead (anathema!), perhaps the story itself was in good hands. Leonard Nimoy’s willingness to be involved, reprising his role as Spock for the first time in 18 years, also seemed promising. Yes, as details leaked out it became clear that the film would not be a prequel to the original television series (as I would have preferred, all else being equal) but a reboot instead… but even so, it could be good on its own terms. It just needed to be handled thoughtfully and respectfully, with an understanding of the concepts and themes that had made Trek a success all along, and in numerous interviews the filmmakers assured us they were doing exactly that. So I was hoping for a movie I could like, maybe even love.
But Abrams and company didn’t hit the mark. What they delivered wound up meeting almost all of my fears and almost none of my hopes.
This was a big, stupid summer blockbuster, in the worst sense. It was a bad movie, plain and simple.
[Ample SPOILERS below the fold.]
This is Star Trek only in the most superficial sense. Aside from names (of people, places, ships) and a few winking acknowledgments of the original, it jettisoned everything of substance. Trek always took a thoughtful approach to its subject matter. It was the most intelligent science fiction on TV by far in its own era, and for many years thereafter. It told stories about the human condition, with fantastic settings and situations that were allegories for the real problems of its day. It indulged in traditional “rubber science” SF tropes, of course, but in ways that were internally consistent and assumed its audience wasn’t completely scientifically illiterate. It aspired to be better than the medium required—and if it didn’t always hit its mark, it did so often enough to capture the imaginations and the loyalties of countless viewers.
This film has no such aspirations. It may be far more expensive than any version of Trek on screen before, but in every way that really matters it’s playing to the cheap seats. It’s big, flashy, and frenetically paced. It has top-flight digital effects. The cinematography is awash in lens flare and harsh close-ups, the screen is full of plentiful explosions, and the music is notable only for being loud. It has lots of adrenaline, but no introspection. It has the absolute bare minimum of exposition necessary to string together the action scenes, the characters are sketched out in the broadest strokes possible, it’s about nothing in particular thematically, and its plot logic doesn’t stand up to thirty seconds of examination.
I tried from the start to suspend my judgment, to play along and see where the film might be taking me. It begins with a flashy and barely-explained space battle, in which Jim Kirk is born under the most melodramatic possible circumstances. It then flashes forward through his childhood and Spock’s, settling into the main plot during their early days in Starfleet. But even in these early sequences—and more so once the real story starts—it repeatedly runs aground. My patience simply ran out. Every five minutes or so, there’s some story element that makes you want to slap your forehead and ask,”Didn’t anyone stop to think about this?”
One of the film’s only emotional through-lines concerns Spock’s relationship with his parents, for example, yet it never bothers even to name-check the characters (Sarek and Amanda). For that matter, Kirk’s mother (Winona) doesn’t get named either, even in a tearful final conversation with her doomed husband.
It conspicuously explains minor things that never needed explaining (Why is Kirk’s name “James Tiberius”? Why is McCoy nicknamed “Bones”?), but only grudgingly explains things vital to making the story work. The battle at the beginning, we eventually learn, involves the Romulan villain Nero’s arrival from over 150 years in the future (i.e., the late 24th century, just after the “Next Generation” era), and although he does nothing whatsoever for 25 years after destroying Kirk’s father’s ship, apparently that single act causes dramatic changes to the history not only of Jim Kirk, but somehow of the entirety of Starfleet. In particular (but for no discernible reason), the U.S.S. Enterprise isn’t built until years later than it was in the unaltered timeline, and Christopher Pike is now its first captain rather than its second.
That’s the sort of continuity detail that might only bother a committed Trek geek (but I am one, and there are lots more glitches where this one came from), but nevertheless it betrays a sloppiness in the writers’ thinking about their revised history. There are other things, meanwhile, which jump out even to the most fandom-neutral audience member, things entirely internal to this film that simply don’t make sense.
For instance, where did Nero and his crew go and what did they do for those 25 missing years while Kirk was growing up? We’re never told. (Apparently there were scenes written and shot, involving Klingons, that explained some of this, but evidently they were deemed expendable in the final cut.) How did Nero know when and where the older (Nimoy) Spock would be arriving from their shared future? We have no idea.
Why does the Enterprise, called out as Starfleet’s newest flagship, apparently have no senior officers or command structure whatsoever other than Pike? When Pike leaves the ship and transfers the conn to Spock, he immediately installs Kirk as replacement First Officer—even though Kirk at this point is still a cadet, is facing unresolved charges of cheating at the Academy, and is a stowaway on the ship. (If there are any command-level officers aboard, I could forgive them for concluding that Starfleet turns a blind eye to blatant nepotism, since Pike’s main reason to trust Kirk comes down to having known his dad.) Moreover, when Spock himself later leaves the ship, he turns the conn over to Chekov, a 17-year-old ensign. And when Scotty winds up aboard under completely unplanned circumstances, he promptly winds up in charge of Engineering, which we can only conclude had nobody running it before.
When the planet Vulcan comes under attack, how does Spock know that his parents can be found in the Science Council chambers? The whole rationale for his transporting down in person to rescue them is that the Chambers are off-limits to communication (which makes no sense in itself), so they can’t be aware of the planet’s emergency evacuation—but if there’s no communication, how could he possibly know they were there? His mother’s presence in the chambers at all is especially perplexing, since in light of information established earlier in the film about Vulcan prejudice against her as a human, she certainly couldn’t be on the Council.
It’s noticeably convenient for plot purposes (at least, in terms of setting up action setpieces) that the orbital planet-mining device Nero uses in the early stage of his attacks has the side effect of jamming both transporters and communications. Of course, given the staggeringly high tech level of Nero’s vessel compared to the Federation, you might suppose he’d think of intentionally jamming those things, and have the ability to do so from his own ship… but no, apparently not.
It’s understandable why Spock, once in command, has an insubordinate Kirk arrested by ship’s security. It’s not understandable why he then has him ejected from the ship in a one-man pod onto a frozen, monster-infested outpost planet, rather than just confining him in the brig. Of course, that’s also convenient to the plot, since Kirk happens to run into Old!Spock and Scotty there, but it’s flagrantly illogical in its own right.
It’s also odd that Old!Spock was living in a cave on said outpost planet, since we learn he was only 14 kilometers away from the Federation base in which Scotty was posted, with ample heat and food. He had no trouble getting there once Kirk arrived—but clearly hadn’t visited before, since he and Scott hadn’t met.
Moreover, that outpost planet brings us into the territory of scientific gobsmackers. Apparently this outpost is within Vulcan’s solar system—possibly even a moon, since in Spock’s mind-meld flashback with Kirk he sees Vulcan’s catastrophic destruction loom large in its sky. Yet Vulcan is destroyed (in minutes!) by a manmade black hole—of a kind powerful enough, as we see in the very same flashback, to snuff out a galaxy-threatening supernova. (And let’s not even delve into the scientific preposterousness of the very concept of a galaxy-threatening supernova.) It’s inconceivable that such a black hole would devour a planet, yet leave the immediately neighboring planet(oid) completely safe and untouched.
(And here’s another geek-alert glitch: this outpost planet(oid) is named Delta Vega. That’s an obvious Easter-egg callout to the Delta Vega named in the original series’ pilot episode. Trouble is, that Delta Vega was a mining planet located on the edge of the galaxy, a long, long way from Vulcan. Apparently Nero’s time alternation not only changed Starfleet but moved entire planets around.)
(And another: Kirk and Scott get back to the Enterprise by beaming from the planet’s surface to the ship while it’s in warp. Much is made of this in the story, exposition-wise, with Old!Spock telling Scott that his own future self devised the theory that makes it possible. Trouble is, it was firmly established as not possible in the TNG-era future that Old!Spock came from, and moreover any ship traveling at warp speed would instantly be far beyond the 10,000 kilometer range of transporter technology.)
That two-minute Spockian flashback, by the way, is the closest thing we get to any hint of motivation for Nero’s genocidal rage. We learn that the Super!Supernova destroyed the planet Romulus; that Spock was slightly too late to prevent it from doing so; that Nero blames him for this; and that they both got sucked into the past by the resulting black hole. Why the Romulans themselves didn’t seek to prevent or flee their fate isn’t mentioned; why the Federation would respond to such a monumental threat by sending a sesquicentennarian ambassador in a one-man ship is likewise unexplained. Some of these TNG-era events are fleshed out and made at least marginally plausible by the movie-prequel comic book released in recent weeks… but in terms of what’s actually in the movie, these crucial story-precipitating events barely qualify as a plot sketch, and the villain’s motivations can only be described as “insane.”
Inevitably and predictably, after destroying Vulcan, Nero moves on to attack Earth… and we again reach a point where, even judged strictly on its own terms, the story descends into raging implausibility. We’ve already been told that the rest of Starfleet (apparently all of it) is away in some inconveniently distant star system. And we’re at least given a quick in-story explanation for how Nero evades the Sol system’s remote security sensors. But once he arrives and sets his orbital mining device to work on San Francisco Bay, we’re asked to accept that the hometown of Starfleet Command, on the capital planet of the Federation, apparently has no other defensive measures whatsoever. People just run around in a panic planetside while the orbital platform merrily drills away, completely unthreatened by any ship, shuttle, plane, missile, or phaser—until Spock shows up in a one-man ship to save the day and immediately blows it out of the sky.
And so it goes. The big plot beats are like this, and the small details are no better. Scene after scene is predictable, or clichéd, or laden with unanswered questions and logical inconsistencies. Why did young Kirk’s mother abandon Earth and leave her child in the care of an unnamed guardian? Who knows? How is it that Kirk’s dad saved “800 people” from the Kelvin (nearly twice the crew of the original Enterprise), yet the new Enterprise appears to have no more than a couple of functional decks (people run straight from sickbay to the bridge on the same deck!) and no room for more than a skeleton crew, with the entire Engineering hull packed full of arcane tubes, conduits, and catwalks? Speaking of catwalks, how tiresome is it that the villain’s ship is full of them, sans guardrails, placed arbitrarily over fatal drops (and with full artificial gravity on, of course)? Is there any viewer who doesn’t know, the very moment Scotty promises to beam Kirk and Spock into an “unoccupied cargo hold” on said enemy ship, that they will instead materialize surrounded by armed Romulans, providing the excuse for a pointless phaser shootout? Why does a bridge full of people, including armed security officers, stand around for a good thirty seconds doing and saying nothing while an enraged Spock attacks (and plainly tries to kill) cadet Kirk? Why on earth does Abrams think having Kirk behave like an impulsive, self-important fratboy is somehow “much more relatable” for audiences?
(And one final geekish complaint: it dawned on me partway through that in the new timeline, stardates now represent actual calendar years—2233.xx, 2258.xx, and so forth. Not only does this change make no particular sense in itself, but it’s even handled inconsistently within the story: the computer of Spock’s one-man vessel, built in the previous version of the 24th century, reports that it was constructed on “stardate 2387″—clearly a date from the new system, rather than the 5-digit, non-calendar-related system it would know from its native timeline.)
All these are exactly the sorts of problems I’d feared. Orci and Kurtzman were the writers of last year’s big hit Transformers, and before making the jump to film they worked with Abrams on the TV show Alias… so they have a clear track record of telling stories that are big and flashy and action-packed, but which suffer from tenuous plot logic and amount to nothing thematically. Though I’d certainly hoped for better, and perhaps they sincerely tried, it’s no real surprise they brought that same sensibility to Trek.
I’ll give credit where due: some of the performances are decent. Bruce Greenwood as Pike is a particular standout… although given the nature of the story, there’s no chance he’ll appear in any future films. Same goes for Nimoy, of course, on both counts. Zachary Quinto is passable if not great as Spock; Chris Pine is at best decent as Kirk, though a lot of that can perhaps be blamed on the writing. Karl Urban is terrific as McCoy, Anton Yelchin is undeniably charming as Chekov (although he really has no business being on board at all, unless the new timeline somehow got him born several years early), and Simon Pegg is cute as Scotty. On the other hand, John Cho is forgettable as Sulu, and Zoe Saldana’s main purpose as Uhura seems to be to shock the audience by being in a romance with Spock. (It is indeed a surprise, but does nothing to serve the story.) Really, though, it’s hard to judge the acting, since all the secondary characters are given next to nothing to do, and (as noted earlier) their personalities are limited to the broadest strokes.
All the familiar audience-reaction lines are there: “I’m a doctor, not a [fill-in-the-blank]”; “I’m givin’ ye all I’ve got, Cap’n!” But there’s just nothing beyond that. Character-wise, the story takes the most obvious, straight-line path to setting up the shipboard roles familiar from the TV series, even to the sheer absurdity of having Kirk promoted straight from cadet to captain at the end.
This is all the more ironic and pointless, of course, since the story drives home with multiple anvils that this is not the same ship and crew we actually remember from that TV series. If Kirk’s new backstory and the destruction of Vulcan didn’t make it sufficiently obvious, the characters themselves figure it out eventually, with Uhura exclaiming “an alternate reality!” Sadly, though, no reset button is pushed at story’s end to restore the timeline we remember.
What we’re left with is like a palimpsest of real Star Trek, scraped clean and written over, simplified and dumbed down to suit the worst Holywood stereotypes of what mass audiences want. The plot conflicts are big and obvious, not complex and subtle. The humor is broad, not witty. The moral dilemmas are nonexistent. The character nuances are trimmed away. The promised “optimistic” future of wonder and exploration and human potential is simply nowhere in sight.
Chicago Reader critic J.R. Jones—who’s obviously a genuine Trek fan, citing several original episodes in his review—nails it when he sums it up:
…the new Star Trek is a relatively mindless thrill ride that would have made the old NBC execs grin from ear to ear… There’s little evidence of the thought-provoking, concept-driven sci-fi that made the early Star Trek episodes so engaging.
Good reboots are possible in Hollywood: new visions that add depth and sophistication to the source material. Daniel Craig’s James Bond, Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica. This is not one of them.
This is Star Trek in name only. If continuing the franchise means more movies like this one, it would have been better to let it die quietly.Tags: Alex Kurtzman, Bob Orci, continuity, J.J. Abrams, movies, Star Trek