Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Other Side of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek

I saw Star Trek the other night and feel the need to write down my reactions to it here, even though Trek is not a comic-book property. My love for Trek, however, does extend to comics and my collection includes all but a dozen or so issues of the Gold Key run, everything from DC and Malibu, and some of the Marvel stuff from the mid-1990s, which was the point at which my interest in Trek began to fade. And I’ve never made a secret of my skepticism for this reboot, as evidenced by the article I wrote for titled “10 Reasons to be Worried About Star Trek.” That article was written well before I saw the film and is definitely an exercise in playing Devil’s advocate. I would have been happy to have been proven wrong about all of those points and happy to agree some of them didn’t pan out.

There’s no way I can write objectively about this new Star Trek. I have been a fan since Grade 1, when every boy at my elementary school rushed home each afternoon to watch this coolest of cool shows in syndication. I was already a space fan, thanks to a book my parents gave me about the planets and the moon missions, and classic Trek was the first and, I think, still the best pure science fiction show ever made.

And I think that’s a point worth remembering. Trek came along and did science fiction — traditional science fiction, not the space fantasy with sci-fi trappings of Star Wars — at a time when there was none on TV. And while there were a few imitators, Space: 1999 being the most obvious example, none was as good or successful or worthy of re-watching as Trek. In the 1980s, the Trek movies were dependable and successful productions and the series was second only to the runaway success of Star Wars in terms of sci-fi. By the time of The Next Generation, there was no other science fiction on TV, and even TNG’s success didn’t do much to change that for quite a while. I think this is important because Trek really was a pioneer that had precious little company for a very long time. Many of the hipper, more fashionable shows that have come since — everything from The X-Files to Lost to the revamped Battlestar Galactica — owes something to Trek. So does the convention scene, which borrows a lot from the heydays of Trek cons. (I’m pointing this out for the benefit of the many bloggers out there who are bashing Trek as dated and talky, implying that Trek is something most of them would never watch were it not for J.J. Abrams finally coming along to make it cool enough for them to admit they’re interested.)

That’s a long intro, so let’s get to the movie itself. While most everyone considers Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to be the best Trek movie so far (and I agree with that), this new Trek owes a lot more to 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact. That film had many of the same elements, including time travel, a nasty but attractive enemy in the Borg Queen, and some terrific action sequences that the TV version of TNG could have used a bit more of. Abrams and company take that example and amp the action way up, creating a wild, enjoyable and at times thrilling ride through the Trek universe. This is the most purely entertaining popcorn movie I’ve seen in a long time and most everyone I know who’s seen it was sucked in right away and stayed in love with it right through to the end.

My take is a little more complicated. There’s plenty to like, but at the same time there’s a lot missing or glossed over that takes away from the qualities that used to define Star Trek.

On the plus side, the film’s storytelling style is tight and economical. It even works well within the established parameters of the Trek universe. It also hits a lot of iconic moments from previous incarnations. Perhaps most amazingly, the time travel element manages to keep this new Trek in continuity with the old while explaining at the same time why a lot of things are different. That is a pretty impressive bit of storytelling right there, on top of the film having a nice, fast pace that never lets go of your attention.

The next real plus is the cast, especially Chris Pine as a young James T. Kirk. I have been extremely skeptical from the start that anyone could step into this role and both convince you this was the same character and not do an impression or imitation of William Shatner’s performance. Somehow, Pine manages it far better than I would have expected, and with only a couple of exceptions I bought him as Kirk. He adopts a few mannerism Shatner used on the classic series, but they’re surprisingly subtle and pulled off well enough that they actually enhance rather than detract from the character.

Zachary Quinto is a bit more of a mixed bag as Spock. His version of the half-Vulcan science officer is decidedly more human than Leonard Nimoy’s version. He’s more expressive and just seems softer in the role. I think fans will debate this one quite a bit, as the devotion to logic and amazingly relentless intelligence that came through from Nimoy’s version is missing and sorely missed in this film.

The rest of the classic crew doesn’t get as much screen time as you may think. In fact, many of their best bits are already on display in the various trailers and clips. And it’s a real shame because the glimpses we do get of these characters, especially Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy and Simon Pegg as Scotty, are spot on. The script cleverly and seemingly effortlessly concocts moments for each to deliver a trademark line — “I’m a doctor, not a physicist,” “She cannae take any more!” etc. — but not a lot more. In the case of McCoy, I think it’s sorely missed, as his relationship with Kirk in the classic series was a grounding influence that would have helped make Kirk’s arc a little more convincing.

Zoe Saldana’s Uhura has a bigger role than Nichelle Nichols ever got on Trek, but it’s not necessarily an improvement as she’s unfortunately reduced to the role of hot chick where Nichols’ version had a competence and natural dignity that carried special significance in the mid 1960s but remain admirable qualities even today. Eric Bana does a good job as the villain of the piece, Romulan Captain Nero. But with so much ground for the film to cover he never gets the chance to make as much of an impression as Khan, the Borg Queen or even Christopher Lloyd’s Captain Kruge from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Also good but underused are Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike and Winona Ryder as Spock’s mother, Amanda Grayson.

And then there is Nimoy, returning for possibly the last time as Spock Prime (that’s how he’s listed in the credits). Nimoy’s presence is the only thing that lets the film slow down even a bit from its breakneck pace and allows some of that old-time Trek magic comes into play. It’s a welcome break from the explosions and monsters, and helps set up the rest of the movie. It’s amazing how much class his small role brings the film, bestowing on it through his generous act of continuity approval for this new direction.

Definite negatives include the look of the film, which is all over the place. The bridge is a futuristic and modern set (which still looks to me like an Apple Store instead of a functioning command center), while on the lower decks of the Enterprise mundane industrial locations have replaced the Jeffries tubes and impressive warp core setup of previous Treks. The CG is top notch, but hampered by such short cuts that you rarely get more than a few moments to take in the new Enterprise in all its glory. There also was an annoying tendency to use lens flares wherever possible and some shots were out of focus. (I don’t know if that was just at the screening I saw, but it was distracting and pulled me out of the film.)

The score also is a major misstep. The music was always top-notch on previous Trek outings, which featured sweeping and rousing classical themes. Here, it’s all percussion and unfortunately sounds like every other action film score of the past decade.

There also are a few action sequences in the film that feel very unnecessary — such as one involving Scotty and a series of water pipes, and another in which a monster straight out of Cloverfield chases Kirk across an ice planet. They keep up the pace of he film, but don’t add much.

I also don’t know how people who know nothing about Trek will deal with the film doing almost nothing to explain who anyone is. There’s a brief explanation of Starfleet early on, but the Federation, the Romulans, Vulcans are never explained and the standard tech — transporters, phasers and warp drive — are present but barely referenced let alone explained.

So far, those are pretty minor complaints and most everyone I know who’s seen the film loves it unconditionally. But looking beyond the thrill ride, comparing the themes and drama to the humanity of previous Trek films, and Abrams Trek is as shallow as a theme park ride. It has great effects, amazing action sequences and appealing updated versions of its classic characters, but at the same time it has missed out almost entirely on the themes and ideas that made the original series so unique, enduring and popular.

Star Trek was never just about fighting space battles. The Enterprise is not a warship but a vessel of exploration. The drama came from its crew facing the unknown with a courage that opened up the galaxy and lead to a better understanding of the universe and humanity’s ability to lead it to a better tomorrow. Very little of that is found amid the very appealing surface of this flashy and action-packed new Trek.

To say as Abrams’ version does that Trek is mostly about cool space battles, hot chicks and quippy characters is like saying The Lord of the Rings is mostly about sword-fighting Hobbits, or Fahrenheit 451 is mostly about a fireman, or 1984 is about the crimes of a political traitor. The joy of spectacle is fleeting, and will be almost immediately challenged by such films as Terminator: Salvation or Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.

(In the face of so much positive press, I’m actually somewhat relieved to see Roger Ebert and David Poland also raise some of these points in their reviews.)

The ending of the film is predictable and lacking in logic, but at this point the film has done its job and left the potential for the franchise wide open. I think the sequel will be as much, if not more than, a challenge for Abrams and Co. to pull off, but potentially much more fulfilling. I hope they avoid the idea of trying to re-imagine old characters (everyone keeps bringing up the idea of a new Khan) and find a way to reboot the heart of this grand series rather than just giving it a facelift.


Jim McClain said...

Just an FYI: The picture of the Enterprise that you posted is not from the movie.

Dave said...

Well it's good to know I'm not the only one who had problems with this film.

I will say, however, that I disagree with you on this point:

"Perhaps most amazingly, the time travel element manages to keep this new Trek in continuity with the old while explaining at the same time why a lot of things are different."

I really don't find that particularly amazing at all. In fact, I find it kind of lazy.

They have created a mechanism (time travel) which gives them a pass on keeping with Trek lore. Now I don't expect any filmmaker to have to go through every episode, every movie and every book. But, a Romulan as the main villain? Really?

It would have been just as easy to make the villain a Klingon or a new race. Making Nero a Romulan negates one of the best original Star Trek episodes; the one that introduces the Romulan race.

I know it's kind of petty, but it really did just seem like a lazy way around continuity.