Director: J. J. Abrams
By Roderick Heath
And now for something that has never been done on the internet before: a nerd will tell you what he thinks about Star Trek.
I’m far from being a Trekkie, and yet Star Trek’s been a part of my life for most of that life. My favourite phase of the franchise was movie episodes II to XI (The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier strategically ignored). This was a series built around a bunch of clapped-out old guys who’d rather be sitting at home reading Dickens and sucking down vintage Romulan Ale instead of still humping it ’round the rings of Saturn dueling Klingons. That was the joy of those films, the lived-in quality of the repartee between Jim Kirk, Spock, Bones McCoy, Scotty and all the rest: there was something of the reality of getting old as a team as well as individuals in them, an affirmation of mortality and humanity amidst the cheesy special effects and new age posturing. Certainly the walking clipboards of The Next Generation and its successors never lit my fire. As for the original TV show, it was a very uneven creation. Yet it had a quality of invention, a solid genre basis, a sense of humour, and, most indefinably of all, a breath of loopy poetry that made it the stand-out American scifi creation of its era.
Now, boldly going where few oversold franchises running on diminishing returns have gone before, J. J. Abrams, the whiz behind Lost, Alias, and the only watchable installment of the Mission: Impossible saga, has reinvented Gene Roddenberry’s venerable series with the newly fashionable idea of beginning at the beginning. Again. In case you live on Mars, in which circumstance this will be a busman’s honeymoon anyway, Abrams’ new film takes us all back to when Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and all the rest first boarded the Enterprise and took it for a spin. Gone, Next Generation bodysuits. Back in, groovy ’60s miniskirts.
Abrams’ love of a heightened, almost operatic emotion inflecting his slam-bam action, more Baroness Orczy than Michael Bay, is in evidence from the opening sequence. In Mission: Impossible III, his signature touch was to accessorize his plastic hero with a wife, to put an actual stake in the drama; here he goes the whole hog with a prologue in which mysterious Romulan renegade Nero (Eric Bana) plunges through a wormhole from the future with incalculable villainy on his mind. He immediately encounters the USS Kelvin, cripples it, and kills its captain (Faran Tahir), leaving first officer George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) in command. The crew, including his own wife, who is giving birth to their son James Tiberius, are evacuated, but George remains aboard and heroically and, needless to say, fatally, rams the Kelvin into Nero’s ship. Right off the bat, Abrams goes for a soaring, happily absurd passion.
When next we encounter James Tiberius Kirk, he’s a troubled lad tear-assing about Iowa in a stolen car, and, later (now played by Chris Pine), getting into fights in bars–specifically, when he tries to pick up Uhura (Zoe Saldana), a Starfleet Academy cadet, and her fellows object. This literally throws him in the path of Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who prods Kirk to rise to his calling. And he does, boarding a ship for the Academy at the same time as grumpy, flight-phobic doctor Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), who’s on the run from a bad divorce: “She took the whole planet!” Meanwhile, future comrade-in-arms Spock (Zachary Quinto) has issues of his own: he’s ostracised by other Vulcan youths and conflicted about his bi-species origin, represented by Vulcan father Ambassador Sarek (Ben Cross) and human mother Amanda Grayson (Winona Ryder). Spock plays the rational Vulcan but sits on a lode of resentment that sees him reject a place at a prestigious institution when they patronise his human heritage, heading instead for Starfleet. Kirk and Spock butt heads when Kirk sabotages the “Kobayashi Maru” simulator, the Academy’s no-win test of leadership poise that Spock designed. Before the issue can be settled, alarm bells ring: Vulcan suffers from unexplained seismic upheavals, and the trainees are dispatched in the new vessel Enterprise under Pike. But as a stowaway, Kirk realises Vulcan is actually under attack by a returned Nero, who is determined to destroy Spock’s home planet, Spock being somehow destined to contribute to the annihilation of the Romulans.
What Abrams gets most vitally correct is building the film around the personality clash between Kirk and Spock, which, of course, converts into inseparable partnership. It’s both the core dramatic quality and the engine of much of the plot. Kirk’s insouciant, loutish charm concealing great intelligence and not a small amount of damage, and Spock’s cool demeanour suppressing an unresolved conflict, register with uncommon force. The film’s real climax comes when, needing to supplant Spock as captain because the situation requires his brand of leadership, Kirk provokes the Vulcan into revealing his all-too-earthly rage. The irony here is that Roddenberry hated William Shatner’s persona as Kirk and came closer to realising his high-fibre, solar-powered, biodegradable vision with the later series, so reviving and indeed cranking up Kirk’s swaggering, screw-anything-that-moves self-satisfaction is an embrace of bastard child over chosen heir. If Shatner is only present in spirit, Leonard Nimoy’s presence as the aged, haggard Spock flung back in time along with Nero and advising Kirk on the backstory, provides effortless gravitas. Pine is a lean, mean Kirk, but Spock is and always has been the juicy and harder part to play. Quinto acquits himself with aplomb.
The other characters don’t fare so well, though everyone gets a star turn, from John Cho’s zesty Sulu pulling kung-fu moves on a Romulan henchman, to Simon Pegg’s hilarious, too brief contribution as Scotty, a genius scientist whom Kirk saves from a bureaucratic exile in a wintry hell. Best of all is Saldana’s Uhura, who is sketched now as an actual character. Kirk spends the first half of the film trying to make Uhura, even bedding her green-skinned roommate (a fittingly cheeky reference to Kirk’s pansexual bent), but the hyper-alert xenolinguist only has eyes for Spock. Abrams reveals a surprisingly rich awareness of the show’s attendant baggage. It’s hilariously apt, considering that “Spock” is a schoolyard epithet to fling at nerds (at least around my way), to make Spock himself the target of taunts, and to acknowledge that it was him, and not über-stud Kirk, that set female fans’ pulses racing back when as the eminently meltable man of ice.
Abrams and screenwriters Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman have expended tremendous energy in trying to pack the material neatly, so that the in-jokes, set-ups, and references fuse with a charge-ahead storyline. The cleverest idea is to present all this as spinning off into a similar, but not exact, parallel reality where time is altered irrevocably by Nero’s intrusion, which wittily excuses Abrams’ liberties and also presents intriguing paradoxes. But there’s also something clumsy and rushed about much of it. Bringing in Scotty when the film is two-thirds finished shows a lack of skill in putting complex elements into play, and the sense of a fractious group of personalities forming a winning team is oddly fumbled: all of sudden, they’re just…there. The plotting is, as in Orci and Kurtzman’s script for Transformers (2007), confused and choppy, and the story throws in some genre Macguffins–like a pioneering method of beaming that Scotty invented but that old Spock has to teach him–that despoils the cleverness and ingenuity that is supposed to be a trait of the characters, and the pleasure of the storytelling. Take, for instance, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when Spock and Kirk have to invent ways to fool Khan on the run, and finally outwit him: there’s nothing of that wait-for-it tension or calibre of writing here, just more spaceships crashing into each other and speedily recited techno-jargon that’s actually a sign of a dumbing-down, as if the filmmakers aren’t sure the audience can grasp anything else.
And so, despite this film’s strengths and undeniable entertainment factor, Star Trek finally, and not so subtly, disappoints. With all the smarts on display, once the film hits warp speed, it leaves behind most of the delight in the intricacies of the Roddenberry universe and the deftly recreated elements of the model, for an almost serial-like pace. Abrams is a director of verve with an eye for detail, and has a way with actors that keeps them at full throttle despite the overload of special effects and ornate dialogue. But he also purveys that in-too-tight, slice-and-dice editing Hollywood’s so enamoured of these days that sucks the fun out of fights. The last half-hour degenerates into lots of green, flowery explosions in space. Bana is too good an actor to waste on such a piecemeal villain as Nero, who has none of the oversized delight of Ricardo Montalban’s Khan or the Klingon warlords portrayed by Christopher Plummer and Christopher Lloyd. Despite his awesome acts of violence, Nero–whose name suggests Kirk’s darker double–never comes into focus as an antagonist, and his noisy, rushed comeuppance lacks creativity and heroic effect.
It’s also true that the original model had a scope greater than mere zippy action-adventure, whilst the film has little hint of the probing of social mores and the wistful grandeur seen in episodes like “For The World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” or “The Trap,” the discarded pilot in which Jeffrey Hunter played Pike and still possibly the finest edition of Roddenberry’s concept to date. The show had, in such moments, genuine genre artistry. It’s that poeticism that took Roddenberry’s creation over the edge. Abrams employs it only in early scenes in which Kirk burns his chopper across a rural Iowa where vast, futuristic technological installations only enlarge the sense of mystery inherent in remote oil refineries or wheat silos, haunting Kirk with the promise and threat of greater things. Finally, although he has a sense of drama, Abrams cannot distinguish true spectacle from pizzazz. He’s revved up the series, ready to take off again, but what it might find in its new five-year mission looks a lot more limited.