With the residual affection and legacy of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” all but obliterated by the scorched-Earth debacle of “Star Trek: Nemesis” and the franchise’s last remaining television offering having limped to a feeble, underwhelming conclusion, the future was looking bleak for the franchise. There clearly wasn’t an audience appetite for further adventures with the noticeably ageing Next Generation crew and their failure had taken with it any chance of big screen outings for its stable mates “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” both of which had barely registered on mainstream popular culture, despite at least one of them being really good. The problem the last four films had faced remained intractably the same: outside of the dedicated genre fan base, you mention “Star Trek” to anyone and they only ever think of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov. Unfortunately, as the original cast were now all far too old or too dead to take the lead in any further Star Trek adventures, so Paramount was left staring into the abyss…
Enter the polarising figure of JJ Abrams. Initially hailed as a saviour, now lambasted by some as a the bringer of darkness and destroyer of worlds, Abrams took the tired old franchise and did what he does best: he took someone else’s ideas and put such a slick coat of glossy, modern visuals on them that, for a while, it looked brand new and – crucially – exciting again. It’s why, although his contribution has been a mixed blessing at best for “Star Trek”, he’s the perfect director for “Star Wars”.
When the USS Kelvin is sent to investigate a ‘lightning storm in space’, its destruction, and the death of its acting captain George Kirk, sets in motion a series of events which change the galaxy as we know it. Twenty-two years later, underachiever James T Kirk is talked into joining Starfleet by Captain Christopher Pike, boasting that he’ll complete the four year course in three years. As Kirk and his classmates near graduation, however, a planetary distress call is received. The ‘lightning storm in space’ has returned, and the Romulan vessel which emerges from it is attacking Vulcan. Arriving late to the battle, the Enterprise is unable to prevent Vulcan’s destruction or the capture of its Captain, Christopher Pike. As the Romulan leader Nero sets his sights on his next target: Earth, Kirk, Spock and the rest of the cadet crew of the USS Enterprise must learn to trust each other and work together to save the day. Fortunately, they’ll have the benefit and wisdom of someone who knows them all very well to guide them.
Generally, they cast the film pretty well and although it carries the impression that we’re looking at “Star Trek Babies”, the average age of the new cast is only two years younger than the original cast were at the start of the TV show. Zachary Quinto makes for a convincing Spock, even if he isn’t quite as good at conveying the subtleties of Spock’s emotional state as Nimoy was. Karl Urban does a spot on impression of DeForest Kelley without ever stepping over into parody (the throwaway line explaining the nickname ‘Bones’ is great) and it’s a real shame that Doctor McCoy has been downgraded in this new cast to supporting player rather than the big three. His place, of course, has been taken by Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, a character who ends up overburdened and pushed to the front because of a perceived need to emphasise the diversity of the cast. She’s also then forced into an unconvincing and awkward relationship with Spock in order to cement her place in the foreground story wise although it adds nothing to the plot whatsoever.
Given the liberties taken elsewhere, it’s astonishing how timid this reboot is, because there’s no reason why you couldn’t have shuffled the roles of the crew to keep it fresh and different. Okay, so you probably couldn’t have got away with changing Kirk, Spock or McCoy’s roles but why couldn’t Uhura have been a navigator, or a helmsman or a security chief and have Chekov, for example, be the Communications officer? It’s symptomatic of one of the major problems both this movie and its sequel have: it wants to be different and new but it keeps on reverting back to the old. Speaking of Chekov, Anton Yelchin makes the most of the small role and retains the characters youthful exuberance while avoiding being a one-note jokey caricature. John Cho ‘s take on Sulu is likewise a solid performance and he rises above some of the material he’s given such as the excruciating ‘parking brake’ joke. Scotty is unfortunately played almost entirely for laughs, although Simon Pegg is capable of much more. He’s written as a hyperactive buffoon and brings none of the older-head wisdom and gravitas that James Doohan brought to the role. In the original character set-up, Scotty played almost as important role in balancing out Kirk as Spock and McCoy did. He was the veteran Starfleet engineer who years of familiarity with the ship helped guide and shape Kirk’s abilities in his early days in command of the Enterprise.
And as for Kirk…where to begin? Chris Pine is okay casting. He doesn’t have the natural, twinkly-eyed charisma and charm of William Shatner but that’s okay because he’s not the lead character in this incarnation of “Star Trek” – Spock is. But the way Kirk is written just misses everything that made the character great by a light year. It’s almost as if Lindelof, Orci, Kurtzman and Abrams attended a Starfleet comedy roast of Captain Kirk and used that as their character notes. I get that he’s not quite the same man as he would have been because his childhood has been very different, etc. etc. but portrayal is so off, it grates. Yes, Kirk was a bit of a ladies man who romanced his share of love interests (about a third of episodes featured Kirk at least making out with someone) but in this film, he’s written as a horny, promiscuous lunkhead. The rest of the time he’s an arrogant ass, constantly indulging in dickish behaviour to friends and superiors alike.
Take the film’s greatest faux pas: its portrayal of the Kobayashi Maru test. Kirk is an unbelievable asshole in this whole sequence. As he sits there cockily chewing on his apple, trash talking his fellow cadets he is everything James T Kirk wasn’t. Then there is the ridiculously blatant system reboot in the middle of the test after which, inexplicably, the circumstances have changed. Kirk then destroys the Klingon vessels – destroys, not disables – (killing the crews on board) and orders the rescue of the Kobayashi Maru. The scene encapsulates everything wrong with the Kirk of the reboot: an inveterate cheat, sex pest and braggart. To paraphrase Bibi Besch’s Dr Carol Marcus, ‘Listen, kiddo, Jim Kirk was many things but he was never a complete dick.’
The way he “wins” the Kobayashi Maru test requires no guile, strategy or ingenuity – he simply switched off the Klingon shields for no reason. Everything in the original conversation regarding the test in “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” suggests Kirk found the tiniest of loopholes and altered the programming just enough to allow him to use it to successfully complete the simulation, not do the unfeasibly blatant ‘switch everything off then on again and hope nobody notices’ routine. At least dick-Kirk doesn’t go unpunished and has to suffer the ignominy of being judged by Admiral Tyler Perry, of all people.
You could argue that because Kirk’s life has been very different, he is a different man and approaches these challenges differently. And that would be fine, were it not for the fact that the entire resolution of the plot rests on Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) convincing Kirk (and Spock) that they are, in fact, the same people they have always been and should skip the ‘how you been’ and get back to being BFFs already. After all, it was Kirk who said, ‘You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!’ In other words, our past experiences shape us. Either Kirk and Spock are immutable characters who will always be the same or they are shaped differently by different experiences and you can’t presume they will be the friends they were in another reality. Abrams’ “Star Trek” really wants to have it both ways in this respect.
The supporting cast is suitably starry but, with the exception of Bruce Greenwood’s Captain Pike (who is, ironically, much closer in personality to the Kirk from the original series) they don’t really get a lot of screen time. Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Ben Cross, Deep Roy and Rachel Nichols are little more than glorified cameos (although they get more than Greg Grunberg who makes a voice only appearance during an angry phone call to teenage joyrider Kirk) while Winona Ryder sticks out self-consciously as stunt casting. Eric Bana does a good job as the Romulan Nero, cleansing our memories of the previous film’s Romulan villains but he has so little screen time that he also feels like a cameo rather than the propulsive antagonist the story needs.
Abrams is a self-confessed “Star Wars” fan and his love of that franchise bleeds through this film everywhere. Take the overarching set-up: the villain travels the galaxy destroying planets with his giant space laser. Old Spock is Yoda, Pike is Obi-Wan, McCoy is C-3PO, Scotty is R2-D2 and Kirk is Luke. Spock is still Spock, though, because this new “Star Trek” is all about Spock. Important command positions on starships are handed out to junior officers and suspended cadets like they were Halloween candy, much the same way Luke walks into the Yavin base and is immediately given a ship to fly in the most important squadron in the most important battle in the Rebellion’s history. The scene where Pike, on a whim, makes Kirk first office is just ludicrous. Can you imagine serving on a military vessel where promotions and positions were routinely handed out on the basis of patronage and caprice? I’m betting discipline would break down very quickly and we’d have the Mirror Universe style factional infighting, betrayal and conspiracy.* Need more evidence this is thinly disguised “Star Wars” fan fiction? It features a sword fight on a mining platform in the clouds – the sword even has no blade until it’s activated and the blade emerges from the hilt. Oh yeah, and the giant creatures which chase Kirk on the ice planet Delta Vega look like they’ve come straight from the Petranaki Arena on Geonosis (“Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones”).
The cleverest thing they did was to explicitly create the alternate timeline, thus preserving the original continuity of Kirk, Picard, Sisko and Janeaway in the “Prime” universe so everything we remember fondly is secure and Paramount can, if they want, return to it if this reboot experiment fails. Ironically, the new reboot preserves the profoundly mediocre canon of “Star Trek: Enterprise” and it’s a wonder they were able to resist an actual Scott Bakula cameo, even if they couldn’t resist mentioning Admiral Archer and his dog.
Production design-wise, the bridge and interior of the Enterprise are a mixed bag. The bridge looks kind of cool, but it’s shot in such a fidgety, hyperactive ADD style that it’s hard to make out what it really looks like, and of course there’s all the lens flares. The rest of the ship is a major disappointment. Little effort is made to disguise the fact it takes place in an industrial brewery, giving rise to another of the film’s most awful sequences: Scotty’s Augustus Gloop moment as he’s pumped through the improbably large and transparent coolant pipes like the rotund Teutonic ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’ character. Actually, on that point I’m inclined to cut Abrams some slack as he’s the first “Star Trek” movie director in a long time that didn’t have existing sets from other TV shows/ movies to redress.
It’s not all terrible, though. The special effects are first rate, and it has to be said the exterior of the Enterprise, the space battles and the warp drive are all spectacular. The costumes look good and the props and various other aspects such as the teleport effects are well realised, as are the action sequences. The score, by Michael Giacchino, is fresh and suitably full of pomp and drama, and I confess I had a wry smile as the end titles quickly segue into an orchestral arrangement of Alexander Courage’s original series theme tune. Aside from the patchy characterisations, there are times when it works really well and the cast rise to the occasion, delivering fleeting “Star Trek” moments. Overall it reduces “Star Trek” to the level of a generic sci-fi action extravaganza, but I have to admit it’s a pretty good sci-fi action extravaganza. It’s just not “Star Trek”. It’s more like a “Star Trek” Greatest Hits medley performed by a tribute band. The songs are the same but the arrangements are different and it’s just not as good.
* – If, in the third movie, this turns out to be the intention all along and we’ve been watching the creation of the ‘Mirror Universe’, then these movies will retrospectively become cunning masterpieces. I’m not holding my breath.