J.J. Abrams | 127 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13
It’s Star Trek, Jim, but not as we know it.
Sorry, but as someone who isn’t actually much of a Trek fan I couldn’t resist that. I’ll try not to include any more. In which case, it’s set phasers to thrill (sorry) as the crew of the Starship Enterprise boldly go (sorry) back to the big screen, hoping to relaunch the ailing franchise to live longer and prosper (sorry). The crew look younger than ever and there’s a heavier dose of action to boot — why, it sounds like it might almost be fun! In which case, beam me up Scotty! (Done now.)
“Fun” is certainly the buzz-word for this incarnation of Trek: it’s all action, special effects and spectacle, without a single scene of uniformed elderly people sat debating ethics. Though some ethical issues circle the plot, they provide character motivation (or excuse) rather than any kind of debate. While the average blockbuster crowd won’t mind this — and nor will critics, apparently — the universal praise this reboot has received may become somewhat baffling. Clearly claims that it’s “great science fiction” are misattributed — it’s great action-adventure in a sci-fi setting. Perhaps an easy confusion to make, but an irritating one nonetheless.
But I digress. The emphasis is very much on spectacle throughout, with wide shots of future cities, starships, alien planets and battles, all shining and designed to be as awe-inspiring as possible. No element of the film remains untouched by this desire: the Good Guys and Bad Guys are clearly delineated — no shades of grey in this gleaming white Universe; the jokes are all entirely upfront, almost to the point of slapstick; everyone’s very young and pretty; and the majority of female characters (there aren’t many) are gratuitously in their underwear at some point too. It all makes for a huge contrast to the dark-as-we-can blockbusters that have been doing the rounds for the last few years (and will be as much as ever this summer) — it makes Iron Man look serious. This is completely appropriate for Trek as originally conceived: the original series was Kennedy-era optimism, all about equality, exploration and peace; perhaps then this is the first film of Obama-era optimism — lots of young people defeating overwhelming terrorist odds.
With all its bright, optimistic youthfulness, it has the feel of a PG-rated family-friendly blockbuster, which might lead one to wonder about the meaningfulness of the “12” certificate now that it has an “A” attached. The answer undoubtedly lies in the action sequences (not the underwear — there’s nothing worse than Princess Leia’s bikini, and that’s rated U. Not that it would be today.) It’s unfortunate that the opening U.S.S. Kelvin sequence is the film’s best, though the rest don’t suffer by comparison. While nothing else is as individually memorable — though parachuting onto the drill tries very hard to be — it’s all of a good enough quality and, crucially, moves by fast enough that you likely won’t notice.
There’s a plot too, believe it or not. It’s actually quite complex, but is pushed along in big chunks of exposition and those breezy action scenes, meaning most won’t notice the strain writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are under to make it all work. Sadly they didn’t quite pull it off: there are some glaring plot holes, the worst being a huge blob of coincidence fuelled by convenience halfway through that barely makes any sense. This icy planet — or The Planet of Convenience, as I feel it should be called — features the giant red monster seen so prominently in the trailer. It will come as no surprise that it’s designed by the bloke who came up with Cloverfield’s beasty, not only because it looks almost as foul but because Abrams resolutely keeps the same crew around him at every level. But it’s an irritant to those looking for a cohesive story, starring in an unnecessary action sequence that stinks of both “oh, and a big nasty monster would be cool” and “no one will buy this coincidence, let’s hide it in an action sequence with a distractingly ugly monster!”
The plot does impress in one regard however: it is incredibly entrenched in the intricacies of Star Trek continuity and history, yet all this manages to slip by amiably and accessibly. It’s so at pains to explain why this new-look Trek is completely different from canon yet absolutely a part of it that it runs round the houses tying things together and explaining away inconsistencies that only knowledgeable Trekkies will care about. This is impressive because, in spite of it, it feels like a Fresh New Trek. Perhaps this is why the fans have embraced a film that looks like a multiplex-pleasing reboot: they feel catered for with Spock Prime (as the credits would have it), the complexities of time travel and the references back to the other Trek universe, offering up a whole load of new things to integrate into already-bursting continuity manuals, meaning the lighter action-adventure stuff is permissible too.
Technically speaking, the film is a mixed bag. The design work, for example, is great. While the Romulan ship is your typical Big Bad Semi-Organic Alien Vessel, seen a lot in every space opera TV series of the ’90s, the Enterprise is clean and bright and rather different. After years of Alien-inspired grime throughout sci-fi — even attempted in Star Trek with the submarine-like vessel at the heart of prequel series Enterprise — the new-look USS Enterprise is all bright white and vibrant colours. It’s custom made for plastic toy playsets in fact; or, to be slightly nicer, “these are the voyages of the Apple iEnterprise.”
On the other hand, the cinematography is frequently irritating. While many of the CG shots present a graceful view of the space spectacle, most of the time they need to put the damn camera down. It doesn’t need to be jiggling about all over the place during dialogue scenes — Kirk and Pike in the bar post-fight is an especially irritating example — and it would be nice to see what’s going on in the action scenes. Of course, they manage to provide a nice clear shot when the ladies are in their undies. Cynical? Never. DoP Daniel Mindel has confessed that he tried to get in as many lens flares as possible, and you can tell — it comes across like it was shot by someone who’s only ever worked on digital, then upon switching to film accidentally created a lens flare, thought it was pretty, and decided the film would be better if there was one at literally every opportunity. It wouldn’t.
The cast and handling of multiple characters are both less problematic. The way the young crew is brought together is more than a tad contrived, but with seven major characters to compile in a Very Young Crew origin story it’s not an easy task. Certainly, this way is much more exciting than if they were simply assigned the job at an appropriate age and bonded on their first mission — which would undoubtedly have been the plot of Old Trek’s origin movie. The focus is clearly on Kirk and Spock; mainly the former, but his character arc is little more than a standard genius-rebel-comes-good one, whereas Spock’s battle between two cultures and within himself allows Zachary Quinto a lot more to do. Chris Pine makes a good Dashing Hero, balancing the heroic action and broad humour with aplomb, but it’s Quinto whose acting chops come the closest to getting a test. Wisely, neither chooses to copy their original counterpart, which allows them to breathe as characters rather than impersonations.
Most of the leads follow the same strategy to good effect; while Anton Yelchin (as Chekov) and Karl Urban (as Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy) come closer to doing impressions than anyone else, they still make good their own versions. Winona Ryder is a piece of odd casting though, aging up for a tiny role as Spock’s mother. At least Jennifer Morrison’s equally tiny mothering role can be put down to the fact that, while she’s very recognisable to any House fans, she’s playing her own age and isn’t a movie star. Ryder is. Or, perhaps, was.
Unsurprisingly, Simon Pegg’s incarnation of Scotty is an awful a lot of fun. There’s nothing like enough of him, and a sequel will only benefit from an increased Scotty presence from the very start. Though Pegg gets the lion’s share of the best comedic bits — possibly due to his experience and talent in the field — he only turns up to add lightness at the point everyone else begins to get Very Serious About The Plot. Before that there are plenty of jokes flying around, including several that actually require memory — a rare thing in a film focused on spectacle — paying off earlier gags you didn’t expect would receive a payoff. The level to which the film is internally referential and interconnected is again to Orci and Kurtzman’s credit. As noted, the humour brings a nice lightness to proceedings, something missing from the darker-than-dark treatment most franchises offer these days.
The final scene is a bit of a cheesy moment, one of those “aww look the whole gang’s together and they’re all friends” bits — for an American film that relies on optimism, it’s something that they managed to have only one. But it does hold the promise of more adventures to come, and based on the critical and box office success of this outing we’re sure to get them. The need to introduce so many characters here both drives the plot forward and restrains it — the former provides a lot of material, including all the stuff tying it to main Trek continuity, while the latter means any independent narrative is primarily a facilitator for the rest. Hopefully a sequel will suggest the latter is true and it’s not a reliance on the former that has provided this entry’s quality. Or, to put it plainly, “next time they better come up with a good plot”.
For an independent viewer, the over-zealous critical reception is Star Trek’s biggest problem: while it is certainly satisfying in some areas it’s also lacking in others, but it seems most of the world’s critics are closet Trekkies, able to seize upon an above-average film and hail it as the Second Coming. It will come as no surprise when I say it isn’t. I’ve never really got on with Star Trek and its solar system of spin-offs — which, I admit, may be Doctor Who-fan bloody-mindedness — but this I enjoyed, a little in spite of myself and the disproportionate adulation it’s received elsewhere. Rebooting a franchise in a way that appeases fans and pulls in new viewers is no easy task, but it seems safe to say that Abrams has done almost as good a job as Russell T Davies, even if only one of them remembered to hide some brains among the entertainment.
This new incarnation of Trek is bright, light and fun in the face of insurmountable odds — both from the threat in the film and from public perception. Despite the claims, it is not the Second Coming, but it is very good at what it does. In all these respects, it really is just like Obama-era optimism. Does it mean Abrams can relaunch the ailing Trek franchise? Why, yes he CAAAAAAAAAAAAN.
(Really done now.)
Star Trek placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.