Well, that was dumb.
I was recently dragged off to see the new, so-called Star Trek film. I had been unimpressed by the generic nature of the trailers, and having no interest in yet another prequel instead of something that actually moves the story of the Trek universe forward, probably could have skipped this one altogether, but the friends wanted to go and couldn’t imagine not bringing the local Trekkie along. In terms of background, I grew up with TNG, enjoyed, to varying degrees, DS9, parts of VOY and latter ENT seasons, but I never managed to get into TOS retroactively—too much cheese, too many retrograde social values—so I approached the film free of any nostalgic bias for the characters or the period.
What one thinks of this so-called Star Trek might depend on the matrix in which it is evaluated. Compared to other summer action films, this is basically an acceptable film; it is no better or worse than other pretty-people-blowing-shit-up outings like Wolverine and Terminator to either side of it, or a mindless antecedent like Transformers, tellingly created by the same people. By the standards of the Star Trek franchise as a whole, however, it is a marked failure—it shares none of the qualities one has come to expect of a product bearing the Star Trek brand, and pales before its progenitors. If one had to come up with a single word to characterize this film, it would be ‘stupid’. ‘Shallow’ would be a close second; while it’s not a requirement, it would have been nice to have seen some semblance of meaning of thematic exploration somewhere between the set pieces, some kind of message being communicated to the audience beyond ‘it’s okay to be an asshole as long as the movie gods love you’.
What passes for a story in this film is really just a bunch of towering contrivances, magical thinking and plot holes strung together by a series of fights of varying necessity. Pacing is really one of the only things this film has going for it, in that expect most viewers are too busy reeling from one scene of chaos to the next to have time to reflect on the utter senselessness of events. Really, between the staggering coincidences required to make the plot function and the pervasive sense of events being animated by a form of destiny rather than causality, it’s questionable whether this film even qualifies as science-fiction in the narrower sense, rather than something more along the lines of space fantasy like Star Wars. Certainly what new ‘science’ this film brings to the table is ludicrously poor, one of many aspects that the producers either never bothered to think through or else felt that ‘dramatic’ license outweighed any frivolities like intelligence. But what can we expect from a movie where plot holes are the second most recurrent feature and where credibility dares not speak its name?
Listing the plot holes would require something essay length, so I’m not even going to bother. A lot of people have already done so, from what I’ve seen looking around the forum; it’s just such a shame that some are so large as to actively prevent the enjoyment of the film at critical scenes because of the bodily harm it does to the audience’s ability to maintain suspension of disbelief, and you just want to throw a shoe at the screen. The meteoric rise of cadets through the ranks, for one—all these people in the background are what, chopped liver? The entire sequence on the ice world, for another, from shooting Kirk off the ship (???) to the senseless predators to the super transporters. And, of course, the supposed climax on the massive killer ‘ordinary’ mining vessel which apparently doesn’t even have shields (beam anti-matter bombs! Torpedos! A squad of security officers! No, two guys with pop guns. Here comes the shoe!).
The movie’s ending sucks donkey cock, and not just because the final sequences feel like they would be more at home with Pinky and the Brain than Kirk and Spock. Making Kirk the captain—when he hasn’t even graduated, let alone worked through the ranks—is the stupidest, most asinine, gag-worthy moment in a film full of such idiocy, and only the fact that it was the ending of the film and this atrocity would only last a few more minutes keeps one from walking out of the theater then and there. What in flying hell makes Kirk deserving of such a position (besides the fact that Stafleet apparently sends out ships with only one experienced officer per division?). Kirk succeeds in stopping Nero’s attack not because of any qualities that he may have, but because he has been stupendously lucky time and again. While Spock’s regrouping option was unconstructive, his initial insistence on following the Romulans made no sense either; it’s only because he ran into future Spock and present Scotty, both conveniently marooned on the iceball Kirk gets ejected to, and because of the sudden, stupendous incompetence of a ship and crew that has defeated entire fleets, that he wins out in the end. After his spectacular ineptitude and behavioral problems across the film, Kirk should be sent to remedial school, not put in the captain’s chair. The sheer amount of Kirk-worship from the film-makers is so cloying that I fully expect that the DVD will have a deleted scene to the effect of Abrams and Co. giving Kirk and handjob on the bridge.
The ending also tries to be all bright and cheery, as though the producers suddenly remembered that Star Trek is supposed to be an optimistic view of the future, and try to spin the events of the film as a victory. But it is not a victory; it is, at best, a mitigated failure, recognition that as bad as things are, they could have been worse. A founding member world of the Federation has been destroyed and billions of people are dead; there is no cause to be happy, and the cheeriness here is actually rather ghastly when one considers that it comes when one considers the civilization-level trauma that has just been inflicted on the Federation and the society-wide mourning that ought to be taking place. But there was really no way to snatch a tidy victory from the overall defeat the Federation has suffered the moment Vulcan was sacrificed in the name of demonstrating change, stemming from this trendy attitude in our contemporary media fiction that blowing shit up means you’re being ‘edgy’ and ‘relevant’. In truth, however, it is easy to destroy: any idiot with a gun or a mining vessel can kill; the real challenge lies in creation
, and this is something almost entirely missing from this so-called Star Trek.
It’s often been said that Trek films, like Bond films, get a lot of their zest from the villain. Nemesis, for instance, was uplifted for having a complex villain in Shinzon; First Contact, for the sheer creep factor of the Borg Queen (by comparison, weak villains like Sybok, Rua’fo and… whoever was the bad guy in STIII, make those films all the more forgettable). This so-called Star Trek suffers from having such boring, vapid bad guys—a bunch of tattooed Romulan skinheads with no personality, no sense of motivation, history or community, and, judging from the laughable ‘climatic’ shoot-out, graduates of the Stormtrooper School of Marksmanship. They do have the ability to leap great distances; shame they used their powers for evil instead of becoming Grasshoppermen, the high-jumping superheros. Nero is particularly insipid, moping in the shadows, emerging for senseless acts of violence which may be meant to be intimidating but just come off as terrible cliché. The whole Khan “My wife is dead so I will blow shit up in revenge!” archetype has been recycled so many times, in Trek films and elsewhere, that we’re left with little more than the scummy residue at the bottom of the pile; one might as well not have bothered telegraphing Nero a motivation as simply have him be EVIL!
all the time. One is surprised that Nero wasn’t rendered via cartoon, or else simply a line because that’s how much dimension and credibility he has.
Still, it isn’t as if any of the other characters in the film are brimming over with depth and personality; if Nero is basically one-dimensional, it’s in a movie capped at two-dimensions per character. Kirk is probably the biggest offender—in more than one meaning of the word—in this regard; the nominal hero of the film is such a thoroughly unlikeable jackass, without even the appeal of a sleekly rendered anti-hero, that one spends most of the movie cheering on the many individual who beat up on him because it’s generally well-deserved, and otherwise hoping that something terrible will happen to Kirk just to see him get his well-deserved come-uppance. Brash, cocky, arrogant, needlessly antagonistic, sneeringly defiant for the sake of being defiant, self-centered and self-satisfied, lecherous and voyeuristic, and enamored of his own roguish self-perception; someone needs to remind this alpha male wannabe that being top dog still doesn’t make you any better than a dog. It’s a shock this pugilistic braggart managed to get through three years at the Academy before being drought up on disciplinary charges, let alone avoided being expelled. The movie tries to tell you that Kirk is smart—apparently he scored well on his Starfleet SATS, but telling us something about a character means nothing if it isn’t translated onscreen, and Kirk’s problem-solving abilities appear limited to ‘shoot’ and ‘punch’.
Of the B-ranked characters, which is everybody other than Kirk and Spock, everybody but Uhura gets a least one scene where they get to further the plot; McCoy smuggles Kirk on the ship, Sulu fences with minions on the drill, Chekov performs transporter feats, and Scotty… also performs technical feats, but gets a lot of screen time to complain and be comically endangered. In that respect, this so-called Star Trek feels almost like one of those films based around squads, with the exception that these squad members don’t get killed off once they’ve made their unique contribution. Chekov and Scotty can be basically grouped together as one-note gag characters, supposedly technical geniuses but the focus is on their funny ‘foreigner’ accents and slapstick comedy. I’m not actually sure why Chekov is now a prodigy; granted, it gives the character something to do, but once Scotty is thrown into the mix it feels redundant to have two tech-wizzes in the group (as their respective transporter operation feats hint at); their specialties should have been nailed down more clearly. McCoy, once part of the big three, gets broken down to the role of loyal buddy to Kirk; whereas ‘his’ scene arrives earliest in the film, however, he also feels like the most useless character bar Uhura once the ship is actually underway, making no further contributions to the story. Sulu’s scene is also an early one, and he too, fades to irrelevance and the film proceeds, but thanks to Cho, at least one gets the sense that Sulu has an existence outside of the plot, which isn’t the case for most of our backup line.
As the resident Trekkie, I was on the receiving end of a friend’s rant regarding this film’s treatment of gender before I could mention that I hadn’t yet seen it. Having since seen the film, I’d say she was right. Uhura is the only female character of note, and she’s a useless character who gets hit with more than one sexist cliché. In Uhura’s first scene in the movie, she gets hit on, then a bunch of assholes hold a barroom brawl over her while she ineffectively pouts at them to stop, and outside-the-box gets dangled as extra incentive for our jerkwad of a hero to join up. Then she gets a stripping scene in which the audience in put into the position of the voyeur, and drops a quick comment about a transmission for aforementioned voyeuristic jackass to overhear. Her next scene with Spock is essentially her best one, since it demonstrates (as with her reaction to Kirk) that she doesn't put up with idiocy gladly, and can dish out as well as she gets. Then there an artificial vindication when she confirms her early comment, and in that she apparently can distinguish Romulan from Vulcan where the regular comm. guy can't (since, of course, languages don't significantly diverge over thousands of years of separate development), which rapidly becomes meaningless because everybody else apparently has universal translators, and is her only contribution--if you can call it that--to the plot. Afterwards she does nothing but stand around the bridge in her miniskirt and occasionally suck face with Spock to satisfy the shoehorned romance requirement of modern cinema. We're told a number of times how great her talents are, but those skills never translate into action onscreen, making the praise essentially irrelevant to the story. Much like her progenitor, she's the most ineffectual character of all the revamped TOS crew. This is all the worse, and makes the callous motivations all the more transparent, when you consider the difference between the character's profile in the marketing pushes and her actual role in the film, which is object of desire in the first half and furniture in the second. It’s a shame, because here the producers had a chance to break up the Good Old Boys’ Club of the original series arising from 1960s casting practices; they could have mixed things up further with regards to gender, sexuality, more aliens, etc. Instead, we get a film that is not only fails to be progressive by contemporary standards, but is actually regressive considering that it ignores improvements made on the fronts of gender and other issues in Deep Space Nine and Voyager.
Spock is probably the best rendered character; in part, this is helped by the fact that the character himself is so reserved that, in the hands of a skilled performer, one expects to watch development in his eternal life being made manifest largely through subtle signs. But he’s also the only character to have experienced any kind of growth or learning curve during the movie, which is at least something. There not much to say about his relationship with Uhura—the only thing this film really adds (rather than subtracts) to the mythos—because it is, itself, a non-entity, thrown in, one expects, just to meet the romance quota. What does she see in him, he in her? We can only guess, because the movie certainly can’t be bothered to discuss it beyond some tonguing on the transporter pad; and like everything else about this film, remains shallow. It probably wasn’t the best idea to make the emotional focus for much of the film’s events Spock, because of his undemonstrative nature; then again, doing otherwise would have meant actually engaging with the difficulties of something like losing your planet of birth and seeing your chosen culture reduced to the point of extinction, which is obviously too heavy for this flighty film.
Indeed, the only moment of true emotional resonance comes in the opening minutes of the film, which is really the best part of the movie (perhaps because James Dean Kirk isn’t there yet to play hero?). True, there are contrivances in everything malfunctioning just so that he can still ram the ship but has to stay there to do it, and Nero is pops up basically to say, “Hey, folks, I’m EVIL!
”, but there’s real tenseness in the scenes, which purposefully keeps things in constant motion so that you don’t stop and reflect on these things. It’s such that, even as one recognizes the manipulation, you can actually sympathize with and feel sorry for the elder Kirk and his wife, sharing their last communication over the comm., he getting mere moments to experience what he will miss, she essentially witnessing his death as it happens. If the rest of the film had managed to make one involved enough to ignore the obvious faults, it would have made a much better movie, but even this movie can’t be a constant sequence of fistfights, shootouts and falling, and absent characters or anything else to care about during the periods between the action sequences, exposes itself for the mindless pap it is.
On the technical side, the acting from the main cast is hit-and-miss. Chris Pine does nothing to make his asshole character any more sympathetic, and most of the time is simply parodying James Dean and Marlon Brando. Yelchin plays Chekov with puppy-dog enthusiasm, but he and Pegg’s performances are basically extended caricatures, particularly disappointing from Pegg who’s done such great work elsewhere (comedies, true, but his Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz roles were a lot mellower than this manic delivery). Urban’s McCoy started off that way, all growly and curmudgeonly for its own sake, but at least he mellowed out as the film went on. Saldana does a basically adequate job with the scraps she’s thrown. Quinto’s Spock is good, managing to land a performance that isn’t just a repeat of Nimoy yet still quite Spock-ish in tone; but I know from Heroes that Quinto can make even over-the-top characters seem nuanced and believable. But it was John Cho that surprised me the most—I’d never liked him in his comedy roles and dreaded the result of casting a comedian as Sulu, but he did a far better job here than anywhere else I’ve seen him, making the best use of his scenes to make Sulu more than the one-note characters most of the others were reduced to. (On the topic of comedy, I should say that Pine’s comedic moments were the ones I enjoyed most, outside of the rest of his performance; he has good timing. I’d be curious to see him in a straight-up comedy.)
It’s a shame that one of the things the movie should have gotten right given its budget—the SFX—is undermined by unimaginative cinematographic vision. I don’t know whose idea it was to shine a light in the audience’s face every thirty seconds (more often than plot holes!), but they should never be allowed near a camera again. And for once that the film had the opportunity to create some truly impressive vistas, what we get instead are deserts and iceballs on the outside, a lots of dirty, industrial sets on the inside (who knew engineering resembled an abandoned warehouse?). Too bad, because the bridge, corridor and transporter room sets are sleek and well-rendered, which shows they had the technical skills to pull off something more impressive than a bunch of holes in the ground in a vain attempt to ape Galactica’s grit factor. Trek is a good
future; it should be shiny, not run-down.
Ultimately, I’m pleased to see that this terrible movie is doing well and wish this inept caricature all the best going forward in the rest of its theatrical run and in DVD sales. While this movie was a major letdown at best, and any sequel from the same team likely to be no better, the film keeps the franchise in the public eye, and a revitalized franchise might eventually lead to quality
Star Trek on our screens, big or small, at some point in the future; a product of intelligence and integrity, with characters and depth, thematic and emotional resonance, something forward-looking instead of mere rehash. Here’s hoping.
Fictitiously yours, Trent Roman