Star Trek

May 7, 2009


I believe the new Star Trek film, like the others, can’t be experienced in a vacuum.  Film viewing is, as with all art, a subjective experience, but the Star Trek franchise these days depends so much on not only what you’re seeing on screen, but what you already feel about the decades worth of films and TV series that have come before it.  I was a fan as a kid, and I still enjoy reserving nuggets of nerd knowledge about Jeffrey tubes and inertia dampers in my head, but aside from the original series, I’ll quite happily avoid almost any Star Trek property (because it’s not felt like much more than a property for a long time now).  I’ll even admit to only watching the original series (TOS, for those in-the-know) for it’s camp factor, and occasionally trying to parse the progressive points it tried to make from time to time.  In short, my relationship with the series isn’t very strong, and I have long since resigned myself to the fact that is now mostly for the hardcore geeks to enthuse over, and not many others besides.  In fact, growing up, it was such a social stigma that I was shocked there was enough of an audience to carry the plethora of films and shows through.  There were more than I thought at the time, but I don’t think anyone can argue that the audience has somewhat diminished over the last decade.  So here comes the reboot.  Sort of.

The announced premise, about Kirk and Spock as young officers fresh out of Starfleet Academy, reeked of James Bond Jr. desperation.  Young!  Hip!  Ya know, for kids!  Thankfully, I can report that it isn’t quite that, though the sight of a young James Tiberius Kirk joyriding in a convertible to the tune of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” was not an encouraging sight.  No, the geeks who run Hollywood have created a solid film, and certainly one that stands high on the list of a rather dubious celluloid history.  It is most certainly not a great work of science fiction, and I’m not convinced it ranks terribly high in the popcorn blockbuster world either, but plaudits where due, it really is fairly entertaining.

After a Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) destroys a Starfleet vessel, the film follows the fatherless James Kirk as well as the growing half-human, half-vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto) as they come of age in their respective worlds.  Soon enough they come to logger-heads at the Academy over the Kobiyashi Maru simulation discussed way back in the Wrath of Khan, and we meet all the other principal player from the original series along the way.  Ridiculous circumstances put the kids in charge of the newly launched Enterprise, and fun ensues.  Perhaps I’m giving short shrift to what is actually a decent plot, but you get the picture.

Directed by the Judd Apatow of sci-fi/fantasy, J.J. Abrams, the film is full of excellent CGI porn, heroic shot after heroic shot, and enough lens flares to make a cinematographer from 1950’s weep in despair.  The film moves along briskly enough for the most part, but he does fall into the old trap with Star Trek space battles.  These aren’t tiny ships zipping around in dogfights; they’re giant lumbering behemoths slowly maneuvering their way as best they can.  To compensate, the camera shakes and pans with a mad, disorientating rush when really they should be focusing on scale.  There are only two ways in the previous films that these have been made to work.  One is the slow stalking (Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country) and the other is to hurl entire fleets into the fray (First Contact), and neither is attempted here.  For a film that spends an awful lot of time showing off its special effects, this is disappointing.  On the plus side, we’re mostly spared any long, drawn-out shots of Enterprise ship-porn normally associated with these ventures, so at least the priorities were in order.

The cast performances vary, which is to be expected when you’re not entirely sure whether you’re mimicking iconic characters or creating something new for them, and the writers are as much at fault as the actors.  Simon Pegg’s Scotty is pure comedy fodder, even giving him a groan-inducing sidekick.  Karl Urban’s McCoy does such a good job of channeling DeForest Kelley, and the writer’s do such a poor job of blending in classic Bones dialogue that he unfortunately feels like a character.  John Cho does well as Sulu, even if he doesn’t have much to go on.  Anton Yelchin’s Chekov is written to emphasize the LOL ACCENT aspects of his character, played for real, winking guffaws in The Voyage Home but somewhat nauseating here, and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura sure is hot.  Chris Pine’s Kirk isn’t terribly interesting, but the brash, cocksure Jim of the series is evident without the Shatner overacting, and that’s about as much as he could have done as written.

The real star here, however, is Spock.  A recent video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz does an amazing job of cutting through all the pop culture kitsch and puts Spock rightly in his place as one of the most genuinely interesting (and, indeed classical) characters of recent history.  As a half-human, half Vulcan, he’s always been an outsider, torn between logic and emotion, and struggling to find the most effective balance.  It might anger some purists, but I do think Zachary Quinto’s performance of Spock is nigh-on perfect, especially when set against Leonard Nimoy’s older Spock.  The angry, repressed youth is juxtaposed with the older, wiser being that has spent a lifetime striking the right balance, and both actors really are a joy to behold.

And so Star Trek isn’t amazing by any stretch of the imagination, but it is effective.  There are some awe-inspiring visuals amongst the quick-edit mayhem, some excellent performances amongst the pastiche, and some actually quite funny in-jokes amongst the somewhat clunky ones (if two are effective they’re really batting higher than most of the other films).  There are pointless and dull moments (Kirk running away from the giant creatures, while probably intended as a nod to the campy aspects of the series, was particularly poor), but through Spock and, I suppose, some external knowledge of the series brought into it, there is a tinge more emotional resonance than one might expect from your average special effects monstrosity.  At the end of the day, they’ve made a very good Star Trek film, which is actually quite rare for an eleven-strong series.  In conclusion: a half-hearted “kablah”, but one just the same.


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