Of all the nerdtastic entertainment I devour on a regular basis, the original Star Trek is my favorite. I watched my first episode at the age of five – it was “Devil in the Dark” – and have been hooked ever since. If I was stranded on a desert island and could only bring one TV series to watch for all eternity it wouldn’t be Star Trek, because I’ve already got all seventy-nine episodes and five of the six films memorized. So for the past two years I’ve been following the production of J. J. Abrams’ new film with great trepidation and doubt. Could he make this hardcore TOS purist believe in his take on a show he’s admitted to not liking all that much? The answer is a restrained and grudging “yes”.
The first thing I though of when I walked out of the theater was that every thing was great about the movie except the plot. The characters, the dialog, the FX, the directing all run the gamut from perfectly acceptable to unbelievably excellent. It’s just that the actual adventure that these elements attempt to unfold is flimsy at best.
The plot revolves around a rouge Romulan named Nero who has been thrown back in time from the Next Generation era by an artificial black hole. We don’t know what his problem is, we just know he has a big, powerful, evil looking ship and he’s on a destruction spree with it that’s taking him on a direct course with Earth. Honestly, where have we heard this one before? Angry, bald enemy with a Romulan background, a wickedly unstoppable ship, and a world destroying weapon? That’s pretty much the previous film – “Nemesis”. We all know how good that movie was.
Deus Ex Machina, or God From the Machine, is the habit of writers to get themselves out of a tight spot by saving the hero’s with an external force, like the cavalry showing up in the nick of time or the hand of God coming down and making everything right. You know, like in Steven King’s “The Stand” where the hand of God comes down and makes everything right. Star Trek’s situation is the opposite: an unlikely and hastily explained enemy is dreamed up to put our heroes into a tight spot, like Superman’s “Doomsday” or Nemesis’s Picard clone. I’d like to finally put a name on this lazy style of conflict: “Diabolus Ex Vacuus” or “Devil From Nothing”.
Nero is literally a Devil from Nothing. He’s an unexplained, unstoppable force that suddenly appears, literally from thin air, with the simple purpose of giving the heroes something to do. If one ignores the tragically silly content of the “Countdown” series of comic books that are his origin story (and most viewers will), Nero comes off as having almost no good reason to be the raging genocide machine that he is. He rarely speaks, and when he’s given a chance to explain himself he does so in about 30 seconds of exposition matched with silly holographic visual aids. It’s like he’s giving a power point presentation on his deep rooted pain. TNG era Spock, part of the reason for Nero’s rage, doesn’t do much better with his rushed minute and a half version of events. It’s clear that it doesn’t matter why Nero is here. All that matters is that he’s bad and needs his ass kicked.
But, unlike Nemesis, this is the movie’s only flaw and its oddly not that big a deal in comparison to the rest of the film. You see, what Star Trek gets right is its characters, and what it does right it does really, really right. For an action movie, and the action sequences are great, Star Trek’s best moments are the personal and human ones, especially those concerning the young Spock. The writers have found ways to take this already complex, 45 year old character, go back in his history, and find yet more interesting and complex things about him. We see Spock dealing with the racism of his own people, from the hilariously methodical and impassionate tauntings of his peers in grade school, to the matter of fact discussion of his human side as a handicap by the leaders of the Vulcan Science Academy. Even his father flip flops from saying his marriage to a human is a matter of convenience to admitting that he was in love.
Spock’s shocking affair with Uhura wasn’t shocking to me at all. Spock has always been a sexy character and its easy to imagine that in his youth he engaged in some kind of fling. The beloved D. C. Fontana holds the same feelings and she places him in an equally believable torrid affair in the pre-Kirk novel “Vulcan’s Glory”. In fact, the affair with Uhura even makes sense in the context of the original series as well, since Nichelle Nicoles’s Uhura was often flirting with Spock and Spock was never exactly one to chastise her for it. I really like this take on the character and I think it shows excellent observational skills on the part of the writers.
Kirk’s backstory is a little less interesting. He’s been turned from a grim bookworm turned swashbuckler into a Top Gun style rebel who’s out to shake up the service. He often comes off as childish even when saving the day. His moments with original Enterprise captain Pike are not your usual Bush era “God and Country” bullshit though. Pike’s fatherly, almost Obama like, talks with the young James made me want to enlist. It worth noting that, very much in line with the original character, Kirk is a stomach turning womanizer who is constantly flirtatious with the women around him but never actually beds them. And it’s not for any lack of looks or charm. You get the sense its all just a show to cover something else up.
The rest of the characters are also well rendered. Karl Urban does a great Dr. McCoy, mixing his own take with some of the more endearing charms of the greatly missed Dee Kelley. Its a shame he has little development other than Kirk’s side kick. Scotty is hilarious and as brilliant as ever. His little, stone sidekick is less cuddly mogwai and more crotchety Oompa-Loompa which is ok by me. Of course, some times the humor gets out of hand – like with a race to save Scotty from carnival style water tube that seems taken straight from a kids movie starring Jim Carry. On the whole, however, its palatable. The rest of the characters – Uhura, Sulu, and Checkov – were all throw aways in the original series so any change would either be an improvement or go completely unnoticed. Uhura is actually a brilliant linguist and code cracker, not just a switch board operator. Sulu is sexier and Checkov is set up as a 17 year old wÃ¼nderkind. Works for me!
The new Enterprise doesn’t fair as well. It’s ugly. The engines are really nice, but the lower half looks disproportionately small and the saucer looks tacked on from the TOS movie version – not at all in line with the sleekness of the rest of the ship. This is one point where the purist in me comes out. The original design stands up so well today that it would have been nice to see it again with just a little more detail to make it screen ready. The engineering set is at total odds with the bridge. Its industrial to the point that the walls look concrete. And when Scotty is asked to frantically do something there aren’t any actual controls around. All he can do is run around the bizarre piping like a chicken with its head cut off. The bridge itself is a little toyish, with desk lamps and NES style joysticks lining consoles. I may differ with many in the fact that I understand the purpose of all those lens flares and I actually liked them.
I can also see what Abrams meant when he said he wanted to make Trek more like Star Wars. The space fights are, thankfully, still old fashion slow moving battleship style engagements. No squadrons of dog fighters blasting each other up. However, warp drive is more like hyperspace – you need to calculate where you are going and how fast and then you jump in and out of it. Weapons are not steady lances of light, but more like bullets. And then there’s the ice planet with furry, carnivorous monsters on it.
So I came away liking Star Trek. When I think about it my mind drift towards all the great character moments and tends to forget the whole Nero business. I think a lot of it could have been avoided by making this a total reboot (which it actually is) rather than a prequel to the over stretched canon. On top of that origin stories are difficult because you have to both intro characters as if the audience has never seen them before and you have to stick them into a story that will be exciting. I’m hoping that now that the introductions are out of the way the next movie’s plot will be less character and more story focused. It would be nice to see something other than a “bad guy of the week wants to destroy the universe” story and focus more on the whole “strange new worlds” elements that the original show was based around. I also want to see more of Dr. McCoy. David Gerrold once said that if McCoy has nothing to say then there’s nothing going on worth seeing. Star Trek is always a reflection of the times, and like our current president its so full of hope and promise that its almost above cynicism and snarkiness. In the end I doubt it will let us down.