It’s been a cultural institution for more than thirty years and Paramount wants to draw a new generation of moviegoers to the Star Trek franchise. Enter J.J. Abrams to try and breathe new life into the series.
However, unlike fans of Halloween, Friday the 13th or James Bond, Trek is a cult institution for a reason. A multitude of fans has devoted slavish amounts of time to studying the historical and emotional inner workings of the series since its three-season opening in 1966. While I’m not as slavish and devoted as some, I do consider myself a stalwart Trek fan. So, why was a decision made to craft an alternate reality for the show, altering key figure storylines, altering inner-personal conflicts and infuse it with enough action to choke a vole? The answer is quite simple: J.J. Abrams is a Star Wars fan, not a Star Trek fan. He doesn’t care if a legion of fans have worshipped and adored all that is Star Trek. He wants to make boatloads of money and appeal to everyone in the entire world. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but all of it could have been achieved without ripping the heart out of long-lived Trekkies in the process.
The story takes James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and makes him a space-born child whose father is killed by a time-traveling Romulan mining ship led by the Romanesque captain Nero. Where he was when Romulus was burning had nothing to do with fiddling, so the choice of names is a bit odd. Along the way, we’re introduced to the film’s only other important character: Spock (Zachary Quinto) who is shown in childhood being bullied by emotionless Vulcan children. Are we really so disenchanted with our own cultural singularities that we have to project them onto other races for a quick, lame joke?
As we’re introduced to the rest of the cast, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), we’re given very one-note examples of character, most of them included only as comic relief, not as any real necessity to the successful inner-workings of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Sulu and Uhura are the only ones that aren’t made fun of or made into mockeries, and Sulu is the only one that actually becomes far cooler than he ever was.
As Nero stalks across the galaxy on his quest to make Spock and his friends weep at his villainy, we’re given a rather lazy romantic triangle that never existed in the series before. Uhura was merely a communications officer on the original series. She deserved better stories, but in the 1960s, black actors weren’t given nearly as much to do as their white counterparts. Here, she’s modernized slightly, but given stereotypical vanity qualities and used as an emotional wedge between Spock and Kirk. Some have said her emotional kiss with Spock in a turbolift was one of the highlights of the film, but I found it to be offensive to the character.
Here is a woman whose mere presence in the crew back in 1966 sent shockwaves through the television industry and households. Later, her on-screen kiss with Kirk (although the product of mind control to escape leery censors) became part of history as the first interracial kiss shown on broadcast television. And all of this merely helped to cement Star Trek’s cultural importance to the medium as well as to legions of future fans. But, now, being the only female member of the bridge crew, she has to conform to the modern desire for all movies to have romantic entanglements, thus washing away decades of pop culture relevance with a single kiss.
By my statements thus far, you might think that I absolutely hated the movie. Thankfully, I didn’t. I was irritated by many of the changes, angry over the unnecessary and egregious alteration of one of my personal favorite original series characters (Uhura), and I’m still not pleased that the use of time travel, a delicate framing device by all accounts, was used to create a universe divorced of the original so that the producers could continue to modify and eliminate all vestiges of what made Star Trek what it is (where’s the true intergalactic cooperation, where’s the embracing of different cultures as something other than unnecessary comic relief?) all to turn a quick buck. However, it was a fun ride.
The opening scene, where Kirk’s father faces off against Nero as an escape pod carrying his in-labor wife away from the ship while communication is kept on between the two vessels, is probably one of the most powerful and engaging scenes ever filmed in a Star Trek motion picture.
The story, although impaired by things I’ve already mentioned, is well plotted, is a bit too predictable. The rest of the technicals were top notch, including the marvelous scenic design (one of the few things that didn’t bother me in the transition as it mostly all still looked the same), evocative music (although I do wish there was more of the original theme throughout instead of just a pastiche over the end credits), and the visual effects were mostly great (still, ILM has their traditional moments where the graphics look flat and entirely unconvincing). Even the costumes were kept to a reasonably well designed level (the final-act revelation of the Kirk’s first uniform was handled exceedingly well).
But, although I had fun, I am still fumed over how much disrespect the producers and Abrams threw at the fans of the series. In an interview before the film’s release, Abrams even warned fans not to go. If he didn’t want fans to go, he shouldn’t have made a Star Trek movie. Had they gone with all new characters and not attached any of the situations, names or cultures to this film, it would have been a truly great movie, but you don’t tell your core audience to stay away. I can only hope that more of the great elements of Star Trek as embodied in the great films Star Trek II: Wrath of Kahn and Star Trek: First Contact will be included in the inevitable sequel. Oh, and another note to the producers: the next time you want to deal with time travel, try to understand the concept of paradox, brushed under the rug in this film, before attempting to create a believable adventure and ripping everything in it to shreds through your ignorance.
My Summer of disappointment continues…let’s hope the sixth Harry Potter film isn’t as much of a letdown.
-Wesley Lovell (May 20, 2009)