Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman
There’s a lot to love in the new Star Trek film. For me, it wasn’t enough.
Star Trek is a rollicking space opera: you’ve got spaceships, lots of things blowing up, and a plot that moves so quickly it often leaves even itself behind. This is the future imagined by Mac fanboys everywhere: sleek glass displays, touchscreen interfaces, and a flood of information. It’s stunning and beautiful that way. The special effects are spectacular, and the action sequences are truly top-notch. The rapport among the characters was strong and funny, and there’s an excitement and energy that’s hard to describe. It’s a thrilling action-adventure.
I loved it as an action film.
Alas, it’s little more than that. The new film is, in a word, stupid. The plot is absolutely ridiculous; the story’s so full of holes it unravels at the merest hint of scrutiny. Worse, many of the characters are shallow representations of themselves, reduced to the kinds of cheesy space opera types that don’t do justice to the folks they’re supposed to be.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a phenomenal action film: fast-paced, fun, and without a doubt great entertainment. I loved it for that, and I’ll see it again for that alone. But it’s terrible Star Trek.
This is an alternate timelime Trek, so I don’t expect to see the same characters. In fact, I don’t want to—I can see those characters any time I want on DVD, and I want future incarnations to have something different to offer, as each of its predecessors have. What I do expect to see is the essence of Trek. There have been five series, ten (now eleven) movies, an animated series, comics, novels, video games, audio books, you name it. The cast and crew change with each incarnation; the plots are adapted for new generations of viewers. So what do they all have in common? What makes Star Trek...well, Star Trek?
I think it comes down to the fact that it’s science fiction at its best: willing to boldly go into controversial and challenging territory and broach topics that might be impossible to discuss in any other forum. There’s something about Star Trek that really engages me intellectually and emotionally. Even the worst episodes try to grapple with Big Ideas, and while I’d argue there are as many failures as successes, what quintessentially makes the show so incredibly special to me is that willingness to keep trying. The show has always aspired. It’s about optimism, hope, constantly striving to live up to one’s own ideals. The practical realities of those ideals often clash with the values and goals of others, and have internal contradictions—but exploring those ideas, well, those are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.
The new film has none of this. It has no ideas. It aspires to nothing. It uses Big Issues as throwaways for cheap character or plot development. There is no sandbox here. This is Star Trek for dummies.
First of all, the plot makes no sense. Everything to do with the black holes was a nightmare of absurdity. Why would a black hole need to be in the center of the planet to pull it in? How is it that in one scene objects passing through the black hole go back in time, and yet in another they’re destroyed? How does jettisoning a warp core give enough propulsion to push the Enterprise from a black hole? Does anything about the original plan of making a black hole to get rid of a supernova make sense? (Wouldn’t Romulus still, like, need a sun? Even if they didn’t, they’d still be right next to a black hole!)
But it wasn’t just the plot—character motivations got short shrift as well. On the whole I thought the supporting cast did a great job. Karl Urban really nailed the essence of McCoy, and Zachary Quinto was a very good and very different Spock. The rest didn’t stand out in my mind (they were the types you have come to expect), but I can imagine they could emerge in future installments (where they got more screen time than here) and not disappoint. It was Kirk and Nero who were one-note and never fully emerged from their stereotypes. Nero’s just seen his entire planet destroyed, yet when he goes back in time he utterly wastes the chance to change things. Why on earth does he not get his ass straight to Romulus, tell them about that supernova thingawhatsit that’s gonna happen in the future, and give them some of his technology to plan for the eventuality? No, he’s a boilerplate villain hellbent on a boilerplate revenge plot. Yawn. Ricardo Montalbán did it better, and without facial tattoos.
But really, I can forgive a cookie-cutter villain if the hero makes up the slack. Kirk was an unbelievable disappointment. A friend compared him to Shia LaBeouf’s character in the latest Indy installment—the rebel bad-boy James Dean-type who Hates The System and that makes him cool. That element of Kirk’s personality was always there, but he never grows out of it here. It doesn’t mask real intelligence, drive, or compassion: there’s nothing beneath the surface. Furthermore, there is no coherent character arc from the Kirk who is half-unconscious in the bar with no aspirations or ambition to the Kirk who suddenly wants to be a starship captain. He’s not willing to work for it, not willing to fight for it. The Kobayashi Maru scene bothered me—this Kirk came across as the kind of person who just didn’t care, rather than the kind of person who will not accept a no-win scenario. It felt utterly wrong on every level. At no point did I feel that this person believed in the ideals of Starfleet—seeking out new life, knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and the desire to better oneself and one’s world. What is he doing here? His interactions with Spock made it seem like all he wanted was to be in charge and order others around. Well, he gets it, I guess.
And Spock—we’re supposed to believe that Spock Prime, the Spock from “The City on the Edge of Forever” and Star Trek IV wouldn’t go back in time to try and fix what went wrong? He’d sit by after the entire destruction of his people and accept that?
I could nitpick all day. (How about Planet Coincidence (thanks, Steven)? Why does the Enterprise not have anyone over the age of 25 onboard? Why is there not a single ship within the vicinity of Earth when it’s being attacked? How is it that a boy who barely got through Academy defeats one baddie and gets to captain the flagship of the Federation with all of his bestest friends?) But really, what bothered me most was the lack of ideas. There are Big Issues tossed around, but they’re not explored in any meaningful way. The destruction of Vulcan is only there to make Spock emote—there’s no hint as to what this means for anyone else, including humanity, the Federation, or the future. Nero annihilates his cousin race. The implications are astounding and interesting and never engaged with at all. We’re talking about full-scale genocide. If you can’t address that idea beyond “It makes someone sad,” then you shouldn’t be using it in your film. The only real thematic set piece was the idea of identity, which Spock deals with (quite effectively, I should add), but that’s ground that’s been tread a million times in past incarnations.
The new film didn’t offer me anything to think about, and that, to me, is what makes it utterly un-Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry explicitly set out to create a show that wrestled with ideas like genocide, identity, torture, class warfare, slavery, race, gender, sexuality, imperialism, authoritarianism, civilization, and why we’re here. You may not have agreed with the end results, but it always made you think. This film was shallow, stupid, and thoughtless. If that’s the direction the Star Trek franchise is headed, then I look forward to this great new series of action-adventure movies but Star Trek, to me, ended a long time ago.