Okay – the new Star Trek movie has been seen (It’s one of the few films I simply didn’t want to wait around for) – and there’ll be some non-spoilerific words, followed by some more in-depth stuff behind the cut.
The short version? They’ve done what seemed like an impossibility. They’ve actually made Star Trek matter.
The tidal wave of positive reviews the film has been getting is rather overwhelming, and it is best to approach the new Trek movie with expectations at a healthy level. Go in expecting a mind-blowing work of cinematic genius and you’re going to be disappointed – but what we do have is a lively, energetic and downright fun blockbuster that taps back into the dynamic that powered the original series and shows that it still works. And it also proves that the success of Trek was a combination of the upbeat, positive worldview, and the characters themselves – particularly the Brawn/Brain relationship between Kirk and Spock. After so many years of Trek being mainly defined by the Next Generation’s beige world of “Hey- something dramatic’s happenned! Let’s go to the Captain’s ready room and talk about it for ten minutes!”, it’s a gigantic relief to get a movie that understands what was so fun about the original series – that there may have been something terribly ridiculous about William Shatner tearing his shirt and snogging the women, but that underneath it all the character worked. And the film manages to do this with almost all the regular characters, to greater or lesser degrees, while making a film that’s fun and action-packed enough that you don’t have to be tapped into forty years of continuity in order to enjoy it.
It’s ended up a similar situation to The Wrath of Khan, where a filmmaker who wasn’t that familiar with the Trek universe is brought in to give it an adrenaline shot, and here it’s exactly what the whole Trek universe needed. While the whole idea of a prequel sounded alarm bells in my head, the fact that J.J. Abrams was helming it did give me enough confidence to think that it had a chance of being good – and the end result is a hell of a lot better than I initially expected, featuring the kind of strengths that Abrams is good at, particularly with the casting. I was actually a bit worried about Zachary Quinto as Spock – he’s only rarely completely blown me away in Heroes (although I think that’s just as much to do with that show’s over-dependence on the Sylar-as-unstoppable-bad-guy factor), and while the resemblence was obvious, Leonard Nimoy’s work as Spock is one of those performances that looks a lot easier than it actually is. And I’m happy to say that Quinto is really, really good – capturing exactly the right tone and making every single scene work. And then, of course, there’s Chris Pine, who arguably has just as major shoes to fill, and he carries it off even better than Quinto – Pine somehow manages to channel all of Kirk’s cocksure arrogance, swagger and confidence and even carries off the occasional moment of ridiculousness without ever feeling like he’s impersonating Shatner. He owns the role, and one of the best things I can say about the film is that it makes you want to see the next adventure of this crew right now, this instant. There are wildly different approaches in the rest of the cast – Karl Urban is as brilliantly close to Deforest Kelley as you could ever want, while Zoe Saldana as Uhura is very different to the original (although considering how thin Uhura’s character was, it’s no surprise…) and the only cast member I really had a problem with was Anton Yelchin as Chekov, whose Russian accent really just needed to get dialed back a couple of notches.
The scale works. The action (mostly) works. And, above everything else, the ethos they’ve applied to the approach to Trek works. There’s plenty of edge, and there’s even a few hints of Battlestar Galactica in the hand-held approach to the space battle sequences, but they’ve gone big, bold and positive and it works. They’ve created a world where the primary colours of the uniforms and having all the female starfleet members in the Sixties-style short skirts and go-go boots feels completely normal, and where the characters feel like living, breathing people and not just epithet-spouting stuffed shirts. In fact, there’s something decidedly New Who about this re-invention/reboot/remix – the way that this is updating a classic show in a way which will probably annoy the hell out of the purists, but which is – underneath it all – still the show it always was. Because yes, if you have a love of the original series or particularly the ‘Classic Crew’ movies (I have a serious fondness for Star Treks II-IV, and VI), there may be moments that don’t quite sit right. It’s certainly the fastest Trek movie ever, and arguably could have done with slowing down to give the story time to breathe (a flaw it shares with Abrams’ Mission Impossible III). It’s also worth remembering that this is written by the same men responsible for Transformers – and there are moments where the humour could have done with being a little less goofy, and where the storytelling could have been a lot clearer. But ultimately, none of these problems make a gigantic amount of difference because you care about the characters. For me, Star Trek isn’t at the top of my favourite Trek film list (some of which, admittedly, is coloured by fondness and nostalgia), but it’s riding extremely high. There may be moments of cheesiness and a handful of points that don’t quite work, but they’re over in a flash, and the overall experience is a big, bold and brassy pulp SF blockbuster that drags you along in its wake.
Rating: * * * *
And now, having avoided any major spoilers, I shall now add a few spoilerific thoughts…
One of the weirdest things about Star Trek is how underneath the prequel engine, it’s essentially a mash-up of other Trek movies – particularly, and rather bogglingly, the dreadful Star Trek: Nemesis (we once again have a bald Romulan-esque baddie with a vengeful grudge and a superweapon out to destroy the Earth), while there’s also aspects of Star Trek: Generations (the clunky time-travel storytelling, the initial starship-in-danger action sequence featuring someone called Kirk sacrificing their life, a planet-destroying technology) and, rather obviously, a major echo of Wrath of Khan (with everything from the vengeful baddie to finally getting to see Kirk beat the Kobayashi Maru test). I guess for me, the biggest problem with the film is that the mechanics behind the plot don’t really work – it’s a great engine for powering the film, and for setting in motion a catastrophic change in Trek continuity with absolutely no trace of a reset button, but like a lot of New Who storytelling (especially in seasons 1 and 2), if you look too hard at the SF elements of the plot, they start falling to bits. I mean, first we get a supernova which is conveniently threatening the galaxy (how?), and then we’ve got a black hole which conveniently acts as a gateway through time (although in different places in time – I mean, they’ve already established that the old ‘slingshot round the sun’ method works in the Trek universe – why not have Nero go back deliberately, rather than by accident?). On top of this we have a gigantic 25-year gap in the story where we’re apparently expected to believe that Nero and his Romulan crew just sat around and waited for Spock to turn up, an outrageous coincidence where Kirk just happens to be dumped on an Ice Planet where Future Spock has also been dumped, and a general overload of bad science and storytelling (Where exactly is Delta Vega? Until we get the shot of Future Spock witnessing Vulcan’s demise, there’s no clue that it’s even in the same system – and while I can just about cope with the spacesuit-dive into the atmosphere (I mean, let’s not let science get in the way of a gigantically cool sequence), if Delta Vega was close enough for Vulcan to be more visible in the sky than the Earth’s Moon, then the minute Vulcan got black-holed, Delta Vega would be sucked in as well, or at the least dragged out of orbit (This is, after all, a black hole we’re talking about…). This isn’t a gigantic surprise – I mean, going by Orci and Kurtzman’s work on MI:3 and Transformers, they’ve never been that bothered about narrative logic, and it does leave certain sections of the film feeling like setpieces strung together rather than an actual film – in many respects it’s a very modern blockbuster, with all the advantages and disadvantages that suggests. And it’s only because everything around these problems is so good that they stick out so much – at least to a unashamed geek such as myself.
The New Who similarities are pretty close – we even get a deliberately sacreligious bit of pop music thrown in, in the same manner as Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ was used in S1 of New Who – although in this case it’s ‘Sabotage’ by the Beastie Boys, and I can’t help feeling Trek got the better end of the deal. It’s a fun statement of intent, though, one that very clearly says “This is not your Dad’s Star Trek’, and fits in entirely with the popcorn rambunctiousness of the rest of the film. We also get a lot of what’s become the New Who equivalent of alien planets all being quarries – where all spacecraft interiors (at least, engineering room-wise) now conveniently look like power stations, which gives much of the Enterprise a very different look than the old series (and even the movies) – it’s a cool, interesting choice, although the one downside of this (at least, from a believability point of view) is that the Enterprise interior now seems to be absurdly large. You could just about get away with the old-style engineering stuff fitting inside the ship – but the movie’s Engineering bays are so gigantically huge, I can’t figure out exactly how big the Enterprise is supposed to be, and it is sacrificing a bit of common sense in favour of all-out spectacle.
A smattering of other issues, likes and dislikes:
– The Orion Slave Girl roommate was an enjoyable addition – but it’d have been nice if they could have somehow gotten her looking like something other than an actress painted bright green. Nice and retro, but what worked in 1967 doesn’t always work today…
– There are certain line deliveries that are really, really poor – the one that stood out was the phone call to Young Kirk, and there were a few others which just brought up a brief feeling of “ouch”, especially when most of the cast were doing so well.
– Chekov’s earnestness is really overplayed – like I said, Anton Yelchin was about the one element that didn’t quite fit for me, especially when he’s running to the transporter room going “I can do this!”
– The sequence where Scotty ends up in the water-pipe is another sequence where the goofiness of the humour gets a little bit much – it’s kind of fun, but it feels a bit too cartoony (and again, makes the Enterprise seem nonsensically vast. And where the hell are the Engineering staff?)
– Eric Bana does an excellent job as Nero, especially considering that he really isn’t onscreen very much, but he doesn’t get the finale he deserves. Instead, the sequence where Kirk offers to help, Nero declines, and then the Enterprise crew consider that permission to gleefully blast the hell out of Nero’s ship ends up lacking impact (and also feels a little mean, thanks to Bana making the character believable and empathetic. Could have been a lot better than it was).
– It’s great to see Nimoy as Spock again – but to be honest, his scenes weren’t fantastic and did rather feel like Nimoy was a bit too old to be able to carry off the character as well as he once did. (And, to be honest, it wouldn’t have been completely impossible to have done the film without him.)
– Michael Giacchino’s music was good, but not quite exceptional (and he’s capable of exceptional, especially in his work on Pixar’s The Incredibles). There’s nothing in there that got even close to either Goldsmith or Horner’s work on the original movies.
– J.J. Abrams’ directorial style is great fun, but I’m still not certain that he’s a great film director. There are points in the film which could have done with a little more personality – and about the biggest flaw is that it simply goes a bit too fast, and it could have done with a little more contrast between the frenetic action and the character moments.
– Bruce Greenwood as Christopher Pike is fantastic, giving absolutely the right level of gravitas, and I’m exceptionally glad they didn’t kill him off. (And the wheelchair was another nice continuity nod).
– The effects work is very strong, with some exceptional CGI, and occasional bursts of gorgeous imagery. Highlight? The Enterprise in orbit around Saturn – pure SF geek nirvana.
– And while the film mainly sticks to the “To hell with physics!” attitude of explosions in space, the moments where we go from atmosphere to no atmosphere – like Kirk’s atmosphere dive- and are crashed into an eerie silence are really, really good.
And I’m sure more will occur to me at some point, but that’s all for now. It’s a reboot that works, and it’s a very entertaining blockbuster that will definitely repay multiple viewings. Just don’t expect perfection, and everything will be fine. Now, if they can just get on and make the sequel, I’ll be a happy man – and while quick would be nice, I’d far rather they made it good….