Directed by: J J Abrams
Starring: Leonard Nimoy, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Eric Bana, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood
I loved the original series of Star Trek from the first time I saw it, when it was first broadcast in the UK back in the 1960s. I loved how fast the Enterprise was when you saw it hurtle past the camera in the opening credits; space is a big place, so you need something that can really shift when you want to get from one place to another.
When I watched Star Trek to start with it was in black and white; a few years later when my parents got a colour TV and I saw how vibrant and richly coloured the world of the future was, I fell in love with the series all over again. By the 1970s I'd discovered the wider world of science fiction and was reading writers like Larry Niven - so when the animated series came out and Kirk had to battle the Kzinti, I lapped it up, despite the rock-bottom production values. When the show returned to television at the end of the 1980s with Captain Picard and his trusty crew, things got even better; I still think that the later seasons of TNG are some of the best television I've ever seen. They even had cameos by McCoy, Spock, and Scotty!
I struggled with Deep Space Nine to start with. Despite some truly exceptional performances by the cast, particularly Andrew Robinson as the conflicted Cardassian, Elim Garak, the show didn't seem to fit in the same universe as the earlier series. If I missed an episode, it didn't worry me - something that would have been unthinkable when I was watching The Original Series (TOS) or The Next Generation (TNG). DS9 eventually found its feet and after a seven-year run drew to a worthy conclusion.
Things got much worse by the time Voyager came along - I had little or no interest in the plot or the characters and sometimes missed entire seasons without worrying about it. The show didn't have Roddenberry's optimism and the characters seemed one-dimensional, their motivations petty and trivial.
When Enterprise came around, the rot had really set in. I watched the first half-dozen episodes, realised that the writers had little or no background in science or interest in maintaining continuity with the rest of the show, and gave up. So did the rest of the world; Enterprise was the first show since TOS to be cancelled before it had got to the end of its planned run of episodes.
It was a similar story with the the films, too - despite things getting off to a bit of a rocky start with what Harlan Ellison famously dubbed "Star Trek: The Motionless Picture" I loved the early films, particularly numbers 2 (The Wrath of Khan) and 4 (The Voyage Home) which did a lot to cement a maxim well-known amongst Star Trek fans that the even-numbered films were good and the odd-numbered films weren't. Of the later movies, only First Contact really felt like a proper Star Trek movie. I've already blogged about just how bad Nemesis was; it killed off the franchise at the movies as effectively as Enterprise had terminated it on television.
For a while it looked like that was it - the show was dead and buried. What could Paramount do to re-engage me, an old-school fan rapidly approaching the age of fifty with little interest in a show that I had once known and loved? More importantly, what could they do to bring in people who really didn't care about the history of the show, or the careers of Captain Kirk and his colleagues?
The answer is something that has been done very successfully by Christopher Nolan with the Batman franchise (and far less successfully by Bryan Singer with the Superman saga) - you do a reboot. In computer parlance, a reboot is when you hit Ctrl-Alt-Del and start over from the beginning. When you've got characters as well-established as Kirk, Spock and McCoy, that's a pretty tall order. For pretty much anyone on the planet, Kirk is William Shatner; Spock is Leonard Nimoy; McCoy is DeForest Kelley. If you're going up against that sort of inertia, you'd better have cast-iron balls, a first rate cast and a story that's going to justify the effort in the first place. That's where J J Abrams comes in. Look at his entry on IMDB and you'll see some first-class stuff. He's been responsible for some of the most intriguing television to be broadcast in the last decade, and one or two movies that did pretty well at the box office. His reputation alone was enough to get me interested when news broke that he was making a Star Trek film. The fact that he announced it would be about how Kirk and Spock first met was interesting. Then the casting choices started cropping up, and things moved from being interesting to - well, as an old Vulcan would say, fascinating. Abrams had the additional challenge that he was making the eleventh movie in the series; could he beat the odd-number pattern? It was pretty obvious I was going to go and see the film, no matter how badly the original history got mangled.
I tried to avoid reading reviews about it, other than stuff I couldn't escape from adverts and such like on TV. I'd seen the trailer, but I'd tried to avoid seeing clips on film shows. I knew a little bit about the plot, but I had kept myself from reading any in-depth discussions online or in newspapers - and that's unusual for me. I guess I really wanted to maintain the hope that Abrams wasn't going to screw up something that I used to have a lot of attachment to. So far, I've seen the new Star Trek movie twice. In a week. Once just for the general buzz of the movie, of the glee of seeing the Enterprise on the big screen once more - and then seeing it again so that I could clarify my thoughts on the film, look at particular nuances and aspects of the film-making involved and write a review that would be true to my investment in the characters that I've known for more than forty years.
So, what do I think?
I think Abrams has pulled off a truly outrageous stunt. He's taken those old, well-established and loved characters and shifted them sideways. He maintains the things that appealed about those characters and the world they inhabit, but he's said: "You know what? That story doesn't interest me. Let's have them do this instead." And dammit, it works. But it works principally because the story is completely and utterly secondary to the important aspect of Star Trek, and that was the chemistry between the people. That's what was important in Star Trek and that was what I loved about the show - the little digs between McCoy and Spock, the lightness of Kirk's touch as a commanding officer, the brash enthusiasm of Chekov and the professionalism and sheer bloody cool that Sulu exuded. And that is all present and correct here. The closest parallel I can think of for the film is the first half of The Blues Brothers. Abrams is an offscreen Jake, going round getting the old gang back together again. We see exactly what each member of the ensemble can bring to the stage before they get round to ripping it up together as we know only they can do.
And despite the fact that the actors here are new, it truly feels like the old gang are all present and correct. It's a joy to see Leonard Nimoy reprise his character from the first series. His presence elevates the film to a higher level and brought back feelings of nostalgia and affectio for me - after all, one of the principal reasons why I was there to see the movie was the work that Nimoy and his colleagues have done over the years. Karl Urban's performance isn't of Leonard McCoy, it's of DeForest Kelley playing McCoy. He becomes the solid foundation of the movie, something that all the other performers can play off and build on, and they do. Quinto is too young to have the gravitas of Nimoy, and he doesn't have the voice, but it doesn't matter. He is Spock as a young man, his emotions still not fully under control. And as for Chris Pine's unenviable task of portraying Kirk? He does just fine. In fact, he's more than fine. Now that I've seen the film and read other reviews, the consensus seems to be that he doesn't attempt to emulate Shatner, but that's just bullshit. There are many moments in the film where he completely and utterly inhabits Shatner's Kirk, and in a couple of places his note-perfect delivery gave me goosebumps. But he takes Kirk's bravado and self-belief and makes it something new and interesting. Like Urban's McCoy, he's not content at simple mimicry and the character fits with the new direction the story goes in. The person who takes the existing character furthest from the original is Simon Pegg as Scotty, which must have taken some courage with James Doohan's son Christopher sitting next to him for a couple of scenes. Just as in Abrams's Mission Impossible movie, Pegg's role is very much to provide the comic relief and there is clearly an attempt to explain Scotty's expanding waistline from the earlier movies, right from his first appearance:
Scotty: So, you're from the future?
Kirk: He is, I'm not.
Scotty: Do they still have sandwiches there?
As far as I'm concerned all the boxes are ticked. The performances are excellent. The spirit of the show is still most definitely there, even if the canon has been thrown out of the window. Job done? Well, not exactly. My second viewing was necessary because I was less happy with the story aspects of the film. I'd say that the story suffered at the expense of getting such a great ensemble together, because it has some whopping great holes in it. If you go and see it, here are a few questions you might want to ask yourself:
- Would Nero's ship really be capable of withstanding a starship ramming it and exploding?
- What was Nero doing for the 25 years between the events at the beginning of the movie and the arrival of the other spaceship? (Actually, given the previous point he was probably sticking his ship back together again...)
- Why didn't Nero use the (contrived plot device) to prevent the (event explaining his motivation) from ever happening?
- People can transport into water now? Don't transporter units have safety devices?
- The Enterprise is still within visual range of Vulcan when Kirk is thrown off the ship in an escape pod, because we see Spock watching Vulcan from the ice moon's surface. The planet is referred to as Delta Vega - a remote uninhabited planet from an episode in the original series that was at the edge of the galaxy and most definitely not "next door" to Vulcan. The Enterprise was clearly shown leaving the place where Vulcan had been in an earlier shot, and Kirk is not thrown off the ship for several minutes - so did they just haul up and park once the Enterprise had gone out of frame?
- After encountering two monsters that are clearly very dangerous, why would Kirk be quite happy for Spock to lead him across several miles of exposed, open country to get to a Starfleet Base when the closest thing they have to a weapon is a burning torch?
- The planet on which he is marooned appears to consist entirely of desolate ice fields, so where did Spock Prime get the burning torch from?
- Spock knows of the aforesaid nearby Starfleet base, so why has he chosen to set up home in a cold, freezing ice cave instead?
There were several "hey look, it's you!" moments in the film where main characters meet up. The plot has far too many coincidences for my liking. The editing, too, had problems. There are several moments in the film where you feel like you've been set up for a punchline that doesn't come. I was fully expecting Chekov to crack a joke about Shakespeare "in the original Russian" at one point, and the joke absolutely should have been there; it wasn't. Thankfully we did get McCoy's delivery of "I'm a doctor, not a physicist" - the film wouldn't have been the same without it.
It'll be interesting to see how things fare in the inevitable sequel. Abrams's earlier blockbusters like Mission Impossible III and Cloverfield weren't the sort of films that its audience would sit and mull over for hours afterwards. Like it or not, the Trek audience is very different, and I think the screenplay here wasn't up to scratch. It's already been found wanting - I've just had a look at the faily substantial goofs page on IMDB and as well as the points I'd picked up there are quite a few more.
So, my verdict? It's a good movie. It'll certainly keep Trek fans entertained as well as providing fuel for hours of argument and discussion. In my opinion it has successfully re-energised the franchise by taking some outrageous liberties with it. It's set the stage for subesquent films to move in a new direction. I just hope that their new direction remains as faithful to the spirit of the show as this one has done.
Chris's rating: Four Stars