So I was doubtful about the film, but mainly because it sounded like yet another generic action flick. The notion that Abrams and Transformers scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were getting their filthy mitts on one of the cornerstones of my fannish life was less troublesome to me, mainly because I've never considered myself a particular fan of original series Trek. I like the characters well enough, but I know them mostly from tie-in books and the movies. I've seen very little of 60s Star Trek--a few episodes as a young child, when I found them trippy and enjoyable without really understanding what was going on, and a few more in my early teens, when I found them cheesy and shabby-looking, and promptly went back to my true Trekish love, The Next Generation. It was something of a jolt, therefore, to discover myself reacting to the deluge of enthusiastic reviews and squealing blog posts with a kneejerk sneer at their repeated insistence that Abrams had infused the franchise not only with new life and a sense of fun and adventure but with relevance. When Saxon Bullock said of Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman that they "[have] done what seemed like an impossibility. They've actually made Star Trek matter," I found myself turning, completely unwilling, into the butt of an Onion joke.
On one level, I do understand what Bullock and others like him are saying. The last Star Trek film grossed a measly $18M and was watched only by die-hard, and by that point rather embittered, fans, who promptly decried it as the travesty that it was. I know, because I was one of them. To have made a Star Trek film that not only breaks the box office, not only gains critical acclaim from fans and mainstream critics alike, but introduces Trek to a whole new generation of viewers and places the franchise back at the center of the pop culture maelstrom, is no mean feat. A cultural phenomenon lives only as long as it is loved, and Abrams's Star Trek has resuscitated the series long past the point where this seemed even remotely likely. So I do understand why people feel that Abrams is to be commended, and I freely admit that the financial and critical success of his film has taken me completely by surprise, but at the same time I find it almost galling that after 43 years, 29 seasons of television and ten feature films, Star Trek still needs to prove itself, to keep up with the times and stay relevant.
There are ways in which Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek mattered which Abrams's version could never have emulated, such as the first interracial kiss on TV, or a black woman playing a fleet officer (how many actors can say that they received personal praise for their work from Martin Luther King Jr.?), or the presence of Chekov on the Enterprise bridge at the height of the Cold War. There are ways in which Star Trek tried to matter, and which Abrams doesn't seem to have considered emulating, such as Roddenberry's original idea of a female XO. Most of all, Star Trek mattered because it was the foundation, the template, the touchstone, for American science fiction television for the next four decades. Even writers who have rebelled against everything it stood for have, in their own way, reinforced its primal position. At the risk of sounding like the dorkiest and most out of touch of fans, Star Trek doesn't need to be fun. It doesn't need to be watchable or even any good. It doesn't need to pander to the tastes of a twenty-first century audience and alter itself to suit their needs. It's Star Trek, the well from which everything else--the spin-offs, Babylon 5, Farscape, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and countless others--springs.
It seems to me that far from regaining the franchise's relevance, a film like Abrams's Star Trek relinquishes it. Casino Royale is a hell of a good film, but it reinvents James Bond on others' terms, and in so doing acknowledges that the Bond franchise, which once defined the concept, look and feel of espionage films, is now merely a follower, emulating newer and more innovative series. There's something sad about a once-vibrant cultural artifact becoming first venerable and then a forgotten relic, but not nearly as sad as not allowing that artifact to die a dignified death, and more importantly, not allowing its successors room to grow. Every generation comes up with its own stories, but ours seems content to slap new coats of paint on the old ones so that it can keep telling them again and again. I'd much rather boldly go where no one has gone before.
The above was written earlier this week, before I'd seen the new Star Trek film, and though I stand by my words they are missing the caveat that none of them would have mattered if the film were any good. Having seen it, I can confirm that Abrams's Star Trek is, indeed, fun and enjoyable. It is also, however, painfully, spectacularly dumb. Some films--Star Wars, Back to the Future, Iron Man--are dumb in a way that you don't really notice while you're watching them because you're too swept up in the adventure. It's only once you've left the theatre and the high of vicarious thrills and pleasure of having been immersed in a really fun bit of storytelling have worn off that you notice all the flaws and plot holes and inconsistencies. Star Trek's dumbness, on the other hand, is inescapable. It suffuses every scene, leaps off the screen and repeatedly rubs our faces in the patchiness of the film's plot and the dimness required of its characters. This doesn't make the film any less fun or enjoyable, but it does render it unengaging. Every time I found myself on the verge of surrendering to spectacle and pop corn adventure, something egregious would happen and I'd find myself slammed back in my seat, thinking 'my God, that was stupid.'
Star Trek's dumbness kicks in about ten minutes in and never lets up. The film's prologue is relatively dumbness-free, if only because we don't really understand what's going on, but once we segue to James Kirk taking a joyride in a vintage sports car, it's bye-bye brain cells. In fact, our first introduction to Kirk is so dumb that its dumbness extends to the meta-level. Within the story, it's dumb that Kirk is so intent on his thrills that he drives the car into a ravine, but it's even dumber that we're expected to believe the acrobatics with which he saves himself, and even dumber than that that this absurdly over the top stunt is supposed to endear the character to us rather than make him seem inhuman, and perhaps a little psychotic. And the dumbness keeps on coming. Starfleet command is so understaffed that cadets are pressed into service on all its ships. Pike names Kirk, a disgraced cadet, as his first officer. After acquitting himself admirably as acting captain, Spock misplaces his brain and orders the Enterprise away from the fray even though Earth hangs in the balance. Kirk just happens to be marooned within walking distance of the cave in which, after a not only dumb but bizarre interlude fighting CGI wampas, he just happens to find the equally marooned future Spock. The villain, Nero, a cut-rate imitation of Star Trek: Nemesis's Shinzon held together with tattoos and clichés, is dumbness personified. And as a final bit of dumbness, at the end of the film Kirk is made captain of the Enterprise before even properly graduating from the academy.
What makes Star Trek's dumbness so unendurable is that the film itself is often so joyless. Young Kirk's joyride ought to be the equivalent of Marty McFly strumming his electric guitar and getting launched across the room--stupid, but endearingly and believably childish. Instead, the actor is curiously emotionless, arrogant but not particularly happy at his illicit adventure or his narrow escape. Other action scenes are, similarly, well put together but perfunctory and predictable: Kirk is dangling from a precipice, so in a minute Sulu will rescue him; Kirk is threatened by a CGI beast, so someone's going to shoot it from off-screen. Most egregious is the climactic assault against Nero, which is painted as a last-ditch, Hail Mary effort even though it involves ramming Nero's ship with another ship carrying a container full of the film's McGuffin, red matter, a single drop of which is enough to implode a planet. There's not even a hint of last-minute, "what you fail to realize is that my ship is dragging mines!"-style cleverness to leaven the obviousness of this resolution.
The film does quite a bit better with its characters. The cast embody their inherited roles well, and though most of them aren't given much to do, just about everyone has a standout scene in which they are allowed to be, undeniably, the characters we know and love: Bones sneaking Kirk onto the Enterprise and making him sicker and sicker with his cures, Sulu keeping his slightly flustered cool as he fails to take the ship into warp, Chekov and his ridiculous accent repeatedly coming to the rescue, Uhura keeping her old job even as the plot invests it with added importance and keeps it, and her, from devolving into Gwen DeMarco-ish insignificance, and Scotty, well, all of the time, though I was especially fond of his comment about disintegrating Archer's dog (that said, surely most Enterprise survivors would have preferred that Scotty test his theory on the dickhead admiral himself). I like the concept, if not the execution, of the Spock/Uhura romance--a romance with Vulcans needs to be handled delicately, and Star Trek makes Enterprise's depiction of a similar relationship seem positively subtle in comparison.
The heart and soul of the film, though, are Kirk and Spock. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto commit fully to their roles, and quickly come to inhabit Kirk's swagger and Spock's sharpness. But in its depiction of the growth of the characters' friendship, and their coming to assume their respective roles on the Enterprise bridge, Star Trek makes some rather curious and aggravating choices. My Kirk was first and foremost the one from the movies. The one who got old and fat, who paid the wages of his youthful womanizing with a son who wanted nothing to do with him, and of his meteoric career with an admiralty he loathed. This Kirk was shocked, simply flabbergasted, at no longer being that brash young man who could do no wrong, but in a way he never stopped being that person. Even dying he was full of wonder and a sense of adventure. The child who is the father of that man, who hasn't yet experienced loss and learned humility, is a less interesting character, and I was expecting to be a little put off by Star Trek's Kirk. But I was still thrown by the film's decision to make Kirk not only arrogant but a complete tool.
Abrams's Kirk is the kind of guy who won't stop trying to chat up a girl even after she's made it clear she's not interested, and who doesn't even have the decency to pretend that he's not interested in his officer's girlfriend. He's the guy who doesn't just tweak the parameters of the Kobayashi Maru simulation, but who sits through it, smirking like a kid who's figured out how to enable God mode on Halo 2, until it hands him his victory (and who, in keeping with the film's recurring theme of dumbness, expects to get away with this blatant cheat). Most of all, he's the guy who publicly humiliates a man by goading him with the memory of his recently murdered mother, so that he can strip him of his command. Kirk's character doesn't have a journey in the film. It's the rest of the world that has to journey from thinking him a screw-up to accepting his right go command, and the film validates his dickish behavior through the reaction of the crew and later Spock, who accept Kirk's superior claim to the captain's chair, through his promotion at the end of the film, and most of all through old Spock, who urges Kirk to bully his younger self so that they can take the roles God intended for them as alpha and beta males. Because heaven forbid the brainy, level-headed guy should be captain and the gutsy thrill-seeker should be the XO, even though that arrangement actually makes a lot more sense, and worked pretty well in seven seasons of The Next Generation, the first couple of years of Deep Space Nine, and the first half of this very movie.
In the end, I find that my main objection to J.J. Abrams's Star Trek isn't that he's changed too much but rather than he, Orci, and Kurtzman are continuing the trends that made the last days of Rick Berman and Brannon Braga's reign over the franchise so unbearable. As they did in Enterprise and to a lesser extent in Insurrection and Nemesis, Abrams abandons Gene Roddenberry's vision of the Federation as a force for peace and civilization, and valorizes strength of arms over intellect. Kirk's raw-knuckles fury, Pike tells us, is something the Federation is missing, and when Kirk offers a defeated Nero and his crew aid (an act he describes, with superior detachment, as very Federation) even Spock demurs. Most of all, Abrams continues Berman and Braga's policy of denigrating intellect by marginalizing and vilifying the Vulcans, whether by painting them as vain and bigoted, or by destroying their planet and relegating one of the founding races of the Federation to a rag-tag band of refugees, or by having both Sarek and his older self urge Spock to ignore logic, listen to his heart, and embrace Kirk's ethos of cheerful violence and bloody revenge.
After pointing out so many of its flaws, it'll probably seem strange for me to conclude by saying that Star Trek is still fun and enjoyable. Ultimately, the film is too inconsequential for me to stay angry at it. The frequent comparisons to Iron Man seem apt, though perhaps not for the reasons the people making them intended. Both films are entertaining bits of fluff elevated by good performances (though Pine and Quinto lack either the talent or the chutzpah to walk away with their film as Robert Downey Jr. did with his) but in no way deserving of the wildly overblown praise lavished on them. After the roller-coaster of heightened and lowered expectations, J.J. Abrams delivered exactly the film I thought he would--shiny, fast-paced, and desperately striving for a coolness it can never possess precisely because it wants it so badly. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours, but far from restoring it, Star Trek is the last nail in the coffin of the franchise's relevance.