Thursday, May 14, 2009

Star Trek

You couldn't say that I've been looking forward to the new Star Trek film. When it was first suggested, the very concept of a reboot going back to the setting and cast of the original series conjured up images of extruded Hollywood product: conventionally attractive actors, the women skeletal and painstakingly permed, the men shiny and boyishly handsome, buckets of money poured into special effects that add up to a film that looks like every other special effects extravaganza of the last half-decade, a few callbacks and famous quotes to appease the diehard fans, and lots of pop music on the soundtrack. Then J.J. Abrams got the directing gig, and I threw my hands up and gave up on the whole endeavor. Abrams is not entirely talentless, and he's produced a few fine hours of television in Alias and Lost, but as a storyteller his palette is extraordinarily limited, and as a director he was responsible for Mission: Impossible III, a jangly, underwritten mess with not a shred of charm or wit for all its desperate attempts to court its audience with big explosions and kinetic, if conceptually leaden, action scenes.

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.

33 comments:

J. said...

I liked your review up to the last paragraph, when it collapsed into into a heap of contraditory buzzwords. "It's fun, enjoyable, wildly popular -- but it will never be cool! It's an inconsequential, shiny bit of fluff -- that will kill the franchise!"

And remember that the polished diplomacy and careful professionalism of TNG is still at least 100 years off at this point in the timeline; the Federation of the TOS era tended much more toward gunboat diplomacy.

ibmiller said...

Is it sad that I've been waiting for this review? I am also irritated at the adulation this film has gotten from the critics. I also agree that it's fun. But I think that fun doesn't mean good (as evidenced by the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, which was also very technically well done, and also very dumb).

Jonathan M said...

Abigail -- I must say I disagree with you.

I agree that the Trek Franchise has passed its torch to other people in terms of making the creative running in the SF field and I think your comparison to Casino Royale is well made. The Bourne films have set the creative agenda for the espionage genre despite the fact that the last film was not so much about espionage as it was about walking in an aggressive manner whilst having a mobile phone hands-free device in one's ear.

However, I'm not sure that the new Trek film's failure to reclaim a torch (possibly from the cold dead hands of series 1 BSG or the excellent Sunshine) really counts as a mark against it.

Firstly, I think that the film raised the cinematic bar for cinematic space opera. Compared to Star Trek something like Serenity looks poorly paced, self-indulgent and lacking in visual imagination. The sheer speed of the plotting and the relentlessness of the visuals really amount to something new, raising the bar even on the silent pandemonium of BSG's space battles.

Not dumb.


Secondly, I thought that for a film that focused so much upon events (as genre media invariably does), Star Trek had a very profound understanding of character.

For example, the scene in the car with the child was not in the least bit dumb. I thought it tapped perfectly into this image (largely created via the films and the later series than the original series itself) that Kirk was some kind of primal fury; a barely controlled collection of instincts and passions that forced him again and again to take absurd risks with his own life and that of those around him.

Consider the fact that, unlike the original Kirk, new-Kirk grew up without his real father who cast a terrible shadow over him and you have a young man who is either going to change the world or climb a clock tower. The scene with the car perfectly captured that essence of the character and portrayed it beautifully.

Of course, this approach to Kirk is mirrored in the way that the film treats Spock. They very much play up the idea that vulcans are seething cauldrons of primal emotion who struggle to keep everything repressed through Logic.

In the old series, Kirk served as a kind of Ego to McCoy's Id and Spock's Superego. But in the new film McCoy is the pragmatist between two extremists : Both are filled with rage and passion but one pointedly tries to ignore and suppress his emotional reactions while the other makes a point of surrendering to them utterly. McCoy stands in between the complete denial of self and completely narcissistic self-indulgence and self-destructive individualism.

Not dumb.

I think part of the problem is that you're allowing the TV series and the films to set the intellectual battleground. So you're looking to the areas where Trek used to excel and you're finding nobody there.

However, look over the hill into ruminations on the nature of the self and cinematography and you have a film fighting all new battles.

I recently re-watched the later series of DS9 and I have to say that I think that the New Trek has more to say and has more going on in it than in those later series of DS9.

Athena Andreadis said...

Abigail, I share your concerns: We Now Interrupt Our Regular Programming…

Dale said...

Have to say I really disagree with almost everything you say. You admit that you were never taken by TOS, which is entirely the problem with your review: you fail to see the deep connections with said series, while at the same time staying competitive in the 21st century. Your comment ``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,'' is utter bullshit -- it's a dog-eat-dog world and every film has to raise the bar in an increasingly competitive, and inspired, marketplace or else it is a non-event.

The film's bridging of the gulf between 60's television and 00's movies is a masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

I think the main problem is that they picked Abrams to do this. He simply does not have the chops for a movie.

There were some memorable moments, I admit. "I have no comment about the matter" comes to mind (which by the way you have interpreted incorrectly -- Kirk is not expressing interest in a girl who's off the market, he's doing the stereotypical thing where a guy ribbing his friend about his relationship). McCoy browbeating someone with medical regulations was a nice callout to the development and responsibility medical officers gained starting in TNG. Things like that. But really, Abrams paced the movie so fast that it was hard to follow it mentally. He was, in effect, betting he could get away with a really weak plot by keeping you so far behind that you didn't have time to be jarred out of disbelief. Despite some good performances and very good effects and sequences, he lost this gamble. The plot was too weak and the developments too fast, so I sat there taking in a merely ok summer popcorn movie.

I'd be surprised if there isn't a sequel since Hollywood puts out so few new ideas, but I'll be really surprised if there was a second sequel.

R. said...

I've been seething with rage for a week over the overwhelmingly good reviews for this movie, so it's hard to overstate how much I appreciate this review. THANK YOU.

It's fun. Sure. But my God, it's stupid, and it's mean, and for as silly and weird as TOS was, I never in my life could have imagined these characters being either of those things.

J--
"It's fun, enjoyable, wildly popular -- but it will never be cool! It's an inconsequential, shiny bit of fluff -- that will kill the franchise!"

I don't think that's what she meant. I'm pretty sure, as everyone else is, that more movies will be made under this name. The franchise is still alive; its heart and soul, though, appear to have been jettisoned. Not to mention its brain. What we have here is ZOMBIE!TREK!!

Anonymous said...

Abrams shows he is simply an opportunist, carpet bagging the Trek franchise to the masses, who swallow the snake oil down and think it really is making them feel good, only to slowly realize later on that they have been duped. At least we still have the older series that we can fall back on.

I find the upcoming Terminator Salvation the be aptly named though, because after this Trek and the BSG finale, something needs to come out and save sci fi this year. Here's hoping TS can deliver the goods.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

J.:

What R. said. The film is inconsequential, which is why it kills off the franchise's relevance. It's trying too hard to be cool - mostly be emulating the coolness of others - which is why it isn't.

You're right that original series Trek was a great deal less civilized than the spin-off series, but gunboat diplomacy is still a long way off from what this film depicts, which is simply shooting the hell out of anyone you don't like.

Jonathan:

Compared to Star Trek something like Serenity looks poorly paced, self-indulgent and lacking in visual imagination.You know, every time you say something this wrongheaded, an angel loses its wings.

Seriously, we're clearly never going to agree about this. I find Abrams's visual style entirely derivative, and as in the case of the by-now infamous lens flares, he uses no moderation in his directorial borrowing. Everything is turned up to eleven, with no intelligence or humor to give the action scenes shape or emotional resonance. There have been worse action films, to be sure, but also many, many better ones.

Similarly, I just don't see the delicate plumbing of Kirk's character that you insist on. What I see is the standard Hollywood trope of 'fatherless boy = screw-up' (which I resent, among many other reasons, because I'm the sister of a fatherless boy who is utterly fantastic), and the rest of the film constantly urging us to love the maverick even as it paints him as a complete asshole. Better writing might have created the character you describe, but it's simply not there.

Dale:

Your comment ``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,'' is utter bullshit -- it's a dog-eat-dog world and every film has to raise the bar in an increasingly competitive, and inspired, marketplace or else it is a non-event.Well, there's always the option of letting the franchise die and telling new stories. But even assuming that that wasn't on the cards, I don't see that Star Trek raises the bar. I see it carefully measuring the bar and placing itself exactly at its level, imitating its successors in the hopes of appealing to their audiences.

Anonymous 1:

Kirk is not expressing interest in a girl who's off the market, he's doing the stereotypical thing where a guy ribbing his friend about his relationshipI don't see that. For one thing, wondering about Uhura's name has been the form of Kirk's pursuit of her for three years, and his asking the question again is clearly supposed to recall that pursuit (to us if not to Spock). For another, he's not jovial in this scene, but rather shocked that the brainy guy got the beautiful girl instead of him.

I suspect the revitalized franchise has more life in it than a single sequel. This kind of momentum doesn't shed so quickly, and unless the next film is an utter catastrophe (which it almost certainly won't be - a sequel's success, at least initially, is determined by its predecessor's, so I think Star Trek 2's blockbusting opening weekend is already guaranteed) there will be more films after it.

R.:

What we have here is ZOMBIE!TREK!!Hah! I love it.

Anonymous 2:

I doubt the masses will be waking up to having been duped any time soon, nor should they. It's a popular film which a lot of people seem to have loved, however inexplicably. This is annoying, but it happens - after four years of being in the minority about Battlestar Galactica, holding this unpopular fannish opinion is almost restful.

I'm also not holding out terrific hopes for Terminator: Salvation. The trailers are very promising, but so were the Star Trek trailers, and McG's resume isn't any more impressive than Abrams's. In general I'm finding this summer action season a bit of a letdown after last year's exceptional crop of films.

Martin said...

Oh, I soooo waited for a review like this. Of course the movie seemed ok while watching this whole action scenes and it was really nice to see kirk and spock... but it was indeed just so DUMB. After it finished was was left with "What, THAT was it?" in my head.

I agree on almost everything you write, especially the dumb plot while some of the characters (and actors) had some potential.

Raz Greenberg said...

It's funny - I remember how about a month ago you said that you didn't feel as strongly about the original graphic novel as I do to share my views on the "Watchmen" movie. I guess I don't feel as strongly as you about Star Trek as a franchise to have the same turn-off reaction, even before seeing the film.
I do, however, remember episodes from the original Star Trek series pretty well, and I can tell that as far as the basic theme goes, Abrams got it right: the idea that emotion (often paired with rough machoism) is superior to cold intellect was a cornerstone of TOS. True, the story structure placed the theme within the context of an intellectual problems, but it strongly advocated emotional solutions (again, often of the macho-oriented, violent nature). And while this stunt worked resonably well in a 45-minutes episode, in almost all the films it tended to fall apart - they felt cumbersome and overlong.
In the current movie, Abrams decided to throw the "intellectual problem" plot device out the window. This is one element in the film that may not go well with the franchise's tradition, but it makes a lot of cinematic sense - something that, again, I felt most theatrical releases in the franchise lacked. "Iron Man" which you mentioned is actually a very good opposite example: that film was three finely-crafted action-scenes surrounded by laughably-bad attempts at intellectual discussion. That movie sucked because it refused to acknowledge what it is: an adventure film about a man in funny outfit. Abrams never pretends his film to be something other than an adventure film set in space. Maybe he's aiming lower than the people who handled the franchise before him, but from a craftman's point of view, he does a better job than any of them did. In the cinematic incarnation of the franchise, at least.
And with regards to relevance - I'd say that in bringing so many people to see the film, and getting so much positive media attention, Abrams did a much better job at making the franchise relevant than anyone who handled it - in theatres or TV - in the past decade or so.

Jakob Schmidt said...

I'm still on the fence on this one. While I pretty much agree to the fact that Kirk is an utter asshole in this new Trek, it didn't bother me at all. I completely bought Pine as Kirk, as well als Quinto and especially Urban, and I would actually like to see a sequel with them that makes some sense in terms of story.
The "sense of fun" in this new Trek was quite noticeable, but it dissipated pretty quickly after watching the movie. The reason might be that, all in all, Abrams' Trek feels like a lesser Farscape to me. It tries to be funny, sexy, character-driven and dark at the same time, and frankly, Farscape did all of these things much better, AND was intellient science fiction at the same time. Insofar as fun, sexyness and sheer strangeness are aspects of Classic Trek, I hereby once more claim that Farscape is the true heir to Star Trek ;)
The only aspect where the new Trek excells (at least to my mind) is in special effects. I might get the DVD just to see the Enterprise rise from the mists of Titan (was it Titan?) on repeat ... Done well, Trek starship imagery is just sublime (hey, I even like TMP), and Abrams FX-team does pretty well here.

However, after watching Abrams' Trek, I decided to rewatch TWOK for comparision, and I was impressed by how consistent it is in terms of character, narrative structure and theme. It's a really good B-movie, if you can get over the fact that it is basically about old men whining that the days of their youth have gone. Much superior to Abrams angry young assholes, anyway.

J. said...

So fun and popularity don't make you cool anymore? Man, I wish somebody would tell that to the Dark Knight fans.

The only thing that can kill a franchise's relevance is silence. A bad movie sends new creators riding to the rescue; a good film (like this one) will bring new and lapsed fans into the fold. Even those who hate the film will stomp off to re-watch "proper" Trek and discover whole new joys in it.

And by the way, Galactica won't kill sci-fi either, so, please, enough with the Cassandra! Put the black armband back in the drawer!

Boutade said...

Well done Abigail. It was nice to read a critical review not sullied by all the legerdemain.

The movie is just like every other Star Trek show. The whole thing is out of ideas and will continue along the same path until nobody cares anymore.

Anonymous said...

Abigail, the film is also dumb in that, if you take its time-travel plot seriously, it means that all the Star Trek shows (save Enterprise perhaps) will not happen--that, most likely, the people depicted in them won't be born.

I feel the time-travel plot to be the cheapest and dumbest thing about the film. Remember the scene in which in a rather ham-fisted fashion new Spock and Uhura tell the audience that their destinies have been changed (the film is a reboot and not a retread)?

Ugh. Robert Orci has been going around claiming that the time-line old Spock and Nero come from somehow remains intact, something that contradicts the way Star Trek generally treated time travel.

There would not have been anything wrong with rebooting the canon of Star Trek. Instead, Abrams/Orci/Kurtzman opted to connect their reboot of the franchise with the old canon, thereby subjecting themselves to all the rules established in the previous shows/films while having undermined them in the worst way possible--by implying that they never happened or will happen.

Gary L. Britt, CPA, J.D. said...

I didn't think it was a great movie. I'm a trek fan since I was in high school, and maybe that's part of why I didn't think it was great. I thought it was OK and not a waste of money, but far from the greatest thing since sliced bread that most people seem to think.

My biggest problems were with believability of the Kirk character. He was just way too much of the punk ass kid to be taken seriously as a hero and leader who commanded respect.

Also, the Spock character wasn't "spock enough" for me. Having a girlfriend and making out is just one example of something I didn't believe in the Spock character.

These problems with the two lead characters and especially the problems with the Kirk character (which were pervasive and overwhelming) were just too much of a distraction for me from the storyline to make the movie enjoyable.

I think the Kirk problems were certainly with the direction of the character and possibly with the casting of the actor. It would have been far more Kirk like if the Kirk character had become not such a punk ass irresponsible brat as a result of losing his father, but instead had become a moody, somewhat dark, and introspective personality who emerges from this dark place in his mind to become a commanding leader by the desire to avenge his father's death. I just think they got the Kirk character totally wrong, and it was played like Kirk was a smart ass 14 year old in a 22 year old body.

A character that looked just a few years older and entered the academy a few years later in life than his peer age group would have also helped quite a bit.

Special effects can't alone make a great movie. Certainly we all learned that from Star Trek The Motion Picture back in 1979.

This for me was far from a great movie. It was an OK movie, but not great. Having such a poor beginning with the Kirk character does not bode well for developing that character into someone I would care to watch lead the Enterprise again.

I don't see how any trek fan liked this movie much more than Star Trek The Motion Picture. I don't see how any non-trek fan with any knowledge of leadership and respect for leaders could take the punk ass Kirk seriously as a leader of men and savior of galaxies.

As a follow-up to my last post. The only people I see who could like the punk ass Kirk would be the minority of teenagers that are punk ass brats who haven't learned any control over their more infantile urges.

Its just impossible to suspend disbelief enough to buy this punk ass Kirk as a leader of men commanding the respect of others and the savior of galaxies.

It is to laugh.

Bottom line for me is I wish the Star Trek reboot had a reboot itself.

Andrew Stevens said...

What I see is the standard Hollywood trope of 'fatherless boy = screw-up' (which I resent, among many other reasons, because I'm the sister of a fatherless boy who is utterly fantastic)Perhaps this is an overdone trope in Hollywood. But surely the existence of the trope does not imply that all fatherless boys are screw-ups, just that many are screw-ups due to their fatherlessness. And this seems obviously correct to me, speaking as a once straight A student who became a screw-up almost immediately after losing my father and stayed that way for a decade, lost in a haze of drugs, truancy, juvenile delinquency, and all-around bad behavior, though eventually maturing and "fathering" myself.

Even controlling for mother's educational level, race, family income, number of siblings, and neighborhood variables like proportion of female-headed families, unemployment rates, median income, and even cognitive ability, boys raised without fathers are twice as likely to be jailed as boys raised with fathers. This doesn't prove that fatherlessness causes "screwed-up-ness," since it's always possible we're missing variables to control for, but A) the thesis seems prima facie plausible and B) all the evidence we have supports it.

By the by, it's not even the case that your brother is an exception to the rule. It's not a rule that fatherless boys end up screwed-up. Indeed, the screw-ups are in the minority even of fatherless boys, but it does make it much, much more likely.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Raz:

I'll take your word about original Trek, but I doubt that even the stories you're talking about were as openly disdainful of Vulcans as the film and later Trek series were.

In the current movie, Abrams decided to throw the "intellectual problem" plot device out the windowNo, he threw intellect, period, out of the window. It's not that the plot doesn't hinge on a clever puzzle, but rather that in hinges on the idiocy of its main antagonist.

Jakob:

Insofar as fun, sexyness and sheer strangeness are aspects of Classic Trek, I hereby once more claim that Farscape is the true heir to Star TrekInteresting. I tend to think of Farscape as something completely different to what came before, but I guess there's some logic in positing Star Trek as an antecedent, if only because Farscape was so clearly militating against its assumptions (in a way that was completely different from BSG or Babylon 5).

Andrew:

Not to argue with your personal experiences (or to suggest that mine and my brother's are more representative) but there is obviously a difference between the trauma of losing a father and the deprivation of never having had one. Hollywood tends to assume that boys raised under the latter condition are missing something essential, which has nothing to do with statistics or sociology and everything to do with downplaying the role of women in shaping their children (even female protagonists are more likely to have a strong connection to their father than their mother) and buying into the Star Wars hero's journey. It's an annoying and overused cliche.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the review, but as an original Trek fan I take issue with a couple of points.

Spoiler: The casting was great. Aside from the Harry Potter movies, I can't think of a better example of casting familiar characters with actors who are pretty much perfect. But, the biggest glaring mistake this movie makes is the "romance" between Uhura and Spock. I cannot tell you how much every scene and reference to it brought my enjoyment of the movie to a screeching halt. Why?

Because it was no undignified for both characters. I cringed for both of them. It made Uhura a brainless school girl and Spock just totally ridiculous.

They better hit another time warp and wipe out that plotline because I could not stand to watch it in the next movie.

Andrew Stevens said...

Hollywood tends to assume that boys raised under the latter condition are missing something essential, which has nothing to do with statistics or sociology and everything to do with downplaying the role of women in shaping their children (even female protagonists are more likely to have a strong connection to their father than their mother) and buying into the Star Wars hero's journey. It's an annoying and overused cliche.Perhaps. You do make a good point about fathers being more important than mothers in Hollywood, though I question whether this is due to a chauvinist or sexist agenda or simply because there are more bad fathers in the world than bad mothers. (The usual trope is the cold, distant, emotionally withholding father whose approval the protagonist desperately desires.) Personally I believe that the role of women in shaping their children is well accepted by society at large, which is why women almost always get custody in divorce cases. I note that there is no political cause which tries to claim that women aren't necessary in raising children, but there are people (granted, on the fringe) who claim that men are unnecessary, perhaps even detrimental.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Anonymous:

I don't find the idea of a romance between Spock and Uhura necessarily embarrassing for either character, and it certainly beats having Uhura as Kirk's potential love interest, which given the kind of movie we're talking about is what would have happened otherwise. I just didn't think it was particularly well handled. The scene in the elevator worked, but after that the romance was overdone.

Andrew:

Again, I wouldn't care to speculate about sociology (though I suspect that the no longer universal tendency to grant women custody in divorce cases has more to do with the automatic assumption on all sides that it's the woman's job to take care of the children). It's true that there are more bad daddies that bad mommies in popular culture, but again that's just an indication that a woman's effect on her children isn't considered as important as a man's. A woman nurtures and cares for her children, but the man, or his absence, shapes them, for better or worse.

Andrew Stevens said...

This is now better suited to your "The Women Women Do See" comment thread since I believe you're seeing, due to your own ideological agenda, an ideological agenda which doesn't actually exist (or at least doesn't exist to the extent you think it does).

I take the origin of their being more bad fathers than bad mothers in Hollywood to be based on reality, in that I think there really are more bad fathers than bad mothers and people write what they know. I take the origin of the real phenomenon to be biological, both hormonal and because men have the Y chromosome which contains no genetic information, causing men to have larger standard deviations on most personality traits (two X's moderate each other, while an X and a Y cause the X inherited from the mother to reign unchecked) so that they dominate the top and bottom of most distributions while women dominate the middle.

Anonymous said...

I just want to know one thing:

Are there really canyons in Iowa?

And is it easier to build a giant starship on the ground (in Iowa) than in space?

Okay, two things.

Zahra said...

This is a great review. I'm glad to know that someone else had the same experience of enjoying the movie in snatches, and being periodically jolted out of it by episodes of dumbness. Wait, Kirk is first officer now? Why are you taking your helmit off? Red matter??? Eric Bana, what did you do to deserve this?

As someone whose Trekkiness is focused on TNG & early DS9, I'm interested to learn that many of the odds choices in this movie are part of a larger trend toward anti-intellectualism in the revising of the franchise. That explains a lot.

David said...

Abigail.
Really enjoy your viewpoints. It is a pleasure to discover a blogger who is worth reading.

"men have the Y chromosome which contains no genetic information,"
not true.

I just googled your sentence and there is a lot of info about it.

Looking forward to reading more of your reviews.

Anonymous said...

I've come rather late to this party, but I tend to agree with Abigail's assessment of the movie.

Aside from all of the other things that bother me about this movie, there is the fact that after 3 years in the Academy Kirk still doesn't know Uhura's first name.

That is just so dumb, like many other parts of the movie.

Are we really supposed to think that for 3 years Kirk has had no access to a class roster? That for 3 years no one has called Uhura by her name? That for all that time Kirk never asked a classmate what her name was? Or maybe NO ONE at the Academy, not the staff, the instructors, not a single classmate knows her name? Please.

Its one thing to reboot a franchise, but another thing entirely to do it dumb. But they did it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, exactly this.

Star Trek TOS may seem outdated to the kiddies and is almost camp at times, but for all its defects, the reason I consider the subsequent series and the movies to be alternate universes is precisely this progressive change in the overarching premise of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, that the future held good things and increased technology used ethically for peace and betterment of the universe (not just Earth and the human race, note). The future is worth waiting for, things will get better, with the help of technology developed and used ethically! Utopia, but a utopia worth aiming at, towards everything that is best in humanity: we should aim high to achieve as much as we can (as opposed to blaming circumstances/technology/whatever for the difficulties of our lives) and working hard is rewarded (for instance, the underlying assumption as demonstrated by the original Jim Kirk's career as the youngest captain ever is that one is promoted as a Starfleet officer based on hard work, dedicated study, intelligence and merit).

In TOS, we are shown how crime, poverty, discrimination and madness have nearly disappeared: yes, we are shown exceptions, but these are shown as such and clearly intended as object lessons.

Anyway, you explained it a lot better than I can, but that's why I have not been able to force myself to watch the new movie from beginning to end or enjoy the parts I have seen: even fast forwarding every 2 minutes, the transformations of the original concepts into this reboot are too hard to take.

Take Uhura for instance: an amazing character for the time (the 1960s), in that she was a woman who was important in the Enterprise, not because of who she was married to or romantically involved with, but purely based on her professional competence. Imagine that... what a revolutionary concept! Completely aside from being a blatant, in your face token of the disappearance of racial discrimination in the Star Trek future.

Now, here we are -in the enlightened 21st century!- and this shiny new interpretation of Star Trek where Uhura has been downgraded to a mere romantic interest for one of the main character.

Besides the fact that showing without context a romantic relationship between a teacher and student is something I find disgusting (not all that different from incest, especially without an ounce of background), I am sick and tired of seeing yet another example of the trope that a woman's only value is who she sleeps with, regardless of her intelligence and other accomplishments.

Especially if she is beautiful: and does this mean that being plain-looking is the only way to avoid being cast as someone's sexual pastime? Oh and hey, the original Uhura was voluptuously beautiful and bore herself with unbelievable assurance and dignity: let's replace her with a starved-looking willowy supermodel-type without negroid features apart from her skin color (not that Zoe Saldana is not quite pretty in her own way when she is not standing in for an iconic black character). Yes, that's a step forward against racism, I guess...

OK, I guess I do resent the new movie a lot more than you do. I am just tired of this constant backsliding when it comes to racism, sexual discrimination etc, etc, ad nauseam.

Just don't get me started on the last I Spy movie and how it trampled over some of the most socially significant shows in TV history, I'd be here all day, with an even longer rant.

serendipitywaverider said...

I like your point of view. I think that the new Star Trek follows the pre-quels of Star Wars down the see how much money we can spend on CGI approach. Apparently this means you cannot develop a good story. I watched the film & the only time my emotions were engaged was when Leonard Nimoy was on the screen completing Data's quest to be human.

jat-sapphire said...

@Ann: No, Iowa does NOT have canyons, nor long stretches of desert road.

That's the moment in the movie that I too thought, Wow, how dumb is this?

I rode the roller-coaster and enjoyed Quinn's uncanny Spock and Urban's amazing McCoy, and then locked the mental canon door behind me when I left the theater.

Too bad they had such a relentlessly stupid story, but Kirk's reckless idiocy seems to be what charms the fanfic writers, so. I'm amazed the sequel isn't out yet, but I guess it's in IMAX 3D and expected in 2013.

I'm among those who can't watch 3D, so I'll pass.

jat-sapphire said...

@ANON, I meant. *facepalm*

Tedd said...

It's not that I disagree with anything specific in this review, but this is the only actual movie in the Star Trek franchise that I like. The actors capture the essence of the characters while adding the dimension of seeing them in their youth. I particularly enjoyed the Kirk-McCoy connection.

But then I liked Iron Man, too.

softestbullet said...

I think I remember this review soothing my anger when the movie first came out, and now it's done it again. Ha ha ha ha ha >:(

Dragonchild said...

What I'm finding is that Abrams is forcing people to define what Star Trek means to them. I don't know if I owe the guy a debt of thanks for that, but I'll take my time sending it.

The only real issue I have with Abrams' movie is that it simply borrowed the names and uniforms. It really should've just been called "Space Adventure Movie" (SPAM for short) and there would've been no outrage whatsoever; the presumed assault on decency would've been relegated to merely very vigorous masturbation.

In my subsequent conversations I've found the Trekkies least offended by it were those who saw Star Trek for everything NBC wanted it to be -- a cheesy space action-adventure show with a maverick captain chasing short skirts and beating up aliens with his fisticuffs. Indeed, Star Trek was plenty of that, but if that's all Star Trek was, I wonder if anyone would've remembered it. There's a reason why it became a cultural icon, and shirt-tearing fistfights ain't it.

The Star Trek that stuck out in my mind was perhaps 5-10% of the show, but oh how it mattered. It was the show where fighting and aggression weren't glorified, but simply NOT OPTIONS. I don't know if the homage to Clarke's Third Law was deliberate, but Kirk occasionally encountered beings for which a phaser simply did no good -- what I roughly generalize as a Magical Omnipotent Space Thingy that could reduce the entire Enterprise to vapor if provoked. TNG took this theme and, in introducing Q, roared right out of the gate with it. It put a short leash on Kirk's behavior, elevated Picard as a capable leader and overall forced the crews into interactions and decisions that create a form of dramatic tension entirely absent from pop culture today. These days if at first you can't win, get a bigger weapon.

And there's the rub. Abrams' Kirk would've gotten the entire crew killed in the very first episode of TNG. Does that thought offend me? Not so much as a Trek fan, as the franchise has really been dead for years. But I do wonder what it's like to come of age when pop culture is pushing sociopathic, self-serving douchebags (Abrams' Kirk, Ironman). I developed a boy-crush on Picard because he kept a cool head in the face of crushing adversity while other protagonists would scream and hit things.

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