by Scott Mendelson
“You will always be a part of two worlds. And fully capable of deciding your own destiny. The question you face is which path will you choose.”
JJ Abrams’s ambitious Star Trek reboot desperately tries to have it both ways. Not confident enough to choose its path, it straddles between affectionately campy homage and its own franchise. Like Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, it is too afraid to boldly chart its own destiny, but refusing to be a true extension of the original franchise. While it portends to separate itself from the Star Trek mythology that inspired it, the picture completely counts on said mythology for any and all emotional impact.
A token amount of plot – Born on the very day his father died aboard a star ship, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is adrift on Earth, unable or unwilling to decide what to do with his life. Fate intercedes when Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) challenges him to live up to the courage shown by the George Kirk so many years prior. Meanwhile, on the planet Vulcan, the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto) is torn between his destiny as a Vulcan, and his desire to embrace his human side and join Starfleet. Their destinies will soon intertwine, and the rest of our favorite USS Enterprise crew members will join in a maiden adventure that will test and define them and their novice crew.
For the record, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and the rest of the gang are all in ship-shape form. While Karl Urban comes on a little strong right out of the gate as Dr. McCoy, his character works better once he actually has more to do than complain. With the exception of one first-act scene, Pine keeps the frat-boy rebel cliches to a bare minimum. Quinto gives an impressive interior performance when the script isn’t forcing him to give on the nose speeches and engage in plot-mandated emotional outbursts (although I will concede that the follow up to said outburst is an affective and moving scene). The rest of the gang is barely sketched in, but our memory of the original actors does most of the work for us. Sulu’s (John Cho) main character beat is cribbed from Galaxy Quest, although he does gets a major action scene. Chekov (Anton Yelchin) speaks in an ultra-thick Russian accent for comic relief and little else, making him the prime candidate to die in the sequel. Scotty (Simon Pegg) shows up fully formed, while Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is allowed to take her character in some surprising directions.
Taken on their own, many of these characters are paper thin, and the film depends on our affection for their prior legacies in order for us to care about what happens to them. Further more, great pains are made to allow the plot to both set out on its own course while allowing to the prior Star Trek continuity to remain intact. While I won’t reveal the details, the film eventually becomes the equivalent of an ‘elseworld’, except the characters are pretty much the same as they are in the regular Star Trek universe. The film lacks the courage to either stand firmly within Star Trek continuity or completely break free and tell its own story. As it is, we are stuck wondering why we should care about the exploits of basically the Enterprise crew of ‘Earth-2’.
Let’s put aside the film’s lack of courage in picking a path and my distaste for the concept of the ‘multiverse’. Taking as its own thing, does the film work? Not really. The villain, played by Eric Bana, is the least interesting adversary in any tent pole adventure film that I can remember. While he is given token ‘motivation’ against Spock, it doesn’t make much sense (had Spock actually been indirectly responsible for Nero’s grievance, it would have made more sense and helped the drama), and he is given so little to do that the character becomes ‘insert antagonist here’.
Despite the huge budget and attempt at scope, the film is shot mainly in close up, leaving the film feeling more claustrophobic than epic. While the film never, ever stops moving, there is actually very little actual action. Said action beats fail to excite because most of the action involves people running in panic from one room of a star ship to another, or arbitrary scenes of one ship annihilating another (one-sided slaughter isn’t action, it’s just violence). Plus, much of it is shot and edited in that super-tight, million-edits a second fashion that only Steven Spielberg, John Singleton, and Martin Campbell seem able to avoid. Only a pointless but frightening chase involving a snowy monster and a swashbuckling duel involving Sulu atop a giant drill elicit any sense of excitement. By the time a climactic phaser shoot out occurs, I couldn’t help thinking how much more emotionally involved I was in said shoot out at the end of, yes, Galaxy Quest.
There are countless comic callbacks to the original franchise, but most of them feel so forced, out of place, and on the nose that they take us right out of the picture. Various lines of dialogue, action beats, and character moments are rudely inserted from previous films and television episodes. They do not feel organic and imply Abrams’s lack of confidence in his own ability to please the Trek fans without resorting to ‘oh, that’s from that movie/episode’ moments. Furthermore, the insertion of the fabled ‘Kobayashi Maru’ test takes up valuable screen time while seemingly missing the point of the original story. In this variation, Kirk is a cocky punk who cheats out of entitlement, rather than a stubborn refusal to fail. Ironically the best nod to the original show is the subtlest, involving the unspoken destiny of Chief Engineer Olsen.
The biggest ‘callback’ (this could be considered a spoiler) involves the second act appearance of a major character from the prior franchise. Without going into details, said character becomes an hour long deus ex machina. He constantly offers helpful plot exposition, tells the characters exactly what they need to do in order to progress, and then tells the characters what they should do once the film is complete. Said character comes off not as one imparting wisdom, but rather as one who has already read the script. This element by itself kills much of the dramatic tension in the third act of the picture.
In the end, despite fine acting, several moments of potent drama, solid production values, and high ambitions, Star Trek comes off as a ‘Star Trek for dummies’ variation on the fabled story. Similar to X-Files: Fight the Future, this film is Star Trek for people who have never seen the shows or the movies, and furthermore need their characters drawn in broad strokes and the philosophies explicitly explained in monologue. Maybe if I had no prior knowledge of the franchise I could take it all at face value and simply acknowledge that it is a broadly drawn big-budget B-movie with an incredibly weak villain and some poorly staged action beats. But because the film continuously reminds us of its legacy, I have no choice but to judge it in comparison to its predecessors. There is potential for a solid franchise with these actors, after all the even-numbered sequels are almost always the best. But, despite all the pomp and circumstance, J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek remains merely another disappointing odd-numbered Star Trek picture.