Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: Star Trek (2009)

I once reviewed J.J. Abrams Star Trek (2009) with the observation that the franchise seemed to be in good hands.  

In the seven years since the film premiered, there have been a lot of arguments -- by fans and critics -- both for and against that particular belief.

I still think the observation is valid.

The first film in the re-booted film series accomplishes the mission many industry insiders and long-time Star Trek fans had judged impossible a decade ago, during the Berman Era doldrums of Nemesis and the TV series, Enterprise. 

It actually welcomes new fans -- and general audiences -- into the Trekkie fold with a well-dramatized, beautifully-cast, emotionally resonant tale of Kirk and Spock's youthful beginnings. This movie is fast, fun and frenetic, the very qualities you would desire and seek in an epic space saga.

Penned by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the new movie genuflects to Star Trek''s storied tradition with the presence of the franchise's elder statesman, the late Leonard Nimoy, in a significant (and touching...) role. 

Simultaneously, however, the movie adopts a warp speed trajectory straight for the unknown, essentially re-booting the franchise and the beloved core characters with new and therefore unpredictable destinies

Call this delicate (and dangerous...) dance The Abrams Maneuver: a strategy that permits this cinematic enterprise to operate on two levels at once, appealing both to the hardcore aficionados on the basis of knowledge and nostalgia, and to the unconverted masses on the basis of the new cast's pure charm, the dazzling visualizations, and some rock 'em, sock 'em action scenes...the likes of which previous Treks could never have imagined, let alone afforded to execute.

This radical Abrams Maneuver -- creating an alternate timeline while maintaining the beloved characters and core spirit of Trek -- was  deemed necessary because, to utilize a metaphor from author David Gerrold in his Encounter at Farpoint novelization of 1987, commanding the U.S.S.Enterprise has become rather like "making love in a fish bowl." 

Everyone has an opinion of your performance, and there isn't much room to maneuver.

Ditto for the franchise itself.

In other words, forty-five long years of accumulated continuity, arcane rules and byzantine history had apparently hobbled creativity (and more importantly, spontaneity...) to the point where Star
Trek had dropped out of warp and was suffering from a terminal case of "replicative fading" (a cloning disease named in the Next Gen episode "Up The Long Ladder").

Voyager, Enterprise,
Insurrection and Nemesis all seemed like tired copies of a tired copy of a...well, you get the picture.

The glory days of Star Trek were over, and the once-widely beloved mythos became the sole purview of nostalgic middle-aged men like me. But even for many aging fanboys and fangirls, the thrill was gone...or at least slipping away.

I'm a huge Star Trek fan, but dammit Jim, I'm not a masochist. So I was out of there by the time Voyager reached Earth. 

I watched a few episodes of Enterprise, but didn't really need Star Trek as the visual equivalent of Sominex, and moved on. 

Whenever people I trusted insisted "it's getting better, really," I checked back in, and you know what? 

It wasn't getting any better. It was still deadly dull, stodgy, predictable and uninspired. I remember turning on an episode and seeing Klingons swear that there would be no peace as long as Archer lived...a plot twist right out of 1989 Trek.  

At that point, I knew a change in direction -- any change in direction -- could only help.

For all the controversy about it, that's what the Abrams' Maneuver represents

Although the purists hate many aspects of Nu Trek, the 2009 film has injected much-needed youth, vigor, inspiration and spontaneity into the franchise's faltering heartbeat. The Next Gen era of all Starfleet officers getting along, not eating red meat, wasting time on the holodeck, and endlessly sitting around discussing tertiary domains of subspace and reversing the polarity of the deflector array is -- at long last, history.

Instead, the characters we see on screen in J.J. Abrams' Trek are recognizably and gloriously human once more, as they were in the landmark, still classic Original Series. 

These men and women fumble, get drunk, bump their heads, weep, fall in love, make impulsive mistakes, and -- in the finest tradition of Star Trek -- do their ingenious, inventive best for a cause greater than mere self-interest. 

The Future Begins

The new Star Trek depicts the story of a very angry Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) who -- after the destruction of Romulus in a cosmic disaster (a supernova) -- inadvertently travels back in time 130 years and sets out to destroy the young Federation, starting with charter members Vulcan and Earth.

Nero's accidental temporal journey brings him back to the year (and moment, actually...) of Jim Kirk's birth aboard the Federation starship U.S.S. Kelvin.

When Kirk's heroic father is killed aboard the Kelvin, events diverge from the "prime" time line we remember from the Original Series. 
Without a father to guide him, Kirk (Chris Pine) grows up to become aimless and rebellious, the "mid-west's only genius level repeat offender," as Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) calls him. 
Kirk's story is cross-cut effectively with the development of the young half Vulcan, Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is torn between his human and alien natures. Both men are brilliant, but both are also incomplete...

Eventually Kirk and Spock find their way to the Enterprise bridge and -- despite their vastly-different natures -- battle Nero for the survival of the Federation. 
Another visitor from the future, elderly Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) helps to nudge fate back in the right direction, doing everything in his power to bring the hot-headed young Kirk and the repressed, logical Spock to an awareness that they need one another to be successful, to be complete. 
This is where the script works at its symbolic best. Kirk, lacking a father, needs the advice of a tempering, prudent man like Spock. And Spock, now absent his human mother, requires the inspiration and human unpredictability of the tenacious Kirk.

I have considerable reservations about many specific elements of this Star Trek story (which I will explain below, in detail), but as is the case for many Star Trek episodes and films of years past, the movie is ultimately more than the sum of its individual (and sometimes faulty...) parts.

Overall, this Star Trek is emotionally satisfying and enormously affecting (particularly Elder Spock's heartfelt, nostalgic send-off to the Enterprise). And the new cast seamlessly (and I mean seamlessly) takes over from the Original Series cast. The performers are all so likable, game, and enthusiastic that you feel a surge of good will towards them.

So yes, if you're wondering, lightning has indeed been captured in a bottle again: there's a familiar joie de vivre about and among this group of performers that frankly hasn't existed in Star Trek since The Undiscovered Country's send-off in 1991. 

This chemistry, this joy, this exuberant sense of fun, glosses over many of the movie's largest problems. Just as in the old days, you're swept away by the colorful, well-drawn characters and their extraordinary travails, even if the individual journey raises a few questions.

This is Not Your Father's Star Trek?

It isn't nitpicking to point out that major elements of the Orci/Kurtzman script are, quite frankly, a mess. I'm not talking about specific lines of dialogue or even character motivations...but rather breathtaking gaps of situational logic that you could fly a space armada through.

First and foremost, let us discuss the nature of Nero's weapon of choice, the red matter. It can generate huge, destructive black holes in space. Fine, I accept that. I can even accept that starships can safely travel through said black holes and move back and forward through time. No problem.

But why must Nero go to all the trouble of dropping red matter into the core of a planet like Vulcan or Earth with that lovely but not terribly-effective drill device?

The drill not only wastes time and is highly ineffective (as we see in the movie's finale), but it is also...entirely unnecessary. Just eject that little red matter blob in orbit, Nero, and planetary destruction will surely ensue.

Black holes are so powerful that nothing, not even light can escape their crushing force. So even if you dropped a black hole near our moon, we'd be in existential trouble. Putting the red matter at the Earth's core, or Vulcan's core, just seems like gilding the lily to me.

And actually, I'm a bit concerned that at the end of the film, a black hole has been formed relatively close to Earth (in our solar system, if I'm not mistaken). That's...uh...asking for trouble. (We know this too, because McCoy gives a very convincing lecture, early in the film, about the hazards of space flight under even normal conditions.)

And also, you're telling me that a 24th century Romulan can't just upfit photon torpedoes with the red matter and blast away at Earth or Vulcan from a safe distance, rather than going to all the trouble of deploying that unwieldy drill and being tethered to it? 

Basically, the red matter threat is inconsistent and poorly-thought out. It is made to seem so all-powerful that it can destroy planets and cause time travel(!), but if that were indeed the case, you wouldn't have to delicately send particles down that drill's esophagus to a planet core, right?

That's not even the worst offense, however.

During his mind-meld with Kirk, Ambassador Spock notes that the safety of the "galaxy" was threatened by "a supernova."

A supernova is dangerous indeed...to a solar system. Maybe two solar systems, tops, on a really bad day. But an entire galaxy? I don't think so. 

The Enterprise escaped from a supernova by going to warp speed in "All Our Yesterdays" and the galaxy was never imperiled, just the local star group.

This is another classic mistake, and what I find ironic (and yet oddly poetic...) about it is that derisive Star Trek fans have ridiculed series like Battlestar Galactica (original) and Space:1999 for literally decades based on the fact that those series occasionally made such basic errors in astronomical nomenclature (confusing solar systems and galaxies.) 

At most, a supernova could have threatened Romulus. But it's a novice mistake to indicate it could do harm to a galaxy. This is science fiction, and again, some flights of fancy are permissible, expected and desired. But so basic an error in science (about something we already know about), is troubling.

Another novice mistake: Spock actually sees Vulcan implode from the night sky of Delta Vega (a world now oddly transformed into an ice planet, though it was just kind of...craggy...in "Where No Man Has Gone Before.") 

Just think about this for a minute. Would we be able to see in our night sky a planetary implosion in another solar system? Of course not.

Why, Spock isn't even using binoculars when he sees the catastrophe! Rather, Vulcan is apparently no further away from Delta Vega than we are from our moon. 

Before you suggest Delta Vega must actually be a Vulcan moon...it is established in Star Trek lore that Vulcan has no moons. Additionally, Star Trek lore establishes that Delta Vega is near the edge of the galaxy, and so remote a planet that Starfleet only visits the lithium-cracking station there once every quarter century.

So how did Delta Vega move to within eye-shot of Vulcan?

Orci and Kurtzman's "re-boot" (set off by Nero's arrival) didn't change planetary orbits or positions. So there's no way Spock could watch Vulcan's destruction from Delta Vega.

Again, you suspect that these writers don't really understand the vast distance involved in outer space....that every planet isn't merely a stone's throw from another. The writers could have saved themselves a lot of heartache if they hadn't named this planet Delta Vega, which already has an established nature, geography and location in Star Trek history.

These days, especially with J.J.'s terse advice to "purists" to "stay home" and not see the movie, it's convenient and easy to deride criticism like mine as coming from an anal-retentive fanatic who lives in his parent's basement and catalogs crew member serial numbers.

On the contrary, I'm merely extrapolating from the ground rules the writers have established. Their screenplay makes it explicit that the time-scape has changed as a result of Nero's intervention. Unless Nero is moving planets, or has changed the nature of "supernovas," "black holes" and other such objects (like planets...) these changes are inconsistent and impossible. 

Plainly, they're sloppy, easily-avoided mistakes.

However, my admiration for past Star Trek doesn't preclude me from stating the obvious here: this isn't the first time in history Star Trek has made stupid technical or plot blunders.

In The Wrath of Khan, U.S.S. Reliant visits the wrong planet by accident, and ends up finding the evil Khan. (Oh, you wanted Ceti Alpha 6! Oopsy!) 

And in Generations, the Nexus threat is every bit as ridiculous and inconsistent as the Red Matter is here. I mean, if Soran wanted to get inside the Nexus Ribbon, why didn't he just steal a thruster suit and fly in all by himself (instead of, say, destroying an ENTIRE planet and killing billions of people)? 

And Star Trek VI tells us Excelsior is carrying equipment to catalog gaseous anomalies, but in the film's last act, the Enteprise is miraculously carrying the same equipment for the same mission! Convenient!

So see, I really am being objective here. The new Star Trek makes the same dumb errors that the old Star Treks often did. That doesn't make the mistakes excusable in either scenario. All instances represent...sloppy writing. But by the same token, these mistakes certainly don't disqualify the films from being good, either.

Unfortunately, this new Star Trek doesn't inherit a more noble quality of the original: a sense of the universal human condition

In previous Star Treks, the scripts always remembered Earth history and great literature, often drawing parallels between events of the 24th century and our long recorded past as a species. Khan quoted Melville in Wrath of Khan. Chang quoted Shakespeare (in the original Klingon...) in Undiscovered Country. Spock even quoted John Masefield ("All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by") in the much-maligned Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

These moments in the franchise were not elitist; were not simple affectations for the intelligentsia. They represented an explicit connection to the past that reminded viewers that no matter how far we travel into the final frontier...we take our history and legacy along with us.

By contrast, this new Star Trek pulls all of its vital quotations from Star Trek history (even Spock's Sherlock Holmes quote from The Undiscovered Country...which isn't attributed here), instead of from the wide, majestic history of human literature and myth. As a result, an important Trek idea is all but lost here. The film refers to franchise history and legacy, but nothing outside it, which makes it feel a bit insular.

Also, I must wonder why we couldn't have seen a five minute scene (or hell, a one minute scene...) involving Kirk in a history class at Starfleet Academy, listening to some instructor report about the peaceful, pioneering spirit of Starfleet. Or IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) for that matter.

Or even how the troubled Earth outgrew its "infancy" and had matured to join an interstellar community. Something -- even a token mention -- would have sufficed to remind us that Star Trek is about a future of growth and evolution. It's a future of justice for all, in which all peace are accepted, not in spite of their differences, but because of them.

Again, some people may state that my complaint is nitpicking, but the essence of Star Trek is optimism, the hope for a better tomorrow, and the belief that we can outgrow our violent infancy to achieve amazing things. 

This Star Trek has its moments of optimism, to be certain. I enjoyed seeing a man of Middle Eastern descent, Captain Robau (Faran Tahir), command a starship, for instance. 

But again, I believe that if we'd had one little, tiny moment in which Kirk was in class -- kind of being an arrogant prick while an instructor discussed Starfleet philosophy -- his spontaneous idea to assist Nero and the Narada at the film's climax would have been more dramatically resonant. We would have known, as viewers, that the philosophy of Starfleet had "sunk in." That Kirk had embraced it.

The destruction of the planet Vulcan is another sticking point, honestly. I understand why it was considered necessary from a structural and dramatic standpoint. The destruction of Vulcan dramatically establishes the seriousness of the red matter/Nero threat, and it also "shocks and awes" the audience into realizing that the future in this alternate universe is indeed going to be rather different from the voyages we are already familiar with. Yes, I get it.

But still...six billion Vulcans die in the incident. And make no mistake, Vulcan too has been a symbol of optimism and brotherhood in Star Trek for almost fifty years. 

The Vulcans on Star Trek are equals to humans (and Earth) in importance, even though they are so very different from us in their nature. Indeed, their differences show us up a bit. As Amanda declares in "Journey to Babel," the Vulcan way is "better" than ours. The Vulcans were the living embodiment of pacificism; of diversity; of the creed that we need not be carried away by violence or anger or any other primitive human emotion. 

Now they are reduced to an asterisk in history.

From a practical standpoint, the destruction of Vulcan and the genocide of the Vulcan race also seemingly closes off as many story avenues as it opens up for future writers. 

Now there shall be no Kolinahr ritual for Spock (and importantly, no failure of the Kolinahr); there shall be no Mount Seleya and "Fal Tor Pan," and no "Amok Time" return to Vulcan for Spock's Pon Farr. 

More importantly, every time Bones decides to say "are you out of your Vulcan mind" or quip about "green blooded hobgoblins" in future Treks, isn't he going to feel at least a sliver of shame, given that, in Spock's own words, the Vulcans are now an endangered species? 

The fact that six billion Vulcans are dead sort of takes the air out of McCoy's insults. Spock can just turn to him and say, "It is unfortunate, doctor, you find genocide a source of comedy." That ought to shut Bones up.

The loss of Vulcan to the Star Trek universe carries grave dramatic repercussions, and I'm not entirely convinced that the shock and awe in this particular story was worth the destruction of so major and rich a source of lore and mythology in Star Trek canon. 

When you couple the destruction of Vulcan with the writers' stated desire to destroy the Enterprise in this movie as well, you start to wonder about their emotional maturity and stability. You know, guys Khan just wanted to take over the Enterprise in "Space Seed" and he was pretty damn threatening. Janice Lester switched bodies with Kirk, and that was pretty scary in "Turnabout Intruder." One episode, saw the crew face a personal apocalypse when they began to age rapidly ("The Deadly Years.") A little more cleverness would be welcome here; not necessarily more grand gestures like destroying whole planets.

I can't write here, in my capacity as an honest, objective reviewer, that all these flaws -- the inconsistent red matter threat, the technical inaccuracies, the lack of several important Star Trek ingredients -- don't matter. 

Indeed, they do matter, very much. The most difficult part for me is that all of these problems could have been rectified with just one more polish of the script.

Who Was That Pointy Eared Bastard?
Okay, I've shared with you -- at some length, actually -- my reservations about this bold new Star Trek. I haven't pulled my punches, either.

Now, I want to write about the reasons Star Trek is still a good film (perhaps even a great film).

First, I must praise the writers, Orci and Kurtzman, whom I was just cursing out and damning a moment ago. 

Overall, they have done a fine job of incorporating myriad elements of Star Trek lore both famous and obscure, and blending them all into a strong and cohesive narrative.

Here you will find mentions of figures like Admiral Komack and Admiral Archer. Here you will witness Kirk's mythic third go at the Kobayashi Maru "no win scenario" test, and Spock's much-discussed but never seen confrontation at the Vulcan Science Academy. Amanda spoke of other boys teasing Spock in "Journey to Babel," and again, we finally get to see for ourselves the bullying in live-action here. 

And It's not just the obvious stuff the script gets right, like Kirk bedding down a green Orion Slave Girl. Instead, I believe the writers did a fine, thorough job of extrapolating from Trek history some interesting and unique twists. I very much liked, for example, their origin for the nickname "Bones."

Another case in point: Uhura. In this film, Spock and Uhura share a romantic relationship, and though some people complained about it, I felt this was easily a relationship that could have blossomed between those characters (and I found it much more believable in nature than the Scotty/Uhura romance of Star Trek V, for instance).

To buttress this belief, I go back to three specific instances in which Spock and Uhura shared something more than mere "official" business in The Original Series. 

In "The Man Trap," Uhura and Spock bantered about Vulcan and the lack of moons, as well as Uhura's boredom with constantly opening hailing frequencies. 

In "Charlie X," Uhura teased Spock with a flirtatious song (in which she commented on his devil ears and devil eyes...). 

And, in "Who Mourns for Adonais?" Spock revealed a special confidence and tenderness towards Uhura in a tense moment, noting that if anybody could accomplish something difficult, she could.

Given such interactions in the Original Series, a romance between Spock and Uhura is not that much of a jump.

And, in fact, it's delightful. 

You see, this is where Orci and Kurtzman are far cleverer than the hacks who wrote the recent Star Trek movies: they don't just blindly rinse and repeat old chestnuts hoping to elicit the same reflexive responses (Spock died in Star Trek II, so Data should die in Star Trek: Nemesis, etc.). 

On the contrary, it's clear they've pondered Star Trek lore a great deal and considered, in Spock's words, that there are always...possibilities. This film absolutely dwells and revels in those possibilities. 

What if Spock and Uhura got together? 

What if Chekov wasn't just a young apprentice to Spock, but a genius in his own right? 

What if the seeds of Scotty's weight problem began with his hunger on Delta Vega?

Also, I believe a very strong case could be made that, overall, Star Trek as a franchise is really and truly the story of Mr. Spock and his life-time journey towards enlightenment. Spock began life as a derided outsider in two worlds. On the original five year mission, he found a place of acceptance and friendship on the Enterprise, but still longed to prove himself as a Vulcan. 

After his encounter with V'Ger, Spock came to a point of new understanding, an epiphany that logic was "not enough" and that without emotions, people can be "barren," and "cold." By the time of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, he had gone far enough to realize that logic was the "beginning of wisdom, not the end."

What I find amazing (and touching...) about the new Star Trek is that Orci and Kurtzman have given us Spock's final chapter at the same time they have provided us his first chapter, thus making their one-of-a-kind film a prequel and a sequel simultaneously. Miraculously, they pull it off too, with Spock confiding in his younger self that in the future he should just do..."what feels right."

Indeed, I can see plainly why Leonard Nimoy returned for Star Trek for this opportunity. Ambassador Spock serves an important role in the story, and his long journey towards "complete person-hood" (with nudges from a fella named Jim Kirk...) reaches a logical conclusion and destination. 

I found it shocking and sad how wavering and weak Nimoy's voice has grown, but I nonetheless felt all his scenes granted the film a real sense of heart. To see Old Spock sending off the Enterprise on its maiden voyage was, well...overwhelming to me. A beautiful, beautiful moment. I also loved the fact that Spock gets to put into words what his friendship with Jim Kirk has meant to his life. I could not imagine a better ending for Leonard Nimoy's Spock than this one. This aspect of the film is superb.

I also rather enjoyed the fact that this Star Trek found time for a few goofy moments, such as Kirk's "inflated" hands (an allergic reaction to a vaccination) and Scotty's watery ride through an engineering tube. Goofy humor has been part and parcel of Star Trek since the early days; since episodes like "I Mudd," "A Piece of the Action" and "The Trouble with Tribbles." I liked that this Star Trek felt confident enough to get silly. It's a good signal that the makers of the movie understand just how multi-faceted the franchise can be.

Finally, I loved that the fate of the galaxy and the future -- as usual -- seemed to depend entirely on Kirk getting Spock emotionally riled up at the right (or wrong...) moment. 

Again, that's very true to the series and its history (think "This Side of Paradise") but not so similar to what came before that it feels hackneyed. 

I could go on and on about the fun moments I enjoyed here: the pit-bull nature of Kirk (never surrender, never say die), the moment Sulu forgot an important launch procedure, the portentous first view of the gorgeous new Enterprise in space...etc.

Again, I feel strongly that the overall joyful aura of the film outweighs the specific and numerous deficits.

His Pattern Indicates Two-Dimensional Thinking

Last thing: Do you remember how in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock informed Kirk that Khan's battle strategy indicated "two-dimensional thinking?"

Alas, the same could be said of the Star Trek franchise's approach to depicting space battles over the years. How come the Enterprise always encountered Klingon Birds of Prey right-side up? How did various ships know which way they should position themselves to align with other traveling ships? Why did they always come at each other face to face, like lumbering elephants, or jousting knights?

Well, J.J. Abrams gets that problematic trope out of the way in this film's first scene, showing us, for perhaps the first time in Star Trek history, a legitimately three-dimensional playing field, one in which starships approach, retreat and combat one another using the full-scope of the interplanetary arena

This is an arena where Abrams has improved the franchise with his aesthetic approach, and it's fair in my review to note that fact too.

Even better (and compensating for some of the script's scientific errors), Abrams remembers that there is no sound in space and occasionally adopts a perspective outside the hulls of the warring vessels. He lets the sound go silent (save for the roaring, martial soundtrack...) and we achieve a strange sense of distance from the attack; standing back and marveling at the epic quality of the scene. It's amazing and inspiring, actually, and lends credence to the opinion that this is the best visualized Star Trek yet forged (although I still go back to The Motion Picture for that honor).

I absolutely hate the use to which the Romulan drill is put, but that "space jump" scene is another fantastic bit of action filmmaking...better than anything I've seen for some time.

And I guess, at long last, that brings me back to my opening point. J.J. Abrams, Orci and Kurtz seem to have recognized the very qualities that Star Trek requires to "live long and prosper" at this juncture in pop culture history. 

Those qualities are: (in random order): vigor, excitement spontaneity, camaraderie, humor and a sense of fun...all writ large. This movie is not without significant flaws, but all in all, it's quite a proper shakedown.

1 comment:

  1. John I enjoyed your review of STAR TREK 2009. It is a very good continuation of the Star Trek films with J.J. Abrams at the helm. On a minor note, production design wise, I was pleased he brought back the original 1966-69 series uniforms, just updated.