I’ll cut to the chase and say that as a fan of Star Trek for thirty-five years, I enjoyed the new J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. Sure, my first edition Star Fleet Technical Manual is now useless. But, if you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.
The long promised (or dreaded) “origins” movie goes back to the Star Fleet Academy days of the Enterprise crew. And by Enterprise, I mean good old “NCC-1701” (no bloody A, B, C or D). Old-school fans like myself were up in arms when rumors about the proposed prequel started circulating a few years ago. The main complaint was that such a storyline would require a major reworking of Star Trek canon (and if you’ve ever had your canon majorly reworked, you know how painful that can be). In the original series episode “Shore Leave,” dialog between Kirk and Spock makes it fairly clear that they didn’t know each other at the academy. I could go on (and on and on) with other examples, but I won’t (and I’m sure no one really wants me to).
However, as with the current financial markets crisis, IF Star Trek was going to survive, someone HAD to do something. The movies starring “original” and “next generation” cast members had run their course. Likewise, the latest television incarnation, Enterprise, was canceled due to low ratings. The franchise had been reduced to the entertainment industry equivalent of a wheel chair bound Captain Christopher Pike from “The Menagerie.”
So, die-hard Trek fans only had two options if they wanted to enjoy bold new Enterprise adventures: Abrams’ version or those fan-made Star Trek: Phase 2 webisodes that faithfully recreate the original 60s show right down to the “In Color” NBC peacock bumper before the opening credits. Since I generally can’t stomach much more than ten to fifteen minutes of the latter in any one sitting, I was glad for the first option.
I knew going in that there were going to be some changes. A tagline for the film’s ad campaign, “This is not your father’s Star Trek,” pretty much promised that. Nonetheless, I liked what Abrams did with the monster movie template in Cloverfield and was genuinely excited to see his take on Star Trek. That view wasn’t shared by my family. No one else except my ten-year-old twin daughters would go with me. I suspect that their decision was a negotiation tactic to see Up when it comes out later this month. My wife, never a Trek fan, politely refused all invitations. Less sympathetic to my feelings, both my teenage daughters bluntly and unequivocally expressed their desire to have NOTHING to do with Star Trek. The experience actually bookended nicely for me personally, as my father was the only one I could convince to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture when it came out in 1979. My dad wasn’t a fan. He only watched it because a repairman had once told him that Star Trek was a good show to calibrate your color television set to.
Out of curiosity, on the drive to the theater, I asked the twins some questions to see if they knew anything about Star Trek. Yes, they were somewhat familiar with it. That was the show about “a guy with pointy ears” and the man who does the funny Priceline commercials (they actually knew “Priceline” but not the name James T. Kirk). In a sense, my trio was neat little “mean fallacy” experiment for the film. Abrams could give in to the demands of the base and stick to the letter of Trek mythology law. Or, he could make adjustments and open up the franchise to a wider and more forgiving audience. Then again, he could split the different to make EVERYONE happy and potentially end up pleasing no one.
The solution he and the writers arrived it seems pretty elegant and allows Abrams to eat his his cake and have it too. I’ll try to keep it short. A Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) is pissed off at the original Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy, whose screen time is much longer than I was led to believe) for failing to prevent a natural catastrophe that destroys Romulus. Nero, unlike his namesake, doesn’t just fiddle while the world burns around him. His quest for vengeance sets a chain of quantum events into motion that alters the Trek timeline as we know it and, in effect, allows the series to start with a blank slate. Parallel universes are very much a part of Trek lore. So, the concept really shouldn’t be too much of stretch for the faithful. Just its duration.
Instead of the self-described “serious” cadet we understood James Kirk to be, Chris Pine’s portrayal is that of a motorcycle riding “bad boy” who is put back on the right track by the aforementioned Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). As difficult as it is to imagine the term “hardcore” applying to anyone wearing a genuine Star Fleet uniform, that’s the current interpretation. It may take some getting used to. By the film’s end, Pine’s cross-legged posture in the center chair seems to hint at how his Kirk could morph into something closer to Shatner’s version.
Zachary Quinto’s Spock is nearly perfect. Not only does he have a strong physical resemblance to Nimoy, but I really couldn’t find any fault in his interpretation of the character. Purists may be squeamish at some of the choices made for this Spock such as a budding romance presented between the Vulcan and Uhura. On paper, I should be complaining the loudest. But, as the sportscasters say, they don’t play the game on paper. I actually found the different spin put on the character dynamics a refreshing kick in the status quo.
One of the changes to the original Trek history that results from Nero’s actions is the death of Spock’s human mother, Amanda (Winona Ryder). While the tragedies depicted in the Star Trek films often leave me shrugging my shoulders, the staging of Amanda’s death is a powerful moment that credibly underpins Spock’s subsequent reactions. I’m just musing here, but the fact that she is ensconced in a transporter beam at the exact moment of her death also leaves the door open for her return in later ventures. By the way, is it just a cosmic coincidence that Winona is the character name for Kirk’s mother who was made a widow by Nero in scene one AND also the name of the actress playing Spock’s mother? Probably. But I found it worth noting nonetheless.
The third of the original triumvirate is Dr. McCoy. In a lot of the reviews I’ve seen about the film, Karl Urban seems to get singled out the most. I dunno. He’s good enough I suppose. And Dr. McCoy has always been a scene stealer. But in this case, I think our pre-existing familiarity with the character makes Urban’s job a little easier. In his first meeting with Kirk, while loudly complaining about the perils of space travel, I wondered to myself if McCoy wouldn’t have come off as a paranoid lunatic instead of comic relief without the DeForest Kelley model already in our heads.
Then there’s the rest: Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty. They all do a good job at playing their supporting roles. I especially liked Zoe Saldana as Uhura. But, as usual, the film’s storyline basically deals with Kirk, Spock and their issues.
I loved that Star Trek brings back the look of the original uniforms, right down to the departmental chevrons on their respectively and correctly colored tunics. I’m sure this decision was made with Trekkies in mind. While the new Enterprise bridge is certainly different, it’s light years better than the very first cinematic bridge from ST: TMP. I’m hardly an expert on these things, but I thought that I detected a deliberate attempt to inject 1960s style into the production design. This is more than just having female crew members don miniskirts and high leather boots again. The gleaming white plastic surfaces dominating the brightly lit, spotlessly clean bridge seem more retroactive than predictive.
And Abrams adds some nice sharp edges to the usual space opera fare. This is a meaner universe. He leaves the sound off for some of the exterior space scenes. And during one of the battles, he actually shows crew members getting violently sucked out of the ship. Of course, the laws of physics are mostly ignored. But that’s a given in Star Trek.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out that the new engineering sets are lacking. The dank operations areas, with their giant tanks and steaming pipes, seem incongruously primitive compared to the rest of the high-tech ship. Occasionally showered by sparks from above, the whole thing seems more appropriate for The Sand Pebbles or American Chopper than Star Trek.
I also have some complaints about the storyline itself (imagine that). For starters, the manner in which Spock “prime” (Nimoy), Kirk and Scotty (Simon Pegg) all meet up on the same planet is a tad contrived even by Star Trek standards. And many of the “let’s explain the situation in detail amongst ourselves so the audience can understand it” scenes were perfunctory at best. I also had flashbacks of V’Ger from ST:TMP when the new Enterprise engages Nero’s ridiculously ponderous vessel. Even the film itself, in a quick aside from Scotty, unintentionally acknowledges that the Romulan’s ship makes no logical sense . Thankfully, they don’t overdo the wonder and awe of it all too much. AND we do get the see the first incident of “death by red shirt.”
The writers also cram a lot of events into the last few minutes just to get the new crew into service. Kirk, who was in trouble with Star Fleet Academy at the beginning for cheating on his exams, seems to be forgiven a little too quickly. Okay. I guess he did save the Earth. But this is followed by one of the those annoying Star Trek film clichés of an auditorium full of people applauding Kirk and company for their most recent heroics. I’ve always felt that it’s probably best not to call attention to how regularly the Federation finds itself in tenuous situations where none of the other starships ever seem to step up.
I’ll be interested to see how strongly the public reacts to this reimagining. The twins liked it and seemed able to muddle through all the time travel stuff. My teenage daughters still couldn’t care less. The theater I was at for the evening’s first showing was surprisingly empty. I remember it being standing room only for ST: TMP. Of course, “multiplexes” didn’t exist thirty years ago.
When the next one comes out, they can certainly count on me buying a ticket. But, they were going to get my money anyway. If only to see what the new Klingons look like.
Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.