Oh blessed be, nerds; oh happy day! Time to gambol. Star Trek is finally cool! HUZZAH! And here’s the bonus: J.J. Abrams, the director, and Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the writers, have found ingeniously oafish ways of crowbarring every single aspect of common Trek lore into the film. The single most moving line in the history of the entire Star Trek canon is destroyed to underline a scene that would have otherwise been quite powerful. It’s obvious the filmmakers studied Gene Roddenberry’s space saga closely, got to know it inside out, and it shows in their slavish and graceless dedication to the franchise. But, you know what they say: Knowledge is knowing tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in your fruit salad.
This is probably one of the busiest blockbusters I have seen in a while (soon to abdicate its throne to the second Transformers flick, surely). Jim Emerson has talked about the ubiquity of the lens flares, which are not so much distracting as plain amateurish. Half the dialogue scenes seem to be one shots or extreme close-ups of the actors, the camera tilted at an angle, lights flaring in the background to test the audience’s patience (or see how many of them will have an epileptic fit). Abrams’s background in TV is most obvious in his compositions: A one shot of Kirk (Chris Pine)—CUT—a close up of Spock (Zachary “Eyebrows” Quinto)—CUT—a two shot of the star-crossed lovers’ resisting the urge to play a round of tonsil tennis—CUT—a one shot of Kirk, etc, with coruscating beams of light in the background that blind the retinas.
Abrams has crammed his “reinterpretation” with nuggets of info, old and new, and constant winks at the audience. We find out why Bones (Karl Urban) is called Bones (alas, it has nothing to do with involuntary arousal, as I’d always assumed). We see exactly how Kirk cheated the Kobayashi Maru, a part of Trek lore since The Wrath of Khan, considered by many—but not me—to be the pinnacle of the Trek movies. There’s a mind meld (basically a mental intercourse) between old man Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and James T. Kirk, whose intergalactic wanderlust appears out of leftfield, as does his bizarre obsession with Uhura’s (Zoe Arikan, née Saldana) first name. We even get to laugh at Chekov (Anton Yelchin—that guy has a dynamite agent, by the way; this Friday, we will get to watch him as Kyle Reese…Kyle FRICKING Reese) in a scene that steals from Galaxy Quest, and see Sulu (John Cho) fence. Scotty (Simon Pegg) has turned into C3PO, with an inscrutable midget sidekick to boot—a cross between that alien from Enemy Mine and Verne Troyer. Finally, the strong emotional bond between Kirk and Spock, understated by the use of irony in the original series, is explicitly homoerotic in this new version. Kirk and Spock’s relationship is not gay as in the-video-for-Toto’s-“Rosanna”-gay. But it’s still pretty gay.
Which is all by way of saying there is absolutely no nuance in J.J. Abrams’s film, not even a soupçon of subtlety, no genuine humour. It’s all piff-paff, whack-bang, etc, packed with heaps of post-modernist “irony” or whatever it is they call this bollocks. Nudge nudge, wink wink ahoy. We are all wallowing in a never-ending adolescence these days. So, instead of making us laugh, J.J. Abrams just wants to make us feel clever, and the whole thing becomes a big ego-massage. Like buying an I-Pod.
The film starts with a not-quite-so-graceful pan underneath the hull of a starship, the USS Kelvin—the camera makes its way along the surface, following its contours, and gently rests above the bridge. The slightly dizzying effect is reminiscent of Revenge of the Sith’s opening shot, and the short sequence is but the first of many allusions to Star Wars. Forfeiting the awe of the sci-fi parables of the 1960’s might have been necessary in an update in this fickle, nay, cynical day and age. But the film fails to replicate the grandeur of the original Star Wars even though it so obviously swings for it: it plays the notes, but not the music (which reminds me, even Michael Giacchino, the finest composer on television, provides here a score that’s as obtrusive as it is incongruous, with his themes borrowing liberally from such second-rate John Williams compositions like “Battle of the Heroes,” again from Sith).
As is now expected from almost all summer blockbusters, the plot is an arbitrary contrivance between set pieces as it chugs along to its inevitable culmination in which the crew of the Enterprise proper will find themselves in their traditional roles. And, of course, a second raison d’être of the film is to update the Star Trek brand. By the time Star Trek: Nemesis had limped into the theaters in 2002, the franchise was not just senescent, it was moribund. Now that J.J. Abrams has apparently injected new life into it, it merely feels like old wine in new bottles. Gone is the idealised liberalism and quaintness of the original series, replaced with mind-numbing vacuity. You know, what the kids call “cool.”
And talking about cool, the tattooed villains in this piece—disgruntled Romulan space miner Nero (Eric Bana) and his band of merry men—completely lack the hysteria and the larger-than-life bravado of some of the more memorable Trek villains, like Khan (Ricardo Montalbahn). Nero’s ship is shaped like a gigantic mutated porcupine; its inside is one giant crepuscular abyss, with suspended platforms littered haphazardly, and I was reminded of the interior void of the alien mothership in Independence Day. (Mind you, Scott Chambliss’s production design is otherwise excellent—my favourite aspect of the film, and I will pay special attention to him in the future; absolutely amazing stuff). We first meet Nero when Captain Robau (Faran Tahir) of the Kelvin is brought in front of him for interrogation—BUT, y’see, Robau is so not worthy to talk to Nero, and Nero is in such a bad mood anyway, that the conversation takes place through Nero’s first officer Ayel (Clifton Collins Jr). It’s like Mean Girls...in space.
Even though a bloody miner seems particularly pedestrian, I’ve always had that problem when it comes to Star Trek villains anyway, my feelings toward them ranging from mild dislike to complete contempt. If you could travel through time and space (and alternate universes), then you’d pretty much have it made, wouldn’t you? That’s the end of every single problem in the entire universe. So villains with planet-sized hammer drills don’t really come across as that insurmountable a threat to me. And that is exactly why Q is the best “villain” the show has ever produced, just like Galactus was the best adversary of the Fantastic Four. If you are dealing with heroes who can disregard the physical laws that govern the universe, then your enemy is obvious: The Abrahamic God. Let’s see how you deal with that hirsute fucker.
Which brings me to my main gripe with not just J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (Start Trek?), but the whole franchise itself. I have always found the idea of Star Trek infinitely cooler and more awe-inspiring than the execution. The revelation that the first contact with an alien race was made with the Vulcans in the eponymous movie is probably the only instance when I had a Cheshire grin in terms of any Star Trek experience (OK, that and Uhura’s [Nichelle Nichols] dance in The Final Frontier). There are moments that move me, like Spock fixing the hem of his coat (as observed by our fearless leader Matt in his recent video essay), Kirk’s eulogy, the final scene in The Next Generation (“Five card stud, nothing wild, and the sky’s the limit”): They make me blub every single time. I sometimes spend hours rummaging through Memory Alpha or reading the episode synopses on Wikipedia. They fill me with joy and elation. As Jim Emerson wrote in his piece about the new Trek, even the image, the very design of the Enterprise fills me with wonder.
(Aside: I feel the total opposite when it comes to JRR Tolkien’s works. When it was recently announced that Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro had revised their plans with regard to the upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit, they talked about incorporating Gandalf’s battle with the Necromancer in Dol Guldur into one of the two films. I had no idea what half the words in that sentence meant, so I searched for it on Wikipedia and this is the sort of information I got:
“In the Second Age, before Sauron occupied the hill, Silvan Elves of the Woodland Realm under Oropher, father of Thranduil, populated the area of Rhovanion around Amon Lanc, but they withdrew northward, evidently to avoid conflict with Lórien and Moria.”
Oh, dear lord.)
But there is a dark underbelly to Star Trek, one that is often overlooked. In his book Science Fiction in the 20th Century, Edward James writes, “Star Trek shows that humanity can improve, that society can change, and that there is a final frontier to be crossed and conquered. Star Trek embodies, in unadulterated form, the optimism in humanity and faith in progress which was so characteristic of American science fiction up to the 1960’s.” And that is true. In a way.
Because despite the assertions of Star Trek’s countless producers and myriad fans, the entire franchise (but mainly the original series) has always been about underlining 20th century prejudices, but on a cosmic scale. The only species not defined by an overarching, stereotypical character trait is the humans. All others can be described with one word, and one word only: Vulcans are soulless, Klingons are aggressive, Ferengi are sly, etc. The arrogance on display is palpable: Only Homo Sapiens have the right answers, the rest of the races littering the galaxy are somewhat primitive, despite their mastery of space and time well in advance of us. The ones that are slightly more well adjusted, like Spock or Worf, have all adapted to our ways: this is not integration, it’s assimilation. In his seminal essay “Raffles and Miss Blandish” (which compares, incidentally, the way the same story—in this case, crime fiction—got to be told in two different times), George Orwell writes: “People worship power in the form in which they are able to understand it.” And the way Star Trek creates its pantheon of gods, sitting proudly atop Mount Enterprise, is through an “us vs. them” anthropocentrism.
But that’s a whole other essay. J.J. Abrams’s film fails not because of the problems with the franchise, but because of the problems with him. Despite the franchise’s many failings, the fault, in this case, is not in Star Trek; it is in Abrams.
Ali Arikan is the author of Cerebral Mastication.