ArchiveView: Star Trek (2009)

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Ahead of seeing Star Trek Into Darkness, here’s a review of the first JJ Abrams that I wrote on its original release in May 2009 and reproduced from the general topic blog that I had at the time …

The new Star Trek movie is a great piece of entertainment and easily one of the best action movies of the year. As a relaunch of the Trek franchise, it’s an outstanding success. But for all that, don’t believe the hype – it’s good, but it’s just not great.

Viewed as an attempt to reboot, revive and recast a moribund franchise, it’s an unqualified success. While remaining true to the underlying Trek ethos, the film manages to be fast, funny and action-packed where the old series and movies could be slow, ponderous and preachy. Yet despite any carping from die hard fans, the film is remarkably true to Gene Roddenberry’s vision of an optimistic, altruistic and inspirational future. And despite the misgivings of many a fan, myself included, the recasting of iconic roles is almost without exception a collection of huge successes.

Zachary Quinto, for example – so great in Heroes, where he plays arch villain Sylar with an intelligence, subtlety and an outrageous amount of scene stealing that he’s almost the only reason for watching that show any more – is beyond perfect as Spock. He is both convincingly a young version of Leonard Nimoy’s character, and yet his own man as well, much more expressive, on edge and volatile than the refined and dignified Nimoy. He’s so good that you almost believe that this film and the entire Trek reboot has been sitting on its hands for seven years since the previous film just waiting for Quinto to be ready to accept the role.

While Quinto seemed obvious casting, Karl Urban as McCoy definitely did not. Having seen him in The Lord of the Rings, The Bourne Supremacy and The Chronicles of Riddick I thought this was going to be the film’s one bit of bad miscasting. So when I say I watched his performance open-mouthed and am a complete convert, I hope you can tell just how well he channelled DeForest Kelley in the role. He’s genuinely wonderful.

The others – Zoe Saldana as Uhuru, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekov and not forgetting the film’s lead, Chris Pine as Kirk – stick less closely to the original portrayals of the roles, but in each case they are successful in creating new portrayals which, while different, manage to stay consistent with the characters we knew. Pine forgoes Shatner’s quirks but has just the right swagger and cocksure way of moving; Chekov may be reinvented as a 17-year-old boy genius (I was reminded of Spencer Reid in TV’s Criminal Minds, actually – ironically, Yelchin’s been a guest star in that show and played against that character) but it still felt right all the same. In supporting roles, Ben Cross was a safe pair of hands to carry forward Mark Lenard’s character of Sarek, while Winona Ryder was an odd but perfectly solid choice for the part of Spock’s mother.

The one place it all falls down, alas, is in the case of Simon Pegg as Chief Engineer Scott. Pegg is used here as the film’s comedy relief – something that Scotty never was in the original Star Trek – and the character is a reprise of the James Bond “Q” that he previously did for director JJ Abrams in Mission: Impossible 3. As good as Pegg is, this feels out of place and a huge let-down. It’s a shame as the film really doesn’t need the comic relief – it’s got a lot of humour throughout, with the scene where Kirk is repeatedly ‘treated’ by McCoy with increasingly dreadful side effects the funniest sequence I’ve watched in any Star Trek outing.

But for the most part it all works far better than we had any right to expect, and so it’s a shame that having pulled off the recasting so well we then get to see so little of the new cast outside of Kirk and Spock. They all get their one stand-out character moment (Uhuru at a bar, for example; Sulu sword-fighting on a mining platform) but we really want far more of it than just one or two scenes apiece rather than frankly extraneous, distracting sequences such as the alien creatures on the ice planet and Scotty trapped in water pipes. Still, that’s an inherent problem with a feature film compared with a weekly TV series where it’s possible to develop a large ensemble cast.

Abrams is smart enough not to drop the ball on the recasting of the film’s other “star” – the Enterprise itself. It still looks recognisably like the Enterprise, just improved here and there with some go-faster stripes and served up with some terrific FX (taking a leaf out of modern Battlestar Galactica’s “hand-held” feel) giving new angles to the familiar profile. Inside, though, it’s less successful: the bridge is slightly disappointing – all gleaming white but no real sense of layout; and the production design is distractingly inconsistent, going from the futuristic bridge to the industrial 20th century sewage plant of an engineering section in a way that doesn’t feel like the two parts belong in the same universe.

These nitpicks aside, there were two real issues I had with the film that stop it from becoming a five-star classic and a genuine “best of Trek” outing. The first is some staggering plot inanities: a critical but wildly improbable meeting between Kirk and Spock in an icy cavern; trans-warp beaming which, taken to its logical end, means the end of starships and of plot jeopardy for all time; Kirk going from suspended cadet stowaway to being promoted to first officer within minutes of crashing on to the bridge, over the heads of hundreds of senior officers just because Captain Pike knew his dad; and then later at the end of the film (mild spoiler ahoy) when he’s handed the permanent captaincy of the Enterprise despite lacking any actual experience. It’s twee “fairy tale” stuff that undermines any credibility Star Fleet may have had as an organisation, and is also a wasted opportunity – wouldn’t it have been better to leave room for the follow-up to have Kirk plugging away as a second officer somewhere, really learning his craft and able to prove himself rather than have it all landed in his lap in one brief outing?

But even all this could have worked if the central plot – and main menace – had been any good. As it is, the whole plot can be described as “villain from the future with a planet-destroying weapon seeks revenge.” That’s it. There’s literally nothing more to the threat, just one band of pissed off Romulans in a decrepit albeit from-the-future mining ship. In the grand scheme of things that’s rather a weak threat, and it’s certainly terminally one-dimensional – it’s just not very interesting. Even the previous unsuccessful franchise outing, Star Trek: Nemesis (which coincidentally used a rogue band of Romulans as chief villains too) had bigger, more dramatic themes than this in terms of identity, xenophobia, alienation and nature vs nurture.

There’s not even much of a science fiction idea in the entire film. That the villain (Nero, a wasted opportunity for an unrecognisable Eric Bana) comes from the future is nothing more than a plot device to explain why this film doesn’t have to follow established backstory from the original Star Trek series but is otherwise unimportant. In fact it hurts the film, since Spock and Kirk find themselves up against a villain who wants revenge for things that they themselves know nothing about, which just means they’re more baffled than motivated.

This lack of a main plot of any substance – compared with, say, the franchise’s best outing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or the Cold War-inspired themes of Star Trek VI: Undiscovered Country which combined action with emotion, character, bigger themes and genuine science fiction ideas – is the real failing of the film which leaves it feeling rather empty and vapid at the core for all its other spectacular successes. And the perfect synthesis can be done – the TV reboot of Battlestar Galactica showed how a science fiction show can be big, dramatic, action-packed, emotional, meaningful – and still hugely successful.

A definite four stars out of five from me, then. I appreciate all it’s done in reviving the Trek franchise and very much look forward to seeing what they do with it next given such impressive groundwork. But this is only a step toward what Trek could – and should – be on screen. Hopefully the strong foundations this film lays will allow them to go on and build a meatier sequel in due course. I’ll certainly look forward to it.

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