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Film Review: Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek (2009; Directed by JJ Abrams)

JJ Abrams’ Star Trek is the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, you read that right.

These plasma TVs just can't stand up to much wear-and-tear, can they?

I have a whole lot to say about this flick, but maybe I ought to situate myself as a (mostly lapsed) Trekkie first. I grew up with the square neo-liberal Treks of the late ’80s and ’90s, and always preferred the stately intelligence of The Next Generation and the political complexity and moral ambiguity of Deep Space Nine to the revered Original Series. I found the show that started it all to be silly, dated and frothy, rife with casual racial stereotyping, chauvinistic gender perspectives, and heavy-handed sociopolitical allegories. Still, I grew to appreciate its cornball charms, and cherry-picked the better (even-numbered) films.

But like all but the most hopelessly die-hard Trekkies, I feel that the franchise has suffered through a Lost Decade on both the small and the big screen. The TNG films after the crackerjack First Contact were misguided extended TV episodes, grasping wildly at the example of The Wrath of Khan. Nemesis was a particular offender in this, copping Nicholas Meyer’s contest of commanding masculine wills as visualized by colliding phallus-extension starships, obliviously unaware that Patrick Stewart’s thoughtful Picard could never be as effective in such a tete-a-tete as William Shatner’s bacchanalian Kirk (Picard was better when he was struggling with himself in a Shakespearean way, as he does with his Borg-assimilated past in First Contact). The less said about Voyager and Enterprise, those tepid exercises in continuity extension, the better. The soul, the life, the eternal spark, was gone from Star Trek.

Abrams strikes a new spark, but his kindling is recycled stuff. Yes, he returns to the original crew and time, and whips up a newly hip blend of sex, violence, and swagger from the classic elements. Most of the iconic catchphrases, tech, settings, relations, and even one of the cast are either gleefully reproduced or wittily referenced, and got appreciative cheers from the faithful in the theatre I was in. The continuity of the Trek universe is respected even as it is blatantly fucked with. This is to say nothing of the film’s entertainment value, which is ample; Abrams’ film stands a better chance at achieving a mass breakthrough for the brand name than we’ve seen before, but marketing aside, this movie is a ball.

But this Trek, more than any other, is built from constituent parts of its predecessors. The plot involves time-travel and planetary threats, like The Voyage Home and especially First Contact (not to mention Lost, from which Abrams brings along several collaborators). The loving aesthetic design of the sets and the ships is influenced by the first Trek film (though it is far more kinetic than The Motionless Picture), and Vulcan looks much as it did in The Search for Spock. A mind-control slug shows up, a direct call-back to Khan. The fate of Kirk’s father and mother recalls Benjamin Sisko’s calcifying loss from the first episode of DS9. And, in one of the film’s few missteps, the villainous Nero (the unrecognizable and unremitting Eric Bana), a member of the Romulan underclass with an unexplainedly powerful super-ship bent on righteous revenge, is far too similar to Shinzon, Tom Hardy’s vengeful antagonist from the unfortunate Nemesis.

Deprived of government ethanol subsidies, Iowa's farmers move in a slightly different direction...

But for all of its debts to previous Trek adventures, this Star Trek owes an even greater debt to the space-adventure that has outstripped it in both box office grosses and cultural acceptance: George Lucas’ Star Wars. The narrative and incidental resemblances to A New Hope are many, and I shouldn’t have to enumerate them (though Alexandra DuPont does so in her review at Ain’t It Cool News). But suffice it to say that by the time Captain Christopher Kenobi is telling young Kirkwalker that he has to leave Tatooiowa to fulfill his destiny, it’s basically impossible not to notice the dovetailing of the space myths.

Abrams’ use of the Campbellian origin myth is so potent, iconic and exciting that it seems like geeky quibbling to object to it, but the subsuming of social commentary to more amorphous and spiritual appeals to “destiny” and “fate” grates a bit. Beyond the scriptual laziness it typifies, these elements betray a Jedi-like mystical theism that the secular, scientific, agnostic Trek never had much time for. Rodenberry’s Star Trek never looked to gods for answers, and when subsequent editions did, it took the form of questioning scepticism of religious zealotry (as with DS9‘s Prophets and Founders). Star Trek has always been more concerned with humanity’s foibles and flaws and naked desires; with wills so free that determinism withers when faced with them. If anything, the alternate reality created by the time-travel shenanigans of Nero suggests that even if destinies exist, they can be changed.

The classic characters, as reinvisioned by Abrams’ wonderful cast, most definitely make their own way. At the centre of the film is James Kirk, a rogueish walking embodiment of the American id. The first appearance of the pre-teen Kirk, joyriding a vintage car while he blasts the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” on a Nokia media system, is Abrams’ shot across the bow of the purist Trekkies. Like the use of “Magic Carpet Ride” in First Contact, the capitalism-empowered rebellion implied by the music choice marks Kirk as a particularly American “wild one”. When young-adult Kirk appears in a dive bar, it takes very little time to get behind Chris Pine’s cocky performance. He learns and grows as the film progresses, but at heart he remains the brash, optimistic lothario who chomps on an apple while casually cheating the impossible Kobayashi Maru test (maybe Pine’s best scene). And he gets in at least five fist fights, winning only one of them (and that one by a bit of a cheat). That, people, is Kirk.

Zachary Quinto (famous as the exasperating Sylar on Heroes, a show which steals from the worst of Trek at every turn) has a tougher job with Spock. Though Pine was never going to impersonate the jazzy overacting of Shatner, Quinto cannot afford to stray very far from Leonard Nimoy’s inimitable Vulcan cerebrality, especially with the elderly Nimoy actually in the movie donning the pointy ears and passing the torch with silvery grace. He doesn’t make a radical departure, but does cultivate a simmering human anger that strengthens the repressed Vulcan stoicism Spock clings to. The Original Series could occasionally focus unduly on Spock’s alien alterity while forgetting that he’s really an intergalatic metis, but this film deals fully with his frustration at his inability to fit in even as events push him to choose between the two worlds that bore him. My favourite moment is Quinto’s first iteration of the catchphrase “Live long and prosper”, which comes across as a chilly “fuck you”.

Captain's Log: Leaving Starbase Tiddlewink for the great unknown...

If the supporting cast comes across as a collection of stereotypes, it’s because none of the previous material has ever tried to present them as much more than that. In this film, they all have their moments, but the parts are definitely small. Karl Urban rightly rules as “Bones” McCoy, capturing the late DeForest Kelly’s cynical cadence and prickly support for his buddy Jim; he steals several scenes and drives the film’s funniest section (a litany of injections used to sneak Kirk onto the Enterprise), but isn’t given much to do after that. Simon Pegg brogues hilariously as Scotty, but shows up far too late and likewise has little to do (and is saddled with a mute diminutive alien sidekick, for some reason). John Cho’s Sulu gets a funny navigator beat and a badass sword-fighting scene, but makes little impression beyond that. Anton Yelchin goes miles-broad with Chekhov’s Russian accent (and the film takes a moment to chuckle at it), but captures a precocious geekiness that at least makes him stand out from the others. Zoe Saldana is given a substantive Uhura and does enough to make it work, even if she is reduced to Spock’s emotional support (yeah, they’re an item; it’s weird, no word of a lie). Bruce Greenwood plays Captain Pike with bronzed authority, and Winona Ryder has some nice moments in a small role as Spock’s mother.

Ultimately, Abrams’ Star Trek relaunches the classic franchise as a corny blockbuster myth, a sort of hybrid of Trek‘s liberal-humanist hope and mortal hunger and the kind of rousing, fantastical heroism and swashbuckling adventure that it’s now obvious that we’ll never again get from Star Wars. It’s massively entertaining, and most of the things that come across as criticisms in this review only occured to me afterwards, and are more observations than they are knocks on the film. If I can’t give it top marks, it’s because the villainous threat treads too closely that of the last, failed film, and because the intellectual focus is more on determinist philosophy than it is on the social allegories that define Star Trek as sci-fi. But if you want cinematic popcorn joy… this is it. And it doesn’t insult your intelligence in the process, either. Let’s hope Abrams keep this new series going boldly.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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