I’ve been wondering what to do with this blog for the last few months. I haven’t meant not to post for so long; the problem with having a a blog about books is if you’re not up to reading, you don’t have much to talk about.
I’ve been thinking about changing the blog to a more general review blog. I’m not sure if it will be long term or not but I mentioned on my main blog I’d post a review of the new Star Trek film, so I thought that would be a good start.
One warning: as it’s been out for a week now I’ve included spoilers, so red alert! You have been warned.
“It speaks to some basic human needs, that there is a tomorrow – it’s not all going to be over in a big flash and a bomb, that the human race is improving, that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the Pyramids – human beings built them because they’re clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.” – Gene Roddenberry
In many ways Star Trek has always been a creature of different extremes. Star Trek itself was created as a mix of moral parable and adventure, a wagon train to the stars promising fun, excitement and a better tomorrow. Likewise Star Trek is often either loved or hated – it inspires the devotion of fans but equally leaves other people cold. Even so everyone is aware of the franchise; its success has permeated the public consciousness, so much so that the references have become ubiquitous. Everyone knows who Spock is or has heard of a Klingon.
While Star Trek has survived for over forty years, it has lost something in that time. It has ceased to be relevant; worse, it has lost its sense of fun. From its inception Star Trek has been a reflection of the issues of its time; racism, sexism, war, communism, moving through to later series like Deep Space 9 which paralleled the Bosnian and Israeli and Palestinian conflicts. But the end of Voyager, and then the maligned Enterprise, saw Star Trek lose its relevance as the franchise went for style over substance, alienating both new viewers and its core audience. The sense of adventure and optimism was gone; the characters were not so much boldly going as being weighed down by their history. Finally the failure of the last film, Nemesis, and the cancellation of Enterprise seemed to signal the death knell for Star Trek.
But then JJ Abrams took over the franchise. Approached by Paramount to resurrect Star Trek for a new generation, Abrams brings a new sensibility to Star Trek. A casual fan who claimed the series had long disconnected for him, Abrams has done what many people had thought was impossible. He has not only made Star Trek relevant again, he has also managed to make it more accessible. This is arguably the best Star Trek film so far; it is also, in my opinion, the best prequel that’s been made.
The new crew of the starship Enterprise
The reason it works is due in large part to Abrams and his writers (Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman) bringing Star Trek back to its core essence. Star Trek was always meant to be fun, sexy and uninhibited and gone is any mention of confusing technobabble; gone are the speeches and monologues that bog down the plot. Instead everything is streamlined – the technology just works, we don’t need to know how – and the urgency of the story makes it believable and immediate. They have also updated the look of Star Trek, treating it with a more realistic approach. Weapons, for instance, behave in a much more realistic way; torpedoes can be shot down, using phasers as a countermeasure, and ships seem to move in three dimensions. Likewise the bridge of the Enterprise is a hub of activity and the bridge itself is sleek and modern, a functional, futuristic command center. This is a more believable world, with all the details filled in.
Perhaps what makes this new Star Trek more accessible, however, is that it respects continuity without being beholden to it. By going back to Kirk and Spock it allows audiences to be reintroduced to the more iconic characters from Star Trek – but it’s done in an unpredictable way. Other prequels become predictable because you know how the story has to end but that isn’t true for Star Trek. While it respects the previous history to a point, you don’t need to know it to follow what’s going on. It is essentially a new beginning.
Primarily Star Trek acts as an origin story for Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). We see them first as children; a rebellious Kirk growing up in Iowa following the death of his father; a teenage Spock struggling to gain full control of his emotions on Vulcan. Years pass and eventually both find their way into Starfleet; Kirk as a headstrong cadet, Spock as a tutor at the academy and one of the most promising officers in Starfleet. Soon they clash and Kirk is suspended after being accused of cheating on the Kobayashi Maru test that Spock designed. But when a distress call is received from Spock’s homeworld of Vulcan, all cadets are called to active duty and Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) smuggles Kirk onto the Enterprise as they depart to face the threat.
That threat is Nero, played by Eric Bana, a Romulan from the future hellbent on revenge. To say much more about the immediate plot would be a disservice but the main bulk of the film follows the evolution of Kirk and Spock as they become the Kirk and Spock from the series, finally learning to trust each other and the value of their friendship. Along the way we are introduced to the other characters from the series but we primarily see them through Kirk’s eyes, so it’s as if we are seeing them for the first time. Or at least seeing them anew.
Chris Pine’s Kirk is different but still James T. Kirk
For JJ Abrams potentially the biggest challenge in reintroducing Star Trek to audiences must have been to convince us that these were still the same characters; that this was still Star Trek. To that end the casting is excellent. Chris Pine, virtually unknown before this role, is a perfect fit for James Kirk. It’s hard to describe what he does in his performance; it’s not Shatner but there’s an authority, a command to his performance that is definitely Kirk. Zachary Quinto is also good as Spock; although at times he comes across as a little too human, this is a Spock still struggling with his emotions and his inflection and stillness is close to Nimoy’s while still being his own.
The rest of the cast is good as well, although some have little more than cameos and could have been developed more fully. Zoe Saldana plays a strong, sexy and thoughtful Uhura who becomes one of the main characters in the film; Karl Urban almost channels Deforest Kelley as McCoy; John Cho plays a sword-wielding Sulu and Anton Yelchin a young Chekov, while Simon Pegg appears as Scotty in the last third of the film. They’re all quite good, particularly Karl Urban as McCoy, who should have had more screen time, and Zoe Saldana is excellent as Uhura in a greatly expanded role. Eric Bana is the main surprise as Nero. Not that Bana isn’t an excellent actor, simply that he portrays Nero as a quiet, brooding villain and is not what you’d expect. Leonard Nimoy also appears in a cameo as an older Spock and slips back into the role comfortably after eighteen years.
What’s most interesting about this new Star Trek is its scope. It’s on a scale unlike previous films; unlike many other science fiction films. Past Star Trek films have suffered from low budgets and directors that didn’t understand the material but Abrams is one of those rare directors who can capture both action and intimacy on screen and it shows. There is one scene in particular early on in the film where the USS Kelvin is attacked by Nero; lights flash everywhere, sirens sound, and there’s a frantic rush as officers man their posts. For a moment the screen settles on a single woman running through a corridor, and then a torpedo detonates. There’s a whoosh of air, she screams and is sucked out into space – and silence. It is a sudden silence and incredibly effective; we’re left to watch her body floating as the camera follows her and then slowly returns to the chaos of battle. It is one small, intimate moment against a much larger backdrop but incredibly well done; it shows that it’s still a human story, even amidst the most epic of scenes.
The special effects in Star Trek are spectacular
As you would expect for a film of this scale the special effects are incredibly well done. It seems like special effects improve yearly but some of the effects in Star Trek are also surprisingly subtle; like the woman being sucked into space, or the shots of the Vulcan skyline, which seem somehow familiar but alien. The ships look stunning as well, as you would expect from ILM; the Enterprise is sleek and beautiful, while Nero’s Narada is eerie and almost alive. Something else that is an interesting effect is the use of lens flares, giving the impression that there’s frequent activity happening off-screen. At first it’s distracting and overused but when you get to the Enterprise it gives the illusion that there are actually more people on the bridge, making it a chaotic hub of activity, particularly in battle.
It’s this kind of scale that makes Star Trek very different from any of the previous films. But at its heart it’s still the same Star Trek. In broadening the film’s scope Abrams has actually brought the film closer to Roddenberry’s vision than many of the recent incarnations. Brimming with optimism, this Star Trek has humour, sex appeal and a much faster pace, features more women on the Enterprise (something the network wouldn’t allow in the 60s), a focus on a much stronger Uhura, and even features the beginning of a romance between Spock and Uhura, something Roddenberry alluded to but knew would never get past the censors. Their romance is actually one of the more interesting aspects of the film, particularly as Spock is already conflicted and trying to restrain his emotions.
Just as importantly the film also returns to the themes that have made the franchise relevant in the past. Just as Roddenberry made the Klingons an allegory for the cold war Soviet Union, Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman have taken the Romulans and made them a reflection of an issue for our times: terrorism. It’s not overt but the parallel is there: Nero and the Romulans can be seen as a band of terrorists utilising a weapon of mass destruction, one that threatens the entire Federation. The destruction of Vulcan is a devastating act and one that reflects the devastation of 9/11.
In a post 9/11 world it makes sense that this is what Star Trek needs to do to be relevant again. It is the destruction of Vulcan that shapes the new Star Trek universe; it changes history, creating a new timeline where the noble Vulcans are reduced to a race of refugees. It is the defining moment for this new incarnation of Star Trek, setting the tone for what is to come… just as 9/11 ushered in a new era for our world. Yet for all that Star Trek never loses its sense of optimism or hope. The film is about adventure and friendship and the fun of the film lies in discovering the characters and how they all come together to become the crew of the Enterprise audiences know. It’s new and fresh and its message that we can overcome our differences is one that seems just as relevant today as it ever did.
Zachary Quinto as Spock brings something new but familiar to the role
Of course it has its flaws. No film is perfect and the main problem with this Star Trek lies with its script. I suspect many of the problems were caused by the Writers Strike but there are still some plotholes and inconsistencies that should have been addressed. By far the biggest is the feeling of coincidence in the film; for instance, that Kirk is marooned on Delta Vega after disobeying orders where he just happens to meet not only Leonard Nimoy’s elder Spock, but also Pegg’s Scotty, on what is supposed to be a near-deserted planet. It stretches credibility – and that’s not even mentioning why Kirk wasn’t just thrown in the brig instead. There are similar coincidences throughout the film, most notably in how quickly the characters are promoted. To keep passing these off as coincidence seems lazy; perhaps it’s meant to reflect the alterations to the timeline, history trying to right the damage Nero has caused, but if that is the case it should have been better explained.
As far as the script goes there is also a problem with Nero. Although he is one of the more unsettling villains, much of this is due to Eric Bana’s excellent performance, who plays Nero as a quiet, dangerous adversary. The problem is that you never really get a sense of his motivations or backstory beyond that; we understand that his world was destroyed and his wife died, driving him to seek revenge, but beyond that it is hard to feel anything for him. There were several scenes with Nero cut from the final film; we’ll have to wait for the DVD to see whether they add anything to his character. As I mentioned earlier I also would have liked to have seen more of Karl Urban as McCoy, particularly as Kirk’s conscience. Anton Yelchin didn’t really work for me as Chekov either, with his heavy accent becoming something of a parody.
One thing that also needs mentioning is that much of the science in Star Trek is inaccurate. While Star Trek is known to take liberties with its science, this goes further and I found that disappointing. Some of the details are good – like the lack of sound in space, the alternate timeline – but overall the science stretches believability, particularly the supernova. I grant that the filmmakers didn’t want to slow the movie down with more science but they could have just left it unexplained, like with the technology, rather than have it be so inaccurate. For a franchise which tries to base itself in fact, it’s somewhat disappointing.
The other problem is with Michael Giacchino’s score. Giacchino is mostly known for his television work and has collaborated with Abrams frequently in the past. It’s not a bad score but it never quite reaches its potential. There is a sweeping main theme for Kirk that forms the bulk of the score, which at first sounds rather ominous before it builds into a beautiful, soaring fanfare later in the film. Spock’s theme is a more elegant motif, a haunting and restrained piece featuring an ehru (a Chinese violin) which gives it an otherworldly quality and hints at the contrasting sides of Spock’s personality. But the rest of the music is fairly generic, featuring Giacchino’s penchant for blaring horns and screeching strings. If you’re familiar with his work on Alias or Lost then you’ll know what to expect and whether you enjoy the score will likely depend on how you feel about the main theme, which is relied on very heavily. The end credits, though, offer a magnificent reprise of Alexander Courage’s original theme and it’s never sounded better.
The USS Enterprise in action once again
But these are mostly small details. Overall this new Star Trek achieves more than anyone could have expected; it’s exciting and contemporary, taking the spirit of everything that has made Star Trek what it is and making it fresh again. But more than that it’s just a good, fun movie, something Star Trek has not been in a long time. By going back to Kirk and Spock the filmmakers have made the franchise accessible and familiar again, but they have also made it unpredictable which is the key to its success. Anything is possible in this new universe and for a series based around exploration, it makes the future look even brighter.
It’s a film both fans and new audiences can enjoy and what’s more it has made Star Trek relevant again at time when we needed it, when the world is ready to look to the future again. There’s no better scene than when Captain Kirk finally takes command of the Enterprise, Spock at his side. We realise we’ve finally come full circle and as the Enterprise begins to boldly go where no one has gone before, we know the adventure is just beginning.
Score: 4.2 out of 5