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Star Trek Babies

Star Trek Babies
© Paramount Pictures
"Yo, Dad, can I borrow the keys to the Enterprise?" Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) aim to fill some big shoes.

At one point during the new Star Trek movie it occurred to me that perhaps the most amazing thing about it was the fact that I was seeing it at all. Forty years after the original TV series went off the air and thirty years after the first film version was released here I was again watching the redoubtable starship Enterprise fly across another screen. It was interesting, though, to note how the starship was represented here compared to its first big screen appearance back in 1979. Back then, before Hollywood had hit on the formula for milking a property to death, it had taken ten years to sort out the production path for the theatrical version. When it finally appeared it was practically a religious experience for faithful fans who had invested so much in the characters and ideas from the series. One of their rewards came in their first view of the Enterprise after the ten year drought: director Robert Wise spent a full five minutes of screen time displaying the new ship, the camera caressing every detail of the model starship with clear fetishistic delight. In the new film by director JJ Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman there is no such doting on the venerable spaceship; views of the Enterprise are for the most part reduced to establishing shots taken from a great distance in space or extreme close ups of firing weapons. Similarly, internal shots are restricted to scenes filmed on a stark overlit bridge or brief scenes in an engineering section that consists oddly of industrial-looking hydraulic tubes and steel scaffolding. The Enterprise, itself a major presence throughout the Star Trek saga, is here relegated to mere backdrop, a somewhat haphazardly designed set upon which the interpersonal dramas of the main characters play out.

I think that’s significant because it indicates where the priorities for the film makers lie and what they do and don’t understand about a cultural inheritance of which they are the latest custodians.

For the three of you who haven’t seen it yet, the new Star Trek is a “reboot” of the whole kit and kaboodle that has developed over the past 40 years. An origin story about how the characters Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov came to be part of the seminal storyline. It takes us, in just over two hour’s time, from the birth of James T. Kirk to his installation – with all stalwart comrades in tow – at the helm of the Enterprise as they face down their first big challenge: a Romulan meanie named Nero (Eric Bana), who has traveled back in time to wreak vengeance on the Federation – particularly on Vulcan. With so much plot to cover in such a compressed time some things are bound to suffer and story coherence would be one. Some reviewers have expressed bafflement at the villain’s motivation and a major fault of the movie is that it is never clearly explained until a brief speech more than halfway through the film just why any of it is happening. I knew from the start only because a friend shared a comic book “prequel” that explained the backstory (thanks Carl). One gets the sense that a lot more movie was filmed but left on the cutting room floor. I was struck by how little actual screen time the main antagonist had – a disappointing waste of Bana, who is a good actor.

But, truth be told, the whole angry Romulan premise is what Hitchcock called a “MacGuffin” – the plot device used to further the main story which, here, is the coming of age of James Kirk and Spock and how they came to be who they are. It must’ve killed the filmmakers that the title Star Trek – The Next Generation was already claimed because that’s exactly what this is: an attempt to reanimate a moribund franchise, populated by senior citizens, for a new generation of moviegoers who weren’t even born when the original series was on the air. And that requires starting fresh with a cast of (very) young actors who will – if all goes according to plan — carry the sequels forward for the next 10 or 20 years.

As a result, we’re presented with a preposterous set up wherein the fresh-faced and eager Starfleet cadets (at one point Chekov discloses that he is only 17!) are given the responsibility of running the fleet’s premier starship as it faces the grave alien challenge. Uh… okay. But the challenges to these nubile heroes don’t come only from outside the ship – there’s no shortage of interpersonal drama taking place on the venerable starship that at times makes it feel like The Hills in Outer Space. Much has been made of an internecine love triangle that is utterly implausible (are you telling me that a civilization advanced enough to have perfected trans-warp space travel hasn’t figured out that it’s bad news to be dating your co-workers?), but the real drama is between Kirk and Spock, who start out as enemies but – as with any good love story – are able to channel their passion into a bond that (the producers hope) will be eternal. Ah, young love!

The success of the actors and their characterizations vary a lot. Chris Pine seems to have prepared for his role as Kirk by watching one or two James Dean movies. He plays Kirk with a chip on his shoulder and spends a good part of the movie daring people like Spock to knock it off. The anti-hero who comes into his own in a time of crisis is in itself a hoary trope, tailor made for young actors trying to show their chops. Watching Pine, we long for early Shatner who, despite his well-known quirks, was an accomplished actor capable of subtlety and nuance (as evidence I refer you [here]). Zachary Quinto on the other hand was born to play Spock and brings an already mature talent to the role. Karl Urban is wonderful as Dr. McCoy, serving up wry comedy and intelligence along with the trademark lines we’ve come to expect (“Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor not a physicist!” brought down the house). British comedian Simon Pegg gets in some good licks as a feisty Scotty and Anton Yelchin as Chekov is adorable. Zoe Saldana is a serious disappointment. Her Uhura is hot and has attitude to spare but one thing she is not is professional. We barely see her do any work and her role on the ship seems primarily to be a point of romantic contention for the male leads. Nichelle Nichols’ calmly professional Uhura was (pardon the pun) light years more progressive. Watching the travesty they made of Uhura made me feel sorry for little girls in the audience.

Aside from implausible situations and bizarre character construction, the film is a collection of missed opportunities (one of the worst is the hamfisted screw up of a meeting between young and old Spock that the time-warp plot device affords – what might have been a classic scene becomes a mere setup for a joke). Director JJ Abrams has stated many times that he was not a fan of Star Trek and that’s obvious – he clearly doesn’t get the qualities of the series that made it last so long: characters and ideas. But he doesn’t really have to get it I suppose. His job was to get new faces in front of the audience in an entertaining way and he succeeds. However, if the owners of the property hope for it to live long and prosper (sorry, couldn’t resist…)  they need to remember what made it thrive for 40 years and not sell the next generation short.

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