Star Trek

A young James T. Kirk watches as the U.S.S. Enterprise is built.
A young James T. Kirk watches as the U.S.S. Enterprise is built.

Producer J.J. Abrams has brought Star Trek back to life with a film full of action and spectacle that ranks among the best summer popcorn movies for filmgoers looking to have fun at the theater.  But what really makes Star Trek a success is how much its story is grounded in the character qualities of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the crew of the starship Enterprise.  Don’t let the flashiness and fast pace of the story fool you– this movie works because it recaptures the spirit of the original Star Trek series.  The only major criticism I have is that the plot relies too much on coincidences during the middle of the story.

One of the smartest things that Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman did was to wipe the slate clean and retell the story from the beginning.  I love the various Star Trek series and can go on about them for hours, but I don’t have trouble admitting that adhering mechanically to every bit of minutia in the Star Trek Encyclopedia tends to restrict storytelling and drive new fans away.

Take Captain Kirk’s backstory, for example.  Several episodes of the show back in the 60s alluded to Kirk having served on this or that ship, or having lived on a certain colony, in order to give Kirk a personal connection to whatever the story was about.  About the only common thread was that none of these stories matched with what was said about Kirk’s past in any of the other episodes.  (Let’s not even get into how many times old girlfriends of his show up without ever having been mentioned before!)

Of course, Star Trek fans have been able to piece together a coherent story about Kirk’s past from all of these separate little mentions.  And a few of them feared that any movie that didn’t carefully follow that story would somehow mess up Star Trek’s history– even though Kirk’s backstory had never really been intentionally written; it just sort of “grew” out of the work of many different writers!

Mercifully, the new Star Trek movie ignores all of that concern from the very beginning, in a breathtaking battle sequence that drives home the danger of space travel and the nobility expected of a starship captain, and forever reshapes the life of the young James T. Kirk.  The characters are the same, but this is a new story, and anything can happen!

Let me assure you– even if you have never watched any Star Trek before, you won’t be left out of the story– this movie is the beginning, and no Star Trek Encyclopedia is necessary.

There are spoilers in the remainder of my review.  If you don’t want to be spoiled, go see the movie right now! 🙂

The opening sequence about George Kirk’s sacrifice to save the lives of the crew entrusted to him, including his wife and his newborn son, Jim, is my favorite part of the movie.  Not being good at recognizing faces, I didn’t realize that the “Mr. Kirk” put in command was actually our hero’s father until I saw the medical team rushing his wife to a shuttle to deliver her baby.  It made for a nice surprise to suddenly realize that I was really getting the story from the beginning!

The whole opening manages to recapture the excitement and danger of encountering the unknown in a way I hadn’t seen from Star Trek for years.  Nero’s ship appears to a bombastic, brass-heavy fanfare that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the 1960s show– a nice touch by composer Michael Giacchino.  While Giacchino’s score doesn’t have as many memorable themes as most of the earlier Trek movies, it fits this movie well.

The whole look of the Star Trek universe has been reimagined in a creative way.  It seems a bit more “lived-in” and familiar than the Trek we’re used to– we see young Kirk destroying an extremely antique car and visiting an Iowa bar that wouldn’t be that out-of-the-ordinary today (if not for the aliens).  The interior of the Enterprise is at once more high-tech and more mechanical than before, with lots of bright white surfaces and touchscreens on the bridge but a cavernous engineering section with all the pipes and structural beams exposed (actually filmed at a brewery, from what I understand).

The movie has plenty of memorable special effects sequences, including a skydive from orbit and an iconic image of the Enterprise rising out of a planet’s mist.  One of my favorite visuals was the new effect for warp speed– it’s a lot like the effect used in the new Battlestar Galactica series, with the ship suddenly leaping away as if it were a bullet fired out of a gun.

But enough about the special effects.  They’re fun, but practically every summer sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero movie has figured out how to take an old idea and make it colorful, noisy, and flashy.  (Case in point:  the trailers before our screening of Star Trek included movies based on Land of the Lost, G.I. Joe, and a Transformers sequel.  Nostalgia rules the summer movie season– will they ever run out of old ideas to recycle?)

The real question is what was behind the flash:  what was this movie about?  I’ve read some criticism of the movie saying that the original Star Trek was about big ideas and the exploration of human nature when confronted with the possibilities of a limitless future, whereas this movie was a simplistic “stop the villain” plot.  It’s true that this movie isn’t an allegorical statement about something like racism or war like some of the episodes of the original Star Trek were.

But that kind of storytelling is better suited to a TV series in which you aren’t tasked with introducing the main characters to the audience.  I’d argue that instead, this film is a character study of the Enterprise crew, particularly Kirk and Spock, and amazingly, even though those characters are played by totally new actors, the movie gets right to the heart of what made those characters so beloved.

It does so thanks to some great performances and some smart writing.

Chris Pine had the tough job of convincing the audience that he is Captain James T. Kirk when for decades our image of Kirk was inseparable from William Shatner‘s performances.  Wisely, Pine does not attempt to imitate Shatner’s acting style of long ….  pauses for …. EMPHASIS.  Any such attempt would have turned into self-parody.  His voice sounds a bit more youthful than Shatner’s (even though Pine is close to the same age Shatner was when he first took on the role of Kirk).

But Pine expertly captures the captain’s swagger and confidence and manages to show a good amount of character growth.  Early in the movie, Kirk is living a directionless life and comes across as the irresponsible punk a lot of viewers probably feared this new version would be.  But when Captain Pike challenges him to enlist in Starfleet, Kirk turns his rebelliousness and irrepressibility into something positive as he wholeheartedly pursues the command of a starship.

The writers and Pine have a lot of fun with Kirk in this movie– the young captain takes a lot of punishment over the course of the movie– both in terms of getting the tar beat out of him numerous times and in terms of being the butt of a lot of jokes.  But he just keeps getting back up.  If you’re not paying attention, you might miss how brilliant he proves himself to be– he completes his Academy training in just three years, and it’s only thanks to his quick reasoning that both the ship and the Earth are saved.  By the end of the movie, I had no trouble accepting Chris Pine as Captain Kirk.

William Shatner as Kirk
William Shatner as Kirk
Chris Pine as Kirk

Zachary Quinto bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Leonard Nimoy in his portrayal of Mr. Spock.  Playing a Vulcan is also no easy task; it means playing a character who appears most of the time to be emotionless but in truth is not.  For instance, I thought that the character of T’Pol on the series Enterprise often sounded like she was pouting when actress Jolene Blalock’s intent was to seem emotionally unaffected.

This movie gets to the heart of what makes Spock such a fascinating character by showing the teasing and prejudice he had to deal with as a half human growing up on the planet Vulcan.  The idea that Spock was bullied as a child was always in the background of his story, but this movie deals with it head on.  Much of Spock’s character development deals with his coming to terms with his identity as a “child of two worlds,” as his father puts it.  As a result, Quinto gets plenty of chances to emote.  The scene in which Spock chooses to enter Starfleet despite being accepted into the Vulcan Science Academy because they refer to his human mother as “your disadvantage” was a moment that had me cheering on the inside.

(I particularly like how Spock coolly bids farewell to the Science Academy by thanking them and leaving with his customary “Live long and prosper”;  Spock’s response is absolutely respectful, but his disdain would not have come across any more clearly had he made a different hand signal.  A nice example of a respectful answer shaming those who should know better.)

These early scenes show both Kirk and Spock as rebels and outsiders, but their personalities could hardly be more different.  They collide when Kirk takes a test at the Academy that Spock designed.  The test is intended to be unwinnable, but Kirk objects to the very idea of a “no-win scenario” and reprograms the simulation so it is possible to win.  At a review board called to determine if Kirk’s actions should be considered cheating, Kirk and Spock get into an argument about the merits of a test that is impossible to pass.  Is that itself not a “cheat”?  Kirk asks.  Spock bluntly reminds Kirk of his father’s death in a “no-win scenario.”

The argument is just about to get nasty when it’s interrupted by an emergency on Vulcan.  I didn’t pick up on this until my second time seeing the movie, but the rest of the story is about that argument.  It just plays out in actions instead of words.  Spock sees his world destroyed and his mother killed by the same man who killed Kirk’s father and has to struggle to keep from giving in to anger or despair.

Both Kirk and Spock have had their lives disrupted forever by Nero’s meddling in time, but Kirk refuses to let Spock resign himself and the Enterprise to inaction even when taking action means great risk against seemingly impossible odds.  Amazingly, the loss that Kirk and Spock share because of Nero actually becomes the basis for a friendship that allows their very different personalities to complement each other, just as they did on the original show.

(I still kind of wish this had been made a bit more clear– just a couple lines of dialogue between the two before Spock joins Kirk for the mission to Nero’s ship would have done the job.  Without them, you might conclude, as I did on my first viewing, that Kirk still owes Spock an apology for provoking him to anger and that Spock’s reason for accepting Kirk as a superior officer is unclear.  After a second viewing, I remembered that Spock had earlier spoken quite callously about the death of Kirk’s father, so maybe they were even.  Even if they don’t come out and say it, you can see that an understanding develops between the two as Spock realizes that Kirk is not a selfish idiot and Kirk realizes that Spock does in fact have emotions.)

Overall, the interaction between Kirk and Spock is grounded quite firmly in the themes of the original TV series.  A lot of episodes dealt with Spock being driven to show emotion, including one instance when Kirk had to provoke Spock to anger in order to release him from mind control by alien spores.  And Kirk got thoroughly thrashed by Spock in that episode just as he did in this movie.  So that part rang very true.

Leonard Nimoy as Spock
Leonard Nimoy as Spock
Zachary Quinto as Spock
Zachary Quinto as Spock

Then we have Karl Urban as the pessimistic, down-to-earth Dr. McCoy.  To put it simply, Urban is Leonard H. McCoy in this movie.  He is instantly convincing from the moment you first hear his voice, and he steals the show whenever he’s on screen.  Who would have thought that the actor who played Eomer, the rider of Rohan from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, would be so utterly convincing as the old country doctor?

Urban’s performance really helped the film in my opinion, because the original Star Trek was always essentially a three-man show, with Kirk’s two friends there to remind him of the logical and emotional side to every argument.  The movie’s story primarily focuses on Kirk and Spock, with less time devoted to McCoy, but Urban’s performance is so good that it feels like McCoy is a main character as he should be.

There’s a scene midway through the movie that had me chuckling to myself because of how perfectly the actors were recreating the posture and mannerisms of the original Star Trek crew.  Pine is sitting in the captain’s chair gripping both armrests and leaning to one side in the classic “Kirk” pose– at least until Spock tells him to get out of the chair.  Quinto paces the bridge while talking like I’ve seen Spock do a million times.  And Urban stands behind the captain’s chair growling at the other two while resting his chin on his clenched fist.  I had never noticed how often the late DeForrest Kelley did that in the role of McCoy, but Urban reproduced it perfectly.

DeForrest Kelley as McCoy
DeForrest Kelley as McCoy
Pine and Urban as Kirk and McCoy
Pine and Urban as Kirk and McCoy

As for the rest of the crew, Zoe Saldana portrays Lt. Uhura as a brilliant expert in linguistics.  It’s great to see her character shown as capable of much more than just being a futuristic switchboard operator; in the original series, we had glimpses of Uhura’s expertise, but they were rare.  Saldana is also gorgeous, leading to a lot of humor as Uhura shoots down Kirk’s many advances and a great double-take from Kirk when he discovers who is the object of her affections.  (Uhura also finally gets a first name, after all these years!)

Anton Yelchin plays Ensign Chekov, in this version, a 17-year-old prodigy when it comes to Star Trek technology.  There’s a cute scene poking fun at Chekov’s trademark thick Russian accent– naturally, it is Chekov’s duty to make shipwide announcements.

John Cho‘s Lt. Sulu doesn’t have a big role in the movie; he mainly stars in one of its action scenes.  One wouldn’t think that fencing experience would translate so well to combat, but Sulu seems to have little trouble.

Simon Pegg‘s Scotty doesn’t turn up until late in the movie, so he doesn’t get a lot of character development beyond being a Scottish engineer.  Pegg manages to be quite amusing even when Scotty’s just standing around in the background with a confused look on his face.

Scotty also has a little sidekick who looks like he might have wandered in from a Star Wars movie.  If we learned anything about him, it’s that he likes to climb on things.  He wasn’t annoying in this movie, but it would be equally unannoying if he were to vanish without a trace.

If I can be permitted a fanboy moment, I thought it was awesome to see Captain Christopher Pike in a movie– something I never thought I’d get to see.  Pike was captain of the Enterprise for the unaired pilot episode of Star Trek, but actor Jeffery Hunter decided not to stay on and Pike was replaced by Kirk.  Most of the pilot’s footage was later worked into the episode “The Menagerie” as flashbacks from a time before Kirk was in command.  I really liked the character of Captain Pike– he was less flamboyant than Kirk.  Pike took seriously the weight of his command but faced obstacles with steely resolve.

Bruce Greenwood actually looks a little bit like Hunter, and he plays Pike as a smart, experienced commander who will do what’s necessary to get his crew home safely.  He’s also a tough customer, as he shows when he’s taken captive aboard Nero’s ship.  I was really expecting Pike not to survive the movie, so I was thrilled to see him make it to the end.  (Very nice touch, putting Pike in a wheelchair at the end– anyone who’s seen “The Menagerie” will understand why.  On top of that, Pike is wearing an admiral’s uniform from Star Trek: The Motion Picture!)

Jeffery Hunter as Pike
Jeffery Hunter as Pike
Bruce Greenwood as Pike
Bruce Greenwood as Pike

Eric Bana plays the unbalanced Romulan Nero, who is irrationally obsessed with punishing the future version of Spock for failing to save his world from a catastrophe.  I’ve seen a lot of people criticizing the movie for not spending more time developing Nero’s character, but I actually found it refreshing to see a Trek movie that wasn’t overly concerned with the villain.

In my opinion, the last few Star Trek movies were falling prey to the same thing that afflicted the Batman movie franchise– each movie put so much effort into telling a story about the villain(s) that they ended up turning the heroes into caricatures of themselves.  Batman Begins finally gave us a story about Batman, allowing The Dark Knight to tell a story in which both the hero and the villains were strong.

Likewise, Star Trek‘s goal is to introduce us to Kirk and his crew.  Nero’s role is essentially to be a force of nature; the chaos that throws all of our best plans into disarray.  I think that spending a lot of time focused on Nero fighting the Klingons or whatever else he did would have distracted from the point of the movie.  Nero wasn’t supposed to be a military genius with a grandiose plan.  He was merely, as future Spock put it, “a particularly troubled Romulan.”

Still, I liked what Bana did with the scenes he was given.  I loved the delivery of his “Fire everything!” line, and it really amused me when he introduced himself by saying “Hi, Christopher; I’m Nero” in a nonchalant voice.

Leonard Nimoy provides a link to the old Star Trek with his role as Old Spock from the future.  I am impressed at the cleverness of the story.  I would have been fine if the writers had merely decided to tell their own version of Star Trek and disregarded some of the minutiae that would only have bogged the writing process down.  But I know that a lot of long-time Star Trek fans would have seen that as somehow disrespectful to the hundreds of hours of stories that have already been told.

By establishing that this version of history is the result of Nero and Old Spock’s unintended time travel, the writers found a way to pay homage to all of the old stories (and reassure the die-hard fans that the universe they’re familiar with is still “there”) while still starting with a clean slate from which anything can happen, as we see shockingly when Vulcan is destroyed.  My mother told me that she was just waiting for the “reset button” ending that had become a trademark of the Star Trek spinoffs whenever anything surprising happened, and it was a pleasant surprise that the “reset” never came.

I was afraid that including Nimoy’s Spock would just be a distraction from the new story the writers were endeavoring to tell, but they actually wove Old Spock into the story in some effective ways.  It was his mind meld with Kirk that convinced the young captain that Spock really did feel emotions, and it was brilliant to have Old Spock tell Kirk that he needed to get Spock to reveal that he was emotionally compromised by the mission:  “I just witnessed the destruction of my world.  I can tell you that I am emotionally compromised.”

Crucially, Nimoy’s Spock stayed a respectful distance from the story unfolding between the main characters, so it doesn’t feel like he’s unnaturally driving events.  When Kirk and Spock save the day, it’s their own doing.

Overall, this movie provided a touching sendoff to Nimoy.  Star Trek has never really called attention to it, but Nimoy’s Spock underwent a lot of character growth during his very long time on the various Star Trek shows.  During the original series, Spock tried to be more unemotional even than most Vulcans due to his unsureness about how to deal with his human side.  In the movie series and in his appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Spock gradually became more comfortable with his human side and was less afraid to use jokes and even to “exaggerate” if there was good reason.

This movie, likely the last we’ll see of Nimoy’s Spock, shows him at peace with his human and Vulcan sides– he’s an endearingly kind and somewhat goofy fellow.  Interestingly, Quinto’s Spock seems to have made some strides in coming to terms with his human side even earlier than Nimoy’s did.  Who knows what future stories might bring?

Finally, some criticism.  The biggest weakness of the movie is some plotting in the middle of the story that can only generously be described as sloppy.  When Kirk refuses to abide by Spock’s decision to rendezvous with the fleet instead of going after Nero, Spock boots him off the ship in an escape pod, depositing him on the ice planet Delta Vega.  Kirk’s computer tells him that he should wait inside the pod for rescue, but it also says that there’s a Federation outpost 14 km away, so he strikes out for it.

Kirk ends up running for his life from a huge monster, only to be saved when it’s killed by a much bigger monster in a scene very reminiscent of the first Star Wars prequel.  Instead of eating the sizable prey it just killed, the bigger monster decides to chase Kirk, who finds a cave to hide in just in the nick of time.  In the cave is Old Spock, who drives the monster away and proceeds to fill Kirk in on the plot.

I was hoping there would be some explanation for how Kirk was lucky enough to stumble upon the cave where Old Spock happened to be.  Apparently Nero marooned Old Spock there so he could watch the destruction of Vulcan, and we’re supposed to accept it as an amazing coincidence that Kirk’s escape pod landed no more than a few kilometers away.  Sorry, but planets are too big for me to buy that.

It gets worse when Old Spock and Kirk find Scotty at the Federation outpost (no indication of how they avoided the monsters on the way there).  Considering that Scotty is likely the one man in the whole galaxy who can figure out how to beam Kirk back on board the Enterprise… well, now we’ve got a whole pile of coincidences that hurt the believability of the story.

It’s true that no Star Trek movie to date has managed to tell a story free of any gaping plot holes.  Even the famous Wrath of Khan relied on the idea that a starship crew could fail to notice that a planet was missing! But that’s not really an excuse for sloppy writing.  I don’t think it would have been too hard to have lessened the amount of coincidence, perhaps by having Old Spock seek Kirk out instead of having Kirk happen to run into the right cave.

Though all of the central performances do a wonderful job of recapturing the essence of the Star Trek crew, there was one case in which the new version paled in comparison to the original.  I almost hate to bring it up, because I don’t know if any actor could have pulled it off.  Ben Cross did a good job of portraying Sarek as a wise and understanding father to Spock in his few scenes.  But this movie made me realize how much I missed the late Mark Lenard‘s great performances as Sarek.  Lenard gave the Vulcan ambassador an ethereal nobility that is hard to define and may be impossible to reproduce.  One of my favorite Star Trek reviewers, Timothy Lynch, once wrote that he thought he could more easily picture other actors in the roles of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy than he could picture anyone other than Lenard as Sarek.  I think he has been proven right.

The final point that has tripped up a lot of people regarding this movie is that it has Kirk not only graduating from the academy in three years but being promoted to the rank of captain immediately upon graduation!  I can certainly understand why that seems strange; maybe that was a bit much to expect the audience to believe.  It certainly doesn’t make sense if Starfleet is supposed to operate anything like today’s military.

However, we don’t actually know how the writers intend Starfleet to work in this version of the Star Trek universe.  I was thinking that perhaps the Academy operates with the idea of training each person for a specific role on board a starship, and the rank they are given is in accordance with that role.

For instance, Uhura was at the top of her class in linguistics, and the chief linguistics officer on a starship tends to be a lieutenant; therefore, she was given the rank of lieutenant on the Enterprise.  Kirk, on the other hand, trained to command a starship, and while it’s perhaps more common for a promising command student to start out as a first or second officer with a rank like lieutenant commander, Kirk’s excellent academic record in addition to the whole “saving the world” thing got him a command and a rank of captain straight out of school.

I don’t know– maybe that helps, or maybe it doesn’t.  I suspect that the writers didn’t feel like the story was done until Kirk became “Captain Kirk.”  It fits with the idea that commanding a starship is his “first, best destiny,” as Spock once told him.

I only know that I had a great time at the theater watching Star Trek reborn, and I can’t wait to see the next adventure of this new crew!

One comment

  1. Really excellent review and I agree with a lot of your points. Thanks for posting, I enjoyed reading 🙂

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