Star Trek XI: The Search for Relevance

abramsBy handing the Star Trek franchise over to J.J. Abrams, lock, stock and pointed ears, the folks at Paramount Pictures made it manifestly clear: we want to see a new, fresh look at the Enterprise and its namebrand, trademarked crew, a re-invention, if need be.

Mr. Abrams, let’s be candid, is no auteur, more like a cross between Michael Bay and M. Night Shmayalan. His films and projects are slick, gimmicky and well-attuned to the tastes of the moment. How long his vision and body of work will survive is another matter: action movie directors are a dime a dozen these days, their films virtually indistinguishable. Mr. Abrams has shown us little so far (“Lost”, “Mission Impossible III; Exec. Producer, “Cloverfield”) except that, like any half decent utility man, he knows how to handle a good bounce…and how to make an easy play look spectacular.

Mr. Abrams has an undeniable gift for concocting middlebrow eye candy and so many within and without the Trek universe reacted favorably when it was announced he was producing and directing the next film. The first trailer was released and that really got the grapevine humming. Leonard Nimoy started popping up, speaking cryptically about the plot of “Star Trek XI” but professing himself thrilled with the script. Wow, cool, an endorsement from Mr. Spock himself! Trekkies everywhere held their breath, waiting for May, 2009 to roll around.

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Well, it’s clear from the forums and fan message boards that the latest film has met with overwhelming approval–and why not? It’s filled with action and special effects and there is that much-touted return to the early days. And you get to see Uhuru in her underwear! Fan-dumb seems to like the three young leads and don’t appear unduly concerned by the liberties taken with the premise and backstory. Like the screenwriters, most film-goers grew up on comic books/graphic novels and are used to things like alternate universes, mirror realities, lapses in logic, plot discontinuities and (yawn) “red matter”.

spockkissI’m willing to put up with Jim Kirk’s troubled childhood, a different, sleeker Enterprise, a command bridge that looks like a cross between a high-end china boutique and a really cool video arcade, but what I find most objectionable, unforgivable, in fact, is the ridiculous romantic subplot involving Spock and Uhuru. Reinvention is one thing but this notion of a repressed, lonely Vulcan and a thoroughly professional Starfleet communications officer snogging like a couple of teenagers is nothing less than an abomination.

The plot is standard revenge stuff. The bad dude, a Romulan renegade named Nero (Eric Bana barely registering in the role), is an over-familiar Trek villain, a tattooed terrorist who hardly merits an individual episode, let alone a $150 million movie.

winonaStar Trek’s minor characters—Scotty, Chekov, Sulu, Uhuru—are easy to ape or emulate. Simon Pegg is, frankly, a distraction as Scottie and Anton Yelchin’s (Chekov) outrageous Russian accent makes Walter Koenig’s seem pitch perfect by comparison. To be fair, most of the youngsters acquit themselves ably, within the limits of the material…but can someone please explain to me the thinking that went into casting Winona Ryder as Spock’s mother, Amanda? A favour? Act of charity?

I liked Karl Urban as Leonard McCoy, though on a few occasions he tries too hard (“Damnit, I’m a doctor, not a physicist!”). Playing up Bones’ tendency to catastrophise is a nice touch. A passing grade.

Zachary Quinto’s resemblance to a youthful Leonard Nimoy has been much discussed. He’s a ringer, all right, and at times his mimicry of Nimoy is uncanny…but is imitation, impersonating a guy impersonating an alien, really acting?

Chris Pine as James T. Kirk, future captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, gets better as the film progresses. By the latter third he has Shatner’s sidelong glance, swagger and half smile down to a “T”. The only thing missing is the keylight on his eyes. Pine is likely the one cast member who has the most opportunity to grow into his role (no swipe at Bill Shatner’s midsection intended). The other players can resort to tried and true catch phrases, retreat into caricature, but Jim Kirk must always be vital, three-dimensional, flawed, impulsive, heroic, endearingly and recognizably human, or the whole franchise founders.

live longAbrams and Co. have presented us with a new, unimproved Trek—glossy and diverting without being particularly likeable, engaging without involving us emotionally. “Star Trek XI” makes no stirring appeals to human destiny, mortality, cosmic evolution, democracy, tolerance or any of the other high-falutin’ ideals the show once espoused. That moral core is notably absent from “XI” and the film suffers as a result. This isn’t a “message” picture, it’s a thrill ride, an experience, with tons of explosions, rapid fire editing and starships going foosh!

Initial box office returns are promising so it looks like we’ll be subjected to a sequel or three. Perhaps the next film (an even number, gotta be a good one, right?) will feature a story worthy of being told, something that will contribute meaningfully to the mythos and grow the legend.

They’ve added some fresh faces, sunk a lot of money into a franchise some believed had run its course. They even coaxed poor old Leonard Nimoy out of retirement for a cameo appearance—he looks like a superannuated sea turtle but his last hurrah is supposed to lend authenticity to the venture, a tip of the hat from one of the Original Cast.

It isn’t enough. “Star Trek XI”, like all of Mr. Abrams’ projects, is overlong, clumsily structured, superficial, implausible, instantly forgettable. He has temporarily salvaged a series that was on the rocks, but is his “aesthetic” compatible with a concept that has remained remarkably consistent through 40+ years and various incarnations? How far are fans willing to let him go in terms of rewriting or tossing out great swathes of the accepted canon?

roddenStar Trek, whatever its faults, didn’t used to shy away from big ideas and cosmic themes and it was never intended to be a Saturday morning children’s show. Gene Roddenberry had higher aims than that.

But the Great Bird of the Galaxy is gone now and the whizkids are in charge. They’ve studied the demographics and done their test screenings. The gamers, geeks and mall rats are their target audience, aged between 14-23 and not overly concerned with such niceties as characterization and a coherent plot. The old fogies may complain about what’s been done in the name of progress but even Star Trek must move with the times and if that means getting bigger, dumber, louder, so be it.

Warp speed, Mr. Abrams, the helm is all yours.

For now…

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5 comments

  1. Peter Watts

    Dude, I think you’re giving Roddenberry’s original vision too much credit. He whinged endlessly about network interference during TOS, but when he had free reign on Next Gen the result was trite flower-power crap; ST:TNG didn’t really find its feet until they put ol’ Gene out to pasture and brought in darker visionaries like Ron Moore. When classic trek was really in the groove, it was doing straightforward sf like Doomsday Machine or Charlie X or City… (I even liked “The Immunity Syndrome”). But when they aspired to “message shows” about Important Social Issues, what did we get? Frank Gorshin in half-black face. A guy in a spiny white gorilla suit. Endless sermonizing about how Racism is Real Bad for Everyone.

    Can’t say I disagree with a lot of your review– and the plot was certainly way more incoherent than the series was– but Abrams’ effort doesn’t suffer as much by comparison as you might think. And as you say, the stage is now set for some *real* storytelling the next time out.

  2. Karl

    Which is why I liked Star Wars … until George Lucas raped that memory with “The Phantom Menace.” But that’s neither here nor there. As a non-Trek fan, I haven’t seen the film but am knowledgeable enough about the ‘verse of Gene R.

    Does the audience really need another longwinded lecture on “space racism”? We’re not in the Sixties anymore, although the problems seem eerily similar (economic catastrophe, foreign policy quagmires, politicians and corporate leaders and ecclesiasts without a clue or a prayer, etc.), the franchise is in serious need of modernization. Unfortunately, as per the recent trends to “reboot” stuff, it has to be “darker,” “edgier,” and “extreme.” Whatevs, dude. Since Hollywood is the Dream Factory and also in the business of the Lowest Common Denominator, a revamp that actually works is a rare bird. Oceans 11 and the new Batman flicks are recent examples that actually didn’t suck.

    Maybe Star Trek can get re-imagined a la Battlestar Galactica, not by aping BSG — darker, edgier, and sexier robots! — but by transcending the original material and confronting the hard questions of the day. BSG succeeded in the aftermath of 9/11 and became a Sexy Robot Greek Chorus to the imperial follies and well-meaning atrocities of Dubya’s Reign of Error. In summary, how is Trek going to remain relevant when a Black Man is president and rightwing clowns think a 4% tax hike is tantamount to Leninism? Not sure the dude who did Lost is the right captain to venture in those waters.

    Just sayin’ is all.

  3. Mike Cane

    Ah, Cliff, you shouldn’t have expected anything resembling TOS.

    1) Many of the issues tackled in TOS are today moot, no? That was the 1960s and everyone had an issue to air.

    2) The break in the timeline had more repercussions than we can imagine. To ask for reasons for every little change is to get bogged down in legalism. Spock & Uhura? Hey, this is New Spock and New Uhura, not just younger versions of the ones in TOS!

    I’m pissed they cut my favorite line: “You’ve always had a hard time finding your place in this world, haven’t you?”

    I hated all the lens flare, seriously hated the generic action movie score, but really, really loved McCoy. And New Scotty too (put down that shoe!).

    What I hate most of all, however, is being old enough to have seen such a reboot in my lifetime. I don’t need more reminders of my age, dammit. I just dread when they get the idea to remake, say, Star Wars (which I don’t like *anyway*, but still), or Superman. Oh, wait!

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