Nerd Review: Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek 2009 Review

To not deliver a review of JJ Abrams reimagining of the classic Star Trek would be the worst kind of travesty against Nerdy Stuff, particularly for a site like this. The new film, as you have probably already read, appears to be a critical darling and a hit with the vast majority of people who see it. There are some good–and not so good–reasons for this. Obviously a movie of this kind, that takes an established canon and fanbase and tries to make it palatable to the masses while simultaneously still appealing to the existing fans, is never going to be able to fully please everyone. Some of the rules will be broken while others are respected, some of the canon will be honored while some will be chucked out the window. While a portion of the existing fans will surely go into meltdown regarding these changes to canon, the general audiences won’t really know what they’re missing–and it doesn’t really matter anyway.

What does matter is having a respect for the the major themes of the source material. In the case of Star Trek those themes include such guiding principles as an unabashed Optimism, deep friendships, diversity of characters and an overall vision of a future that is better than the world we live in today. In short, Star Trek is about the belief that mankind will succeed in spite of great odds and that we will overcome everything, including ourselves, to become tomorrow what we can be. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, believed this philosophy very deeply, and although let’s face it, he wasn’t that great of a writer himself, his vision inspired countless others to don his vision as their own and ride into the wind with all the intrepidity they could muster.

JJ Abrams new take on Trek, while a little too overt in its efforts to make Trek more accessible, succeeds in honoring Roddenberry’s vision. It speaks to a new audience, though its voice is more muted than I would like, and it speaks to the old, though I think this was largely unnecessary. We’ll talk more details after the jump, but be forewarned: Spoilers Follow!

I prefer to end on a positive note, so I’ll begin with what I disliked about the movie.

The Bad to mediocre stuff

1. Reaching out to Trek’s existing audience was unnecessary. I understand that the inclusion of old Spock, complete with Leonard Nimoy, was a token gift to the fans of the original series of Star Trek, and as a fan of that series myself I appreciate the offering. Still, it wasn’t really necessary. I think they could have done just fine by declaring the new film a “Reboot” a la Batman Begins and been done with it.

2. The Enterprise exterior redesign. Why mess with a good thing? I realize that they stayed true to the general idea of Enterprise, but some of the new design changes are just hideous. What is with those obese nacelles? Why is the connector thingy between the two hulls pushed back so far? Why do the nacelle pylons sweep forward? Ugh, just an ugly change. I’ll be fair though-it’s generally true to the shape of Enterprise. Generally.

3. The new Bridge. Everyone else who’s already said it is exactly right: the new bridge looks like it was designed by Apple. I half expected there to be an iPod dock at every workstation for chrissakes. Now, this isn’t to say I hate the new bridge design–it just seems a little…extreme in its modernization.

4. The Pacing. The movie begins with a bang (and a damn cool one at that) and almost never lets up. In some movies this works fine, but it’s a bit detrimental to Star Trek because it comes at the expense of what should be better character development. As a friend of mine said, “they could have made the entire movie about Kirk’s cheating on the Kobayashi Maru and had a great film with much more character development”. JJ, just slow it down a little next time please?

5. Pointless scenes. There is one scene in particular that was just silly, in which Kirk and Scotty beamed aboard the enterprise only for Scotty to materialize inside a big tank of water. He subsequently was shown being flushed through a series of tubes before Kirk finally found the release hatch and dumped him unceremoniously to the floor from 15 feet above. Why? It was mildly amusing but largely served no purpose. I’d have rather seen this 2 minutes used for a slower character development scene somewhere.

6. The Villain. I didn’t hate Nero, but I didn’t really care for him either. He wasn’t as completely worthless as the villain from the last Next Generation outing, but he didn’t really have any depth, either. I’d read that he was more fully explored in a recent comic book written by Kurtzman and Orci, and I can’t help but think that maybe they should have told some of that story during this film instead. An extra 30 minutes for that development might have made the film better. Though the character served his purpose, and Eric Bana did an excellent job, he was just sort of “meh” on the scale of villain greatness. Khan is in no danger of being dethroned just yet, I’m afraid.

OK now that we’re through the bad stuff (and see, it wasn’t that bad!) let’s talk about the things that really worked for the film.

The Good Stuff

1. Flushing previous continuity away in a logical fashion. One of the obvious items that Trek has suffered from for many years was the burden of its own continuity. I recently read an interview with Ron Moore, who wrote for Deep Space Nine and more recently Battlestar Galactica, in which he talked about how difficult writing Star Trek was because “every time you had an idea for an episode, you had to wade through hundreds of pages of documentation to see if it would contradict established canon”. Just judging by the last several Star Trek movies, it was clear that this rigid adherence (and let’s face it, they still flubbed continuity a-plenty) to the canon was choking the life out of the universe it inhabits. Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci have managed to both honor existing Trek continuity while simultaneously waving goodbye to it by creating an “alternate timeline” that will apparently be our new primary going forward. While I still think a simple “reboot” could have done this just fine without the need for time travel and Old Spock, I’m still glad they did it, because now the future of these characters is something that might actually be filled with something unexpected.

2. The new Bridge. I know, I know–the bridge is in my list of redesign dislikes. However, like Trek itself I’m a bit torn on it and I liked a lot of things about it. It has an advanced look that shows a grounding in the world we live in today, just as the original bridge design was a good imagining of the future from the perspective of people living in the 1960’s. As much as it troubles me that Steve Jobs apparently got his decorating freak on, it does at least make sense, and let’s face it–simply rebuilding the old style bridge given today’s technology would look and feel absurd. Man’s technology has made substantial leaps since Star Trek was released in 1966, and it’s appropriate that a new reimagining of the series should reflect those leaps.

3. The destruction of Vulcan. I love this, because it’s THE underline that says “This is new Canon and we’re fucking serious!” Even though I’d seen the destruction of Vulcan in some of the trailers, I just assumed that it was some other random planet full of no sentient life or some other nonsense. Why? Because I was used to the Rick Berman flavor of Star Trek where there are never any substantial stakes and hard, cruel things with consequences rarely ever happen to the characters. The destruction of 6 billion intelligent, living people from a long established and respected Trek culture is a damn hard plot point and really does break open a lot of possibilities for future development of the surviving characters (especially Spock). It also kills off some of the events from the Next Generation and Voyager–in particular, the character Tuvok will now never be born. Awesome.

4. The space battles and Visual Effects. Oh man, this is where the movie really breaks from past Trek. Instead of the slow, plodding space battles reminiscent of Naval warfare, these feel more like aerial dogfights amongst agile, powerful planes. Now, don’t get me wrong–the strategy of the slow battle between Kirk and Khan in Star Trek II was brilliant–but the new combat was just way, way more exciting. Also I really enjoyed the new Warp Speed effect. It’s reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica’s “Jumps” in the way the ships just vanish (although I like the thunderclap sound in new Trek better), but of course you also get to see the ship during warp, with what appears to be some kind of electrical field crackling around the ship. I recall an interview with one of TNG’s engineering designers many years ago in which he describes the reason why the Nacelles are elevated away from the ship as being due to “this horrible electrical field” that would kill the crew if they were too close to it, and it seems the new guys took that very much to heart.

5. Kirk as genius and rebel. When Captain Pike tries to talk a rowdy Kirk into joining Starfleet, he mentions that Kirk’s aptitude scores are “genius level”; I think that was awesome because it really backed up the idea that even among strong, proud and great Captains already in Starfleet, James Kirk is something special. Couple this with the way Pike is portrayed as a very strong captain with a great deal of wisdom and experience, then consider that Kirk eventually goes on to become far more revered–and it makes the character seem that much better. Contrast this with Rick Berman’s methodology, which was to make other Starfleet captains look like total boobs (think Star Trek: Generations portrayal of John Harriman as a complete fool) just to make Kirk look better was pathetic. I also think that the idea of James Kirk as the consummate rebel fits perfectly with his character, both in new and established canon.

6. Humor. Although I do think they went a little overboard, I liked that there was some humor injected into the new Star Trek. Humor is a great tool when you’re telling a character story because it “loosens” you up a bit, and makes you feel comfortable and a little vulnerable. It’s precisely this sort of thing that helps you open up to the characters and will ultimately make their inevitable tragedies that much more painful. It certainly needs to be toned down a little for the next movie, but I wouldn’t completely get rid of it, because I do think it helps the audience to enjoy the characters a little more.

7. The Cast. Why is anyone bitching about the casting? I think every single character was cast extremely well cast, especially the Holy Triumverate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Karl Urban seemed to be channeling Deforrest Kelley so well that I wonder if he hadn’t been possessed by the old codger. I think my only hiccup moment was when Spock had Kirk by the throat, I half expected him to point his finger and slice off the top of Kirk’s head. This has nothing to do with Zachary Quinto’s excellent performance, however, and everything to do with me watching far more of Heroes than that show deserves :).

8. Uhura. Zoe Seldana did two things extremely well. First, she was both beautiful and professional, and second, she–obviously at the direction of the writers–made Uhura a more well rounded character than Nichelle Nichols ever did. The original portrayal of Uhura was as glorified phone operator (plus great legs), but the new Uhura is a communications and linguistics expert with confidence and skill unlike anything ever displayed by the original interpretation of the character (with the possible exception of her 30 seconds of skill in converting whale song sound dynamics to account for water density in Star Trek IV. Yes, I did just cement myself even more fully in the glue of Nerddom).

If I were going to give the new Star Trek movie a star score, it’d be something along the lines of 3, maybe 3 and a half out of 5. It did a lot of things really well, but I’m not a huge fan of a lot of modern film conventions such as needless scenery for the sake of cuteness. The film establishes a solid new base for telling some great stories and exploring some great character developments, and I hope that the sequel will take advantage of this opportunity by toning down the humor just one click on the dial and slowing the pacing down just a little bit. All in all it’s a very decent film, certainly the best Star Trek film since 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and it’s worth your ticket price to get in and see it.

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