Saturday, November 7, 2009
Star Trek: A Second Look
It occurs to me that the praise I heaped on the most recent Star Trek film was a little lavish, and that was due to my enthusiasm and excitement at seeing Star Trek on the big screen again. Likewise, I tend to like almost every movie the first time I see it. Like little kids, I’m just so darn thrilled to be at the movies that I like everything the first time I see it.
Because it was Star Trek, and because it was J.J. Abrams, who did incredible work with Lost and Cloverfield, I am a little embarrassed to say that, prior to ever seeing the film, I wanted to like it. At some level, I had an emotional investment in liking the film.
Now that the hoopla and excitement surrounding the film has gone away, and it seems Star Trek is back and here to stay, my personal enthusiasm has dimmed and I can look at the film a lot more objectively. First, let me be as clear as possible: the Star Trek movie wasn’t bad at all. It wasn’t a terrible film outright the way, say, Star Trek V was. I would not, however, call Star Trek one of the best of the Trek movies, and I’d put it in the same category as the “middle” Star Trek movies, like Star Trek III.
Incidentally, this is pretty similar to my reaction on seeing The Incredibles for the first time. I went into the theater wanting to like it. In fact, a few months after the movie came out, there was a list I wrote of all-time great superhero movies, and I very comfortably posted The Incredibles at the top of that list. Nowadays, of course, I’m a lot harder on the Incredibles and the flaws of that film are apparent to me. For example, I don’t find the main character, Mr. Incredible sympathetic because almost all of his problems are his own fault, of his own making. Consequently, moments based around sympathy for the character ring very, very hollow, like when Mr. Incredible believes his family was destroyed on a plane. And who’s fault was that, you ass? You lied to them for months and placed them in a lethal situation for a reason as selfish and childish as the desire to continue playing “Cowboys and Indians.”
As for Star Trek, there were some flaws, some of which were very, very large.
The biggest is the lack of an internal conflict. I remember when I saw Star Trek: First Contact, and as enjoyable a film as that was at times, it didn’t feel like a Next Generation film. The sight of Data and Picard packing giant laser rifles to blast Borg felt very wrong and out of character. All that movie needed to feel more wrong would be Picard strutting away in slow motion from an explosion. First Contact was all external and the internal conflict was something of an afterthought.
Regrettably, the newest film is very much like that. Watching Star Trek again, I realized I kept on waiting and waiting to learn what this movie was really about. A villain shows up and blows up planets and the crew must stop them. Is that it? Really?
The most troubling manifestation of this bigger problem, the lack of an inner conflict or character development, is shown with Captain Kirk. Kirk is the exact same character at the beginning of the film as he is at the end. He doesn’t grow, change or assume responsibility. When I first saw the film, the scene with Kirk stealing a car made him look like a rebel and a thrillseeker. I thought the reason this scene was included was because later on in the film we would see Kirk change into the person of responsibility that we know him to be. But alas, the movie didn’t go there.
The movie’s emphasis on action resulted in gratuitous scenes that just made no sense. For instance, the scene where they had to parachute to the mining drill. I understand the drill jams transporters, but why attack it with an away team at all? Couldn’t the Enterprise have just blasted the drill, as it ultimately ended up doing in the film’s last act?
Also, watching the Kobiyashi Maru was not as interesting as hearing about it. You never got the feeling this was a matter of pride for Kirk. In fact, he was just eating an apple casually.
The biggest, most major flaw was the villain, Nero. When I heard about him, I thought it was an exciting idea. Usually when we encounter Romulan villains, as in TNG, they are members of the secret police or military (the distinction between the two is vague, which tells you something about the Romulans right there) and Romulan stories tend to be games of chess, with move and countermove against a subtle, cryptic enemy that very seldom show their face (as seen in the three definitive Romulan episodes, “The Mind’s Eye,” “The Enemy,” and “The Defector”). The idea of a “working class” Romulan is just something we’ve never seen before.
But Nero’s motives are unclear and confusing. He destroys Vulcan and tries to destroy Earth for no good reason that I can detect. The destruction of Romulus was an accident, and Spock was trying to HELP the Romulans, so I don’t understand the bitterness toward the Federation, who weren’t even involved. The idea of Nero just waiting around for 25 years for Spock to show up from the time hole doesn’t ring true to me either. For one thing, what reason would they even have to think that Spock survived?
My mentor, novelist John Dufresne, often urged me to improve with this criticism: “Son, where’s the characterization? Is it out the window? Where? Cause it sure ain’t here!” I ask that of Nero. Where’s the characterization? Is it in the window? As I said, his motives don’t make any sense and he’s such a flimsy character.
(And this is such a minor fan complaint, but if Nero had a mining ship, why is it there were no Remans, the master miners of the Romulan Empire, on board? In fact, after seeing the deliberately dark interiors, I expected to see at least one or two.)
Finally, Simon Pegg’s Scotty got on my nerves. The standout member of the cast was Karl Urban as McCoy, who was just about perfect. But Simon Pegg’s Scotty was so different from the original, so obviously “movie comic relief” that he felt like a totally different character. Uhura was given a meatier role, but at least she was still recognizably Uhura.
I don’t like to go after techie scientific errors, but this one is a such a biggie I can’t wrap my head around it: Red Matter. I don’t understand how it works. Sometimes it destroys planets, but other times it creates portals to allow time travel, and it’s not clear when it does one, or when it does the other.
All in all, I hope this article, together with my previous one, give a more balanced view of a movie that was overall, not bad. It could have been a heck of a lot better, and hopefully all the errors that I have with this film will be fixed in the inevitable sequel.