J.J. Abrams’ re-imagining packs the final frontier with action. That’s not entirely a good thing.
After months of delays that only fueled the expectations of both old-school Trekkers and newcomers alike, J.J. Abram’s (Lost, Mission: Impossible 3) re-imagining and re-energizing take on the Star Trek franchise roared into theatres this weekend, taking in a franchise-record setting $74 million. Expect that number to grow quickly on the crest of great word of mouth: the film is a built-for-entertainment joyride that’s virtually wall-to-wall action. It’s a hell of an action movie, and though explicit comparisons to franchise rival Star Wars aren’t entirely accurate this new Trek has the same sense of dizzying momentum.
But that’s also it’s biggest problem. The Star Trek TV franchises and films have never been preoccupied with stunts and pyrotechnics, often proudly wearing their cerebral ambitions on their multi-colored sleeves. While Abrams and company have jettisoned such a restrained attitude in favor of adventure, the new film’s bravado often sometimes drags it down or lets it skip over important plot clarification. Also noticeably missing is the Utopian optimism that, at its best, let the original series and its various children transcend their budgets as well as the usual genre pitfalls.
Jump ahead three years and Kirk has breezed through San Francisco’s Starfleet Academy, even rigging a no-win mission simulation test (which veteran Trek fans will recognize as the Kobayashi Maru from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan) in his favor. A disciplinary hearing, spearheaded by Academy instructor Spock (Zachary Quinto), is interrupted by a distress signal from Spock’s home planet of Vulcan. With the rest of Starfleet’s armada preoccupied elsewhere, it’s up to the Starfleet cadets to respond in seven brand new starships, including the venerable U.S.S. Enterprise. The Romulan craft that destroyed the Kelvin has returned again, and with help from his friend “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban, The Bourne Supremacy) Kirk stows away beneath Captain Pike’s notice to help out.
The action that follows includes time travel, black holes, the destruction of planets, parachuting from low-Earth orbit, sword fights… it often seems as if frequent Abrams collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman threw everything they could devise into the chain-of-set-pieces script, leaving no idea discarded. Thanks to state of the art special effects and a production design that’s almost always nothing short of dazzling, for the most part that damn-the-torpedoes strategy works. Other times, including a tedious man vs. monster chase sequence on an ice moon (itself too derivative by half of The Empire Strikes Back), all that action instead feels superfluous and distracting from the main story thread.
And it’s a very, very linear thread. One thing happens and then another, sequences building on the one before rather than happening from circumstance. Abrams et. al. have a lot to accomplish in the film’s two hours, yet despite the diversions, repetitious stunts and sometimes glaring holes the story makes sense without seeming simplistic; it’s easy to see where the plot might’ve dissolved into chaos instead. The stakes, thanks to the Romulan commander Nero (Eric Bana, Munich), are demonstrably high enough that the rapid pitch continuously seems justified. Add that to Kirk and company’s relative inexperience and you feel justified in believing the danger.
What’s missing most is backstory, and context. We are told that the Federation is a worthy cause but not of its origins, or why Earth and other alien races remain devoted to its purpose. The time-travel elements are explained but not developed, so that depending on your familiarity with that trope’s mental contortions the ensuring plot details will seem opaque at best and frustrating at worst. Kirk’s childhood is given only the barest amount of details, likewise the motivations of bad guy Nero or the Romulans in general. Extant Trek continuity is apparently filled with details on almost all of the above (we’ve just scratched the surface ourselves), so there was no shortage of source material from which to draw. Maybe Abrams and company have deferred such embellishments until the already-announced sequel? Whatever the case, the story needed greater depth to bring the film’s setting into a completely coherent focus.
Luckily the cast is up to the script’s ambitious challenges. Pine, given the task of bringing the famously pre-politically correct Kirk to the modern age, finds his character not in the swagger but rather in the relentless self-confidence that made William Shatner’s Kirk legendary. Quinto, a talented actor not given much to do on Heroes anymore except beckon or arch his formidable eyebrows, builds Spock from barely-restrained and seething… emotion. Urban is underused as the crusty Dr. McCoy, as is Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz) as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott. Playing the heavy, Bana makes the most of a perfunctory role. In origin movies like this it’s enough for the villain to simply be menacing, but thanks again to impeccable costuming and production design a large part of that work is already accomplished. Still, he makes the most of each line of dialogue allowed him.
Speaking of design, the new Enterprise vessel looks great most of the time. This latest interpretation of the classic shape is sleek and detailed, keeping the recognizable form while incorporating new elements including a dynamic new electrical effect to the warp nacelles. The bridge is a swirl of translucent display screens and fluorescent lights, selling the movie’s futuristic setting all by itself. Less impressive, unfortunately, are a generic-looking medical bay and an engineering section that looks as anonymous as any petrochemical refinery. For such a classic and famous ship you’d expect a bold new vision of its engine room to be just as impressive and well-thought out. It’s something to be considered as Abrams and his group boldly go into plans for the sequel, plans most likely underway even as you read this.