Star Trek: The Future’s So Bright, You Gotta Wear Shades… Seriously

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Let me start off by explaining to you, the reader, that I grew up a Star Trek geek. I’m not really sure how it started. My father has his own fascination with sci-fi spectacle, having owned dubbed copies of just about every shitty sci-fi movie you could think of in the 80s on Betamax tapes that piled high in our basement as if it were the lair of some sort of audio/visual schizophrenic. I think we owned something like three or four different copies of Aliens at one point. But that’s just the background info. This post is alllll about Star Trek.

The earliest memory I have of the franchise is my dad watching syndicated episodes of The Next Generation as they were being aired in the late 80s/early 90s. For some reason I really wanted to stay up with him and watch, but I was too young and they were on too late, so my sister is the only one who had the privilege of watching them with him. It’s probably for the best. Looking back, the show definitely wasn’t intended for the enjoyment of young children. But my fascination for Star Trek had been planted…

When Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was introduced, I’d finally seen a few Star Trek movies, even seeing Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in theaters and not really understanding it, but having a blast anyways. I don’t think I got into the habit of watching DS9 regularly until the story arcs started picking up around the third or fourth season. (Coincidentally, that was around the time Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore began taking the reins of the series.) By then, I believe Star Trek: Voyager was also starting broadcast on the doomed UPN, a network bitterly divided between black sitcoms, Star Trek and professional wrestling. If ever there was a network with segregated audiences, it was UPN. I didn’t understand until years later that Voyager was an extremely unsatisfying series that frittered away all of its potential in lieu of the sweet embrace of familiarity.

Then after Voyager, Paramount immediately flew in headfirst with another new Star Trek series, Enterprise. Ohhhhhh boy. The problems with this show were many. The episodes didn’t bring anything new to the table for anyone that had been following Star Trek over the years, the cast was by and large wooden, and there was the misguided notion that this would be the “sexy” Star Trek and whenever the away team would come back from a mission, they’d spend the decontamination period rubbing each other in their underwear. Oh, and the second-in-command was a Spock-wannabe who had two of the most enormous, fake-looking breasts I’ve ever seen on television. The hardcore fans were even picking up on the show’s lack of quality and tuning in in fewer and fewer numbers, causing the series to be canceled in its fourth season after several unsuccessful attempts to shake up the format of the series.

The motion pictures weren’t faring too well, either. The last success had been the Ronald D. Moore-written Star Trek: First Contact and the movies that came after it had frittered away even that movie’s goodwill. Star Trek: Insurrection was like an awful episode of TNG stretched out to feature-length size. They visited a world where everyone got younger and the cast started acting stupid and Picard fell in love and F. Murray Abraham was the quadrant’s biggest botox addict. And the final movie featuring the TNG cast, Star Trek: Nemesis, was a misguided attempt to try to recapture the grand scope of The Wrath of Khan with a Picard clone raised by Remans (appropriately a planet close to Romulus) and featured Data in the martyred role of Spock. Blehhh. I didn’t buy it and neither did the movie-going audiences.

And so the franchise was done-in by diminishing returns, lazy creative choices and a general lack of interest at Paramount for making Star Trek an AAA priority. I was kind of sad to see the franchise lay fallow, but not if Nemesis and Enterprise were the best they could come up with. In the intervening years, I got interested in the non-Trek sci-fi TV shows I’d missed, such as Farscape, Firefly and the new Battlestar Galactica, which showed just how varied the possibilities for television science fiction could be and how much of a dinosaur Star Trek had turned into over the years. Then murmurings began happening that Paramount was interested in re-launching Star Trek, not as a TV show, but as a tentpole feature film. And then news came down that J.J. Abrams, mastermind behind some of television’s biggest genre successes of the past few years, Alias and LOST, was going to be the one to bring it back to life. EEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!

Star Trek starts out with future captain James T. Kirk being born and escaping the U.S.S. Krypton Kelvin as his father nobly blows himself up to protect the escape vessels from being destroyed by a ship that pops up out of nowhere. Remember this, it’ll be important later! Then we’re showed Kid Spock learning in some Vulcan learning… pod… thing… and getting bullied by some other Vulcan kids for being half-human. I’m not entirely sure the concept of Vulcan bullies makes sense. Anyways, then we get Kid Kirk who is out  stealing cars, listening to the Beastie Boys (I guess it’s considered classical music by then?) and getting into multiplex-friendly car stunts. Another time skip! Now we see Young Adult Spock flipping some sort of Vulcan council (who can keep track of them?) the bird and joining Star Fleet and Kirk is wasting his potential (natch) trying to hit on Uhura at a local bar. One of his father’s old friends visits him and tells him to shape up and make something of himself because I guess he’s a genius even though he’s such a lovable rogue. So he just waltzes onto a waiting shuttle pod to get trained to be a Star Fleet officer, where he meets the already-divorced and grumbling McCoy whom he quickly befriends.

Years later! Everyone is hanging out at Star Fleet Academy until a strange something-or-other is happening on Vulcan and an emergency is declared, putting all the cadets on assignment toward offering aid. Kirk sneaks aboard meets most of the classic Trek crew. Turns out the circumstances are identical to the time when Kirk’s father was killed, and the newly-christened Enterprise is the only ship ready to take out the mysterious ship’s deadly weapon, but not before some tragic losses occur.

The main meat of the film is the budding romance relationship between Kirk and Spock. Spock is such an uptight Vulcan ninny that he can’t stand Kirk’s rule-breaking, especially since Spock is the one that came up with the classic Kobayashi-Maru test. And Kirk is such a loose cannon he can’t stand Spock’s measured, logical, summer-blockbuster-unfriendly response to situations. GOSH, I WONDER IF THEY LEARN FROM EACH OTHER’S DIFFERENCES AND GO ON TO BECOME THE BEST OF FRIENDS? Just kiddin’, I’m not bitter about that. It’s actually interesting to see the start of their relationship as an adversarial one in this film, since I have no familiarity with the original TV series and only saw the original cast in the movies, where everyone already got along swimmingly. It’s too bad that the antagonist of the film, Nero, a Romulan from an alternate future bent on destroying the Federation with red matter (?!), is nothing more than yet another hurdle Kirk and Spock overcome to become friends. I mean, really, nothing about him is in the least sympathetic or interesting. As a character, he makes little to no sense. How is his mining vessel equipped with advanced jamming equipment?! What is he DOING for the 25 or so years between his initial appearance and a certain somebody’s return? Twiddling his thumbs? And what the hell IS red matter, anyways, besides being a knock-off Shizuma Drive? The plot is paper-thin and focused mainly on providing as many special effects, explosions and stunts as humanly possible in a two hour time frame.

See, this is a very different kind of Star Trek. The franchise’s age had been showing in the past. Dialogue was very artificial. Performances were incredibly stagey, everyone acting as if they were performing Inherit the Wind or Shakespeare in the Park. Pacing was  slow and methodical, bordering on sluggish in some circumstances. (The Motion Picture comes to mind…) The vision of the future was one completely devoid of everything bad that we as a species were suffering from. Hunger? War? Things of the past. No one is greedy because money is no longer used. How that works out I have no idea, but racism, sexism and speciesim also were largely gone. One would also assume homophobia was extinct, but since gays don’t exist in Star Trek, we’ll never know. And there was always a thinly-veiled moral to learn at the end of the episode, where all the toys would return to their starting positions and ready for a new adventure the next week. As television became less episodic and more serial, with audiences finding a taste for gritty, off-beat, sexually-charged presentations, Star Trek‘s starched-collar speeches and quaint moralizing became… well, antiquated would be the nice way to put it. The new Star Trek chucks all the previous conceptions of what a Star Trek should look and act like by the wayside and looks more to modern blockbusters for its direction. It’s  zippy, it’s wisecracking, it’s full of pyrotechnics and dynamic camerawork. And instead of featuring geriatric theater actors, it stars young, hot, orphaned versions of classic characters.

And part of that daring new aesthetic is updating the Enterprise. Instead of looking like some sort of cheesy 60s-era vision of the future, the Enterprise now looks like… an Apple store. With its minimalistic, frosted white and clear glass palette, it feels less like a bridge and more like a Genius Bar. Which I guess it is, since every key member of the Enterprise seems to be the foremost genius in whatever it is they do. And the lens flares. My god, it’s full of lens flares. Even J.J. Abrams seems to think he’s gone a bit too far in this department. If the future is really gonna have that much twinkling, I’m never going to be able to see anything clearly! I’m not saying that lens flares are an awful idea, but maybe keeping them to where they’d make sense or toning them down by half would be called for in this situation.

But while the reboot takes several steps in the right direction, it seems to have gotten lost and taken a step back in another department.Yes, the movie feels undeniably modern and relevant… but at what cost to the soul of the franchise? Star Trek previously attacked some weighty and cerebral issues like the cost of war in Deep Space Nine or when does an artificial intelligence become human in The Next Generation. Even the most acclaimed entry in the theatrical series, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, was about more than Khan’s bloodfeud against Kirk. It was about mortality and the morality of the ends justifying the means. What was this Star Trek about? Be exceptional or get the fuck out of Star Fleet? The writers seem to think it has some sort of September 11th parallel, but I’m not sure I buy it. If it was really the intent, they certainly don’t mine it like they could have. It seems that with the increase in breathtaking stunts, it’s crowded out any actual thinking. What’s left to make Star Trek different than, say, Iron Man or Transformers? Just a different set of action figures to distract audiences? Sulu and his retractable katana coming soon to a Toys-R-Us near you!

And I have some problems with the very idea of a reboot in the first place. Was the original universe so broken that you had to start completely from scratch? It seems like it was such a drastic decision to bid the Star Trek universe that’s been built up for 40 years adieu. Why not make a new movie with a completely new cast that throws some of the conventions of the old series away like this one did? It just seems a tad uncreative that returning to Kirk and Spock is the best they could come up with. Even if there are subtle differences, these are by and large the same characters as before. And it leaves the actors in an unenviable position. The original series characters have only ever been played by one actor, so when comparing new to old, you also have no choice but to compare the new cast to the old one. They have to walk an extremely fine line between having their own take on the character and straight-up mimickery. Most of the cast holds up fine, with Karl Urban being the only true standout performance, nailing the Bones character spot-on. Hopefully this leads to more meaty roles than That Guy from Pathfinder. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is also notable in that she’s given far more to do in one movie than the character ever got to do in the entire rest of the franchise.

The music is… not entirely notable. Michael Giacchino, he of Speed Racer, LOST and Fringe, is no stranger to reviving classic TV themes and does admirably during the end credits, but he seems sort of… content to piddle around with the rest of the film. His score doesn’t really distinguish itself the way some of the other Trek movies have. The main theme song of the movie just isn’t as iconic as I might want it to be. Then again, I think Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of the great classic science fiction themes, so it had a lot to live up to. After all, it was so nice they used it twice!

I’m not alone in thinking J.J. Abrams might be the Stephen Spielberg of this generation. Not only does he have an uncanny sensibility for knowing how to craft a tentpole summer special effects and stunts extravaganza, as previously evidenced by his intense, breathless Mission: Impossible III, but he’s also Jewish. :V No, really, he even shares a similar predilection for genre work, creating Alias, LOST and the recent Fringe, on top of producing last year’s Godzilla-tribute Cloverfield. I mean, he hasn’t become the same sort of box office god that Spielberg was/is, but who else could be?! Abrams also brings with him a host of talent from his other endeavors. Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman co-created Fringe with him, along with co-creators of LOST, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, producing and Giacchino scoring. Hell, even Simon Pegg got the part of Scotty without having to audition simply because he had worked with Abrams before on M:I III. I hope this isn’t the end of Abrams’ fruitful movie career, and expect a long and interesting output from him.

So there’s some good and some not so good in this Star Trek. But overall… it’s an entertaining movie. It’s a big, dumb, action-y summer popcorn flick and that’s okay, since it’s better written and acted than most. It’s certainly the best big budget flick since The Dark Knight, but what was its competition? Wolverine? Watchmen? Looking down the pipe at the studios’ summer lambs for the slaughter, it seems only Pixar’s Up could steal Star Trek‘s thunder. So it may end up being the best summer movie by default. I mean, I’m okay with this type of Star Trek movie if that’s what it means to move the franchise forward and keep it relevant. Just remember to ask the Wizard for some brains along with courage the next time, okay, Abrams?

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8 Responses to “Star Trek: The Future’s So Bright, You Gotta Wear Shades… Seriously”

  1. Marc M Says:

    “Even J.J. Abrams seems to think he’s gone a bit too far in this [Lens Flare] department.”
    I’m guessing that’s what happened on Fringe too.

  2. Michelle Says:

    Oh the lights! All the lens flares, flashes and shinyness really started to hurt my eyes after a while.

    That said I am not a huge Star Trek fan, having only really dipped in and out of the various series occasionally, I actually really enjoyed this movie, not so much the narrative for the reasons you’ve mentioned it was mostly paper thing, but visually and stylistically it was impressive.

    Sidenote: I’ve never seen any of J.J. Abrams work before, given everything he’s done I’m guessing this is slightly curious?

  3. Film Walrus Says:

    I’m glad to see a lukewarm response to the film after the ridiculously verbose adoration of both the press and casual audiences. As a Star Trek fan I was really anticipating the film and was relatively uncomfortable with the direction they took it. Most episodes of TNG were better written even if they couldn’t deliver the same visual punch and while the show was often over-earnest, the movie is too, but in a grating teen power way. I enjoyed myself since it looked good and was paced fast, but most of my favorite parts were references to the original.

    Watching a Star Trek Next Generation marathan a few months ago, I realized how well the some of the episodes still hold up. I mean, I make fun of them where appropriate, but there was really nothing like it on TV at the time and dealt with all sorts of issues rarely dealt with on TV shows even today. For my time, revisiting the older shows is a better bet than the new film. Still, that said, I think there is room for sequels to get things into place.

  4. John Mora Says:

    I enjoy some TNG, too, although I haven’t seen half as many as I might like to. I just lament that the franchise didn’t evolve over time like the audiences did.

  5. drush76 Says:

    This movie is a piece of shit. Honestly. This is the movie that is supposed to breath life into the TREK franchise? Are they kidding?

    By the way, I liked VOYAGER. I liked it a lot more than NEXT GENERATION, which was filled with the most boring cast members in Trek history. I also liked DEEP SPACE and it could have been the best series in the franchise, if it was not so busy trying to be a second-rate version of BABYLON 5. ENTERPRISE had some interesting episodes, but I think it wasn’t that hot in the end.

    What is sad is that this badly written piece of shit called STAR TREK is now responsible for breathing new life into the franchise. And honestly? It doesn’t bode well for the TREK franchise as far as quality is concerned.

  6. John Mora Says:

    I dunno, I think if you consider Voyager one of the best things to happen to Star Trek, you’re setting yourself up for some major disappointments!

  7. drush76 Says:

    I dunno, I think if you consider Voyager one of the best things to happen to Star Trek, you’re setting yourself up for some major disappointments!

    I could say the same about your opinion of this film.

  8. John Mora Says:

    That I’m… setting myself up for disappointments? {:V

    I thought Star Trek was neat, but I’m not slobbering all over it.

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