I loved the hell out of the new Star Trek movie, and I’m hoping to see it again in the theater. Actually, I wish it were a new series instead of a movie franchise (I’m assuming a franchise is imminent if not already in the works). Much of it felt like episodic television with a summer blockbuster budget.
That’s not entirely an insult, either. While the story is too slight and nonsensical to support a two-hour blockbuster, everything else would be perfect as a series pilot. The scope is pretty small and focused on characterization: major, universe-changing events aren’t given as much weight or tension as a small fight sequence.
That video from The Onion that made the rounds last week was eerily and annoyingly accurate (except for the guy complaining that the “story made sense.”) From what I’ve seen, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, but you can look at any discussion of the movie online and find disgruntled types writing long comments bemoaning the fact that their beloved universe has been “dumbed down” and turned into a money-making Hollywood franchise.
Which is, of course, completely predictable based on the outbreaks of nerdrage over every other movie, TV, book, comic book, or videogame series in existence. Especially so with Star Trek, which is the great grandfather of all self-entitled nerdrage, parody, self-parody, and failed attempts at re-invention for going on fifty years now. But that idea of “fan ownership” and entitlement of pop culture is the most interesting thing about the various series and the new movie.
I’ve said it before, but it still surprises me: I’ve never been a particularly big fan of “Star Trek,” and I never really made a concerted effort to watch the series or the movies. Still, I’ve probably seen every episode of all the series up until “Voyager,” and I’ll get 99% of the references. I used to blame it on my being a computer science major — I just picked it up through diffusion — but now I realize it goes much, much wider. There are millions of us relatively high-functioning nerds out there, waiting for our programming to be activated as part of Hollywood’s Master Plan.
And what the self-described fans don’t seem to realize is that the new movie isn’t made for people like them, and it isn’t made for this mythical “dumb middle American who only wants to watch explosions,” either. (The new Transformers movie is made for those people). Instead, it’s made for people like us: those of us who get the basics of time travel and alternate realities and dilithium crystals, and who recognize the phrase “Kobyashi Maru” even if we’d never use it in casual conversation and aren’t quite sure why we recognize it. “Star Trek” in its various forms is such a big part of pop culture that it’s grown way way beyond the ability of a few thousand or even hundred thousand obsessive fans to be able to support it.
The new movie is very much a J.J. Abramization of “Star Trek.” Which means it’s focused on younger, more attractive actors dating and falling in love; sometimes inappropriate pop music choices; a casual but innate understanding of the pop-culture sci-fi detritus of the last 50 years; fight sequences and lots of explosions; and a self-aware sense of humor throughout. None of this is actually all that new to the Star Trek franchise; they’ve been trying variations on it for decades.
Whether it’s Spock giving the Vulcan nerve pinch to a kid with a boom box on a city bus, or Scotty trying to talk into a computer mouse, or an attempt at a reboot involving time-travel and the original cast, or wacky hijinx on the holodeck, the franchise has made frequent attempts at re-invention and self-referential humor. And they’ve all had one thing in common: four corners. The entire property has been owned by squares, man, as rigid and un-hip as a Borg cube. We needed somebody to come take it back and make it cool again. The series should belong to us: we all get this stuff; it’s not that obscure. Everybody in the audience already knows what happens when you send someone dressed in red on an away mission.
I’d had my doubts before seeing the movie, but everybody was perfectly cast. Even the new Kirk, who I was sure I was going to hate. He wisely did a caricature of James Kirk instead of William Shatner, since Shatner’s been a caricature of himself for decades. The movie focuses on the swaggering, lady-killing strategic genius — focuses a little too much, actually — to bring the guy back into his own character. But he comes through right at the end, with a little bit of Shatner’s version of Kirk right as he takes command of the bridge.
My favorite of the cast is Karl Urban doing an absolutely dead-on perfect version of a young Dr. McCoy, another character that could’ve been just an impression and a few catch phrases. The movie is overloaded with references, but it manages to strike a perfect balance between reverence and parody. They truly are respectful re-inventions of the characters.
If you care about “Star Trek” but for some reason haven’t seen the movie yet, I highly recommend you read the “prequel” comic book tie-in first. It’s called Countdown (it’s available on the iPhone if you’re so inclined), and it’s written by the screenwriters of the movie. It’s a pretty good comic mini-series, but more importantly, it’s the only thing that makes the movie’s storyline have any weight at all. As I was watching the movie, I kept wondering if it could make any sense to someone who hadn’t read the comic, or if they’d even care, since the movie does a pretty lousy job of explaining the over-arching plot or assigning any weight to it. The movie isn’t really driven by its plot, but by one idea: “THIS IS A REBOOT OF STAR TREK.”
And somewhat-mild spoilers follow:
- I was very pleasantly surprised to see Captain Pike survive to the end. His whole character was just a pile of references, deftly-handled. Each time he came on screen, I was surprised that he’d made it that far. After he survived his run-in with the Wrath of Khan brain bug, I kept waiting for him to get disfigured while trying to get off the ship. They brought him back without that, but made sure to show him in the wheelchair. Excellent.
- As much as I like the song “Sabotage” (and why wouldn’t I? I’m pre-programmed to be the target audience for J.J. Abrams movies) I still don’t know how I feel about its being in the movie. Even as “vintage.”
- I do know how I feel about the Nokia product placement: I’m against it. It was handled about as well as it possibly could’ve been, though.
- The Spock/Uhura romance would’ve been good if they’d left it at the first scene. But they just kept showing it over and over, without really doing anything with it. It just seemed like they were saying, “Look at this! Look at it! We’re re-imagining! Isn’t it wrong and aren’t we naughty?“
- I realize that when you’re avoiding melodrama and trying to show these characters as real people, it’s hard to get across the impact of the destruction of Vulcan. Still, I wish they’d put more weight and tension around that. It got turned from “destruction of an entire planet” to “Spock’s mom, who had all of 2 lines in the entire movie, fell off a rock.”
- One of the subtlest and cleverest touches was a the end, when Old Spock met New Spock. He acknowledged what everyone was thinking: paradoxes! Or TimeCop-style meltdown when the two versions come in contact! And said, basically, it’s no big deal. There are just two of him now. Screw you, prime directive!