As the summer movie season begins, it’s interesting to note how many movies are being made that have built-in audiences. Prequels, sequels, and movies based on novels and comic books (i.e. adaptations) predetermine audience reactions. People don’t seem to judge the remake in its own right, but instead in comparison to earlier films or the book. As of right now, Star Trek has an Internet Movie Database rating of 8.6 out of 10. I want to use this review to talk about the stronger aspects of Star Trek, but also some of its characteristics that are weaknesses inherent in the “remake/adaptation”-style Hollywood film.
Star Trek reorders and recasts the classic TV series from the late 1960s. We get the backstories for all of the principal characters: Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Scottie, Uhura, Bones, Sulu, and Chekov. Director J.J. Abrams, who has directed episodes of Lost and Alias, handles this aspect of the film well. Star Trek ends up a brisk 126 minutes, and the exercise of new actors interpreting the old stars — William Shatner, DeForrest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, among others — is entertaining instead of grating.
The movie focuses especially on the upbringings, and budding friendship, of Kirk and Spock. The former is a risk-taking, hard-living playboy coming to maturity. The latter, Spock, seems to follow the opposite narrative: he must grow to understand his biracial — human and Vulcan — origins. This means finding his emotions instead of denying them. As “bromance,” then, Star Trek works relatively well. The best performance is Zachary Quinto’s younger Spock; he more than holds his own despite competing with Leonard Nimoy, who has the only cameo of the original Star Trek cast.
There is a new business model for big-budget Hollywood films: make a remake/adaptation movie with cheap talent — unknown actors — and use computer-generated imagery (CGI) to cut costs and offer audiences a good reason to see the movie in the theater. Given this context, I’ll merely suggest that Star Trek succeeds within this model, but does not challenge this boilerplate. After all, director J.J. Abrams wrote the script for Armageddon, perhaps the apotheosis of sentimental, poll-driven Hollywood pap. Many editing decisions, such as the ending and scene selection, are often made on the basis of polling reactions from preview audiences. The storytelling of Star Trek suffers from this predictability, but one only realizes this after the flashing lights and woofer speakers have rested.
Great science fiction stories have an invisible, unknowable force — something truly “off-screen.” Star Trek does not have such a force; as in Star Wars, the villain is on a mission to destroy entire planets. Star Trek‘s antagonistic force is personified by the Romulan Nero, portrayed by Eric Bana, recalling Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. We know what will happen to this villain; as such, repeated viewings of Star Trek will likely prove the film to be a comedy as much as a drama.
One particular strength of Star Trek is its focus on science and technology. Instead of the future being a place of magic, real people come up with real inventions to make problems easier. For instance, Scotty creates a formula for teleportation at warp speed, giving the protagonists an advantage. Beautiful sets make the technology of the future seem both realistic and achievable. Other positives are the space-battle special effects, the trekkie-friendly detail work, and the scene where torture is shown to be a tool to be used only by the brutal and inhumane. This Bush Administration critique continues the progressive political agenda that Gene Roddenberry put in Star Trek from the beginning. Of course, Spock’s interracial status takes on new significance in the Obama era.
What I take away from Star Trek is its undercurrent of campiness, which could be purposeful or not. Certainly, the mass audience won’t notice it. But why develop the child story of Kirk by having him drive his stepfather’s antique Corvette off a cliff while blasting a Beastie Boys song? And why show the young Spock beating a young tormenter who has offended his mother? These are somewhat interesting scenes that nonetheless harm the narrative’s seriousness. Both scenes establish an excessive storytelling mode whose interest is generating paying customers — and not artistic merit. List off the cliches which appear in multiples: chase scene, love scene, monster scene, fight scene, battle scene.
Add fast-cutting, quick-pan camerawork and “suspenseful” non-diegetic sound, and you’ve got a Star Trek leagues closer to Jerry Bruckheimer’s Transformers instead of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. In other words, Star Trek is a summer movie — not a film. There’s no shame in that, but this kind of Hollywood cynicism is unbecoming of the ambitions of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise.