Saturday May 09, 2009
Review: “Star Trek” (2009)
WARNING: MASSIVE SPACE SPOILERS
You knew it wasn’t going to happen, just as, when Sulu’s life was imperiled, you knew he was going to be fine because he’s Sulu. So, yes, the Romulans drilled into Planet Vulcan, and, yes, the Romulans prepared “the red matter,” which, we find out, will cause the planet to collapse upon itself, and this is all supposed to happen in a matter of minutes. But you leaned back and waited for the deus ex machina. Because it’s the Planet Vulcan. That’d be like blowing up Earth. Ain’t gonna happen.
Then it does.
And you think, “Holy crap.” Pause. “Oh, they’re not gonna do one of those cheesey reverse-time things, are they? Where we wind up going back to this moment in order to reverse it? And everything’s the same? And fine?”
It’s not until the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is talking about all of this, and Uhura says that these all-powerful Romulans, who are from the future, have created “an alternate reality,” that the other shoe drops.
This “Star Trek” movie isn’t just a reboot—a chance to update popular and still-lucrative characters with young stars and updated special effects. This is an alternate reality. A new reality. The new reality.
In other words, J.J. Abrams and friends have created a rationale for doing whatever the hell they want with these characters—blow up Vulcan, have Spock and Uhura get it on, give Scotty a cute little sidekick—and the hardest-core Trekkie/Trekker can’t really object because it still plays within the rules of the “Star Trek” universe.
Abrams & friends can tell Trekkers: Look, your universe is fine—where the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise meet the salt creature and Mudd’s women and the Gorn and Finnegan and Joan Collins and 1920s Chicago and Wyatt Earp and Abe Lincoln. That’s all still there. But that’s the alternate universe now. Or this one is. And this Capt. Kirk and his crew are on a different path and there’s nothing you can say about it because it plays within the rules Gene Roddenbury originally created. And you can’t go against Roddenbury, now, can you?
And you pause for a moment, balanced in that thought.
And you think: Wow, that’s pretty smart.
As for the film itself? It zips, baby. But it’s not as smart as the above.
They bring back miniskirts and black boots. I’m a fan.
Chris Pine makes a dynamic Kirk. Zachary Quinto makes a spookily accurate Spock. Hell, all the casting by April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg is well-done. Among the second-tier characters, I particularly like Simon Pegg as Scotty, Zoe Saldana as Uhura and Bruce Greenwood as Capt. Pike. At times, Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy seemed a bit much—like he wasn’t doing DeForest Kelly so much as Dave Thomas doing DeForest Kelly on the old “SCTV” show. To trot out my nerd credentials. Not to mention my age.
Here’s the story if you want it: Next-Gen-era Romulans, who have witnessed the destruction of their planet, go through a hole in space, and, with their high-tech weaponry, destroy the U.S.S. Kelvin. But George Kirk, captain for all of 12 minutes, manages to hold them off to allow the rest of the crew—including his pregnant wife, who gives birth to a baby boy en route—to escape. Then these Romulans wait around for 25 years until Amb. Spock, whom they blame for Romulus’ demise, comes through the same hole in space. Apparently no one knows they’re out there. Helluva cloaking device. Helluva lotta patience. Very little imagination.
In the meantime, baby boy Kirk grows up to be a badass. After a barfight with some cadets from Star Fleet Academy, Capt. Christopher Pike gives young Kirk a pretty good speech (“Your father was the captain of a starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives. I dare you to do better”), and the next day Kirk signs up for Starfleet.
He makes passes at Uhura, makes friends with Bones McCoy, makes enemies with Spock. We see Kirk faced with the unwinnable Kobayashi Maru test, which, in this universe, Spock created (rather than, say, Kobayashi Maru), and which Kirk defeats by cheating, and for which he’s almost tossed out of the Academy by Tyler Perry doing the guest-star gig. (Hey, how about Madea as captain of a starship? Or on one?)
Then: lightning storms around Vulcan, Federation ships sent to investigate, blown apart by the Romulans, who are busy getting their revenge. The Enterprise, thanks to Kirk, survives, but Vulcan is blown up and Capt. Pike is captured and one of those slug things that was put in Chekhov’s ear in “Star Trek II” is put in Pike’s mouth here. Num.
Even though we’re in an alternate universe, we still get tons of echoes from the old one. Sulu tells Pike he has extensive combat training experience, and when Kirk asks what kind, Sulu replies, “Fencing.” Spock repeats several of his famous lines, once as Quinto (“When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”), once as Nimoy (“I have been, and always will be, your friend”).
But there are holes in the plot as big as the holes in space that the Romulans went through. Sure, I’ll buy that the Romulans can do whatever they want to Vulcan. One assumes the Vulcans, those peace-loving bastards, don’t have much of a defense system. But Earth? C’mon. We’re way too paranoid not to be defense-ready. And are Spock’s actions really logical throughout the film? I mean, shooting Kirk into space in a pod? Is that standard procedure? Or is it merely a way to get Kirk on that Class-M ice planet, where he’ll run from this alien and that alien and into the arms—almost literally—of the old Amb. Spock? And how about old Spock? Turns out he’s responsible for the destruction of his entire planet. Ouch! Even with the alt-universe thing, I doubt Trekkers will take kindly to that.
I like certain touches. The long-faced alien trapped between Kirk flirting with Uhura at the bar. The sensation of actually being blown out into the deadly silence of space.
And the movie zips. And it’s fun.
Is it too zippy? Too fun? When the movie ends the way we knew it would, with the new crew seeking out new blah blah blahs and new yadda yaddas, I looked at the new, alt-universe Kirk and thought, “But what’s your point?”
In the original series, particularly its first season, there was a mystery, and a creepiness, to what they might find out there, always augmented by that great background soundtrack of creepiness. (I can do four original series background tracks: “Spock’s low bass-guitar blues”; “romance”; “fighting”; and “creepiness.” “Creepiness” is my favorite. Whoever did the music for TOS was genius.)
By “Next Gen,” most of the mystery had been drained away, replaced by a kind of humorless military discipline. But then you got the Borg, and “Best of Both Worlds,” and, wow, that was pretty creepy. “Resistance is futile...Number One.” Great line. More, it was tough defeating the Borg. It took a whole summer, from May to September.
There’s very little mystery or creepiness or difficulty left. Now aliens sit longfaced between us at bars in Iowa, and now we bed Orion animal women like that (even the sex is easier: Sorry, Bill!), and now we warp to Vulcan and warp back again, lickety-split, and defeat the enemy just in time, and get our command at 28 (Pine’s age) as opposed to 35 (Shatner’s age in ‘66). Most of the new crew is in their early 30s but they look so much younger, so less adult, than the original crew, who were in their mid-30s and 40s, that they almost seem like tiny toons versions of same. And it’s all so easy and weightless, as it generally is for tiny toons.
I guess I thought “But what’s your point?” because for most of the movie, the goal of James T. Kirk was to become a starship captain and outdo his father, which he did, by saving the entire frickin’ planet and maybe the entire human species. Nice! But now what? What’s Kirk’s goal now? To seek out new life and new civilizations? That takes work. He seems too breezy and solipsistic for that. As does our film industry.
There are still stories to be told out there, that add to the mystery rather than paving it over, but you’ve got to drop out of warp-drive, and pause, and look around, and reflect, in order to tell them properly. And I doubt Hollywood’s interested in that.