I’ve now seen it thrice, and I think that only on the last was I able to really examine it critically. The first time I was too swept up in geek fervor to have many coherent thoughts at all; the second time, in IMAX, was such sheer spectacle that I forgot to think about anything else. But the third time I was able to sit back and really think about the film, and while I’ve cooled toward aspects of it somewhat, I still think that it is a tremendously successful reboot, and it hews true to what made Star Trek so appealing in the first place.
The casting is impecccable to a fault. Chris Pine appropriates the swagger and ego of Shatner’s Kirk but none of the odd speech patterns or hammy acting. Zachary Quinto’s Spock is a younger and altogether more human thing, with more than a hint of contempt beneath his arched eyebrows. Zoe Saldaña’s Uhura has more to do in this film than Uhura did in the first six; Karl Urban manages to sound shockingly like a young DeForest Kelley; and Simon Pegg turns in an as-usual excellent performance as Montgomery Scott. Acting in this film must have been no easy thing, considering that it required both a respect for the original cast and a new sensibility, but the (mostly very young) cast pulls it off with aplomb. (I would be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention Bruce Greenwood’s gruff turn as Christopher Pike, which manages to take an exceedingly minor character from the Trek canon and turn him into something altogether different and more important.)
SPOILERS AFTER THE JUMP.
J.J. Abrams deserves credit, too, for pacing the picture at breakneck speed. Star Trek has always had an uneasy relationship with action – space fights unfolded in elegant-but-unexciting slow motion, and hand-to-hand fight scenes involved a lot more punching than was really believable for the 23rd century. Abrams still doesn’t quite know how to stage action scenes – during the opening space battle in particular it was almost impossible to tell what, exactly, was going on – but I did appreciate the way in which he gave each shot, digitally created or not, equal weight. Too often, I think, special effects shots are treated as an afterthought, and they come out looking like it. But there were several CGI shots in Star Trek that were jaw-dropping: the Enterprise warping in with all-guns blazing; the extreme wide shot of the shuttlecraft abandoning the Kelvin while the squidlike Narada lists.
The screenplay is a deft but, in the end, dissapointingly empty thing. It is exceedingly well-written: it was a stroke of genius to introduce the parallel-universe aspect, because it allowed the screenwriters (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) to basically declare ignore the entirety of the Star Trek canon. And I appreciated too the way that every every action had a direct impact on the plot. When Sulu stalls the ship, it’s not only a funny moment – it’s also the reason why the Enterprise arrives late to Vulcan and avoids the massacre. From a cinematic standpoint, there was a lot that I could admire.
But the film hums along at such a merry pace that there’s hardly any room for explanations or ideas, and it’s in this area that the film disappointed me the most. Star Trek has always aimed to be intelligent. God knows that it hasn’t always succeeded (I would trade a considerable amount to be able to erase Star Trek V: The Final Frontier from existence) but at it’s best it drew inspiration from science, literature, and mythology. Highbrow is probably too severe a term to apply to a show that gave to us the Tribble and the Vulcan Nerve Pinch, but in some ways that’s what Star Trek was aiming for.
There’s none of that, really, in the new film, and indeed the plot elements that are there are scantily sketched out. The time-travel element displays a depressing lack of knowledge on the workings of both time paradoxes and black holes. The “red matter”, for all its importance and power, is not even afforded even the barest Treknobabble explanation, and exists as a plot point and nothing else. And for all Nero’s bluster, his plan to destroy the Federation is pretty stupid: with almost two-hundred planets and many more colonies and space stations, he would have been at it for quite awhile if Kirk and Spock hadn’t intervened.
Speaking of which – all kudos to Eric Bana, who did the best with what he was given. (I particularly liked his strange speech patterns; the way that he responded to Pike’s hail with, “Hi Christopher, I’m Nero” was perfect.) But the best Star Trek films have had the best villains – the Borg from First Contact, the Klingons from The Undiscovered Country, and (of course!) Khan – and Nero simply does not rank among them. He’s neither tragic nor frightening, and his ship is so powerful that he’s never given the opportunity to be particularly smart or cunning. He’s just sort of there, chewing the scenery and snarling at people, all bluster and no substance.
But in all honesty these points are minor. This film is an origin story, after all, and origin stories are always more about character than plot. And I can’t really put down a film that knocked me flat twice. And now that at least two sequels are almost certain to be greenlit, I’m excited for the future of the Star Trek franchise for the first time since I saw First Contact in 1997, when I was ten, and indeed I left the theater after this feeling much the same way that I remember feeling then.
So I’ll take what I can from this film, and hope that what’s missing makes it into the next film. After all, Batman Begins was pretty good – but it was The Dark Knight that really blew everyone away.
Incidentally, I agree with much of what Wil Wheaton has to say, and I would point you in the direction of two typically terrific posts from The House Next Door if you want to read first a positive review and a negative one, both of which I somehow agree with on some level.