Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Star Trek

I first fell in love with Kirk, Spock and Bones back in 1966 (What’s that? No, of course I’m not that old! I was watching from my crib.); I was among the earliest generation of Trekkies. The original Star Trek series filled me with a sense of wonder and with optimism about the future of humanity. It engaged both my mind and my heart on a regular basis. Despite the laughable sets and special effects (no doubt very innovative for their time), Star Trek felt like sci-fi – like I really was in a future world where interplanetary travel was commonplace. It regularly sent tingles up and down my spine. And despite the hokey acting and plots, the characters quickly became like family to me. Star Trek (The Original Series) remains one of my all-time favourite TV shows.

When Kirk, Spock and McKoy were translated to the big screen back in 1979, I was slightly disappointed by the way the more polished sets and special effects actually diminished some of the sci-fi feel (though the first, and least popular, film was the best in this regard), but I very much enjoyed those first four Star Trek films. Then things started to go downhill.

I would love to report that the new Star Trek film by J.J. Abrams (writer/director of Alias and LOST) is a return to form, especially since it has been getting such great reviews. But sadly that is not the case.

Yes, the filmmakers have done a great job of casting lookalikes of all the Star Trek regulars and of making them completely believable as the younger versions of the original characters. The interaction between these characters is certainly the highlight of the film, though I would have wished for more of Bones (maybe in the sequels). When the film focused on the characters and the often humorous dialogue between them, it had my complete attention (I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Leonard Nimoy). Unfortunately, the film was not dominated by characters or dialogue but by action. This was clearly a Star Trek made for the 21st century – all action and great special effects for those with short attention spans and very little substance. Just as I prefer quiet, intelligent thrillers, I prefer quiet intelligent science fiction films. This was not one of them. The action, violence and overwhelming soundtrack (sound effects and score) so dominated the film that I found little room for wonder and rarely felt that I was watching a real sci-fi film. And there was almost nothing to engage my mind; instead of interesting philosophical ideas, all we were given was the usual Spock/Kirk engagement on emotions versus logic. This was an interesting part of the plot but hardly anything new.

I won’t comment much on the time travel/alternate reality plot. This clever if illogical device allows the filmmakers to disregard the Star Trek timeline and do their own thing with our beloved characters. I don’t mind if this allows for some creative new storytelling. But that’s not what we get here.

I mentioned that the original series filled me with optimism about the future of humanity. This film does not do that. Instead of convincing me that humanity has basically set aside the need for wars and violence (and yes, I know the original series was often very ambiguous and hypocritical in this regard), it left me with the feeling that not much had changed during the intervening centuries – it’s still all about who has the biggest weapons or at least the most clever use of weapons. This is a dark film about what still seems to be a dark time. The careless and insulting way that the demise of the Romulans is depicted (almost as a joke between Kirk and Spock at the film’s darkest minute) shows how little the filmmakers have thought about their message in this regard.

Star Trek, the 2009 film, is an engaging bit of pop entertainment by one of the big pop entertainers of our time, J.J. Abrams. Does Abrams, who clearly has his fingers on the pulse of the masses, represent the direction of entertainment in the 21st century? His LOST TV series is the most popular TV show of the century. I watch LOST. I enjoy LOST. The intriguing plot and well-made flashbacks give hope that this series is intelligent and humanizing and worth watching, but far too often I get the feeling that the show makers are just manipulating the audience and do not have a clear idea of where they are going. It’s not about making us think or care but about making us come back week after week. And, like Star Trek, it relies far too much on violence as a necessary part of what constitutes entertainment. I, for one, am not entertained by violence or by action, but by the engagement of my mind and my heart. The offerings at the multiplexes this summer fill me with despair. Is mindless action and toilet humour really what we want our children to grow up with? Let’s demand more from those who make our films and TV shows (Aaron Sorkin, how are you at sci-fi?).

I give Star Trek an objective rating of ***+ because I think that is what the film deserves as a piece of fun entertainment but a subjective rating of *** because of my disappointment. My mug is up but the stuff inside, while spicy, lacks any real flavour.


  1. I'm too young to have really watched much of the original series, though I have watched some of the spin-offs (mainly with my dad, who did watch the originals). Therefore, the character development and logic/reason tug-of-war are new to me, and, not knowing the original characters of Spock and Kirk (much less Bones or Scotty), I enjoyed them.

    I agree that the movie glamorizes and glorifies violence, with the "whoever has the bigger gun wins" mentality. I also agree that the sound effects were overwhelming and the overabundance of 'action' at the sacrifice of some potentially great character development.

    You wrote that "the original series filled me with optimism about the future of humanity. This film does not do that" and I partially disagree. Despite what I have already said regarding unnecessary violence, in the opening sequences of the movie (**spoiler alert**) the actions of both the captain and Kirk's father show a dark and dismal present with clear hope for the future; as demonstrated in the birth of James and the escape of the crew.

    Other than these few discrepancies, I agree with a majority of your analysis of Star Trek. Though someone who is from the "short attention span and little substance" generation, I think this movie could have done with a healthy dose of philosophical introspection.

  2. This is a striking example of how a movie-watching experience is so much determined by what kind of expectations one brings to it. Not being nearly so old as you, Vic, I did not grow up with a deep love of Star Trek. I simply enjoyed it occasionally as the quirky but entertaining show with interesting characters and grossly illogical "science fiction." The first four Star Trek movies were mildly entertaining but the only one I can recall at all is the humour of the one that made it to Earth.

    So, what I brought to this film was the simple expectation of seeing what kind of job they could do creating the origins of the original crew. And I thought that was pretty amazing and fun (this concurs with what you write about enjoying the characters in the film). It's true the plot was pretty silly and unoriginal but this was simply typical, I thought, of the original show in general. And, of course, it was overly violent and action-oriented but surely you expected this. So I'm sure I actually agree with nearly everything that you say about the movie - some of the philosophical depth that I've heard have been a part of the later series would have been interesting indeed. But I just came for the characters and the fun and I wasn't disappointed. I concur on the ***+

  3. PS> I was really excited to have seen a movie at the same time as the review came out. Usually I'm REALLY behind, and the review is months past!