JJ Abrams‘ new Star Trek probably deserves that funny ‘reboot’ label more than any of the other films so far stamped with it, actually seeming to have been conceived from that very concept outwards. I truly wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the picture’s central plot device was born in discussions of how to restart and repeat the franchise once more, how to deliver a new series essentially the same as the old one but also crucially, and marketability, different. In essence, this film’s story is a marketing solution.
…But the mechanism they’ve cooked up is still certainly a fun one and I’m about to get stuck into discussing it in a bit more depth – which you might, personally, consider to be a journey into spoiler country. There are likely to be a number of small-ish spoilers throughout this review, so I know many of you will be happier not reading on – until, at least, you’ve caught up with the movie yourself.
For the rest of us, however, there’s certainly a lot to be talking about.
The big device that drives this Star Trek forwards is a time travel loop. The backstory would begin in what we are apparently to accept as standard, canonical Trek continuity. From there, the vengeful Romulan Nero passes through a black hole and arrives in this new movie’s universe – or, as we are specifically told, into the past of the same universe. And it is at this moment that, as Doc Brown would have it, time skews off at a tangent. A new timeline is formed, and this timeline is the one on which this particular movie, and the inevitable sequels, will be hung.
Of course, one might be pedantic and question why so many things seem different in this past. Why are the costumes different? Or the technology and design work? Most obviously, why do the characters look different? This criticism would be both churlish and somewhat off point, of course – this is a recast, redesigned version of the same timeline that works just like, say, Elisabeth Shue taking over from Claudia Wells for the second and third trips Back to the Future. Its an entirely typical and acceptable reality of moviemaking that this kind of thing happens but it just strikes me as particularly odd in this case for one particular reason. With only minor replotting, Nero could have been introduced to the the continuity earlier, time therefore skewing at a prior point and all of these inevitable differences would have been neatly explained by exactly the same time travel conceit. Remember Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, for example, where the death of a butterfly causes a vast and comples revision of the future through a series of increasingly noticeable, chaotic effects. That approach in Trek would have been a touch geekier and a whole lot neater, and as a result, I see the path taken as representing something of a lost opportunity.
The moment of divergence for this new timeline is, rather conveniently, the day that James Tiberius Kirk is born. The events of the day, in which the time traveling Romulans play a major part, are shown to be incredibly significant in Kirk’s future. Literally, this is the beginning. Audiences to this revised Trek quite literally get to pick up the very end of a new thread and start tracking the weave from there. If nothing else it is inclusive.
Somewhere in the middle of the film, the time loop trickery is addressed in dialogue. Knowing that their destinies have been altered, the characters make explicit mention of how their lives are now going to take very different paths to those they would otherwise have followed. The fourth wall is suddenly cracked and that’s a little shocking. It caught me off guard, I suppose, and got a laugh out of me, focusing all of the amusement I felt at the craftiness of the gimmick into a guffaw.
I quite often laughed in fact, and very often at some sly trick or another. In one respect, the film is a massive wallow in never ending fan service, but the means by which many of the references and in-jokes are incorporated, even exploited, are often rather nifty. The most successful element of the film’s plotting is the way it skips from one twist on the old mythos to another, from one catchphrase or characteristic of Old Trek to the next. I expect some viewers will feel like they’re simply watching the creators move down a checklist of famous Trekkery, checking the items off with alarming frequency, but I certainly found it amusing and occasionally impressively fluid.
The least successful element of the plotting, on the other hand, is a not inconsiderable heap of coincidences. In one section Kirk ends up in a very, very snowy place and, while I won’t say too much about what goes on, just about everything that happens from there until he is back on the Enterprise is dependent on some truly outrageous conveniences. This is definitely curious as the film’s time travel revisionism seems to suggest a very deterministic world view while these coincidences come along in such number to have a vague whiff of fatalism behind them. I’m convinced that neither of those philosophies really apply, however – all we really have here is some bursts of clumsy writing from Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman.
One of the key factors in the success of this film will be the new cast. With the top tier characters, we have well cast and largely well written parts for Kirk, Spock, Bones and Uhura; in the bottom tier, the characters are underwritten to the point of being insulting, most disappointingly Nero, the film’s key antagonist who hardly has anything to do and certainly doesn’t have any depth or sophistication of motivation beyond the most archetypal and convenient. I actually felt sorry for Eric Bana. The other characters, comprising the key support cast, yielded mixed reactions with Anton Yelchin‘s Chekov both underwritten and only fair in execution, and John Cho‘s Sulu given so little dimension he might even be forgotten by many.
Whole scenes are, perhaps unsurprisingly, stolen by Simon Pegg as Scotty (once he eventually turns up). His accent seems plenty good enough, his comic timing is impeccable and a natural ease floods from him. When he’s in a scene, he’s the best on screen. Curiously, he’s been given an alien sidekick in this new Trek ‘verse. Keenser is played by Deep Roy in a make-up mask, overalls, prosthetic-hands and a pair of specs. He could well prove to be the least popular new element if the fanboy hatred for Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks is anything to judge by (Personally, I don’t consider the Ewoks to be any more or less ridiculous than, say, Wookies but apparently, Wookies are cooler and less silly. Sigh.)
Talking of Star Wars, it did strike me as curious that the first beat of this film echoes the first shot of the first Star Wars film. In both, a space ship is revealed, and as scale of the big ol’ thing is gradually unveiled on screen a bass rumble shudders up the length of the auditorium… and then a second spaceship appears, and it absolutely dwarfs the first. Its not too surprising that in Trek ’09, as opposed to Wars ’77, the ships are revealed in complex, swerving tracking shots and, as a result of this distraction, some of the impact is lost.
Swerving tracking shots also caught my eye at the beginning of two scenes in particular. There seem to be twin establishing shots, each one starting with the camera canted round at way over 45 degrees, and righting themselves as they move on a crane; each shows one of the key protagonists, in each case being commended in some kind of civil ceremony; in the first case Spock, and the second case Kirk. I’m not sure if this coincidence was by accident or design, but I’m hoping it was an accident as there’s not much sense to the pairing if it was deliberate.
Ultimately, this film succeeds on two counts. Firstly, it is an ice-creamy indulgence for fans of the original Trek and, as addressed above, offers a lot of giggles on this front. Secondly, however, it works as an accessible, low-effort entertainment for Saturday night audiences. Where it fails is, frankly, just about everywhere else. The film is utterly shallow and offers only a rote portrayal of great tragedy; only a superficial set of motivations for most of the actions portrayed. The human condition may be denoted by some of the drama, but it certainly isn’t explored. And while there’s a great deal of commendable craftsmanship on display from the tech credits (though why those out-of-focus close-ups of Uhura and Old Spock weren’t reshot, I’ll never know) but none of the images attain any great power, either individually or in juxtaposition.
While I don’t think I’ll be recommending this film passionately to people for years to come, I’ll recommend it to plenty as a fun current release come May and, as for myself, I’m sure I’ll revisit it a few times in future, as light, easy entertainment.