It’s a cliché that when you love somebody/something, you love even their imperfections. There is also that old didactic axiom from Sting, who insisted, “If you love somebody, set them free.” Regarding the former, it’s tempting to shrug off even the suggestion of imperfections when there’s a lot of love involved. So consider this half-hearted acknowledgment of any alleged “problems” with the movie Star Trek a token mention. As for Sting, despite his quintessentially Western (i.e. egotistical) assumption that he is capable of dominating every genre of world music at least a couple times in each decade, he is on to something here. Those of us who have loved Star Trek for the better part of our lives have needed, in a way without realizing it, a renaissance giving new life to a glorious universe. Phrases like “infusing” life and “injecting” life into a tired franchise have been used, but that connotes a steroid-like enhancement that has unfortunately described recent Next Generation movies all too well. Someone needed to set Star Trek free from itself, and as awkward as it is to admit, J.J. Abrams and company seem to have done that.
Early trailers for Star Trek induced anxiety, hinting at what many were calling Star Trek: Muppet Babies, with glitz and glam galore, replete with shiny and transparent surfaces and a bridge that (as Abrams heartily conceded) makes Apple stores look out-of-date. Rick Berman’s concept for the Voyager TV show years ago was based on the need for more conflict among the characters; not this idealistic utopian vision of harmony among many earth nationalities plus a Vulcan on a wagon train headed into the stars. The urge for conflict isn’t a new one…but here, Spock attacking Kirk on the bridge, all gaping-mouthed and angry-looking? How much can be explained away by: “Well, they’re still very young, you see”?
Caught the majority of Star Trek: Nemesis on TV the other day, having not seen it since the theater back when “Star Trek” was unmentionable next to words like “geekdom” and “getalife.” It genuinely hurts to watch it now, even as it did then. With the alternate timeline in the new Star Trek, one must applaud the filmmakers not only for doing great justice to the original series/movies by effectively starting over (not attempting to compete with the classics), but for erasing what would become (much later in Star Trek lore) a very painful cinematic end to the original Star Trek timeline: Nemesis was so bad, in part, because it followed the just-as-bad Insurrection.
But away with the bad, in with the good. If Star Trek was worth nothing else, if it failed on every count, if it had gone out of its way to destroy all things “Star Trek,” it would not have mattered, as long as it contained that first grand shot of the Enterprise at Spacedock as Kirk and Bones see her from their incoming shuttle. A lady, indeed. The original series didn’t dare show the Enterprise in such a light, for she wasn’t yet legendary, and any closeups of her might betray fingerprints or paintbrush smudges on what had to be a pretty cheap model. No shot of this ship before, with the exception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, has done so much justice to the best character of the shows and movies combined: the NCC-1701. Abrams knew and took advantage of how much we missed her, and at this point his practice of shooting scenes as if for television (SUPER closeups) was most effective. The Enterprise filled the screen and ever-so-slightly pushed beyond its borders, as she should, for she is larger than life.
In this way, the Enterprise has an advantage over the rest of the cast(s) of Star Trek (and Star Trek): fundamentally, the ship is the same, in a way that Kirk, Spock, et al now are not. These new lookalikes are to Star Trek what Ewan McGregor was to Star Wars. They’re different faces bearing the names and identities of the same characters, and the audience is supposed to accept this. With Star Trek, it was time for new faces, and the faces did exactly what they should have: they cemented the status of the characters as legends, not as actors. Now, Jim Kirk is not merely William Shatner. He’s just Jim Kirk, played by different actors. He’ll always “be” Bill Shatner just like James Bond will always, really, “be” Sean Connery. But as those guys get fat and old, those of us finally entering our physical prime (in theory) can still watch Kirk and Bond do their thing without fancy editing skipping over the part where Connery faints from running a few feet and without CGI fixing the blubber that now keeps Shatner warm. Karl Urban, playing “Bones” McCoy, embraced the legend of the good doctor better than anyone else, retaining that slightly crazed, half-pissed look characteristic of a seen-it-all physician with nothing but contempt for protocol and formality. (The kind of guy who, reading that last sentence about him, would retort, “Dammit! Speak English! I got no time for that kinda talk! I’m a doctor, not a professor.”)
We will disregard the remarkable coincidence that Kirk, Spock Prime, and Scotty all happen to be stuck on the same wasteland planet in this alternate reality in which they should, really, never bump into one another. Instead, it’s worth stating that Simon Pegg would have made James Doohan proud, especially by adding a little humorous flare to Scotty, who in the original series could be somewhat self-serious. (This changed in the original films.) As for Spock Prime, not much needs to be said, as it was obviously a joy to see again those further-recessed eyes, more filled with emotion than ever, dolloped with diagonal eyebrows and elfin ears. Zachary Quinto’s posture, arms, facial quirks, and vocal inflections remember the young Nimoy and allude to his outburst(s) in the pilot episode of the original show, “The Cage,” back when Spock’s feelings weren’t so tightly reigned in.
They’re talking about the influence of Star Wars in Star Trek, which makes sense. As a non-Trekkie/Trekker, Abrams was bound to know Lucas’ franchise better than Roddenberry’s. And as the Star Trek movie that’s supposed to be “for everybody,” it works out okay. A few allusions I noticed include: (1) Sulu stalling the Enterprise before warp speed à la Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon, (2) the sword fight on the Romulan drill echoing light sabers (why else would there be fencing in a futuristic movie?), (3) the wintry ice planet (Empire Strikes Back), (4) Spock Prime saving Kirk from the snow monster (reminiscent of Obi-Wan saving Luke from the Sand People), (5) the intense choral music toward the film’s end (think Phantom Menace), and (6) the bar scene with multiple aliens that turns into a brawl (an obvious allusion to the Cantina on Tatooine). Thankfully, allusions to Star Trek (especially the movies, incidentally) outnumbered those to Star Wars.
On a more thematic level, Star Trek‘s praiseworthy execution of the trope of nuanced repetition shows good screenwriting, improved direction on the part of Abrams, or both. This film by its nature not only elicits audience nostalgia, but it features the narrative element of time travel. Both of these aspects demand that the film to admit its own repetitiveness, and the narrative’s self-reflexivity in this regard is fair and refreshing. Toward the film’s beginning, we have Jim Kirk as a boy stealing his uncle’s car, dramatically jumping from it as it goes sailing off a cliff, and clinging to the edge for dear life at the mercy of the man standing above him. This happens, of course, twice more in the film: once on the Romulan drill and again on the Romulan ship. The camera gives almost the exact same shots of these precarious scenes. Similarly, there are the more overt events of George Kirk ramming the Kelvin into the Romulan ship and Spock doing the same with the Vulcan science vessel, but to greater effect. Further, boy Spock’s peers provoke him to react emotionally, and Spock comes through, beating the snot out of one of them. (Years) later, Kirk gets a similar reaction out of Spock on the Enterprise bridge. Incidentally, boy Spock’s blows to his enemy’s face foreshadows that of “Cupcake,” the Starfleet security officer who pounds on Kirk in the bar in much the same way. This reciprocation is provocative, if it’s intentional, suggesting an aggressive Spock versus a submissive Kirk. There’s either more here than I’m able to gather, or it’s simply coincidental. Whatever that correlation may connote, each of these repeated events bears a nuance, a subtle difference setting them apart from one another. While self-evident and arguably unavoidable on one hand, the point is key to the film. Star Trek is built upon the premise that all things are starting over, and though we have the same raw materials to work with (the Enterprise and her crew, for example), things will now be different; repeated but nuanced. By incorporating micro-examples of this macro-theme, Star Trek surpasses its own potential as a film that really works. Did this really look like it would work? What did the initial info tell us? J.J. Abrams? A producer who happens to do some directing; even look at the guy. He just looks like a producer. A cast of unknowns, plus Harold (from the Harold & Kumar movies) and Shawn (from Shawn of the Dead), etc.? But Leonard Nimoy surely didn’t take the bait to be Spock one last time just for the paycheck. There really is something here, something that has only appeared heretofore in the Star Trek canon in a handful of old and Next Generation episodes and the movies II: The Wrath of Khan and VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Speaking of Khan, the earliest scenes of this Star Trek featured a tragedy every bit as powerful to watch as did the tragic final act of that earlier film. When Spock dies in The Wrath of Khan, we’re watching a death scene that is inherently meaningful, capturing everything in it that it should. He gave himself for his crew (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”), and his best friend was there with him as he died. That it’s Spock, played by Nimoy, who meets his end (or so we were supposed to think), is the gut-wrenching part of it. Nicholas Meyer knew this and shot the scene largely from behind Kirk’s back; we didn’t really need to see his expression of horror, since we felt it so deeply. In this new Star Trek, the death of George Kirk, simultaneous with the birth of “James Tiberius,” is melodrama at its most poignant. George Kirk dies as Spock did (or would), giving his life that others may live. Instead of his friend being present with him, he vicariously witnesses the birth of his son. This window into the birth of arguably the greatest popular science fiction legend confirms the hunch of everyone in the audience: Jim Kirk must have started out with a bang, because he’s just that kind of guy. These little spine-tingling moments in the film work to a great effect, as is clear in this shameless, fractured soliloquy. The film finishes with another such moment, except it moves out of the dust of the earlier tragedy and into a “space” free of cynicism, with nothing but possibilities, just like the beloved old show. Following the promotion of Kirk to the rank of captain, we move up into the balcony to see the lone Spock Prime, who mutters to himself, “Thrusters on full…” A straight cut later, transitioning directly from Earth to the bridge of the Enterprise, old Spock’s command is obeyed without missing a beat. The movie ends with the heart of the old crew beating at full strength, as Nimoy (more than Spock, really) gives the monologue: “Space, the final frontier…” This torch-passing is overt, to be sure, but it’s also perfect.