Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek (2009) - movie review

This is the most difficult movie review I have ever written. Seriously, where do I even begin? Everyone that knows me is well aware that I love Star Trek better than life itself. I have loved its characters, trappings, stories, and internal philosophy since I was six years old. Hell, when I was in the second grade my mom took me to Disney World. When we got to the hotel, I turned on the TV and insisted on finishing "City on the Edge of Forever" before we went to the park. So where do I begin a discussion of a movie that recasts the iconic roles of TOS and attempts to restart the franchise in the same way TNG did in 1987?

It's a daunting task because the producers and Internet reviewers have set up a scenario in which the movie is beyond criticism. If you don't simply accept everything the film presents then you are branded a "nit-picker" who can't see past his strict adherence to canon. In this review, however, I will attempt to argue that this film fails as Star Trek in several significant ways that are not "nit-picks."

First let's get a basic overview of the plot. The film starts out with an attack on the U.S.S. Kelvin by a ship that we have never seen before. The ship is commanded by a Romulan named Nero who demands to know the location of Ambassador Spock. It becomes clear that he is from the post-Nemesis 24th century when he demands the stardate after the captain of the Kelvin has no knowledge of Spock. In his rage, Nero then destroys the Kelvin. The first officer of the Kelvin is George Kirk. His pregnant wife is also on-board carrying James T. Kirk. George's wife survives on a shuttle but he dies attempting to destroy Nero's ship. In that instant a new Star Trek universe is created in which the events of the universe and lives of the characters take a different path than what we have seen in the previous five series and ten movies. Basically, Nero blames Spock and the Vulcans for the destruction of Romulus so he wants to destroy Vulcan and make Spock witness it. The rest of the movie relies on a series of unlikely coincidences and cheats to assemble the TOS crew onto the Enterprise. The timeline is never repaired and this new universe is now free to develop its own stories.

Before I get to the bad, let's mention the good. Karl Urban is spooky as McCoy. He is the closest thing you will ever see to DeForrest Kelley coming back to life. He nails the role in a way that no other member of the cast does. He IS Leonard McCoy in this movie. I cannot praise him enough for giving fans an almost transcendent experience with his performance.

Now, what was my major problem with the movie? It did not adhere to the most basic philosophical concept that Gene Roddenberry infused into Star Trek. Not only did it not adhere to it, it went in the opposite direction. The idea that man is capable of improving himself through his own effort free of both gods and fate is intrinsic to what Star Trek is all about. The fact that Star Trek has a secular humanist philosophy is not something hidden nor is it something I am reading into it. In fact, it is so obviously there that many times modern Trek came across as too preachy. Simply take a look at TOS episodes like The Apple, Who Mourns for Adonis?, and Return of the Archons as classic examples of Gene's worldview. The most cursory study of the creation of Star Trek will show you that it was created as an outlet for this particular philosophy. And until this movie, that philosophy has been maintained through every incarnation of Trek.

So what is so different about this movie? It's whole premise is based on the idea of fatalism. Even though Nero alters the past and creates a new timeline, the TOS bridge crew still manages to wind up together in their respective positions. Kirk gets banished to an ice planet and monsters just so happen to chase him into a cave where older Spock is waiting. Then, the two of them walk to the nearest outpost where Scotty just so happens to be working. Kirk doesn't become the captain of the Enterprise because he went to school, worked hard, cheated when he had to, and exemplified himself as a crewmember on other ships. No, he becomes captain because "it's his destiny" to do so. This view of the universe plays into the nauseating phrase "everything happens for a reason." I'm sorry, that is NOT what Star Trek is all about. The only reason anything happens is because people take actions.

The characters on Star Trek are not mythological archetypes. They have always been portrayed as real people who think, feel, love, hate, grow, and learn as their lives progress. In The Wrath of Khan, Spock tells Admiral Kirk that commanding a starship is his first, best destiny. He reminds him of this because Kirk had chosen to accept promotion to admiral. It was a mistake for him to accept the promotion because the best destiny for Kirk to follow, through his life choices, is to captain a starship. There is no force outside of human action that decides his destiny. J.J. Abrams and his writers deny the metaphysical free will that real humans posses. In the process, they cheapen the characters by making them something they are not, archetypes. An accurate way to describe this movie would be to call it George Lucas' Star Trek. It certainly isn't Gene Roddenberry's.

Aside from this fundamental shift in philosophy, my other issue is the total lack of meaning in the story. Roddenberry created his "Wagon Train to the Stars" in order to explore the human condition. The use of the conventions of science fiction allowed him to comment on both the issues of the day as well as the issues that man has dealt with for his entire existence. This film deals with nothing. It is about nothing. You could argue that it is essentially a glorified TV pilot that is only trying to put its pieces onto the board but that mentality sells good writers short. Re-watch the TOS pilot The Cage, the TNG pilot Encounter at Farpoint, and the DS9 pilot Emissary and you will see excellent examples of how to establish new characters, new settings, and a stage for new adventures BUT still be about something. The best analogy I can make about this new Trek movie is to say Star Trek (2009) is to Star Trek TOS as Planet of the Apes (2001) is to Planet of the Apes (1968). It essentially takes the names and characters, removes the meaning and subtext, and makes a mindless adventure movie. We've come a long way from when NBC told Gene that The Cage was "too cerebral."

Compared to the previously mentioned issues, my other complaints are mainly ones of aesthetics. I don't really care to see Kirk as a boy drive a corvette while blasting the Beastie Boys. I don't see the point of creating a romantic relationship between Spock and Uhura. I didn't care for the silly, over-the-top Orci/Kurtzman humor. Those are issues that I could have more easily forgiven if the story had been true to the nature of Star Trek. But, lacking the fundamentals, it made the superficial problems all that more obvious.

I realize that this film was not made for me. It was made for a younger audience that didn't grow up with Star Trek. Believe me, I am all in favor of making a Star Trek that appeals to younger people but not necessarily me. But without the philosophy and the moral core, why do I want to pass Trek on to them? It was always the philosophy of Star Trek that gave me hope. At school each day I was told fundamentalist Christian doomsday scenarios about the "rapture", the "anti-Christ" and about how God was going to destroy the world soon. This is not what you want to hear as a child! You don't want or need adults telling you that you may never get to grow up because of their religious fantasies. What saved me mentally was what I was shown on Star Trek. It showed me a world where the future was better than the present, where man had improved himself through his own hard work, and a way of thinking that liberated my mind from militant, fundamentalist religion. It inspired me to learn, study, and most of all to dream or a better tomorrow. That is the gift that Star Trek has to give young people. If it can't give them that and is just yet another piece of mindless entertainment, then Gene's mission has failed.

The best thing that can come out of this movie is that young people are inspired to go watch the older Trek shows, especially TOS. But what a wasted opportunity to not give it to them in the one, and perhaps only, piece of Trek they may ever see.


Callighan said...

I've been a Star Trek fan far earlier than I've been a Star Wars fan, which arguably appeals more to a younger audience. And like you, what I like about Star Trek is that it was filled with mature storytelling, intriguing sciences, and best of all, three dimentional characters.
Yet, I feel very satisfied with the new Star Trek which arguable has lesser character depth.
I can understand your frustration with the current Trek being too grounded on predestination. But then again, it's only a 90 minute movie. While when I was talking about Star Trek, I was talking about a whole series of movies and tv shows.
I'd forgive the changes Abrams and co made to Trek XI and be thankful that the success of the latest outing opens the possibility of a new Trek movie with hopefully bigger budget. I almost can't stand the set and effects quality of some of the older movies, especially Nemesis-which has an terrific storyline, bytheway.
Anyhow, reading your review was great and provoking. Live long and prosper!

Pine said...

I gotta admit, I know I busted your hump about this movie, but I truly feel bad for you that you were so disappointed. I know what it feels like when something that's important to you and cherished gets dumped on like that...

3D Master said...

Hear hear.

This movie was shit, plain and simple.

Drew said...

ToothMan, you hit it. SO many people at my office said they loved this movie and it's hard to explain to a group of 20-somethings why I didn't like it as much as they did.

While I was entertained, it wasn't like watching "City on the Edge of Forever" or "The Corbomite Maneuver". Hell, one of my favorite episodes of TNG was "Frame of Mind" and that's because it appealed to me as a psychologist, not because of flashy sky diving sequences or pathetic attempts at Russian accents.

I'll see it in the theater to get the ticket stub for my collection, but I'll keep watching The Wrath of Khan for many years to come.