Thursday, 23 April 2015

OVERRATED: Star Trek (2009)

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Star Trek (USA, 2009)
Directed by J. J. Abrams
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Eric Bana, Leonard Nimoy

J. J. Abrams is perhaps the single most overrated filmmaker working today. In a cinema age dominated by marketing and brand name recognition, he is the crown prince of hype, who has pulled off audacious levels of success by pulling the wool over our eyes. He is the master of taking something which is ordinary, unremarkable or downright poor and making it appear like the Second Coming of compulsive viewing. He is, to put it another way, our generation's Wizard of Oz.

Having sold us a decent monster movie in Cloverfield, and co-created the most overrated TV series of all in Lost, Abrams has now turned his hyping hands to Star Trek. In the series' first outing since Star Trek: Nemesis seven years earlier, Abrams attempts to reboot the entire series and bring in a new, younger audience while appeasing long-time fans. What results is promising and watchable, but it also squanders a lot of its potential and ultimately leaves us feeling empty.
 
There can be no denying that Star Trek looks good. Notwithstanding Abrams' baffling obsession with lens-flare (which reared its ugly head again in Super 8 two years later), the film is a breath of fresh air for those who endlessly groaned about the creaky special effects in 'Trek films. You won't find any plastic rocks or monsters made out of pipe cleaners here, with the CGI being crisp and the aliens realised in a generally convincing way. The camera may be on the move a little too often for those of us who like stories to unfold naturalistically, but cinematographer Daniel Mindel keeps us on an even keel with attractive lighting and responsive compositions.
 
From a character perspective, Star Trek manages to give us fresh character portrayals which also tie up well with their older selves. We can certainly believe that these young characters will grow into the people we know from the TV series and original films. Chris Pine nicely captures the headstrong, impulsive, reckless nature of Kirk, and there are early traces in Zachary Quinto's performance of the imperious stoicism that the late Leonard Nimoy made his own. The best piece of casting, however, is Karl Urban as Bones: he's so hilariously irascible, but the film never lays on the humour too thick in either his performance or his dialogue.
 
Because the film is attempting to appease old fans as well as bring in the new, there are quite a lot of references to the Star Trek back catalogue in here. The sequence of Sulu sword-fighting is a slightly updated restaging of George Takei's swordfighting in 'The Naked Time', and the reappearance of the Kobayashi Maru immediately brings to mind Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Some references are broad and well-known, such as the Prime Directive and the Romulans, while others are more obscure: Captain Pike will be a familiar figure only to those who saw the original pilot.
 
When interviewed for the BBC's Red Dwarf Night in 1998, Patrick Stewart said that he wished some of the show's "wild, ironic humour" could have been incorporated into The Next Generation. Regardless of how well this would have worked, there is quite a lot of welcome humour to be found in Star Trek. One of the biggest problems of the original series was how seriously William Shatner played every scene, when the sensible thing would have been to acknowledge its limitation and knowingly embrace its silliness. Here, we get to see Kirk as more of a wisecracker, and Spock is the perfect foil, especially during his early scenes at Starfleet.
 
So far, Star Trek is shaping up to be decent effort, improving on the originals' production values, bringing more humour to the table and doing justice to the characters. But there's one massive problem with Star Trek which leads onto several smaller but equally bothersome problems, and when combined they ultimately scupper this film.
 
The single biggest problem with Star Trek is this: it's not a proper 'Trek film, because it isn't driven by ideas. Even at their weakest, the Star Trek series and film franchise were idea- or concept-led, much like the halcyon days of Doctor Who; rather than simply settling for a clearly drawn, good vs. evil pantomime, they tried (albeit with many failures) to tackle subjects which were interesting, complex or provocative. For everything that is wrong with Star Trek: The Motion Picture or Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, they deserve a modicum of credit for the ideas they attempt to espouse.
 
Star Trek starts off very promisingly, but it eventually becomes a Star Wars film by any other name. It's not surprising that Abrams was more of a Star Wars fan than a Trekkie growing up, with the resemblances growing stronger as the film progresses. The entire sequence on the ice planet is simply the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back with a bigger, less memorable monster.
 
To claim that Star Trek does for Starfleet what Batman Begins did for the Caped Crusader is to overstate its virtues while doing Christopher Nolan a hue disservice. When Nolan approached the Batman franchise, which had been in hibernation for a similar length of time, he wanted to take Batman back to its dark, moral roots, reshaping the iconography to explore complex philosophical ideas. It's no surprise that Abrams is now helming the latest Star Wars film, because he clears prefers spectacle to scintillating conversation, and dog-fighting to dissections of dogma.
 
All the aspects of Star Trek which should have weight is either overlooked or quickly abandoned. The time travel and comparisons between the universes are reduced to an Austin Powers-style plot device: Kirk's conversations with Spock Prime are largely padding, with Nimoy's appearance serving as a sop to older fans. The red matter used by Nero (a good performance by Eric Bana) could have been explored in the manner of the Genesis device, as a symbol of how uncontrollably powerful yet dangerous the desire for revenge can be. Instead, it becomes just another plot mechanism, brought up occasionally in an attempt to add drama when it actually does nothing of the sort.
 
Then there is the problem of sexualisation, with Star Trek going strongly after the teenage boy market at the expense of everyone else. The romance between Spock and Uhura makes little sense and goes nowhere, and then there are the costumes. On the one hand we have the shots of Uhura and her roommate in their underwear for no good reason; on the other hand, all the woman wear very short skirts, but all the men are always fully clothed. It's bizarre that Star Trek Into Darkness got such a public wrap for a similar double standard while this escaped seemingly unscathed.
 
Although Gene Roddenberry always intended to make a prequel to the original Star Trek series, this film does not honour the intentions or spirit of his work in any meaningful way. While the best 'Trek films were properly plotted and ended on a strong and resonant note, this gradually unspools into a series of incoherent and frankly boring battle scenes. We are constantly bombarded by noise, special effects and lens-flare but not given enough by way of character stakes to keep us interested.
 
Star Trek is a disappointment which could easily have been better if anyone other than Abrams had directed it. While it generally looks better than some of the other films in the series, and benefits from a good-humoured cast, on a narrative level it has far too little between its ears and not enough substance or discipline to sustain our attention. As a totally disposible slice of space fantasy, you could do a awful lot worse, but true 'Trek fans will not be abandoning the old films any time soon.

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I previously mentioned Star Trek in my WhatCulture! article on Eric Bana's career. Check out the article in full here. You can also read my tribute to Leonard Nimoy here, and my WhatCulture! article on Patrick Stewart's career here.

NEXT REVIEW: The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! (2012)

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