Monday, October 17, 2011

Star Trek: the Star Trek - but is it Star Trek? A Star Trek review about Star Trek.

I don't believe my friends have ever called me to account for myself for not having seen Marty, Brokeback Mountain or the Hurt Locker. But when certain friends learned I hadn't seen 2009's Star Trek*? Oh mercy, I was called on the carpet. From the aghast faces my friends made, you would think I had confessed to consuming human flesh, not that I hadn't watched some high-grossing sci-fi action epic.

Truth be told, I did turn down an offer to watch the film in theatres with a friend. Later, when a friend suggested it as an option during a group movie night, I vetoed it, receiving some comment. Later still, I had the film only a few paces away from the checkout counter at a video store when I was planning to watch the film accompanied by Rifftrax with a group of friends, until one member of the group suggested we watch the Rifftrax of Twilight: New Moon instead (she had cause to regret this and wound up angrily complaining that we were stuck watching Twilight: New Moon). It's only because Star Trek turned up on Netflix that I finally gave in and watched it.

I avoided the film for a couple of reasons. First, because I used to be a Star Trek fan, but my love for the franchise had been ground down from years of Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise until I just wanted to put it all behind me. Second, I suspected that Star Trek was best enjoyed by new (or casual) audiences, not an old warhorse like me (similar to how my parents could never adopt Star Trek: the Next Generation as their own).

Having seen the film, my original impressions were justified. It's not for me. I wouldn't call Star Trek a bad movie (no matter how much it overdoes lens flare), it's a pretty good movie on its own terms. The film's real problem is that it isn't willing to stand on its own terms.

Had the film made a clean break from Star Trek lore I could have respected that, but so much screen time is spent inserting references to the previous iteration of Star Trek. It's a problem I've seen before in comic books when super hero universes are supposedly rebooted, yet the creators can't help remarking on what's come before and revisiting familiar plots & characters.

The references to earlier Star Trek continuity are also puzzling, used without a sense of the original context. For instance, in Star Trek VI: the Undiscovered Country, there's a scene where Spock quotes Sherlock Holmes; this is repeated in Star Trek. However, while in the former the Holmes quote was inserted as a piece of warm comedy which humanized Spock, in the latter the quote comes during a scene designed to make the audience dislike Spock and side against him. Star Trek also revisits the Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario story from Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan, but while in the earlier film it was an example of how Kirk had always cheated death, in the newer film we learn Kirk took the Kobayashi Maru test three times before passing it, which undermines the point of the story in its original form.

There's also a running theme of the cast being bad at their jobs, which I think is meant to indicate their youth and inexperience, but should probably have been stopped after the second instance. Instead, we wind up with a Spock who's bad at being a Vulcan, a Kirk who's bad at being a leader, a Sulu who's bad at piloting, a Chekov who's bad at the transporter and a Scotty who needs Spock to be the Miracle Worker; only Uhura & McCoy remain unscathed and consistently portrayed as competent professionals (Uhura taking her clothes off and McCoy being a drunk notwithstanding).

I'd forgive all these creative decisions if the plot were up to snuff. It isn't. It's a bog standard illogical-villain-seeks-revenge plot with nothing original to make it stand out. There's no sense of scope, wonder or anything at all unearthly, which the Star Trek franchise - even at its worst - usually attempts to achieve. Heck, I'll make a token defense of Star Trek: Generations for trying to tell a story about something cosmic and awe-inspiring.

The film is well cast; Bruce Greenwood dominates every scene he's in and should've had a larger part. The sets look great. The special effects are what you'd expect. Shame about the story... If only the film had been called "Space Guys" I wouldn't have had to spend so much time thinking about it...and no one would have demanded I go see it.

For my favourite review of this film, please read Priest's.

*= aka "Star Trek: the Star Trek," so as not to be confused with Star Trek: the Motion Picture or Star Trek: the Original Series.


Colin Smith said...

I think I'm a little fonder of the movie than you are, but I wouldn't challenge any of the points which you - or indeed CP in the link you gave - made. It was in the end a film which got by despite itself, carried by a few charming performances and a shameful desire on my part to forget the last two dreadful ST:TNG movies.

The decision to shoot scenes in the likes of breweries is what always stays with me. Nothing destroys a sense of a future world than having it built out of 20th century factories. It's as if the movie ran out of money and had to pretend that found and clearly incongruous locations were really the fairly-distant future. It's as if I'm watching a student movie, or a pre-editing copy before the special effects were added.

Michael Hoskin said...

I agree with you, the film has charm and that's certainly more than can be said about the previous two films (Insurrection tried too hard to be charming).

I didn't mind the brewery scenes at all. I simply imagined I was watching Space Mutiny again. Calgon, take me away!