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Strange New Worlds

Star Trek

directed by J.J. Abrams
Paramount, 2009

Jiggering with alternate realities has been a mainstay of the Star Trek franchise as long as there’s been a Star Trek franchise; in a way, it’s the origin of the whole thing, since when Gene Roddenberry set the original series 300 years in the future, he was also very much setting it in an alternate reality. In place of the Cold War tensions then at their peak, he presented us with an Earth united in peaceful harmony; in place of the racial tensions racking America at the time, he presented us with a multi-ethnic crew on the Starship Enterprise; in the place of escalating military violence in Vietnam, he presented us with a great space-faring organization – Starfleet – dedicated to peace.

That original series featured the classic episode “Mirror, Mirror,” in which four of our stalwart crew find themselves swept into an alternate reality in which a ruthlessly militaristic Starfleet terrorizes the spaceways – they have to use all their wits to find a way back to the right reality. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, an established series character willingly goes back in time to her certain death in order to restore the peaceful reality of the show’s continuity (which had been altered, once again, along militaristic lines). Deep Space Nine, Voyager, even the short-lived Enterprise all went on forays into alternate realities, in each case testing our heroes’ ingenuity as they worked to restore their rightful reality.

Considering the ubiquity of the device, it’s not surprising to find it at the center of fan-favorite director J. J. Abrams’ new relaunch of the franchise, and that brings us to the first and most important point to be made about this sure-fire blockbuster:

This is not a Star Trek movie.

Oh, the time-honored landmarks are present and accounted for. There are the gadgets – phasers, photon torpedo, transporters, warp engines. And there are the characters – a young, cocksure Jim Kirk, a young, repressed Spock, a young, flabbergasted McCoy, and all the rest. And the screenplay, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, throws these things together in a pleasant mix that eats through 90 minutes like a horta through solid rock. In fact, the whole production is so high-octane that viewers trying to pay attention will need a moment during the closing credits to recollect the central impact of the movie’s plot.

That plot does Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman precious little credit – of all the Star Trek movies, this one is by a wide margin the dumbest. Virtually every development big or small is firmly based on pure random chance, the storyline lurches drunkenly from A to B to C, out of sheer momentum, and most maddeningly, almost nothing of any consequence in the whole thing is ever explained, even minimally. The first few times I asked myself “Now why in Sam Hill would that happen?” I chalked it up to breakneck pacing; when I was still asking that at every plot point an hour in, I was in a permanent state of yellow alert.

Such as it is, the plot goes something like this: in the future (sometime later than the last big-screen movie, I’m guessing), an unexplained stellar explosion of some kind inexplicably threatens the whole galaxy. An aged Mr. Spock (reprised with gravitas and an unexpected and quite wonderful playfulness by Leonard Nimoy) is inexplicably the only person who can deal with this explosion, so he – not the Federation, not the Romulan Empire, just him, in a one-man ship – taps into some kind of utterly unexplained red gunk and hurries with it toward the stellar explosion. But he’s too late, and the red gunk, plus the explosion itself, tears a hole in space-time which sucks in both Spock and Nero, the surly Romulan captain of a mining vessel that’s inexplicably the only Romulan vessel to survive the destruction of the planet Romulus

Despite the fact that Spock is at the very epicenter of the red gunk explosion, it’s Nero who arrives first in an alternate reality – decades in the past – where he conceives a madcap revenge-scheme to destroy the worlds of the Federation, using his ship’s mining equipment to deliver a payload of the red gunk into the core of helpless target worlds, collapsing them from within (how he gets ahold of the red gunk isn’t explained, nor is how he learns to use it, nor is why he’d have a beef with the Federation when it was his own Empire that failed to save the homeworld, nor is how he’d even know it was Spock who tried and failed to stop the stellar explosion, nor is why Nero, once launched on his course of vengeance, would bother picking fights with the Klingons, as we’re told he repeatedly does, nor is … well, you get the point).

Nero inexplicably blames Spock for the destruction of Romulus and vows that he’ll arrange his revenge so that Spock watches the destruction of the planet Vulcan, but all the time this is going on in the movie’s background, the foreground is being loudly subsumed into the tale of young rebel-without-a-cause Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) pointlessly raising hell in Iowa until heroic Captain Pike (the effortlessly characteristic Bruce Greenwood, again much bigger than his bit-part) challenges him to live up to the legacy of his dead father, who sacrificed his life to save the crew of the U.S.S. Kelvin from Nero’s marauding mining ship (which inexplicably has lots and lots of photo torpedoes). Jim takes the dare, meeting “Bones” McCoy (a winningly goofy Karl Urban – will this actor ever get the credit he’s deserved for so long?) on his way to Starfleet Academy. Abrams shows us very little of Kirk’s Academy days, excepting the cadet’s legendary turn defeating the no-win Kobayashi Maru scenario (a scene deployed with considerable comic aplomb) and thereby frustrating the scenario’s designer, half-Vulcan/half-human Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto).

These Academy goings-on are interrupted by a crisis: Nero’s vast, malevolent mining-warship is approaching Vulcan, and most of Starfleet’s ships are maneuvering elsewhere and can’t reach the planet in time. The few ships in orbit around Earth (including the fleet’s flagship, a subtly-redesigned Enterprise) therefore hurriedly fill up with cadets (in another well-done comic bit, McCoy smuggles an academically suspended Kirk onto the Enterprise) and fly off to stop the villain. Pike and the Enterprise are stalled for just a moment by a goof-up made by young navigator Mr. Sulu (John Cho), but that time is more than sufficient for Nero’s mining vessel to inexplicably destroy all the starships that reach him first, and by the time the Enterprise arrives on the scene, Vulcan is under full-scale core-breaching attack (no explanation is given as to why the Vulcans don’t try to defend themselves, especially since it seems like a WWI German bi-plane with sufficient ammo could disable the mining tether doing the damage … at one point, Kirk and Sulu wreak havoc with hand-held weapons). Nero demands that Captain Pike surrender himself, and although Pike leaves Spock in command, he grants Kirk a field promotion to first officer, which sets the passionate Kirk and the cerebral Spock on an immediate collision course. Tempers flare right away, whereupon Spock nerve-pinches Kirk and throws him in the brig for the remainder of the voyage – oops, no: instead, Spock inexplicably has him stuffed in a shuttle-pod and jettisoned to a nearby ice-planet. There, Kirk inexplicably leaves the shelter of his shuttle-pod and is promptly running for his life form various super-sized beasties, being rescued only at the last moment by the other, older Mr. Spock, who tells young Kirk the whole story of Nero and alternate realities (in an inadvertently funny sequence, Spock mind-melds with Kirk to save time in the telling … then Nimoy narrates the whole story in decidedly unhurried cadences).

In the meantime, Nero has succeeded in destroying Vulcan – the younger Spock only manages to save a few individuals, including his crusty father Sarek (a stiffly majestic Ben Cross, making every Trekkie in the audience audibly sigh for the great Mark Lenard) – Spock’s human mother (affectingly played by Winona Ryder) dies during the evacuation, because young super-genius ensign Chekhov (a delightfully energetic Anton Yelchin) inexplicably can’t manage to transport her out in time. With the help of the old Spock (as I was meant to, I choked up when Nimoy intones “I have been and always shall be your friend”) and a griping young Scotty (Simon Pegg), Kirk rejoins the Enterprise, and there follows a fairly standard get-the-bad-guy-and-save-Earth conclusion.

the new old crew: Chekov, Kirk, Scotty, McCoy, Sulu and Uhura

The movie’s two leads deliver star-making performances along the way. Chris Pine as the young Kirk is a perfect balance of headstrong drive and gamesome improvisation – it’s easy to see his Kirk gradually maturing into the greatest Starfleet captain of them all, the one who can always read his opponents, who can always out-bluff certain doom, who can turn death into a fighting chance to live. Pine is perfectly cast – he’s good-looking enough to buttress the legend of Kirk’s philandering, but he’s physically a little on the scrappy side, which puts the proper emphasis on guile and courage. In the entire course of the movie, I don’t think he wins a single fist-fight (to be honest, it’s tough to tell: the action-sequences in this Star Trek are so abominably shot that it’s difficult to see what’s going on). And Zachary Quinto is a revelation as an equally headstrong Spock: Quinto’s ability to convey his character’s interior war with violent emotions is intensely charismatic, and his native comic timing is very nearly the equal of Nimoy’s. There’s a perfect little moment late in the movie where Sarek gruffly, almost helplessly admits, “I married your mother …. because I loved her,” and Quinto’s Spock’s reaction is all the more powerful for being almost imperceptible.

Balancing out this happy pair of powerful turns are two equally noticeable surprises – first, how utterly deplorable Eric Bana is and, upon quick reflection, always has been. How does this mush-mouthed mastiff continue to get work? How did Wolfgang Peterson get such a passable performance out of him as Hector in Troy? Kibbles ‘n Bits offered at the end of each scene? Bana’s Nero is the very worst thing any big movie villain can be: he’s a buffoon. In a movie full of inexplicable things, he’s the biggest blank space, the most boring wasted opportunity (one can only imagine what a talented character actor like Stephen Root or Pine’s Bottle Shock co-star Alan Rickman could have made of this little tatter of a part). And second, there’s the drop-dead gorgeous Zoe Saldana as Lieutenant Uhura, who manages in her various quick scenes to manage the impossible: she distracts you from how good-looking she is with how good she is. The moment where she consoles the grief-stricken Spock is the most achingly authentic moment in the whole movie.

Saldana stands out, but the entire ‘magnificent seven’ core cast amazingly recaptures some of the incredible interpersonal chemistry of the original series; it’s a joy to watch these people interacting with each other, and it’s a shame Abrams didn’t opt to show us more of that in his inaugural Star Trek. We see glimmers here and there of what old-time fans know so well: Uhura as the wise den-mother of her headstrong boys, Chekhov as the impetuous youth by turns impressing and dismaying his elders, Sulu as the valiant jack-of-all-trades, Scotty as the harried miracle worker, McCoy as the disgruntled moral center of the ship, and Kirk and Spock as the perfect combination of impulse and control. Denying us more of these characters isn’t Abrams’ only fault as a director, not by a long shot: he provides some great visual moments but flubs a lot more than he provides, his action sequences, as mentioned, suck like hard vacuum, and his training in TV is painfully evident throughout (dramatic end-beats happen at commercial-friendly regular 12-minute intervals without fail).

On balance, despite its flaws, he delivers a thrilling, uplifting package, and it’s at this point you’d expect any summary to mention just exactly how the Nimoy Spock manages to restore the right reality – how with the help of the heroic young crew of this alternate Enterprise, he manages to return to the ‘real’ Star Trek reality, in which Kirk, Scotty, et al served on many Starfleet vessels before being assigned to Enterprise, in which Spock’s mother and (presumably) Kirk’s father survive well into their sons’ careers, in which the planet Vulcan isn’t destroyed, etc.

But that doesn’t happen, because this is not a Star Trek movie. For once, the altered reality stays right where it is: at the end of the movie, the Quinto Spock meets the Nimoy Spock, who is apparently marooned in this brave new world, never to return to the reality that contains all his old comrades and the grave of his best friend, the legendary starship captain Jim Kirk. The scene is odd and very sprightly in its own way, but as I watched the old Spock walk away and realized the movie was ending, I felt a little marooned myself. In a closing scene meant to be rousing, the young Kirk (now attired in the old-fashioned gold tunic of the original series) takes command of the Enterprise, surrounded by his iconic crew members, and the ship (inexplicably sporting different warp engine nacelles than it had throughout the movie) warps off to the second star from the left, all I could think was: so Spock never gets to go home?

Such concerns will matter little to the audiences that are sure to flock to see this movie and its inevitable sequels. As I was leaving the packed theater, I heard one young couple enthusing about “how funny the Russian guy was” – and I wondered if there had been any other original fans of the show in the audience. Certainly those original fans aren’t the viewership Abrams is trying to reach, and maybe he’s done the only thing he could to make new fans … after all, forty years and ten movies’ worth of continuity is a lot to ask of any audience. So we leave that old, overstuffed reality behind and start with a clean slate – a sharper, faster, louder, dumber clean slate, although thankfully one still sporting the verve and comedic dexterity of the original. As fresh beginnings go, this is probably as good as we can expect.

Star Trek is dead – long live Star Trek.

___
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.

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