Tuesday, 9 June 2009
The trailers for the recently-released Star Trek film barely registered with me. There were flashes of beautiful, young people, several explosions, bits of camp dialogue, and I thought: "Star Trek this is not. All this is likely to be is a typical, silly, summer blockbuster hiding behind the Star Trek name to make some cash." Not even the casting of Zoe Saldana as Uhura was enticing me. But then out came the reviews hailing it as true to the Star Trek culture. Trekkies will love it, they sang, amidst a chorus of general praise and adoration. Of course I couldn't read the reviews in depth, for fear of spoilers, but I had all I needed to give the film a shot.
And how wrong had I been in my original appraisal? Why, not wrong at all.
I am of the The Next Generation generation, and watched the original Shatner/Nimoy series to get some context. Any true Star Trek lover must, of course, understand its origins, but Picard and crew were my Star Trek. Watching the older episodes from the original series, you can see how Gene Roddenberry's creation and conceptualization of a universal peace-keeping and humanitarian task force operating in a future universe - with all the moral complications and scientific advances that would allow - was genius and pioneering in 1966 when it came about. But to a TNG Trekkie (and I use that term loosely. There were no conventions in my part of the globe. I was simply a die-hard fan), Shatner's Kirk was a little melodramatic to Patrick Stewart's Picard, and twenty years of developments in cinematic technology and makeup made TNG a cooler proposition to a 10-yr old at the time. One also got the sense that by this time, the writers and creators were more at home with the world they had created: TNG had a greater sense of fluidity that made you think this world might exist even as you watched. Still, whichever your Star Trek poison, the show had a definite culture of intrigue and excitement, yes, but within the principled, disciplined world of Starfleet, which, frankly, made it all the more intriguing.
In Star Trek the movie, all that goes out the window. And this might make sense to some. After all, the film is meant to chronicle the early days of Kirk and his crew, and there's nothing to say that the glory days of the USS Enterprise were not borne of a power struggle between its brightest minds. But what a farce of a power struggle this, and indeed the entire film, turn out to be. There are so many disappointing elements, I can only touch on a few, after mentioning some of the things the film did right. (This part shouldn't take long.)
First, it's a great story. To convey how great a story without important spoilers is difficult, but when you combine generations of genius Humans and Vulcans, self-sacrifice in the face of apocalyptic destruction, time travel and heroic missions aplenty, how could it not be? And the casting isn't atrocious either. Zachary Quinto makes a credible young Spock, even if his intensity belies the painfully average dialogue; and Bruce Greenwood is the Captain (Pike)! I love me some Bruce Greenwood. The man makes made-for-TV movies worth living for. Simon Pegg is a refreshing Engineer Scott (thank God for someone in this film who understands comic timing), and Zoe Saldana could have made a fantastic Nyota Uhura if someone had remembered to write the actual character into the screenplay, instead of just the name.
Second, the bad-guy concept is almost flawless. Unfortunately, conceptualizing a kick-ass bad guy and then through poor dialogue, inadequate face time and what seems like misguided direction turning him into an 'also-there' is a pretty significant flaw. Nero, played by Eric Bana, is a rogue Romulan - dark, brooding, bloodthirsty and covered in tattoos - in command of a seriously awesome, terror-inspiring ship, the Narada. He doesn't give a crap about rules of engagement or anything smacking of common decency: not as refined a nemesis as The Borg or even the Cardassians who can be brutal and almost genteel at once, but still, worthy of some development. Alas, there was none. His dialogue is pretty weak. He's all snarl really. And while you expect to be terrified by this unprincipled Romulan seeking revenge, he pretty much just whimpers to his demise while you look on unimpressed. This was supposed to be the 'what they did right' part, I know. But the line blurs.
The film also makes use of a nifty little device: red matter, which allows them to take this seemingly innocuous little thing with incredible destructive power, and create very cool scenes of annihilation. The problem was, they didn't slow the annihilation down. When everything is blowing up everywhere, destructions of entire planets - billions and billions of people, we're talking - need a little time to create effect. You can't just drop it in there among run-of-the-mill torpedo explosions and general heroic somersaults and expect the film to have any pace or build any anticipation. And of course, this film failed to do that.
Now, onto the things I found bothersome. I'll try to make quick work of these. First, to the most disappointing for me: Zoe Saldana as Uhura. Here's what I was glad to see: she was a top cadet, she was assertive and didn't feel cowed by her relationship with Spock into being shoved aside in the interest of propriety, we were told exactly what she did on the ship instead of her just seeming like a random ensign with a receptionist's headset (the original Uhura was a communications officer before being promoted to Lt. Comm. and then Commander, but somehow, in those early episodes, she seemed like an intergalactic receptionist to me. Her presence was, of course, nonetheless important for other reasons, but those stretched beyond the confines of the story) and she got to use those skills in saving the galaxy and all that. Here's what I wasn't so thrilled about: she was a role, not a character. Uhura I felt had one dimension. She was to be the woman in the film who was not maternal, and was to represent another part of womanness: the fearless, educated, unimpressed by random flattery type of woman. And she did all that. But she did that without having her character well developed. She was really a paper tiger; and I didn't actually mind her stripping down scene and the fact that she wore miniskirts. I felt it was real. Women high-achiever types are also sexual and attractive: that's fine. In fact, that's great. But at the end of it all, she was really just Spock's girlfriend, wasn't she? And that worked well for Spock's character - it made him seem reachable and helped make us care about him. But Uhura as an individual fairly disappeared into yet another woman who, like Kirk's and Spock's mothers, was just rooting for a man to survive. And I get the impression that any individuality we saw was all about Zoe Saldana: about her great screen presence as an actor, and not so much about the dialogue, depth and direction given to the character that had been envisioned as Uhura.
Next, who on earth was Chris Pine in this thing? Certainly not Captain Kirk. I did not like this man. He was too many parts entitled, spoilt little shit and not enough parts eventually heroic Starfleet captain. I did not care at all about his character. He could have perished at any point and I would not have felt lost about where the story might be going. And apparently in Abrams' conceptualization of Starfleet, seniority and experience mean not nearly as much as they do in the Starfleet the rest of us know. People are promoted to First Officer and Captain at the drop of a hat. Kirk himself simply skipped on board to become a cadet as if he were catching a ride to the bus station, and yes his father was a hero and that meant a whole heap, but it contributed to the overall effect of "this is Kirk's world, the rest of us just live in it". And that was not attractive. We get enough of the privileged, sexually adventurous, all-American White boy image in so many other films. Did they really need to make Kirk this as well? Yes, I suppose he was meant to seem troubled. That's why they gave us that wholly gratuitous car chase scene thrown in the middle. But he didn't seem as tied to and affected by his past as, say, Spock was. And they could have made him a devilish character while still making him a bit sympathetic.
My overall impression of the film was this: it was not Star Trek. And it could have been; it would have been better served by being Star Trek. There was none of Roddenberry's nuanced treatment of human intimate and political behaviour (after all, it's all a metaphor for humanity) and the exploration of what our future psychologies might hold. Even among the explosions this was possible, but was absent, and left a shell of a film. And further, even on its own, without the Star Trek legacy to uphold, it was not a good film. It suffered from a main character who did not seem of its world, from dialogue that did not distinguish it from any other pedestrian action flick, and from the glaring under-development of its characters. And it's such a shame too. Because this was an epic story which, told differently, might have been one of the greats.