Star Trek first aired in 1966; several TV seasons, films and an animated series later, J.J. Abrams is directing the newest Star Trek film intended to ‘revamp’ the franchise – an aim which this film, simply titled Star Trek, fails at miserably. I should point out that I’ve never gotten into Star Trek, having only ever watched one episode. Yet you’d have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the basics of Star Trek lore; things like that ‘beaming’ means to teleport someone, that Starfleet are the intergalactic peacekeeping forces, that Kirk is Captain of the Starship Enterprise and other such things that will come to be over the course of the film. While some details are hardly explained (Romulan and Vulcans are both mostly human in appearance, but are distinct alien races) but Star Trek is a film that is accessible enough that anyone can watch it, understand it and be disappointed.
The film has three main narrative threads: the life of James Kirk before he became Captain, the life of Spock and a mysterious conflict with a rogue Romulan spaceship of immense power. The film begins with said Romulan spaceship destroying a Starfleet ship and Kirk’s father along with it – which is important because according to this film a singular event like this will define the rest of your life. Actually the opening sequence in which this happens is well done and very intense and affecting – yet one of the big problems with this film is that every character’s entire existence seems to be driven by a single plot point. Kirk’s father died as a Starfleet officer; therefore Kirk rebels against authority yet inevitably becomes a rowdy member of Starfleet. In one scene Kirk encounters a new Starfleet recruit who is drunk and rants loudly about his bleak outlook on life. He is like this (as he explains to us) because his wife left him. Just about every character has a moment of exposition where they explain the one part of their life which made them the way they are. The problem with this approach is that it creates very shallow and simplified characters that are hard to care for. Hardest to care for is Kirk, who is unfortunately the dominant protagonist. Kirk (Chris Pine) is an unappealing dickhead who most of his time being arrogant and testy and lacks any charm to make his bad boy persona appealing.
The worst writing occurs in the case of the lead villain and the commander of the rogue Romulan ship, Nero (Eric Bana). Warning: some spoilers ahead here, but I need to demonstrate just how inane this story is. The core of Nero’s story is this: the planet Romulus was in endangered by a nearby star about to go supernova. Starfleet was dispatched but got there too late and the planet was destroyed in the resulting black hole. And so Nero and his crew of Romulan survivors now trek about the universe destroying other planets by creating artificial black holes as an act of vengeance against Starfleet for being late. They carry this plot out without the slightest acknowledgement of the irony or the stupidity of their actions. The same story in a contemporary setting would be that Nero’s house burnt down and the fire department got there late. And so Nero would then go around burning down other people’s houses. Initially, these Romulans present a fearsome force as their ship looks absolutely deadly with more angles and sharp edges than broken glass and has massive amounts of firepower. Yet inside the ship the Romulans are far less fierce than their ship, seeming to be a race of aliens who dress in black and hang around acting moody. They’re more like Goth teenagers than vengeful aliens.
The other major problem with the film is that you feel quite distanced. The narrative is spread amongst Kirk, Spock and the Romulan conflict, but we never feel terribly involved with any character. It’s hard to pinpoint, but it seems to be a combination of having too many characters who we only get to know on a basic level, an overuse of wide shots and a lack of internal conflicts in any character other than Spock. One of the few redeeming elements of this film, Spock is played primarily by Zachary Quinto, with Leonard Nimoy returning to his iconic role to play ‘future’ Spock. Like Kirk, we also get to see Spock as a child before fast forwarding to his early years in Starfleet. As a Vulcan (half-Vulcan/half-human to be precise) he is trained from a young age to be a logical genius who puts his emotions behind him in order to maintain absolute control. As such, Spock is a very interesting character; eloquent, intelligent and restrained. Initially he appears cold, but there is much more to him than that. He has to deal with racial discrimination, a large amount of responsibility as a Starfleet officer and has a conflicting working relationship with Kirk. In short, he’s a character with multiple conflicts. That said, some elements of Spock do come across as superficial or contrived, but Spock remains largely engaging. And despite having never seen Spock in the Star Trek TV series, even I got chills as Nimoy delivered his iconic catchphrase: “live long and prosper.”
Spock aside, the only other characters of interest are Scotty (Simon Pegg) and a short, beady eyed-alien named Keenser (Deep Roy), both of whom provide some nice comic relief. Keenser in particular manages to elicit more sympathy in his five minutes of screen time than most characters manage to do in the entire film. Other than these three characters and a couple of interesting scenes, it’s a bad film. Perhaps Star Trek set a number of narrative conventions, but just about every plot point is unsurprising, unexciting and something that’s been done before and better. It’s just a series of sequences of Kirk either bickering with characters or dealing with some dangerous situation intermingled with some dialogue exposition. Everything is just too easy and most problems are resolved in ten minutes or so. Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) wants Kirk to abandon his reckless life and join Starfleet. Next scene, Kirk does. Then Kirk is being chased by a monster – someone comes along and chases it off. They need to destroy a Romulan drilling platform – a halo jump and fight scene later, they do. Very rarely does a situation escalate or have multiple conflicts. At one point Kirk and Sulu (John Cho) are falling in midair and are moving too fast to be beamed (teleported) to safety. Chekov (played by Anton Yelchin in a highly caricatured Russian accent) yells: “I can do that!” He runs to the teleporter controls and does so. There’s no explanation of what Chekov does or why he’s able to – he just does.
As I call this film completely unoriginal and unchallenging, it seems as if my recent reviews are all turning into essays on the degrading originality of entertainment. Thankfully, we are definitely not drowning in bland, commercialised entertainment. That said, Star Trek is bland, commercialised entertainment. Add to this some completely inappropriate product placement and Star Trek is the definition of a mediocre blockbuster movie. There are far better things you could spend your time on than watching Star Trek. Remember that one Star Trek episode I mentioned seeing? It was episode thirteen of the seventh season of Star Trek Voyager. That episode had engaging characters, a challenging moral predicament and was everything that this film is not. The best analogy I can make is that this Star Trek film is like original flavour potato chips. Yes, you could eat it – but it’s still just baked, salted potato.