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Star Trek

ZACHARY QUINTO as Commander Spock and CHRIS PINE as Captain James T. Kirk in J.J. Abrams' STAR TREK. Credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures Copyright © 2009 by PARAMOUNT PICTURES CORPORATION. STAR TREK and related marks and logos are trademarks of CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

ZACHARY QUINTO as Commander Spock and CHRIS PINE as Captain James T. Kirk in J.J. Abrams' STAR TREK. Credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures Copyright © 2009 by PARAMOUNT PICTURES CORPORATION. STAR TREK and related marks and logos are trademarks of CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Intimate. That’s the first word that comes to my mind when I attempt to analyze J.J. Abrams’ take on the now forty-three year old space western. Much has been made about how and why his predecessors, Brannon Braga and Rick Berman, failed in the years lacking the late Gene Roddenberry’s guidance.

There is the obvious intimacy between James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). In order for a relationship to be meaningful, there must be tension for the actors’ natures to work against. If the franchise had grown stale, Braga take note, it’s because the characters lacked meaningful, realistic bonds forged from idiosyncratic dissonance and character flaws… with one exception: In Star Trek: First Contact, arguably the only good movie of “The Next Generation,” there is a scene in which the talented Alfre Woodard verbally jabs Picard and reveals his hypocrisy, causing him to unravel. But following that, we were given a universe in which it seemed everybody pretty much agreed with and/or liked each other, and no truly devastating conflicts of personality ensued. We should have known that Spock was really thinking outside of the frame when he said to Kirk in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, “Could it be that we two, you and I, have grown so old and so inflexible that we have outlived our usefulness? Would that constitute a joke?”

In this re-imagined timeline, changed for plot reasons that I consider less important and partially so because every other review published will tell you about them, Kirk and Spock’s destinies are pushed apart by happenstance (some will argue it is a Deus ex machina… but isn’t life full of them?). Their personalities become diametrically-opposed, yet the cause is something they have in common.

This is only the catalyst for a film with intimacy on more levels than any other “Trek” outing prior. Kirk and Spock are constantly shown invading each other’s personal space. Camera angles on the actors are tighter. Space battles are less densely populated, and CG has been cleverly used to reveal more detail in close ups around the edges of hulking ships that manuever ponderously around one another as hulking ships should. Instead of a fracas of thousands of ships shot in so wide a panorama they might as well all be Doritos and potatoes having a food fight in space (battles in the Star Wars prequels come to mind) you are placed in dangerous proximity, able to observe thoughtful details such as the gyroscopic pods from which phasers are fired.

That isn’t to say that we find ourselves mired in the technobabble that destroyed later television episodes of the various series. Not at all. Abrams, a total outsider to this science fiction staple, deftly returned to the human component that Gene Roddenberry, a former navigator turned writer/producer, had an instinct for charting. Each character is finally given some backstory, even the deplorable Chekov (Anton Yelchin). Karl Urban plays Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy with great reverence to DeForest Kelley, the late actor whose personal input was consulted in the creation of the iconic, irritable country doctor. Simon Pegg’s manic version of the beloved Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott is hilarious. Zoë Saldana as Uhura is given a level of expertise more befitting a communications officer than, unfortunately, had been offered her predecessor. But the center is, has, and always will be the unspoken bond between “mind” and “body”, as Manohla Dargis of the New York Times ingeniously characterized the fabled Spock and Kirk, respectively.

To me, the main plot itself is uninteresting. It involves Nero (Eric Bana, in his most boring performance since… well, his last film), a rogue Romulan who seeks revenge for the destruction of his planet. Much more fascinating, as our Vulcan protagonist might say, is seeing where these space cadets come from and how they pull themselves together to defeat the Plot Device, err, Nero. There are, of course, numerous nods to Treks past, for the die hard fans who will grin from ear to ear when Kirk bites an apple after defeating a certain simulation involving a no-win scenario. However, ultimately the film will go down, and endearingly so, as the Brokeback Mountain of space operas… In all the cosmos, a fatherless human and a motherless Vulcan find in one another that which they had lost.


 
Star Trek • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 126 minutes • MPAA Rating:PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, and brief sexual content. • Distributed by Paramount Pictures
 

Dolby and the double-D symbol are registered trademarks of Dolby Laboratories.

 

Comments

  1. Regarding your bullshit comments about the later Star Trek shows, did you ever even try to watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine? Or were you too busy denouncing Berman & Braga to even see an episode of the show (especially the later seasons?)

    You [sic] review is one reason a lot of people (not me-I liked the movie, and have seen it 5 times) hate this movie, and think that it’s not Star Trek. Thanks for reviewing.

    • Rubin Safaya says:

      What bullshit comments? Saying that the franchise had grown stale? It did. “Deep Space Nine” was the first spinoff following the widely-acclaimed “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I’ve seen every episode of it, as well as most of the episodes of every Trek since the original series including all the films.

      “Deep Space Nine” was actually pretty good. But it is useful to note that Ronald Moore (who successfully resurrected “Battlestar Galactica”) was responsible for the best episodes of that series. Neither you nor any other Star Trek fan I know will try to argue with me that the character dynamics of “Voyager”, “Enterprise” or the last two Star Trek films were remotely as fascinating as prior films and series in the franchise.

      Are you going to tell me that Scott Bakula’s heart was in the character of Captain Archer or that Jolene Blalock (T’Pol) didn’t describe the series finale of “Enterprise” as, “Appalling?” Did you, and the legions of other Trek fans, see “Star Trek: Insurrection” or “Star Trek: Nemesis” five times in the theater? Having attended conventions and discussed Trek with fans for more than 20 years, I can assure you that I’m not straining credibility by saying the franchise was blown by Mr. Braga. Most fans hold Rick Berman and Brannon Braga responsible for the demise of Trek prior to J.J. Abrams’ return to the core Spock-Kirk dynamic that, in addition to social commentary, made the original series so compelling.

      In a 2005 interview with TheFandom, Mr. Braga took his share of the blame, saying that some day he may be able to look back and figure out “what the fuck” he did wrong. Are you telling me that interview never took place?

  2. As if the people who watched the shows-the ‘silent majority’ who don’t spend a lot of time on the ‘Net (or at conventions) bitching about the franchise because they aren’t deluded to think that they are the ones who run it-weren’t the ones that had to be catered to? There were people who did like TNG, Voyager, and Enterprise (there was even a ‘Save Enterprise’ campaign)! Why don’t you get pissy with them? Because beating up the show runners is all that people like you can do. Creating and writing a show? Not so much, and I’d bet that you would fail miserably at it.

    Want to blame somebody? Blame the The Great Bird himself for coming up with the things you don’t like; he was the one that did. Berman & Braga were just carrying out his dictates, and they did it well, consciously or unconsciously. Nobody had the balls to tell Gene that what he was coming up with was bullshit, and so it went. Oh, there were a few people that tried to stem the tide (D.C. Fontana, David Gerrold, Tracy Torme), but they were forced out gradually.

    And even if the TNG, Voyager and Enterprise characters were somewhat on the autistic side as far as emotions were concerned, so what? These are naval officers who are the best of civilization, not the frack-ups of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica. In order to deal with what’s out there, they have to get over themselves and their problems when the problems happen, and get on with it. Drinking oneself to death (Saul Tigh) acting like a broken dolly (Starbuck), or having daddy entitlement issues (Lee Adama) doesn’t wash, and didn’t wash on the original Star Trek series, either, IIRC. Not to say that they can’t be flawed, but they can’t have easy flaws. And they can’t dwell on them for too long.

    As for the Spock-Kirk dynamic that you felt was missing from the latter shows; it was quite prevalent on Enterprise between Archer & T’Pol, and later T’Pol & Tucker. On Voyager there was a battle between emotion and logic in the form of Tuvok & Neelix with the Spock-Kirk dynamic centered in Janeway & Chakotay, and to a lesser extent in Kim & Paris, Kim & Torres, The Doctor & Seven, and I’d also add Paris & Torres. A lot of dynamics to look for; but neither you nor any of the whiny minority of the ‘Net were interested in seeing them-all you bunch wanted to do was bitch, moan & whine because the characters weren’t as fracked-up as the people on the night time soaps or on shows like The Sopranos or Oz or Six Feet Under, as well as comparing them to the characters on Babylon 5 or Farscape. As for the interview with Braga that you mentioned, I’ve never read it, and have never heard of it until now.

    How many times have I seen Insurrection and Nemesis both? Twice. And there are people-the ‘silent majority’ who actually like both films; they don’t like this one that much, as I’ve seen. In fact, one critic actually liked Nemesis, as seen here: http://www.exclaim.ca/motionreviews/generalreview.aspx?csid2=774&fid1=2051&csid1=48
    As for how I feel about both movies? They’ve grown on me somewhat, still a little flawed, but okay-I do wish that all of the cut scenes of Nemesis were kept in the movie, though, and not only on the DVD.

    To sum up, I will say this: I hope that the new cast and crew can bring off the next movies as skillfully as you want them.

    • Rubin Safaya says:

      Gene Roddenberry died in 1991, before “Deep Space Nine” went into development and production. Piller, Braga and Berman took over all creative guidance of the franchise and from there began a marked decline in its quality. I’m not speaking of Gene lightly either. A very good friend of mine, concept artist and production designer Andrew Probert, who worked with Joe Jennings on the design of the Enterpise for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and was solely responsible for the entire design of Enterprise-D in Star Trek: The Next Generation, knew Gene rather well. Gene did not actually have control over the direction of the franchise since Paramount acquired it in 1967 when Desilu was bought out by Gulf+Western. As a consultant to the franchise, he fought, and lost, quite a few battles over the creative direction. But after he died, all bets were off. Thereafter, Star Trek was Berman and Braga’s to pillage.

  3. erruve says:

    Rubin,

    This is one of the better reviews I’ve read of the film because it focuses on the core of what made the *original* Star Trek successful and on what made this movie a success.

    Character. In particularly, these two characters.

    I do not agree with Neville’s assertion that the other shows sucessfully re-created that dramatic. I actually don’t think it’s possible to do so, and I don’t think the creators of those shows even understood what made the original series outstanding. I don’t even think Gene Roddenberry fully understood it.

    In the hands of the actors, the characters created their own dynamic. This dynamic was used in the show’s big screen adaptations, but I don’t think anyone prior to Abrams has understood that it is the crux of Star Trek, and every story element has to serve these characters. Other movies have served it well. The Wrath Of Kahn is brilliant in how it deals with it. Who doesn’t cry?

    Star Trek can deal with larger issues, but if it doesn’t have this dynamic, it’s an epic fail.

    Star Trek 2009 is an epic sucess. It’s a success because it brought these unique and compelling characters back to life. I only hope the producers, writers and director don’t misunderstand their success. and think that because they’ve made their Kirk and Spock movie, they can move on. They cannot. In fact, they have to strengthen what they started. Because the ending of the film was different than its original conception, they have work to do in order for movie goers to believe that the command team, in spite of their conflicting views, truly care about one another.

    Thanks you for writing your review. I found it refreshing.

  4. erruve says:

    Dynamic, not dramatic.

    Take me out and shoot me. I cannot type for anything

  5. B.B. says:

    Thanks for an insightful review. I agreed with most of your points immediately, especially in regard to Trek under Berman who seemed to have no interest in Trek except as “the franchise.” I somehow doubt Roddenberry ever thought in corporate jargon. For him Trek was an exotic vehicle to tell the very human stories he wanted to tell -far more attractive and compelling to fans I can tell you, than was Berman’s endless merchandizing.

    Abrams, like Roddenberry is a story-teller. The story here wasn’t Nero at all. It was how familiar characters set out upon a new path. It’s just the beginning of the real story- And what could be more thrilling for fans like me who watched the original series from that beginning on a black and white set with bunny ears before the show was cancelled even?

    The missing mother/missing father dynamic is not something that had occurred to me. Having given that some thought, I think you’re brilliant for noticing. As a fan of the idea of Spock and Kirk as a romantic pairing since I was perhaps 8, I loved your Brokeback in space comment. Clearly all subtext does exist. Otherwise we wouldn’t keep noticing it. :)

  6. Akiran Aoi says:

    ST= Star Trek
    TOS= The Original Series
    DS9= Deep Space 9
    BSG= Battlestar Galactica

    Let me just say these three things first:
    This review was one of the best reviews for this movie; it measures the creative drawbacks of the film, without forgetting about its true, for lack of a better word “awesomeness”(in fear of sounding too much like a fan-boy.) Next, I don’t want to sound brutish, but let me just be blunt; THIS rendition of Star Trek, BROUGHT BACK the original flair and spirit that had been buried(not missing) from the other star trek franchises. Lastly to show some sort of creditability, I HAVE SCENE EVERY EPISODE OF TNG, DS9, Voyager; nearly all of Enterprise, and nearly all of Star Trek OTS, it’s movies, and the latter TNG films, as well as Works by JJ Abrams (MI:III, Alias, Invasion, Lost, Fringe; and Mr. Moore(ST episode BSG reinvented), etc.

    Now those the items being said, let me speak my piece. As was pointed out by Mr. Ross, there were indeed versions of the Kirk-Spock dynamic in other Star Trek series, however, to be 100 % real, those latter relationships were partially and unsuccessfully realized, and throughout the course of each series, weighed very little substantial and fundamental value to the their respective plots and storyline. This is not to say that these series , again for lack of a better word “sucked” but they did fall in to—- what was pointed put by Mr. Safaya,—- (and now paraphrasing) a strong sense of staleness, within the characters and story. I beleive this is because of the view that Braga and Berman took to DS9, Voyager, Enterprise and other works, that is a plot driven storyline, not a Character driven one. In shows like Battlestar Galactica, the series was, for the most part, focus on Charcter dynamics. In many interviews and docs about the show, R. Moore quite frequently express that he and his people wanted it that way, while introducing the Scifi elements into the show.
    So why is what I just said important? It is because the Star Trek series, and its creators of late, in all of its versions and extensions have (in trying to be great components to the Star Trek Universe), secularized themselves from the the mainstream public, and insulated themselves from the original ST spirit. IT was because of the extreme focus of the original series and movies on, specifically, Spock and Kirk, which lead to the timeless and often overplayed relationship that many have tried and failed to find in other Star Trek series. This is mainly because the other series spent their time focusing on either a main plot device, which opened too many cans of worms for their series,(introduction of ‘Q’, ‘The Prophets’, ‘Species 8472′, or the ‘Temporal Cold War’) or relied to much on twist or plot developments that were just too much over the top, and pull too much from the central story (Section 31 and the Maquis, Time Traveling pockets in the Delta quadrant, and parts of the Xindi storyline). These elements, although being good for their series helped to bury the Characters relationships and personal growth (with a little exception to main characters in TNG, T’pol, Odo, and Seven of Nine),and instead use them merely to fulfill the plot, and ‘look’ convincing for ‘Star Trek’ characters. Also those series diluted their dynamic relationships by and with the inclusion of more and more unique and/or diverse main characters (an expected,understandable, yet unexceptable loss); this was done to the point that each series tried to focus on every main character, which lead to very little attention to all of them as a whole. Don’t get me wrong I like DS9, but I just have to say, watching it over again from an older point of view, I’m just plain disappointed with so much unrealized potential in story and in character development.
    This new film has gone back to the the drawing board and in the spirit of the original ST and Roddenberry universe, has made its own unique view of ST, while keeping the basics of its formers (taking about the series, its creator and its fan base), and then using new techniques and old ideas to attract the mainstream once again; Abrams did this not by being ‘just another story in the ST Universe’, but by making his story (driven by the actor’s performances and Characters they played) the center of that universe, and even, going as far as to make a new universe to boot. Then, by introducing pain-staking details of space, starfleet, and starship battles, with new CG tech, he and his team made the threats, dangers and wonders of the ST universe real for the unfamiliar and non-fan of ST alike. Also he brought to visual life the way that most of the fans of ST saw in the original, but never able to communicate those wondrous and grand impressions to viewers that just were not in to the show. Abrams did and greatly succeeded, what Braga And Berman attempted and haphazardly succeed in doing; that is, bridging the gap between ST fans, Scifi fan, and mainstream audiences; by spanning his work through various genres of film and tv, both visually and emotionally: (example: the entire beginning to the film: the death of Kirk’s father, the way he died and Kirk’s birth… now that was a action packed- emotionally fueled piece of scifi drama that was very very very very seldom, and less convincing, in the other ST series).
    However, I do agree with Mr. Ross with regards to the characters having to be emotionally constrained because of their roles as military officers, as well as them being the best of human and humanoid civilization. Nevertheless, the fact is that these character ARE STILL HUMAN and HUMAN-LIKE, and to make a world were no one or at least one person has any personal BS to get over, is to make a world unconvincing to the rest of everyone watching the story, and to just cater to the ST fan base; these are thing that the Roddenberry and scifi genre in general have tried, time and again, not to do! It is because of the chracters’ personal BS that if not persuades or prompts, but provokes those characters to develop and change, becoming better or worse. (Thats why BSG was a success!!)
    And as for this ‘silent majority’, these are the fans of ST that like the ST series because it stuck to the basics of ST. However the problem was that these series after TNG, relied too much on those said basics and never fully realized their own INDEPENDENT potential as ST series. You have to break free of the stigmas and constructs of ST a bit to create a good and “NEW”, ST story, which goes for all other scifi shows and idea as well (BSG risked cancellation multiple times because of it s daring and sometimes controversial topics, same goes for ST-TOS, and other great scifi series.

    To finish, this film does have it drawbacks and does this review, however, for every bump in the road they has, it also introduces many creatively excellent elements to compensate. Thank You for a Great and humorous review!

    • Rubin Safaya says:

      Akiran: Thanks much for putting so much time and thought into your response. You might enjoy the series of Star Trek and Star Wars reviews that were done by Redlettermedia on YouTube. The narrator sounds like a buffoon but it’s an affectation. He really demonstrates a thorough understanding of character, story, plot, scene composition, continuity, editing, pacing, etc. and breaks it down quite entertainingly. His best are analyses of the failures of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis. (Bonus: Watch for his deliberate mixup of Rick McCallum and Rick Berman in the Star Wars video.)

    • No Nic says:

      About recreating the Kirk-Spock dynamic…

      One example would be Terry Farrell’s Dax. The problem was that her acting was mediocre at best. I’ve heard she was beloved on BECKER; perhaps that was a better match for her talents. On DS9 she was apparently hired for her looks and sadly her stilted attempts at delivering technobabble reminded me of cable personality S.E. Cupp and her smug, sorority-jock persona. The writers quickly had to adjust the character.

      There were also multiple attempts to recreate the McCoy-Spock dynamic. God only knows why. Every time they attempted it, it was a major mistake. Pulaski is reviled by TNG fans for unfairly lighting into Data. Apparently, the VOY writers, on the same theory, thought that having other characters constantly and pointlessly verbally spar with Seven made for good television. Seven is, actually, Trek’s most Spock-like character since Spock (the classic version, NOT the retconned Abrams/Orsi version–not saying that’s wrong, it’s just a different direction that makes him very, very unlike Seven), but it would be hard to make a parallel between any of her relationships on Voyager and the dynamic on TOS. (I disagree with the notion that Data is Spock-like. I think that’s a rather silly comparison that ignores things like motivation, relationships, how the audience relates to the character, etc. Okay, so they both spend a lot of time on the computer and spout sciency factoids. Whatever. And the interaction in Unification I/II was weaksauce.) But I digress. Here’s a worse example: Tuvok and Neelix. The scenes between them are so painful that fans cheered the scene where Tuvok starts choking Neelix to death (hmm, little precognition for the 2009 movie?) even though it turned out just to be a fantasy. Letdown!

      For me, the turning point in the relationship between Spock and McCoy, and the point at which the writers redeemed themselves, comes in the episode “All Our Yesterdays” when, after receiving yet another of McCoy’s racially-charged tirades, Spock finally snaps, grabs McCoy by the throat and says, “I don’t like it. I don’t think I ever have, and now I’m sure of it.”

      I’m not sure I understand why Star Trek shows must only draw on Star Trek shows for inspiration or even writing tips. That’s self-referential in a bad way and limits, even stifles growth. Spock and McCoy’s dynamic is partly a philosophical dispute (with a long history in Western culture), but it’s also about race and very tied to a particular place and time, to white America in the 1960′s trying to come to grips with the racial divide. Today we talk about things like privilege but in TOS, privilege goes utterly unexamined. What is in your face is a much rawer and more visceral racial bigotry, held up as a mirror to the audience as a tool to question still pervasive assumptions about racial supremacy and even liberals’ complacent and paternalistic attitudes. It’s easy to forget that statements such as Spock muttering to Kirk in the episode with Zephram Cochrane about “parochial attitudes” in reference to interspecies (but really, inter-racial) marriage was as potentially explosive as as Ellen Degeneres not only outing herself but emphatically claiming and affirming her sexuality in the 1990′s on Ellen. And just as ABC, rankled sponsors, and disgusted viewers hustled Ellen off the air, two years later Trek got into an epic battle with the corporate censors for attempting to depict a kiss between Kirk and Uhura. For three years, Blacks, Whites, Asians, and “exotics” (Caucasian actors who played non-white roles–a crap practice that still goes on today, BOOO) had openly flirted and defied social convention, but the more blatant expression of sexuality finally triggered the banhammer. But let’s return to the 1990s. What was Trek doing at that time? Certainly not challenging convention, making the audience uncomfortable, or doing anything to rankle sponsors, their corporate overlords, or the FCC. Roddenberry himself had deepsixed an AIDS story in the late 1980s. An episode that touched on abortion simply chickened out. And that was the end of that. Trek would no longer be topical. DS9 attempted to push into more uncomfortable territory but, I would argue, failed all over itself just as often. Worse, they often just followed trends.

      When you set your bar as high as TOS (at least in terms of being revelatory and transgressive) even really good TV like DS9 won’t match up.

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