I haven’t been watching Star Trek as long as some. The television series had been off the air for eleven years when I was born, and the first entry of the film series had already come and gone. Still, we go back a ways. When I was around eleven or twelve my dad and I went up to spend the weekend at the clubhouse at Woodmont, a private hunt club he and my grandfather used to work at as guides. Hank, the club manager and my self-appointed honorary uncle, met us outside and stage-whispered to me that “Star Trek: The Search for Spock is on tonight at eight o’clock!” So we sat there in the great room of the Woodmont clubhouse, the three of us, and watched Star Trek III together.
And let me tell you what I remembered most fondly about that when I thought back on it earlier today. We didn’t nitpick the bridge looking different than in Star Trek II, or Lt. Saavik being played by a different actress. We didn’t question the plausibility of Kirk, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov being able to steal the Enterprise and fly it to Vulcan all by themselves. We didn’t struggle to explain why the Klingons in the movies looked entirely different from the Klingons in the TV show, but no one seemed to notice — if we brought it up at all, it was to laugh at it affectionately. We smiled, we joked, when Kirk disintegrated a Klingon with a quick-draw phaser blast, Hank’s eyebrows went up and he said “Nice shot.” We never got hung up on technicalities or minute matters of canon or continuity. In short, we enjoyed ourselves, and we didn’t ask anything more of Star Trek than it wanted to give us.
That — and rather long-windedly, at that — is why I enjoyed the new Star Trek film. It was made by writers, producers, and a director who are obviously great fans of the franchise — not canon nazis, not zealous super-fans who insist that every utterance, every fleeting visual agree perfectly with everything else in the last 42-years’ worth of this stuff. It is the least nerdy, most accessible, and most fun Star Trek film I have ever seen.
But that isn’t to say it’s the best. The highest compliment I can pay this movie, which I liked a hell of a lot, is to say that it didn’t feel like the eleventh Star Trek film. It felt more like an adaptation of the original television series, as though the previous ten movies had never happened. Objectively, very little in Star Trek is all that original. The characters, played by new actors, with a few tweaks here and there, are essentially the same as they were on TV in the 1960s. The scenario, involving a time-traveling alien bent on revenge, with the Enterprise the only thing standing in his way, is fucking Star Trek 101. But it’s remarkable what a fresh set of eyes can do. J.J. Abrams and the rest of his production team have really accomplished something with this film’s look and feel. Star Trek hasn’t been this fresh since Nicholas Meyer took the helm for Star Trek II. And the work of Abrams and company here is even more impressive. Meyer had to work with the leftovers of Star Trek: The Motion Picture; Abrams is starting over entirely.
Bernd Schneider can relax — the ship still has the same configuration as before and Spock is still a dude (both of him). But this version of the Star Trek universe seems much closer to our own reality than its predecessors. Passengers on shuttlecraft are obliged to buckle their seatbelts, photon torpedoes actually look like torpedoes, and generally the various areas of the ship we see feel more like locations than sets erected on soundstages. Ship-to-ship communications sound much like the transmissions sent by NASA astronauts, which I thought was a nice touch. And the various buttons and gizmos at the fingertips of the crew look like they have actual functions, instead of being random looking arrangements of jelly beans and Jolly Ranchers.
To these design touches, Abrams adds a multitude of lens flares and naturalistic camera moves, including a nice one where the shot tilts to the side after a ship jumps to warp speed, as though the camera has been caught in its wake.
There’s more to recommend Star Trek than the visuals. Like I said, the story moves along familiar lines, but Abrams and his writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman manage to give the presentation a mythic quality. And key scenes, particularly the prologue involving James Kirk’s doomed father, and a brief scene between Spock and his father following a devastating tragedy, pack an impressive emotional wallop. The filmmakers hit the perfect tone, too — sincere but not over-serious, irreverent without lapsing into self-parody.
Composer Michael Giacchino helps give this Star Trek fresh ears, too, writing a brand new score that avoids all the familiar musical themes until the Alexander Courage theme from the original TV series plays over the closing credits. And while not all the dialogue is great, it’s almost entirely free of the meaningless technobabble that has infested Star Trek shows since the beginning. By the time the Star Trek: Voyager series came along, entire scenes consisted of nothing but conversations based around inertial dampers and Heisenberg compensators. Here, the tech talk is fleeting and mostly kept to the background.
Don’t let me leave you with the impression that everything works here. The acting is terrific for the most part — particularly Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as the new Kirk and Spock, Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, and the flawless Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike — but one big soft spot is Leonard Nimoy, in a small but important role as Old Spock, who, like the villainous Romulan Captain Nero, has accidentally traveled back in time from the next century. He gets a great entrance, a brilliantly staged scene with Kirk in an ice cave that reminded me of the frozen wilderness that frames Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But there’s something very off about Nimoy’s performance. He’s too loose, too comfortable, too much of himself, maybe. He speaks and acts nothing like Spock ever has, and most of his line readings sound like narration from a video game.
The script goes a little heavy on the foreshadowing. Young Kirk hears repeatedly about how he will be a great starship captain one day, both from Old Spock and from Nero, but do we really need that? Isn’t that a foregone conclusion? That heavy-handedness and some very clunky dialogue spoil what could have been a great moment when Nero tells Kirk that he was “a great man. But that was another life.” At least that’s how the line went in the trailer; in the film it’s got lots of extra words and doesn’t have nearly the same impact.
Additionally, the rapidity of Kirk’s rise to the captaincy and the assembly of the classic crew is a stretch, I think. Kirk goes from a third-year cadet to the captain of the fleet’s brand new flagship within — what, a few days at the most? It’s not totally implausible; Abrams presents Starfleet as a smaller, more upstart organization than we’ve seen before, so promising new officers getting fast promotions, especially following heroic, galaxy-saving adventures, isn’t out of the question. And getting Kirk into the big chair by the end is the whole point of the movie. But it all happens awfully fast, and it seems like lots of faceless superior officers have to bite the dust to clear the road for Kirk, McCoy, and the rest. Still, I much prefer rushing things a little like this to the George Lucas route of dragging a threadbare prequel plot out for three fucking movies to tell a story that nobody needed to see in the first place.
And while this movie handles humor a lot more adroitly than Star Trek traditionally has, there are some failed attempts at low comedy, particularly when Kirk experiences complications from a vaccine, like swollen hands and a tongue that goes numb while he tries to relay critical information. Kirk’s annoyance at McCoy constantly sticking him the neck with syringes to treat the symptoms is funny, at least.
So no, it’s not a perfect movie. It’s still a damn good one. Nothing that’s going to change your life, nothing you’re going to remember thirty years from now, nothing that ought to be studied frame-by-frame in film class — but a hell of a lot of fun, and an impressive fresh start for the Star Trek franchise. Ever since I first read Harlan Ellison’s original screenplay for the classic TV episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” I’ve thought it would be a good idea to recast the classic crew with younger actors and go back to telling Captain Kirk stories for awhile. Star Trek is a great first step down that road. It feels as rousing and new as any movie based on a 40-year-old television series could be, and provides the Star Trek franchise with the fresh breath of life it so very much needed.
I wonder what Hank would think of it.