Talk About Boldly Going

Warning: Spoilers!

JJ Abrams has very, very boldly gone where many, many others have already gone before him. So much so that I'm not sure I'm as interested in where he's gone, or where he might go, as with just how damn boldly he's gone there.

To get some housekeeping out of the way, there are some positive things to note about the latest Star Trek film. It has obviously expensive visuals. An excellent job has been done to make these almost too-familiar characters resemble their origins from the 1966 series. The film is a competently and professionally-assembled action/science-fiction flick.

That said it also suffers from flaws that seem to have more to do with how films are made these days than with what is has done with the franchise. First Pike, and then Kirk, seem to be captaining the USS Lens Flare rather than the Enterprise; either that or Starfleet is now sponsored by Adobe and running Vista with all the Aero goodies on full. A moment with nothing exploding, being shot at, being hit, punching, running, flying seems to be a moment wasted in the filmmaker's opinion, so the film doesn't have many of those at all.

Now You Have Something New To Think About... Or, Not

The action does sometimes retreat to the background slightly, as it does when it shows us Kirk's run through the no-win scenario, the Kobayashi Maru test, first referred to in the Trek film fans' touchstone, Wrath of Khan. There it served as an object lesson, first for Saavik in how one can learn about oneself by facing death, and then about Kirk as it shows that his reaction to such a scenario is to deny it exists because death is the end of learning and not the beginning.

Here, the scenario teaches us nothing except what we already knew: that Kirk is an insubordinate bad boy. It doesn't even seem here that he's interested in winning at all costs. He's interested in doing things others forbid because that's how he gets his kicks. He doesn't have any reason other than that. This scene underscores something the film does over and over again, which is to take the veneer of Star Trek, smear some oily grit on it, and slap it down on a hollow plywood skeleton. As the computers in the Maru simulator mysteriously reboot, giving him back his damaged photon torpedoes and allowing him to defeat the Klingon cruisers, Kirk can barely contain his enthusiasm, bounding about the simulated bridge, gleefully biting into an apple-- an obvious visual reference to the reveal of his "unique solution" to the problem at the turning point of Wrath of Khan. What is interesting to note is that this detail is considered important enough to include in the new film. The makers want to tell us that even though this universe is different, they know Trek. They "get it". They've invoked the earlier film so we can see how even though some things are different, some things are still the same. But they aren't the same. Where the Maru episode in WoK reveals and develops character, here it's merely fanservice.

Corvettes Really Are Only Good In Straight Lines

Another scene that was unnecessary and should have been removed was Kirk's childhood joyride in a 1966 Corvette that serves as his introduction. In the film the scene makes very little sense whatsoever; about the only positive thing that can be said is that it was altered from its original form in an early trailer where, below the cliff where the 'vette falls to its crunchy doom, the Enterprise under construction is revealed. That reveal is cut from the theatrical release, but the editor shouldn't have stopped there. We don't need this scene. We know Kirk's a bad boy. We know he's no boy scout. Even if we didn't know that, we'd know it by the time he's gotten in a bar fight, wheedled his way everywhere he wasn't supposed to be, including the Enterprise.

Who thought this scene made sense? Okay, so he joyrides in a car. Understandable enough. He runs from the cops. Understandable enough. Then he drives the car off the cliff, just ditching before the edge. This scene now makes no sense. Did he know the cliff was there in advance? If so, why drive that way? He gets caught anyway, so why go to the extra effort of ditching the car in just such a way that he survives but it falls? Does he bear a grudge against the owner? This isn't a joyride, it's vandalism. If he didn't know the cliff was there, then it's even less understandable. Somehow he's driving at it full speed and sees it just in time to stop, but not in time to stop the car, and then gets out of the car barely in time. I think that'd be a hard maneuver to pull off even if one knew exactly where the cliff was, and yet here we're supposed to believe this kid who can barely reach the pedals pulls it off. I can understand the film wanting to establish Kirk's character and abilities. To my mind this scene fails at both.

To me there are two scenes that define this film's Kirk much better. They are both good scenes and might redeem this character as someone worth watching in the future if they can figure out something for him to do that goes beyond swaggering around the cosmos chasing tail and blowing things up.

The first is when he arrives at the shuttles on his motorbike. A nearby officer notes his appreciation and Kirk tells him to take it, tossing him the keys and stepping onto the shuttle. That, to me, says more about his character, more about his never-look-back attitude than the bar fight or the joyride.

The second is his conversation with the future Spock, when he is revealed as undeserving. He's been thrown off the Enterprise by the present Spock (also in an entirely nonsensical way-- in the Starfleet I know and love, Spock would have been court martialed for that). Future Spock knows Kirk as a captain who has earned his crew's respect, but the Kirk of this film hasn't done that and can hardly see a way to do so. That feeling of unworthiness is I think what drives this character, and that could be interesting.

Ultimately the problem is that I agree with the assessment: this character is undeserving. What made the blowhard Kirk bearable in the original cast series and films was that he had earned the respect of his crew and the audience. He earned it not for itself, but by doing what had to be done when it needed to be done, regardless of risks to himself (and sometimes to others). What this Kirk wants most, though, is to sit in the Captain's chair, a spot he does not deserve, and the film bends over backwards, destroying logic and the chain of command to give it to him. It's very hard to empathize with his struggle under those circumstances.

When I Say All Hailing Frequences, I Mean ALL Hailing Frequencies

When it does pause from all of those lofty activities it's to let the film's star make a booty call and offer him a voyeuristic peek at the film's only prominent female character, who is apparently the star's lust object and lusts after another major character.

I won't spend too much time on that particular issue. There's a part of me that wants to see it as an advance rather than a retreat. If everyone in Starfleet is qualified and professional it seems to be only natural that perhaps the barriers put up against fraternization within such an organization might eventually fall; that such prohibitions only serve to protect human weakness, the inability to step outside of a relationship in one context so that it doesn't affect relationships in another. Brannon "Syndrome" Boren, over in his blog, bemoaned the suggestion of a romantic entanglement between Uhura and Spock because he felt this undermined her achievements: that if she'd been in such a relationship with a supervisor this meant one could not be sure she'd earned them.

I'm not sure I believe it myself, but what if it actually just means that such a relationship is in no way improper because anyone is free to have whatever kind of relationship they want, with any consenting entity, and therefore any such suggestion of favoritism is unfounded? That might be a bit too naive, and expecting a bit too much, but to be honest that is one of the things I think I learned from watching Star Trek over the years.

The original series was basically a Western in space but it did, when possible, strive to be something more. With a different business model and more creative control, The Next Generation became something more. Some berate it for being too many meetings in futuristic flying conference rooms. Frankly I took some comfort in the idea that, while armed to the teeth with frightening technology, Starfleet was presented as an organization that tried to work out problems with diplomacy first and force a distant second. Of course, that wasn't always possible, but more often than not the series' conflicts arose from well-intentioned characters who thought they were doing what was best. Very rarely did it resort to an evil, implacable enemy that must be fought because it cannot be dealt with any other way (the Borg, for instance).

A Film About Nothing... Not That There's Anything Wrong With That

All the action-movie flaws and cliches would be acceptable if this were a film about something. It's not. It is about nothing in a way that even some of the truly bad Trek films to date were not about nothing. The film's plot, such as it is, achieves nothing except set up an alternative universe to take our familiar characters somewhere else; to free Abrams from the entire continuity of the franchise to date, starting from the very moment of Kirk's birth. It has no other purpose.

Maybe Abrams has an idea of where he boldly wants to go next. His first Trek film is an expensive but hollow rollercoaster ride, twisting and turning to get away from its own fans and its own history, but it will only have been worth doing if he finds somewhere interesting to go afterwards, somewhere he could not have gone with the weight of the franchise hanging over him.

At its base, Trek emerged as being about sentient life-- not even just human life-- seeking to improve itself, to be better than it is, to acknowledge its flaws and try to address them. This new film, taken as is, isn't about that. Its characters don't particularly seem interested in that. The organization they are part of does not seem dedicated to that. These actors aren't playing roles; they are cosplaying Kirk and Spock and Bones. They do so admirably, enjoyably, but it's no subsitute for the real thing in even its weaker incarnations.

Although this is far and away a better film, I can't help be reminded of a smaller, but also well-loved property ravaged by Paramount in the translation from small to large screen: Aeon Flux. When that Charlize Theron vehicle was released I said it seemed to me that the people who made that film had never seen Peter Chung's work; instead, some people had viewed it, scribbled notes about it in crayon on index cards, and passed those to the filmmakers.

This new Star Trek gives me the same impression. Somehow, the people who made this new Star Trek watched the old series and the old films and managed to absorb a lot of information: information about technology, about appearances, about the human relations between crewmembers, but either intentionally ignored or never noticed some of the other themes, of humanity' conflict with itself, about striving for betterment, about how many times action is necessary but many others require thought beforehand.

This is a decent and entertaining film, as far as it goes, which is not particularly far and certainly not particularly deep.

It is not, however, Star Trek.