SPOILER WARNING: The following contains spoilers for “Star Trek,” opening this week.
Star Trek was my entry point into fandom, so when I say that “Star Trek” was one of the best Trek films ever made, yet it falls short in many ways of being a great movie (“Star Trek II” was not just a great Trek movie, but a great movie) take it for what you will.
The plot in brief is that a few years after the Next Generation movies, a star went supernova and threatened to destroy the galaxy. Spock used recent Vulcan technology to artificially create a singularity at the heart of the supernova to collapse it, but not before it destroyed Romulus. Nero, enraged by the death of his family, blames Spock. Both are pulled into the singularity. Nero and his crew emerge decades before Spock does and after they capture him and the technology, Nero sets out to destroy every planet in the Federation starting with Vulcan so that Spock will know his pain.
The science is a little absurd. I cringed at the idea of a supernova threatening the galaxy. I’m not looking for a plot approved by Michio Kaku, just a little elementary research.
It’s more glaring because the movie was written by Trek fans Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who know and understand the series. There are Easter eggs and references for fans to enjoy, which range from the inclusion of classic lines and catch phrases to an Orion (not a slavegirl, though the Starfleet cadet played by a redheaded Rachel Nichols in her underwear will no doubt be remembered because, well, Rachel Nichols is in her underwear) to both subtle and obvious references (extra points if you catch Greg Grunberg’s cameo before the end credits) to finally getting to watch Kirk beat the Kobiyashi Maru.
The highlight of the film is what I thought would be its weakness: the cast, which was universally great. The only exception to this was Eric Bana and that’s only because he doesn’t do much. He remains largely unknown and unexplained. He was a miner. He lost his family. He blames Spock. There’s nothing more to the character. Why hire such a great actor and give him so little to do? Why create a character that bears many echoes of Ricardo Montalban’s Khan, one of cinema’s great villains, and do nothing with it? It’s one of the film’s major flaws.
Bruce Greenwood plays Captain Pike as the leader and father figure a crew would follow into hell, and he dominates every scene he’s in. John Cho as Sulu handles the comedy and the drama well but does a great job as a sword fighter. Someone needs to cast him in a good action movie. Anton Yelchin as Chekhov is a good actor but has little to do.
Zoe Saldana has been one of the most underrated young actors in Hollywood for years and I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who noticed this glaringly obvious fact. Uhura is more than just the woman who answers the phone and she’s in a VERY non-canon relationship.
Simon Pegg as Scotty and Karl Urban as Bones are quite simply the best parts of the film. The catch phrases aren’t spoken until the end of the film and by the time it feels natural.
Chris Pine does a good job, and he’s not the Kirk we remember because he’s younger and brasher than William Shatner, but there are many scenes where he exhibits the energy and fire of the character and as someone who’s seen him in other films and didn’t think he could pull it off, he did and I have to say that I wrong. He was impressive, not as a clone of Shatner, but by growing over the course of the film.
Kirk may technically be the film’s central character, but Spock’s relationship with his mother (Winona Ryder) is the film’s heart. As we witness, as both a child and teenager, it is the cruel taunts and the small condescension not towards himself but to his mother that cause Spock to react emotionally. The scene between Spock and his father near the end, where his father admits that he loved her and suggests that Spock should not shun emotion, was perfectly done.
The problem is that the film feels more like an accumulation of scenes rather than a logically plotted film where the scenes build upon one another towards a conclusion. Many things don’t make sense but they’re necessary to get to the next plot point. Why does Spock throw Kirk off the ship and eject him onto a desolate planet instead of just throwing him into the brig? Because he needs to meet Leonard Nimoy and Scotty on the other planet and there was no other way to introduce the characters and the plot exposition had to go somewhere.
If a single drop of “red matter” will create a singularity, why was such an insane amount created and placed on this one ship? Because it’s more dramatic and if Nero didn’t have enough to destroy most of the galaxy, there would have to be a different plot.
Why is the Federation building a spaceship designed to never enter the orbit of a planet in the middle of Iowa? So Kirk could star at it longingly while contemplating his future. (Unless it has something to do future politicians trying to create jobs to help them win the Iowa Caucuses.)
There were other moments which seemed needlessly done for the sake of building tension artificially. Spock must beam to the surface to save his parents so that he can watch his mother die in front of him. Scotty has to get caught in the water supply of the Enterprise so Kirk can save him. During a transporter complication, Chekhov realizes he can solve the problem and runs through the corridors to the transporter room.
Moments of humor fare even more poorly. Chekhov’s pronunciation challenges come across as more cringe-worthy than funny, and Kirk’s allergic reaction to a vaccine is supposed to heighten tension but feels out of place. There are others and I’m not saying they’re necessarily bad, but they feel extraneous, the kind of scenes that end up as DVD extras because they were good ideas that didn’t quite work.
There are also two moments in the film where a character is ejected into the vacuum of space and the soundtrack becomes silent, which would be fine except when photon torpedoes, phasers and explosions are making so much noise in space, it’s awkward to the point of being dumb to do this for roughly three seconds of the film. Like my complaint about supernovas earlier, it’s an annoyance and it’s stupid and it’s small. It’s the sort of thing someone should pick up on.
Director J.J. Abrams’ work has been marked by his skill at deftly juggling genres, his use of set pieces, his skill at working with actors and writing to their strengths, and the film does all of these things beautifully. What has not been his strength is pulling together the many dangled plot threads and ideas into a coherent narrative. Using a time travel story is an easy cheat since so few are logical that fans will forgive small errors, so it takes some pressure off the need to resolve everything.
I don’t have a problem with changing continuity. I don’t even have a problem with any of the individual scenes. Story is a series of events but plot is about causality and for all the care lavished on individual scenes, on planting Easter eggs and making references, ensuring that scenes could be read by both new and old fans, no one was able to see what these television veterans missed. Maybe it’s because on shows like “Alias” or “Lost,” the key was to dangle story elements, to resolve some issues but not others. Episodes didn’t stand on their own and so a satisfying episode worked differently than a satisfying movie. While many of Abrams’ talents have translated well onto the big screen, this has been a stumbling block.
I started out by saying that I liked the film, and I do. I like the movie as a Trek fan and I like the movie on its own merits, but I also think that it could have better and that the filmmakers are capable of more. I’m a grammar nerd so the split infinite sounds like nails on a chalkboard, but as someone who didn’t see the last two Star Trek movies, perhaps the highest complement I can pay is that I can’t wait for the next one.