It’s been a few weeks since the release of the new Star Trek film, and the numbers indicate that JJ Abrams and Paramount have achieved something that I was highly sceptical could ever happen: they have made Star Trek cool. This film has outgrossed Wolverine, and will likely defeat Angels and Demons and Terminator Salvation, perhaps even Night at the Museum 2 (yay!). It is the highest-grossing movie of the year to date, yet until now it has without question been considered the nerdiest franchise of them all.
How did they do it? With a well-balanced mixture of loyalty to the fans and concessions for everyone else, a no-brainer really but still a solution that may have done nothing to have overcome the deeply engrained stereotypes the general public had about the franchise if nobody had shown up. Abrams’ Star Trek, which returns to the original crew of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest as they set out into space for the first time, both honours and preserves the original continuity while rebooting it (that’s a word you’ll be hearing a lot from now on, especially as a euphemism for ‘remake’ – it’s the new ‘re-imagining’). Subsequent films will not be slave to an existing timeline, and I was surprised to discover that the entire plot of the film is devoted to this setup rather than just being addenda. It’s a tricky sleight of hand, as there is action on such an epic scale that it’s only hours later that you realise you’ve been hoodwinked into getting swept up in two hours and $150 million worth of franchise house-cleaning. Incredible.
Abrams makes the film so light and entertaining that he gets away with it . While fans would argue that Trek has always been fun – and I’ve always loved it – there was an insularity and solemnity to the franchise, including the films, that made them more of a niche interest than its beefier brother Star Wars. Star Trek was born on television, so it has primarily been a cerebral and idea-driven series by necessity, and the films naturally replicated that on a bigger scale since that was what Trek was. The Star Wars-esque talk of destiny and the fast-paced space battles in the trailers for the new film – exciting as they were – led me to wonder whether Abrams was preserving Trek’s chassis for the fans’ benefit but replacing the engine. This would be a tragedy, because if Trek were just made into another action-adventure then it would no longer be distinctive, to old fans and new viewers alike, who would have just seen this all before.
It was always going to be a double-edged sword though, because the Trek films were previously budgeted and publicised as B-pictures. Now, for the first time, the franchise has been given a major budget and a prime summer berth, and is also finally free of Gene Roddenberry’s appointed franchise shepherd Rick Berman, who steered it well for a number of years but eventually drove it into the ground with the TV series Enterprise and the film Nemesis, by which point Trek was just replicating itself endlessly into mushy oblivion.
That newfound prestige is awfully gratifying, and if you’ve seen much Trek – particularly the poorer latter-day material – you’ll get a sense while watching the new film of the franchise shaking off the baggage of continuity and the burden of expectation like dried mud. It’s only been five years since Enterprise was cancelled, but the vitality of Abrams’ film makes it seem like twenty. He’s even turned the once-cardinal sin of recasting the original characters into a triumph, signalling just how desperately Trek needed a serious rebirth (read: enema) – it could even withstand a new Kirk. Chris Pine is a strong, dynamic, and engaging presence as the future captain, embodying the brash adventurousness while leaving the Shatnerian quirks behind. Karl Urban proves his versatility in a very different role as Dr McCoy, aiming more than his castmates to recapture the original portrayal. It’s an impressive feat of mimicry while still being a performance rather than an impression: Urban both is Deforest Kelley and makes the character his own as well, his imposing presence an interesting contrast to McCoy’s neurosis.
Zachary Quinto is certainly better as Spock than he is on the now-execrable Heroes and he spars well with Pine, but his take on a logical, emotion-suppressing Vulcan is more psychopathic than serene, so it’s difficult to invest fully in his version of the character. Simon Pegg is unsurprisingly a lot of fun as Scotty, while the others are serviceable since they’re not given much to do. Anton Yelchin sounds a little constipated as Russian Chekov, and John Cho and Zoe Saldana are decent as Sulu and Uhura. But the sequels are coming so they’ll get their turn, and anything is an improvement on the time these characters were given in the original films.
I’m reluctant to divulge too much of the story, even though I’ve noted it as perfunctory, since much of the fun for fans will be seeing exactly how Abrams pulls it off. But there are sadly big flaws. Eric Bana’s Nero is given such a clichéd, poorly developed rationale, and when it turns out that he only goes back in time by accident, the plot becomes very limp; the tail starts wagging the dog. There are plot devices that are never explained (“the red matter”), coincidences galore, and character decisions that service the plot rather than make sense (Kirk is booted off the ship on to an ice planet at one point, which gets the story rolling along, but as if they would do that rather than put him in the brig! Ludicrous). The film went into production after the writer’s strike hit, and the script was being tinkered with up until the last minute – it clearly needed some more work.
But there have been far worse scripts for major motion pictures, and the entertaining characters, sense of scale, and surprising twists (one feat of destruction clearly states that this is now a different Star Trek universe) compensate more than adequately. It’s not rich and memorable but still fun and optimistic, which is perhaps good for blockbusters to be right now. Personally, I’m still on Cloud Nine that there are more Star Trek adventures still to come that will be far fresher than the last few years of the franchise, and that this beloved outcast series has been successfully redeployed for a new generation. Although plenty would look at even The Next Generation and deride it as dated and lame after seeing this new whiz bang version, plenty more will be awakened to the virtues of the many hours of Star Trek that are there to be discovered and learned from. It’s been a formative moral and imaginative text for so many young people, and if Abrams can make it so again (pardon the pun, Picard fans), then I’m over the moon.