Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)

Gene Rodenberry’s franchise gets a J.J. Abrams makeover.

A dear friend and Trekkie (I’m not a fellow Trekkie, though I’ve seen almost all the movies, the original series and a few of the first spin-off series’ episodes) summed up his lifelong Trek fandom up ’til this month’s release of J.J. Abram’s re-do: “It’s like you’re married for thirty years; the first twenty-five years are fine, basically genial, often lovely; the last five years are unspeakably hideous and you seriously consider filing for divorce; then she goes out and gets a stunning makeover to make her appear like a sleek, jaw-dropping enchantress, and you’re momentarily enamored all over again; but then two weeks later, you discover you have absolutely nothing left to talk about.”

Roger Ebert writes in his review of Abrams’ Trek: “Perhaps the next one will engage these characters in a more challenging and devious story, one more about testing their personalities than re-establishing them. In the meantime, you want space opera, you got it.” I think Ebert obscures a slight but important distinction: space opera, done well, can be as magnificent as any other cinematic genre; whereas space soap operas are a dime a dozen. In terms of the former, I’m thinking of the sheer grandeur and emotional resonance of The Empire Strikes Back (one of my all-time favorite movies), and in lesser but still immensely enjoyable terms, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the better moments of the continuation of the story’s arc in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

Space opera or soap opera?
Space opera or soap opera?

An L.A. Weekly critic writes of Abram’s Trek: “this Trek feels like it was made by a committee of logic-minded Vulcans (or franchise-protective studio executives) rather than a filmmaker with the singular personality of Nicholas Meyer, whose three Trek films as writer (and two as director) remain the series’ best and brightest by a mile.” Nicholas Meyer’s storytelling sensibility had a beautifully measured grace to it, which took Gene Roddenberry’s pulp and elevated it into the framework of a story that felt epic. As unarguably flawed as Star Trek III is, for my money there’s nothing in Abrams’ Trek that matches the sequence when the crew of the Enterprise stand on the surface of an alien planet and watch their beloved ship explode and disintegrate as it rockets into the atmosphere. (The only surprising and affecting moment for me in all of Abram’s Trek was the bit when Spock and his family were in the process of being teleported off Vulcan, and “lose” Spock’s mother (Winona Ryder) in the process; the immediate following moment when the rest of the family materialize on the teleportation deck of the Enterprise and realize Spock’s mother is no longer with them was very well pitched.)

fast-and-furiousI understand part of Abrams’ obvious mission in revamping Star Trek was to pull the proverbial lead out of the franchise’s ass and kick it back into high gear. Fair enough (I took my friend’s word that the last few movies were dreadful, and basically considered the series over in any legitimate sense). What’s dispiriting about Abrams’ Trek is what scant imagination is behind its re-envisioning. Abrams’ response to the material basically amounts to: let’s do throwaway. Translation: let’s kick out the stops and shoot this mother like it’s a sci-fi The Fast and the Furious, complete with trash talk and a bar fight out of Road House, a cast not out of place on an Aaron Spelling TV melodrama, and a generically pulse-pounding musical score for MTV-era action-philes.

These are the voyages of the Baywatch Enterprise...
These are the voyages of the Baywatch Enterprise…

I imagine any complaints about plausibility of Star Trek‘s storyline would receive the following reply from the respective creative minds in charge (which I depressingly suspect is very likely the most oft-repeated phrase in the mainstream movie biz): Who really gives a shit!? The other classic cop-out being “it’s just a movie,” which is another way of saying “don’t sweat the small stuff,” when if any medium vitally depends on its creators’ sweating the small stuff to achieve its potential to the fullest, it would have to be movies! I kept hearing those phrases run through my head when I beheld the latest version of Romulans: bald, tattoed baddies who look like bouncers at Vin Diesel’s neighborhood bar. Or the body makeup for the green-skinned extraterrestrial babe that the older Kirk beds down with, which makes her look like she walked off a ‘SNL’ spoof of campy sci-fi B-movies. I thought the FX were generally enjoyable, and the only aspect of the movie approaching “grace” (when the slapdash editing didn’t reduce the action sequences into nonsense); as the movie continued, I found myself feeling miserably grateful whenever more FX arrived onscreen, simply to lift me out of the 90210-esque exchanges between the lead characters. Granted, none of the cast were allowed to be as openly, mind-numbingly vapid as Denise Richards in Starship Troopers, at least not yet (maybe the sequel will boldy go where no jocular soap opera has gone before…Chris Pine’s Kirk in particular seems like he would be just fine hanging out all day on a 23rd-century version of Baywatch).

When I first learned the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” was on the new Star Trek soundtrack, I was intrigued: if handled inventively, maybe it could be witty and refreshing. The way the song is actually used in the movie, with the 13-year-old James Kirk hot-rodding in a stolen car down a country road, is amusing for about all of five seconds – okay, I get it, Kirk is a cocky and rebellious wise-ass, point made — but then it becomes skull-thuddingly obvious that using the Beastie Boys in this scene makes no goddamned sense whatsoever: it’s like staging a similar scene in a movie in 2009, only having the teenaged kid cranking out Ethel Merman or Al Jolson on the stereo at 100 decibels. Huhnghhh? I wanted to yell at the screen, “not to burst your bubble, but do you realize that by the time that Kirk is driving down this road, this particular Beastie Boys song will happen to be about, oh, 300 YEARS OLD!?”

I’m still trying to figure out how the movie’s use of a black hole as a time-travel gateway to a parallel universe isn’t being jeered at by millions of people as the most galling and laughable sort of storytelling cop-out ala M. Night Shyamalan. Oh yeah, I guess it gave us a chance to see the old Spock and the new Spock together, passing the generational torch between actors – the sight of which may have had a remote chance of engaging me emotionally, if not for the fact that it sprung from the single most metaphysically idiotic and aesthetically ham-fisted plot machination I’ve beheld since Indiana Jones watched a @#$% flying saucer rise out of a Mayan pyramid. Plus, it means Abrams and Co. can continue to dip in and out of the last 40+ years of Star Trek history to suit their immediate needs, which is almost as gloriously, offensively incoherent of a storytelling strategy as the Wachowski Brothers’ literally pulling the rules of their characters’ make-believe universe out of their asses in The Matrix Reloaded.

I don’t imagine kids running out of Abrams’ movie and staring at the nighttime sky, and wondering about the mysteries of the universe, and perhaps getting inspired to visit their local science museums or become engaged with astronomy or space travel. What I see are frat boys saying, “dude, let’s get totally smashed and check out that bangin’ Star Trek movie,” and then forgetting about having watched it ten minutes after the movie’s over. Not a crime, to be sure, but billions of light years away from Roddenberry’s original vision of science fiction as a vessel for enlightenment and contemplation…and in aesthetic and dramatic terms, at least a few solar systems away from anything genuinely resembling opera in its purest sense. It’s a Star Trek for people with closed minds, i.e., people who aren’t interested in science, or in dreaming.

–Dan Mohr, Contributor

This post originally appeared at the Cinevox disscussion board. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

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