The new Star Trek film is shiny and fun and all kinds of entertaining.
I wish they hadn’t made it.
At the risk of sounding like the butt of the Onion’s recent funny joke, I do think there’s something special about Star Trek that J.J. Abrams’ very watchable movie wholly fails to replicate. You could certainly argue that the series has done nothing but replicate that same something for many, many years now — Gerry Canavan calls it a franchise “built almost entirely on the bedrock of nostalgic repetition” — but, when all is said and done, I really don’t think Abrams brings anything new to the table. He shuffles some things around, remakes characters and events, and heaven knows he modernizes the aesthetic and beefs up the special effects. But to what end? Beyond being mildly diverting for a couple of hours, I don’t see that the film has a whole lot to offer. While it’s neat to see characters we know so well meet up for the first time, I don’t know that these characters, these particular re-interpretations, are ones that I’d need to spend any more time with. This is and isn’t the Star Trek universe; the film is both a prequel and a re-imagining — through some clever, yet very hokey, time travel* — but ultimately I think it fails at both. Abrams and company have chipped away at that bedrock of nostalgia, but they haven’t provided a new, solid foundation of their own. The movie isn’t quite Star Trek, but it also isn’t quite anything else.
It seems to me that far from regaining the franchise’s relevance, a film like Abrams’s Star Trek relinquishes it. Casino Royale is a hell of a good film, but it reinvents James Bond on others’ terms, and in so doing acknowledges that the Bond franchise, which once defined the concept, look and feel of espionage films, is now merely a follower, emulating newer and more innovative series. There’s something sad about a once-vibrant cultural artifact becoming first venerable and then a forgotten relic, but not nearly as sad as not allowing that artifact to die a dignified death, and more importantly, not allowing its successors room to grow. Every generation comes up with its own stories, but ours seems content to slap new coats of paint on the old ones so that it can keep telling them again and again. I’d much rather boldly go where no one has gone before.
All that said, however, it is fun for a couple of hours, and most of the actors acquit themselves reasonably well. Zachary Quinto is the obvious — although also only — standout as Spock, although the underused Simon Pegg is always fun to watch, and I did enjoy Karl Urban’s grumpy DeForest Kelley impersonation. Chris Pine’s James Kirk fares not quite as well, in no small part because — as John Rogers points out — he has no real character arc or development whatsoever. This isn’t Pines’ fault — I think he plays the character well for how it’s written — but just another symptom of what doesn’t quite work about the movie.
As I remarked to a friend this afternoon, in many ways it felt like fan fiction, written by people who weren’t really fans.
Yesterday evening I also watched Doomsday. Talk about not bringing anything new to the table. I joked via Twitter that it’s basically “Snake Plissken Beyond Thunderdome,” a little bit of Escape from New York crossed with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but there’s also a quick stopover in medieval times, Gladiator-style, and a small pinch or two of 28 Days Later. Then it cycles back into The Road Warrior just for good measure. It’s entertaining enough, and never feels completely like a waste of time, but it also never feels like anything more than a disconnected string of homages to better, more exciting films.
* Star Trek, as a series, is notorious for playing fast and loose with the science in sceince fiction, but it seemed particularly egregious here. A MacGuffin is one thing, but the ridiculousness of the “red matter” — with its many shades of Abrams’ earlier “Mueller device” — and the way the film refuses to be even internally consistent with its complete misunderstanding of how a black hole operates…well, it does get a little annoying.