Saturday, August 7, 2010

Let's Review a Movie: Star Trek (2009) or how Star Trek XI is still holding up the odd numbers suck curse

It’s my first attempt at a review so let’s discuss a fandom that has over forty years of history and enough broken bases in it that people will be arguing over things until its hundredth anniversary. Gentlemen, ladies, and others welcome to my review of Star Trek.

First off, despite the title of this post, I have to say that I don’t hate this movie and I don’t think it’s the worst thing to ever bear the name Star Trek. There are things that I enjoy about this film. I think the cast is excellent. They chose people who look enough like the old actors that I could accept them as the characters, at least physically, and they can act. Two thumbs way, way up for Karl Urban especially. I like the music. I like the new design of the ship and the sets, with the exception of the engine room, I just wished they’d turn down the lens flares so I could see them better. Seriously, who decided that having your audience squinting at the screen was good cinematography? I enjoyed the opening sequence and was emotionally invested in George and his wife being pulled apart; a nice contrast of the birth of Jim with his father’s death. (Then the title shot showed up and everything went to crap.) Finally, I like the idea of time travel to create an alternate universe. Star Trek has always had a weird relationship with this from the beginning anyway. Making changes to the timeline should alter the future ala ‘City on the Edge of Forever’, but we also see that alternate universes can exist along side the prime one with ‘Mirror, Mirror’ and ‘The Tholian Web’, and I’m not even going to get into the timey wimey ball headache that is ‘Yesteryear’. So, I can buy that the writers have created this new universe and the beloved one remains untainted. However, almost from the moment this new universe is created problems arise. We have this whole new expanse to play in, to boldly go in all new directions and we don’t.

In terms of dropping the ball with this film lets start with the characters. We have a Jim Kirk who has grown up without a father making him more reckless and more of a rebel than the Jim Kirk of TOS. A realist versus an idealist if you will. Great, how will this change affect how Kirk acts now in comparison to what we saw in TOS? He becomes an asshole that’s what. We see in a deleted scene that he appears to have had a difficult childhood, and honestly the scene with his brother and Frank really should have been kept in because it gives him depth in the following scene with the car. Without it Jim Kirk evading the police and driving an antique car into a quarry for reasons unknown makes him come off as an asshole. Feeling annoyance at the main character is not the emotion you want to be invoking in the audience if you want us to care about what happens to him for the next 100 minutes of the film. Unfortunately the feeling of annoyance at Jim Kirk won’t be leaving anytime soon. Now after he acts like a slime ball to Uhura in the bar, playing on the whole pop culture ‘Kirk is a playboy’ idea which I hate by the way, we get a glimpse into why he acts the way he does. We hear from Pike that like his counter-part Kirk is smart, but he doesn’t apply himself. We can see the subtle change in Kirk as Pike talks about his father. His whole body language just screams:

‘Oh, great another person who wants to tell me how great my father is and thinks I should be just like him. I don’t want to talk about this and need another drink.’

Too bad we didn’t actually go anywhere with this. When Pike dares him to do better he contemplates it, but honestly I don’t know why what Pike is saying is any different from what Kirk seems to have heard before. When he goes to the recruit shuttle he seems to be doing all this to prove that he can do a dare, to stick it to authority. What is his real internal motivation for doing this? Nobody knows and so we have no way to connect with the character except via way of nostalgia which as we all know, from all the Easter eggs in this movie, they’re pushing that imagery hard. Especially with the next big scene, the infamous test.

The Koybashi Maru scene again makes him come off like a cocky asshole who is sticking it to authority rather than the intellectual exercise Wrath of Khan made it feel like. He sits in the chair acting all at ease, because he knows he’s going to win and I just want to punch him in the face. Then came his whole reason for doing it: “I don’t believe in no-win scenarios.” Why? When was this established? Why does he now apparently want to be just like his father? What caused this change? Explain stuff movie I dare you!

What drives Kirk to want to be in that captain’s chair? How has he proven that he deserves to be in that chair by the time the movie is over? He’s rude, he’s obnoxious, he’s arrogant, and the only command decision he makes is to direct the Enterprise to Earth to stop Nero. Getting the Enterprise there without being seen, disabling the drill, and getting the ship away from the black hole, that Kirk kept them in because he’s a revenge loving idiot, are all done by other people. This is the cadet they want to command the Federation flagship? In my eyes he certainly hasn’t earned that right. He was simply slotted into his predestined role so we can have the whole bridge crew assembled properly by the time the end credits roll. This was a mistake in my opinion, but since it is in place now I hope it is something that will be addressed in the sequel now that we have Kirk in command a good decade earlier than he was in the prime!verse. This has got to cause resentment among the officers in the fleet that were in the Laurentain system. Creating conflict as these captains have to deal with, in their eyes, some wet behind the ears little punk. Leading to Kirk having some self doubt as to if he really does belong in that chair and then perhaps some Kirk/Spock/McCoy discussion about the issue. The golden trio component was another vital missing element in this film and one the producing team apparently doesn’t even want if the DVD cover and posters are anything to go by. (As an aside am I the only one who thinks having closes-ups of the character’s faces in shadow looks awful?)

Well Kirk has been badly handled and that brings us to our next glaring character issue: Spock. And let me get this out of the way now because it’s one of the big issues I have with Spock; no I do not like the pairing of Spock and Uhura. It comes out of no where, it has no bearing on the plot, and it blasts a big hole right through Spock’s character. Also the excuse of, ‘it’s an alternate universe stuff is different just go with it’ doesn’t wash. We were shown that Nero altered the timeline to create this universe when he attacked the Kelvin and this changed Kirk’s life profoundly. We get no indication that this event affected Spock’s personal life in any way. In fact we see that the duel nature of the character, in constant conflict internally, that was present in TOS is still in place here. He is tormented by his peers for being a half-breed. His heritage is seen as a handicap by his elders. Sarek wants him to be fully Vulcan and yet he himself married a human. The conflict is set up perfectly, and then we get to the academy and it all goes right out the transparent aluminum window. Spock is an instructor, why was he okay with having a relationship with a student? And yes the way I interpret the hangerbay scene the relationship didn’t just pop up when Uhura comforted him in the turbolift after the destruction of Vulcan. Spock specifically said that he does not wish to show favouritism and glances over as people pass by, so whatever is going on between them is more than professional at this point and others have noticed. Then at the end they stand on the transporter pad kissing goodbye in public. What the hell? Even Spock Prime in the movies, who had accepted his human side and that emotions were necessary in his life didn’t act like that. If Spock is willing to be so openly affectionate in public then there is no struggle for him. If there is no internal conflict between logic and emotion then the cornerstone of the Spock character is lost. Now once again this is something the sequel can deal with now that this stupid relationship is in place. It can delve into deeper character issues as other Treks did. With Vulcan gone does Spock pull deeper into being a Vulcan to preserve that culture? Just like Kirk he has had a glimpse of who he might one day become, does he wish to be Spock Prime? Who is open to emotion and displays it when the situation calls for it. Is it destiny? Or will he forge his own path and be his own person?

In our next character misstep we have Nero and his stupid motivations. Yes I know this has been commented on a lot, but I’m throwing in my two cents anyway. Honestly this, to me, is nothing more than an attempt to shove in a concept from Wrath of Khan in an attempt to tie this film to the best Trek movie made to date. Why does everybody who makes Trek think that they have to rehash this concept in order to have a successful movie? Newsflash everyone at Paramount, you don’t. What you need to have are good themes, a good story, and some great character growth. The most financially successful film of the first ten movies is in many respects the very opposite of Wrath of Khan. It has no central villain, it’s a comedy not an action/drama piece, it doesn’t even take place in space. What both films do have though are great themes, well told stories, and growth of the characters and that’s why they, generally, are the most beloved of the Trek movies. Simply giving Nero a revenge motive does not automatically elevate him to Khan’s level. Yes Khan wanted revenge on Kirk for marooning him on Ceti Alpha V and never checking up on them; thus allowing his followers and wife to die, but Kirk was directly responsible for this. Also Khan was an egotistical tyrant who couldn’t stand the fact that he had been beaten by an inferior who had obviously long forgotten all about him. So, it makes sense that Khan acts like he does in the film. Nero, on the other hand, has none of this. He wanted revenge on Spock for the destruction of Romulus, but Spock was not responsible in any way for the destruction of the planet. He had been trying to save it and didn’t get there in time. Not to mention this whole scenario just brings up a whole ton of plot holes. Nero said he saw the destruction of Romulus. Which implies he was near the planet when he was working, so how was his ship not destroyed in the supernova? And if he knew Spock was coming that means there was at least some knowledge of the impending disaster, why was the planet not evacuated? How did Nero manage to transform his simple mining vessel into a doomsday machine and get back before Spock got there, just how late was Spock? Finally why would Spock inject the red matter into the star if it had already gone nova? This has a partial explanation in that he wished to prevent further destruction as this thing was supposedly threatening the galaxy, and right here is the key point to giving Nero’s motivations some much needed depth. Have Nero think that the nova is threatening two planets in particular, Romulus and Vulcan. Spock is sent to help and Nero thinks he deliberately delayed in order to wipe out the heart of the Romulan Empire, while saving Vulcan, and returning a hero. We in the audience know this isn’t true of course, but Nero doesn’t. This also gives the loss of Vulcan in the new universe another layer of depth. Not only would Nero be doing this to get revenge on Spock by having him watch the destruction of his home just as he did, but he would be twisting the knife in even deeper by showing Spock that he hasn’t saved his planet after all. To quote a villain who doesn’t suck, “I’ve done far worse than kill you. I’ve hurt you, and I wish to go on hurting you.”

Aside from the character issues the next big problem for me is that the film has no theme to give all the events cohesion. We have Kirk starting out as a reckless kid, becoming a reckless young adult and then getting a captain’s seat as a reward for that. We have Spock struggling with his duality and then just having it all deflate into nothingness like a popped soufflé. We have Nero running around screaming about revenge and wanting to destroy the Federation to save Romulus. Even though destroying the Federation won’t stop the star from going nova in 129 years anyway, but what could have pulled this all together thematically? Well since it’s establishing a new universe where characters are aware that the prime!universe is out there we could have had a whole thing about fate and destiny. How much of life do we really influence? Are things predetermined, can they be changed, do we want to change them? It could have been about loss and coping with that. Where Nero chooses a revenge filled and eventually self-destructive path at the loss of his family, Kirk in contrast starts out self-destructive and grows into a man who will use his pain and loss as a driving force to help others. Where Spock starts out confused and conflicted, working through his loss he comes out of the events more whole, more at peace with himself. Instead we just have a bunch of scenes that are strung together in a flashy sequence.

With the lack of theme comes the next greatest issue: nothing is explored in any great depth. We have the destruction of Vulcan, the home world of one of the founding members of the Federation, what are the consequences of this? Nothing. Yes Kirk uses it and the death of Amanda to get Spock emotionally compromised, but that’s it. To me it’s comparable to the destruction of the Enterprise and the death of David in The Search for Spock. Both these events are huge and yet they don’t have any real impact on Kirk or anyone else, until the sixth movie that is, they are just things that Sarek can list off that Kirk lost at the end of the film. Same thing here; it’s used for shock value and to get the plot rolling and the consequences are not dealt with. The same thing is true with the death of George Kirk. We start off with Kirk seeming to not want to be anything like that man and then he turns around and does want to be just like George for reasons the audience is never given. If you aren’t going to deal with the butterfly effect you so painstakingly set-up then you might as well have done a direct reboot of canon and have done with it.

The most annoying thing of all though is that the more times I watch this film the more I see that this story is just awful. Things do not flow naturally from it at all. Events and people are merely pushed around to get things where they need to be for the plot and to give us pointless actions sequences. For example there is no logical reason for Spock to kick Kirk off the Enterprise and leave him marooned on some planet in the middle of nowhere, except of course that Kirk needs to meet Spock Prime. As with many things discussed in this review so far this is easy to fix; by having Kirk found as a stowaway and put in the brig earlier only for him to escape it with ease. Thus Spock knows he must get Kirk off the ship if he is to retain proper command. Or how about having some Vulcan ship that’s escaped the imploding planet in trouble, hailing the Enterprise, and having to land on Delta Vega? The Enterprise goes to help and Kirk, as part of a landing party, runs off to do something heroic and runs into Spock Prime.

For an example of a pointless action sequence there is the whole drill on Vulcan sequence. Kirk and Sulu drop down to disable the drill and fight with the Romulans. It looks cool no question, but it wasn’t necessary, because right afterwards Nero lifts up the drill and they’re able to use the transporters again. Yes they say the drill was sabotaged, but nothing comes of that line and they don’t start the transport until Nero retracts the drill. When it would have been turned off by his crew and the transporters would have come back up anyway. So, the whole scene was entirely pointless. We could have had everybody sitting on the ship doing nothing and the outcome would have been the same. Also why does it take about five minutes to get to Vulcan from Earth, but at least five hours for everyone to get back? This is where the skydiving scene could have been made more relevant. Have Kirk and Sulu successfully disable the drill and Nero and his crew have to make repairs before they can go to Earth. Now the Enterprise is in a race against the clock. They don’t know how long it will take the enemy to fix it and get to Earth. Do they go to the fleet and hope they can all make it back in time, or do they risk heading straight for Earth and taking on the Narada one on one?

Why does Pike promote Kirk to first officer? Because the story needs him to be in that position to take over the Enterprise later, but what in story reason is there? Pike sees potential in him you say, but what potential? Outside of losing a bar fight he started and cheating on a test what has Kirk done to show that he is command material? I’d have been totally willing to go along with this if we were given some indication that Kirk deserves it. If McCoy had mentioned that he knew Kirk was the top of his classes and that failing the Koybashi Maru wasn’t a sign that he was a bad cadet. Or if we had seen Kirk up for a promotion or a reward of some kind and was turned down for seemingly petty reasons and Pike objects and then gives him a field command, to give Kirk the opportunity to show his skills. Instead he is just put there because the plot needs him there. Shoving your characters around like pieces on a chess board so they can fit into neat boxes by the end credits is a sign of bad writing. Other weird or pointless crap includes the Pike integration scene. Again it’s a cool scene, and another rip off of Wrath of Khan for those of us keeping score, but it was there so Nero could get some border protection access code to disable Earth’s defences, which are never spoken of again; huh?

Why can they not contact Starfleet after leaving Vulcan? The drill was what was causing the disruptions before and it isn’t there now. Of course the answer is that if Spock could contact the fleet they would all converge on Earth to face Nero and the whole Kirk Spock struggle would be non-essential. (It literally took me re-watching the bridge scene three times to hear Spock say that the sub-space communications have been damaged and that’s why they can’t contact anyone. Hey, director! If you want to convey information to the audience don’t have a character do it when another character is trying to shout over him.) Why can’t any Vulcans shoot the drill if Spock was easily able to do it with the Jellyfish? Why does Kirk have to run away from two creatures on Delta Vega? Why does the Enterprise arriving late to Vulcan have to be because Sulu is an idiot? Why do we have to have a scene with Uhura in her underwear? Why does everyone who works with Trek now a days insist on making it an action, sex, filled vapid piece of work with nothing of substance?

In closing, I don’t hate this film so much as I am disappointed in it. The potential here is so great to explore new themes in Trek. To have the characters grow and interact in ways we’ve never seen before. Instead of being new and innovative though it has a pointless empty romantic couple, pretty actors, and lots of CGI explosions just like every other summer blockbuster we’ve had in the last ten years, because Apollo forbid that we actually have the audience think instead of switching off their brains when they park their butt in the theatre seat. Now having ranted to death about these things I will still be going to see the sequel when it comes out because that will be the true lynch pin in all of this for me. Now that they have set-up this situation, however clunky and contrived it may be, what are they going to do with it? The writers and producers have received the feedback and supposedly know what to improve on for the next one, but will they? Will they deal with character issues, will they have an over-arching theme? They have a chance to do something really unique and forward thinking, you know, what Star Trek does best, will they take it? If they can prove that they can execute the true heart and soul of Trek, and not just give us Easter eggs as winks to the audience, I will be onboard. If not then I’ll be sticking with ‘my father’s Star Trek’ thanks ever so much.

Live long and prosper.


  1. You forgot to mention that the 'warp' effect seems to have been entirely based on Battlestar Galactica, right down to the sound. That annoyed the hell out of me

    1. I haven't watched Battlestar Galactica so I didn't notice the similarities, but looking at a few clips of the show I have to agree with you. And that annoys me because it's just another example of the production crew ripping off something else.

  2. I find everything you say very interesting, and don't, for the most part, disagree. I went back and watched Star Trek The Motion Picture recently, and just loved how it took it's time, explained everything, and was in no rush to get you anywhere. Of course, it also drags a but, but in contrast to todays movies, I appreciated it. Every character in the new movie could have been developed more. I see that as an issue with modern film making in general. Aside from that, I'll give the rest a pass. We needed something new from Trek and they did that for us. It's not perfect, but hey, we have new Trek to talk about and some more to look forward to and that makes me more pleased with this film than displeased. I just relaxed and enjoyed it. I mean, it's far from the worst Trek film ever. In fact, It's one of the best in my opinion.

    Oh, and your right about Carl Urban, he was absolutely perfect!

    Good read, thanks!

    1. I mean, it's far from the worst Trek film ever.

      I agree. They didn't have a poorly though out death of a beloved main character so I'll rank this higher than Generations or Nemesis. I just think there's still a LOT of room for improvement. Luckily the sequel doesn't have to deal with all the setup that this film did so there's some room to develop the characters and events a bit more, and I hope they take advantage of that.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. It's not far from the worst Trek film ever. I'd say it is the worst Trek film ever. Actually, the most anti-Trek film ever. Unoriginal, uncreative, corny and cheap. Generations is a masterpiece compared to it, even Nemesis seems great in comparison. The review was pretty good and accurate. Although there were many things not mentioned there. I don't care much about the sequel because they ruined too much with the 2009 film and got away with it; there are no indications it will get any better. It may, and probably will, get worse and, ironically, will get even more praise. Absurd. Illogical. Nonsensical.

    1. Looking at the other ten movies again since this review I think I actually might make a post about the differences between a good movie and a good Trek movie. This might be the better movie pacing wise, with better special effects, etc. than some of the others. But in terms of exploring themes about people and society every other film in the franchise eats this one for breakfast. Because they actually have ideas they want to explore in their narratives even if some of them are poorly thought out.

      As to the sequel yeah I don't care about it much either. I want it to better than this film because this new universe has lots of potential, but my expectations are mine-shaft levels of low because all the creators seem to care about is doing whatever they want with the franchise because they shattered continuity in the name of shiny action.

      Sorry for the long reply, but thanks for commenting and if you're interested in more of my thoughts on the movie I have a longer review here:

  4. I understand what you say. But I wouldn't say this is a particularly good (sci-fi) movie either. It uses action, special effects, and cheap melodrama to conceal its lack of originality. I don't know what people see in it. Maybe my criteria of a good science fiction film are too high. Still, I don't like it at all. And, considering the fact that it's called Star Trek and is based on it, yet departs so much from it, I see it actually more as anti-Trek than Trek. I hate it, actually. As some would say, this is NOT Star Trek. I'm inclined to agree there.

    No problem. I appreciate the reply. It wasn't long. Yes, I'll certainly take a look at the other review. I'll read it and maybe I'll comment there too. Thanks.

  5. Most movies that I dislike...I can just ignore. I just don't think about them afterwards, save for the occasional shaking of the head.

    And then there's Abrams-Trek. As Morpheus aptly put, it's like a splinter in my mind. I still can't shake it three plus years later.

    The answer to most of your problems can be summed up with the writing duo of Orci and Kurtzman. Talk about a tone deaf, sloppy drivel of a script. Right down to their signature "Oh crap! We haven't explained anything yet, let's info dump right in the middle of the movie!" maneuver.

    And the production design...dear's usually FAR down on the list of things I bring up in criticism, but my paranoid side wonders whether the creative team was actively trying to make myself pluck out my corneas. One shouldn't be comparing a studio tent pole movie to 70's BBC production standards.

    Stick in all the classic references you want. I know when I'm being pandered to.

    For the record, I wouldn't take a bullet for the original series, my favorite is Deep Space Nine.

    But if this is the future tone and content of Trek...Abrams and company have done the impossible. I have no interest in seeing the next theatrical Star Trek movie.

    And if "Final Frontier" couldn't pull that off, they've really accomplished something.

    1. Stick in all the classic references you want. I know when I'm being pandered to.

      Thank you for stating what bugs me when people say that of course the creative team respects the old trek and its fans look how many references they put in. No, no those references are not there to show how much Abrams and company know and respect what came before they're there to be a gimmick and grab hold of our nostalgia so hopeful we won't notice this new canon has more holes in it than Swiss cheese.

      But if this is the future tone and content of Trek...Abrams and company have done the impossible. I have no interest in seeing the next theatrical Star Trek movie.

      I think this is why I have such a hard time simply ignoring this movie, because it's a sign of what's to come. The creative team have already shown the audience what they want to focus on: spectacle and action. Well I don't have to go see the next Star Trek movie to get that I can go to any summer blockbuster film. So what the hell is there to be excited about?