Let me start by stating that yes, I am a STAR TREK fan. Particularly the original series. However, I have never been to a convention, never dressed up as any of the characters, and I do not speak a word of Klingon. That said, as a kid, I would have LOVED to have done any and all of the above.
My point? While I count myself as a fan, my fanaticism has its limits. There are those who can talk STAR TREK circles around me. And I welcome their input and observations. I say this because I truly enjoyed much of J.J. Abrams’ new STAR TREK film. I also had some issues with the film that keeps it from being a favorite. Or even as great as its first half promised. And my problems with the film are, in part, fan-based and, in other part, common sense-based.
There’s nothing more frustrating to me than a really good film that allows sloppy moments to intrude on the world of the story and characters. That said, I should state here that I am all for re-imaginings. It seems to be the thing these days. No longer is the sequel king. It’s the remake. And I’m all for it if it can do something new and unique with the material and characters. And this STAR TREK movie does that. Much the same way CASINO ROYALE re-started the Bond franchise and re-imagined our ruthless hero. Is it the Bond from the novels? Not really. Is he still highly watchable and exciting? Yes. The Bond series needed a breath of fresh air and they got it. Sadly, the second installment forgot about character development, but that’s another film and another post… Back to TREK.
J.J. Abrams’ new take on the old series is almost terrific. In fact, the first half of the film held me lovingly in its grip. True, I went in fearing the worst, but the filmmakers had some great ideas on how to re-invigorate these characters and films and they managed to pull off the near-impossible: take these much-beloved characters –an institution, really– and give them over to an entirely new cast in an entirely new environment. Changing the timeline, as they did, is quite brilliant (and keeping within the rules of the TREK universe) and have single-handedly set us up for a whole lifetime of new adventures that do not require most of the facts and circumstances of the original series or any other offshoot, be it television or film.
The casting is near-perfect. Even if these aren’t exactly the characters as we knew and loved them, they’re pretty damn close; close enough to remind us why we loved them and make us yearn to love them again. And here is where one of my problems with the film rears its ugly head. It’s an issue that may very well be insignificant to anyone but a lover of STAR TREK. The casting and direction of the actors was so spot on, so fun to watch, both nostalgic and new all at the same time, that it’s that much more disappointing when they get one of the characters wrong.
I initially saw the film in the theater and had some reservations and issues, but all films deserve a second viewing (at least) and so I rented the Blu-ray and sat down for another look. And sadly, the same issues remained for me. The first being the casting of Simon Pegg as Scotty, originally played by the late James Doohan. As an actor and comedian, I think Pegg is great. But his (and the filmmakers’) take on Scotty basically mocks Doohan’s character. In fact, I would go as far as to say, with the exception of the accent, there is little-to-no similarities between the two. Pegg’s Scotty is a wise-cracking goofball from another movie. Whenever he’s on screen, the kids in the audience may be entertained, but the rest of us are stuck with a cartoon character. The filmmakers worked so hard to get all the characters right, why did they abandon this one?
Anyone who watched the original show knows that Scotty was never the comic relief. Not any more or less than any other character. But in this STAR TREK universe, he serves little else. His very presence undermines all the tension Abrams worked so diligently to build up throughout the film’s first half. Abrams might as well have cast Jim Carrey and let him run around the bridge talking out of his butt. It’s all very silly and out of place in a world where entire civilizations are wiped out and intimate family members murdered. But someone somewhere seemed to think that the film might be getting too dark and that they should dip into sitcom-land for a little while lest anyone get too tense or, god forbid, think the filmmakers where taking this seriously.
At one point, Scotty accidentally transports himself into an engine cooling system while our beloved Kirk has to watch him zip through transparent water tubes a la WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. Now you don’t have to be a STAR TREK fan or know any of these characters to recognize the tension all but completely disappear as the film veers off into an odd comic nether-sphere.
Add to that Scotty’s little alien friend –his cute little buddy that follows him around– and we have an episode of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND on our hands! Perhaps in their attempt to incorporate the many different elements of the TREK universe, the filmmakers thought this would be fitting. Sadly, for me, it completely took me out of the film and made me hyper-aware of the folks behind the scenes trying to make a few more “commercially-minded” choices. So, in effect, they took a beloved character, placed him in a rather riveting story, and then decided he should be more like Bill Murray in MEATBALLS.
But Pegg’s Scotty is really the only major character that completely missed the boat for me. There are a few instances where I thought the filmmakers were trying a little too hard to incorporate now-famous phrases or actions, like Karl Urban’s McCoy stating “I’m a doctor, not a physicist!” at a point where it really doesn’t make any sense in the context of the conversation that’s taking place and just ends up standing out like a sore thumb. But that I can more easily forgive because it is all in the line of trying to make the characters more like the ones we know and love. You can’t get everything right. Especially on the first outing.
But now comes the clincher; the moment in the film when logic and character motivation are replaced by a weak plot necessity resulting in what feels like blatantly lazy writing. In one fell swoop, the writers (or whoever made this decision) have Spock decide that he wants Kirk off the ship so badly that he actually has him ejected onto a dangerous ice planet. Whoa, hold on here, cowboy… Now while the filmmakers may have written themselves into a corner in needing to get Kirk and the older Spock together, they unfortunately resorted to an act that I do not for one second believe any captain or character (not to mention a logical Vulcan) would enact. Not on a ship with a brig. Lock Kirk up. Done and dealt with. Or why not simply sedate him as they had done previously? No, it makes no sense to the story or characters and ends up making me aware of the writers struggling. What’s odd is that this STAR TREK feels like a film where the filmmakers DID actually care and were hyper-aware of the characters and their motivations. So what happened here? Why a moment of such unnecessarily lazy writing?
Unfortunately, this unbelievable moment leads to one of the film’s most extraneous sequences where Kirk is chased by some wild beasties across the frozen landscape. This feels like the effects determining the story and not the other way around. It’s gratuitous and not particularly interesting. It’s an aversion from the story. For this viewer, the entire sequence and the clear unmotivated plot manipulation that preceded it took me out of the film and gave me a slight sinking feeling in my stomach. Mostly because, up until that point, they were doing such a bang-up job and I was so completely IN the world of the film! And of course, this sequence leads us directly to the introduction of Scotty, adding insult to injury.
The good news is, though it takes a while, the film finally finds its footing once again and is pretty damn entertaining straight through to the climax. Yeah, Bana’s Nero is not all that interesting or developed, but he is serviceable in a film that has chosen to spend the bulk of its time reintroducing us to these beloved characters in their new skins. And rightfully so. The film (and the franchise) depends on this.
So, for me, the filmmakers made some crucial mistakes in the second half of the film. They allowed themselves to get lazy as well as give in to some overly commercial elements that, in my opinion, had no place there and, in fact, disrupted the flow and integrity of the story.
But perhaps it’s a small transgression given the task they set for themselves and the amount they actually did get right. Still, all in all, what they got wrong brought the film down enough for me that it just doesn’t sit in my gut as comfortably as I would like it to. And that’s a shame. Because all I really want at the end of the day is good storytelling and rich characters (and yeah, these days that makes me a demanding audience member). And for the first half of the film, they delivered that in spades. But once they stumbled, I was never quite able to shake that feeling that this film was almost terrific. But these days, almost is more than we can usually expect from any film produced and developed by an American studio. So by that gauge, STAR TREK is still way above average.