There has been an ongoing battle for the soul of Star Trek since the series was created by Gene Roddenberry in the mid-sixties. Roddenberry always envisioned the show as an opportunity to explore complex philosophical conundrums against the background of a bright vision for a better tomorrow. The studio execs have always wanted Star Trek to be cowboys and Indians in space. With the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, the studios have finally won the battle. The follow-up to Star Trek, the 2009 reboot of the franchise is a mind-numbing 2 hours of gunfire and fisticuffs set against a future we should fear, not aspire to. Gone is Roddenberry’s vision of an enlightened human civilization that has resolved its internal strife and set out to spread a message of peace across the galaxy. This future seems to have taken a colossal step backwards, dripping with the xenophobia and military industrial jingoism of the darkest days of American history. There isn’t a lot of Trekking going on this movie, and not a lot of seeking out new life forms. Like the last film, most of the action centers around Earth and Earthlings. The other planets are just scenery and the other species are mostly cannon fodder.
I get the feeling that director JJ Abrams is like a kid who asked for Star Wars toys for Christmas, but his mother, not knowing the difference, accidentally bought him Star Trek toys. Unhindered by the miscalculation, Abrams has proceeded to play Star Wars with his Star Trek toys. Luckily, Abrams is finally going to get his Star Wars toys for his birthday, and I am confident he will have more fun playing with those.
The film opens on a beautiful planet populated with a race of primitive humanoids. The Star Trek mythos dictates that we should learn who these people are, what their civilization is about, and how they might interact with their more technologically advanced human cousins. Instead, we watch them chase our heroes down while throwing spears at them in an action sequence more suitable for an Indiana Jones flick than a Star Trek adventure. In the middle of the chase, Captain Kirk bumps into a large, hairy alien and instinctively shoots it with his phaser. Moments later, Doctor McCoy reveals that the beast was actually a friendly creature who was going to give them a ride to safety.
This moment is indicative of the film’s inherent problem. The characters and plot are moving at such a breakneck, mindless speed that instead of solving story conflicts, they are content to gun them down. The irony is that the film seems to understand its own problem. At numerous points in the story, characters wax poetic about how the Enterprise is supposed to be a vessel of peace rather than an instrument of war. In fact, that is clearly the entire theme of the movie. By the end of the story, the characters have learned this lesson, and the crew of the Enterprise finally sets out on the 5 year mission of exploration that is the entire premise of the series. The question is, why did it take 2 movies to establish a concept that was explained in 30 seconds at the beginning of each episode of the original series?
The answer is marketing. The Star Trek brand had lost it’s appeal in the 21st century. Star Trek was your dad’s science fiction, and in order to compete with the fast-paced, effects-laden, action-packed sci-fi flicks of today, it needed a serious makeover. Thanks to these new movies, Star Trek is cool again. But at what cost? Star Trek is like that smart, funny kid who decided to start dressing and acting like the popular kids to get more friends. The problem is, that kid already had some really great friends, and we feel a little left behind and ignored now that he’s changed so much.
Despite my qualms, I still really like this cast. Chris Pine and Karl Urban especially capture the essence of Kirk and McCoy. Zachary Quinto still hasn’t quite found his groove as Spock, but that’s the toughest role in the lot. Honestly, it took Leonard Nimoy a few episodes of the original series to really find the character. Abrams seems to think that in order to give his characters emotions, he needs to make them cry. Captain Kirk, Admiral Pike, even Spock and the Villain all cry in this movie. So many tears flow in this flick, you’d think the production was sponsored by Kleenex. And despite all of this crying, there is little emotional depth to to the film. The character conflicts are juvenile. Spock’s girlfriend is mad because he doesn’t share his feelings with her. Kirk is mad because Spock tattled on him to their boss. Scotty quits his job because Kirk won’t listen to him. Gone are the poignant and meaningful relationships that made the original series so captivating and enter a ship filled with whining hipsters.
Speaking of hipsters, why is it that the characters seem to change outfits in every scene? Does Starfleet really have a different change of clothes for every activity their officers engage in? They have space uniforms, underwater uniforms, dress uniforms, and volcano uniforms. And when they land on the Klingon homeworld, they all put on sweet leather jackets. Gotta look cool in front of the Klingons. Captain Kirk has more costume changes in this movie than Queen Amidala. Occasionally, they let him wear his regular uniform, but by golly he never rips his shirt and exposes his chest. That’s not the Star Trek I know!
Now that Star Trek has captured a more mainstream audience and JJ Abrams is moving on to his next assignment pumping some new blood into the rival Star Wars franchise, I have hope that a more thoughtful director can get this franchise back on course. The original series was always smart and imaginative, and occasionally boring for non-devotees. This new film is never boring, but it’s also never smart or imaginative. I give the studio major credit for making people love Star Trek again, I really do. The ship looks great, and so does the cast. But like Christopher Pike told Kirk in the last movie, “I dare you to do better.”