One would have to be a cultural hermit to be unaware of the flurry of discussion, reviews, and hype generated by the recent release of Star Trek. J.J. Abrams’ new spin on a story that many feel has already been beaten to death—and then beaten to death again—certainly brings a new perspective to this popular saga, offering something for both old fans of the series and newcomers. He stays true to the original characters yet takes enough liberties to produce something for both diehard fans and new audiences.
At least, that’s what I hear.
I think it’s safe to say that I find myself in the minority of viewers, and perhaps even alone among reviewers, in that I know next to nothing about the science-fiction greatness that is Star Trek. Indeed, the question is a fair one to ask by those contemplating a trip to the theater to see this film: what about those who are not fans of the original series and do not know the Star Trek universe? What should they expect, and will they even enjoy a film like this?
Apart from a small amount of back-story that is rather easy to pick up on, Star Trek stands alone as its own film quite well if you can track with a time-traveling villain, understand his motives for destroying entire planets, and accept that two of the same person can exist at the same time. The plot, which borders on an overly complex series of events that could potentially be stretched into its own TV mini-series, is not too difficult to follow. As long as viewers are willing to suspend their disbelief enough to accept Abrams’ galaxy of the distant future, there is much here to like. Ironically, perhaps the greatest strength of this film in relation to the rest of the Star Trek story is that it is a prequel. As a result, every aspect of the film is intended to feel fresh and original, and it accomplishes this quite well. You do not need to meet the classic characters—Kirk, Spock, Bones, Ahura, and Scotty—in advance because the film picks up at their origins and creates their background for you. Better yet, the characters are strong and distinct, and we quickly find ourselves emotionally engaged in their struggles and goals. The academic and always logical Spock faces an identity crisis as he wrestles constantly with being half human and half Vulcan (an alien race), for underneath his unflinching visage and academic language run deep currents of raw emotion—emotion that he must decide to either suppress or embrace. Kirk, whose father sacrificed his life to save him, decides to channel his roguish talents of stealing cars and seducing women into becoming the captain of his own starship. Bones overcomes a recent divorce and fear of space to make a name for himself as a doctor with Starfleet. And when we first meet Scotty, he is a crazy theorist stranded at a frozen outpost, downcast and rejected even though he went on to discover a formula for beaming that makes him an invaluable crew member.
From a film standpoint, we find little that is groundbreaking in Star Trek. Fans of Star Wars have already seen the planet-destroying weapon, warp speed, and ice planet. The plot suffers occasionally from predictability; one scene in particular finds Kirk beaming up to his ship a split second before he would have hit the ground in a fatal fall. Nevertheless, the combination works by creating an understandable story in a foreign universe, unique characters whose complications are sufficiently resolved, and beautiful cinematography in a colorful outer space.
If there is anything groundbreaking in this film, it is the ill-timed glares that Abrams somehow saw fit to use. There is plenty of eye candy, including vast pan shots across the hull of the Enterprise, black holes devouring planets, and lasers and explosions galore. Sometimes, however, the audience only wants to clearly and simply see what is on the screen. Kirk looks out into space from the Enterprise, only to have his face washed out in the backlight. Spock glances at a control panel, about to make a “logical” observation, when suddenly a brightness from behind washes out his stolid face. No matter how you look at it, the glares are unwelcome. Abrams allegedly justifies this by trying to show that the future literally is looking bright for humanity. Would we like to think this after watching Star Trek? Perhaps, but the idea seems to be sufficiently conveyed in the images of a vast space station orbiting earth and a giant space ship under construction in the corn fields in Iowa.
In the end, Star Trek accomplishes what appears to be its only goal, and that is to entertain via characters, plot, and explosions. Fear not, you who know nothing of Scotty’s beaming skills or the Vulcan ways, and abandon your pre-conceived notions of geekiness and confusion. You just might find some genuine quality and art underneath this latest sci-fi flick.
P.S. Sorry it's been so long, but now that summer is here I'll try to be more active in my blogging.