Mirth is to the fore in Abrams's new universe, and mercifully
so. "My Galaxy Quest fear — which is a film I really like —
is that if we don't have humour in the movie, you will find
humour in the movie."
Times T2 Interview with director J.J. Abrams
Returning from seeing the new Star Trek, my co-Trek admirer friend and I had more to say and appreciate about the funny and Trek-inspired comedy Galaxy Quest. I still cannot quote Alan Rickman's note perfect "By Grabthar's Hammer, (sublimely timed pause)... what a savings!" without smiling so wide it makes my non-pointed ears hurt. This is not to say that we dismissed the new Trek out of hand. It was just that we had nothing to say because there was nothing to talk about that was new. Almost everything in the new Trek has borrowed (stolen if we're going for the jugular, homaged if we're feeling merciful) from old Trek. You may say justifiably "duh," but when you have the universe as your playground, rehashed ideas feel even more disappointing. The movie feels like an oversized iPod constructed from old vinyl playing turntables, audio cassette boxes and held together by reel to reel tape. I cannot understand Abrams' enthusiasm for this script. There's not a single original idea in the film that might have given this new-old Enterprise functioning nacelles. This is not eighteen months of wonderful anticipation stamped into the Aldebaran mud talking. Stepping back from the film just hours later, I really had to try and eke out something that I'd not seen before to appreciate. The identity of Uhura's boyfriend remains the single eyebrow raise.
There's time travel, Romulan revenge, technobabble, worlds in dire peril, Spock popping up all over the time-space continuum, space battles and almost every other Trek element that collectively we fans have embraced in the past. But to pull up a 40 year-old TV show into a modern Hollywood movie, I feel it was necessary to do more than hang a 'done many times before' story onto instantly recognisable and beloved characters. There are even howlingly silly 'deus ex machinas' that put brick-strong full stops in a movie that demanded crafted and honed commas. At one point Kirk is booted off the Enterprise, lands on an ice planet (presumably a largish planet, not, one imagines, the size of the Isle of Wight) and in the first cave he runs into, he encounters a man who then proceeds to save his life and give him everything he needs to know to understand the plot. Uh... wait a minute, guys. That's really lazy. And if three brave men are going to fall out of the sky to blow up an enormous drill, don't give only one of them the bombs to do the job and if you do, make sure he's not wearing red! This is Star Trek!
There's another similar plot point that in making Spock a hero, renders the entire human race as jaw dropped nitwits waiting for their planet to be consumed by red blobs and turned into a black hole. Uh, it is possible for 23rd century technology to destroy a frickin' drill, isn't it? And is it just me (and I have seen Star Wars) who thinks blowing up an entire planet that we have known and loved was a little on the darker, non-Trek side of science fiction? Billions dead. That's a big ouch. Princess Leah may have recognised Grand Moff Tarkin's stench as she was brought on board the Death Star but wiping out planets belongs to the fluffier side of science fantasy. Whatever Kirk was going to win in this new Trek was nothing to what had been sacrificed and irrevocably lost after the halfway mark. It felt like Kirk scores the winning goal but the bad guys had wrought enough destruction to make his victory the very meaning of the word hollow.
I'd like to address a malaise in recent Hollywood output and for once it's nothing to do with CG. I played the new Trek score for eight hours non-stop during a recent working day. Aren't you glad I work alone? I have a theory that knowing the (literal) score before seeing the movie ramps up the viewing experience considerably. I'd only known Michael Giacchino's work from Lost but was willing to give any composer the benefit of the doubt. He had enormous symphonic shoes to fill. Let's not even mention Alexander Courage's wonderful but dated main theme from the TV show. But we have the genius of Jerry Goldsmith for the enduring Motion Picture score that subsequently morphed into the Next Generation's main theme. James Horner (and I'm not a great fan) did do a memorable job on Wrath of Kahn and its sequel. Leonard Rosenman's Voyage Home score tended to repeat Rosenman's own work all too often but then we went via Cliff Eidelman's Stravinsky inspired work back to Jerry. That is a fine roster of talent.
Something Trek always prided itself on was thematic grandeur when it came to movie scores. Let's not call any attention to the latter, weaker series' generic underscores and if Enterprise's main theme ever gets whistled near me in the next thirty years, I shall not be held responsible for any root vegetables I may grasp and insert into places where they really don't belong. "Faith of the heart..." Help me aim the projectile vomit. In fact my dear son, whenever I attempt a parodic, emotionally retarded version of the piece (I only have to start with "S'bin-along-road...") and he shouts at me "You love that song!" I really don't (and then have to remove carrots from his ear sockets). Giacchino's score is... uh. At best? Unmemorable. Star Trek requires a score of such rousing positivism, such thematic obstinacy that we take it home in our pockets and hum the bastard until we feel enveloped in velour and can do no wrong in the face of overwhelming odds. It squirmed around the new Trek like a pussycat around ankles that demand more physicality from its pets. Trek scores are Great Danes that slobber all over you and you are appreciative that they do just that. Quoting Courage's original theme at the close of play was not nearly enough.
So what of the plus points? Chris Pine nails Kirk as a headstrong rebel, a leader with cocksure posturing and libido set on stun. His irony, humour and all too American gung-hoism works for the film so much so that I held on to his performance like a seeing eye dog through the morass of referential, rehashed science fiction clichés. Quinto's Spock, with profound emotional lock down, is a significant hit in all the right places. Sulu is allowed his one Naked Time pastime being brought to the humorous fore. Chekov's mangling of the English language is played for laughs and I remember thinking "This is going to get old really quickly," but his resourcefulness won me over. McCoy's Karl Urban is the closest any of the actors get to an outright impersonation (he's a doctor, not a DeForest Kelley soundalike). Uhura is gorgeous and capable. Fellow science fiction geek and all round sympathetic everyman, Simon Pegg, pulls Scotty off with some aplomb (though I didn't fully understand his relationship with a dwarfish alien who never seemed to be sitting in the right place).
The effects are, as expected, numerous and deftly handled. But then that's a given nowadays. Technically, the movie surpasses any of the Star Wars prequels by dint of being, at the very least, visually understandable. And in a small but significant way, the screen never seemed big enough to enclose the action. Ships were routinely cut off at the edge of frame but that's a directorial design and not a flaw per se. The bowels of both the Romulan ship and the Enterprise itself often recalled Earthbound factories (what does the Enterprise need with tubes of water all over the place)? Crucially the Enterprise herself (an element of the original show that routinely got more fan mail than the actors) had very little character. The bridge was pretty but everywhere else was like the interior of a car-manufacturing warehouse. And then there's the Romulan ship (yes, it's alien, I get this) but humanoid aliens still die from gravity if they fall off a high platform. Let's not address the wonderful cliché of zero gravity ignorance that Trek really began. The whole set seemed predicated on the increasing risk that a trip to the bathroom would involve several death defying leaps. This just struck me as profoundly silly. Eric Bana's Nero is a driven bad guy with just too much to do in the revenge trade. Was it me or were the Romulans supposed to remind you of cold war warriors from the Russian steppes? Bottles of vodka would not have been out of place here.
So, in summary... this movie will make a fortune. That's OK. It's good Trek just not new Trek. I'm looking forward to sequels of more weight and originality. How naïve is that? If No. 1 of the reboot goes stellar then we're going to get more of the same. Is it the product of an America that now equates itself with a forty year-old TV series and the optimism it then celebrated? President Obama is a Star Trek fan. This doesn't necessarily equate Abrams' movie with a shift in US politics. The TV Star Trek always seemed to present James T. Kirk as the ultimate and universal (literally universal) moral policeman. Power is as power does. Whether President Obama can heal a few billion wounds is up to him and his time in office. Whether Kirk, Spock and McCoy can still claim to boldly go where no one has gone before is up to the imaginations of the new keepers of the flame. So far, the more things have changed, the more they've stayed the same.