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Putting The Ace into the Federation: Revisiting J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek

August 13, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 1 Comment

The other night, I rewatched J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, because the wife hadn’t seen it and I fancied taking another look to see if it was still as enjoyable a year on.

And is it? Oh yes.  It’s a stunning achievement, overturning a lifetime’s scepticism about dull, portentous Trek – who the hell willingly goes on a Trek, anyway? – with such nimble insouciance I could happily watch it again now.  It’s more entertaining and exciting than the other 1000 hours of telly- and film-Trek  put together, and I’m including anything to do with Tribbles, Khan, Borg and Q in that assessment.

The funny thing is, when I posted about the film on Twitter, I got an immediate flood of replies agreeing with me.  Seriously, no other topic in a year’s worth of my random thoughts has generated so much feedback.  Either all my friends are geeks (actually, that’s probably true!) or the Star Trek reboot is worth talking about.  The vast majority were in broad agreement of the film’s value, with even odd voices of dissent about the film’s lack of plot logic admitting that it’s certainly fun. 

‘Fun’ should be a pre-requisite for a big summer adventure movie, but I get the feeling that we’re all a little starved of that quality this year.  My friend @enemysprout put it best: “Was trying to think of a more fun ‘family’ actioner in recent years and failed.”  Take the 2010 crop. Inception was great but very serious, Toy Story 3 so sad you couldn’t hear the laughs for the sobs, and all those explode-a-thon action movies tend to cancel each other out.  No wonder there’s such a buzz behind Edgar Wright’s imminent Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, which all the cool kids got to see last night, and are now busy squeeing about to anyone who’ll listen.  I really, really hope they’re right, and that Wright is providing as high an entertainment value as Abrams did.

One final point.  The Last Airbender‘s out today.  Just thought I’d mention it, ’cause M. Night Shyamalan’s derided fantasy has set a new standard in how far a one-time geek idol can fall in trying to bring a much-loved cult show to the big screen.  I’ve not seen it yet.  I’m not sure I want to, really.  But it seems frankly bizarre that a director who was once as sure-footed as Shyamalan can take such a tumble when Abrams’ film skips so merrily over all the obstacles nad pitfalls.

After seeing the film again, I dusted down the review I watched after seeing Star Trek last June.  Based on seeing it again, I wouldn’t change a word of the following:

Star Trek
(J. J. Abrams, US, 2009)

Captain’s log: it’s Trek, Jim, but not as we know it. Pompous sci-fi drama is out; space-faring buddy comedy is in. Beam me up.

Star Trek’s shit, right? All those lantern-jawed heroics, painfully earnest science and dodgy colonial subtext. ‘Course, I would say that: I’m a Doctor Who fan, and I’ve always regarded the two shows as mutually exclusive. The Doctor – anarchic, subversive, anti-authority – would be the Federation’s enemy if he appeared in a Star Trek episode; conversely, from the underdog-championing Doctor’s point of view, Kirk is a totalitarian thug.

And, for five minutes, the new Star Trek movie confirms every prejudice with its by-rote assembly of high-tech but thuddingly dull pitched battle, functional dialogue and cheap emotion. I thought this was supposed to be different? And then, miraculously, J. J. Abrams reveals that he resurrected the old ways only to bury them. Cut to the Iowa badlands, cue up the Beastie Boys and unleash an altogether more dynamic set-piece: a thrilling, funny, enjoyable chase between a naughty kid in a classic sports car and a pissed-off robocop. Is this what you humans call entertainment?

You bet. What follows is remarkable – a reboot that’s faithful without being slavish, fun without needing the postmodern sniggery of Starsky and Hutch, and confident enough to ignore the Batman/Bond/Battlestar Galactica axis of insisting that serious is the new dumb-ass. As the actors skitter across the waxed corridors of the Enterprise, and Chris Pine’s Kirk gets beaten up again and again (in the funniest running gag of its type since Miller’s Crossing), it’s clear that Abrams is choreographing this as slapstick, not as sci-fi. Sure there’s a trademark Trek plot about angry aliens using alien tech to destroy alien planets, but the execution is altogether poppier. Set to stun, if you will.

The real boon is that the timey-wimey nonsense of the plot wipes out everything from the past; this genuinely is a reboot, allowing Kirk, Spock and co. to cut loose from Gene Roddenberry’s stern gaze. There’s even a scene devoted to sitting down the hardcore Trekkies and lecturing them on canon: “you guys can keep the show you’ve had for 40 years; this new version is for the cool kids.” Cue much pondering about divergent universes on the Interweb, and cheers from everywhere else that such silliness is not only being not recognised, but celebrated. Just as Russell T. Davies’ nu-Who blew the cobwebs off the more earnest sides of the show, so Abrams has mainlined the essence of Trek as space adventure.

Besides, it’s not as if the geeks won’t recognise the new Trek storyworld – it’s just that its inspiration comes from the other famous franchise that begins with Star. Let’s see: a farmboy with a famous dad who finds himself in space…and then gets chased across a snow planet by a furry white monster. The only thing missing is a Muppet mentor. And, joyfully, this has something of (original) Star Wars’ attitude towards mythology. For the faithful, it’s a prequel, showing how characters meet, acquire nicknames, get jobs aboard the Enterprise. But it avoids Phantom Menace pedantry because everything’s so simple and archetypal. Kirk’s the hothead, Spock the logician, Scotty the mad scientist, Bones the grumpy Doctor. Abrams brings them together in amusing, often unpredictable ways – Kirk trying to chase Uhura’s tail is too obvious a gambit to resist, but who knew that Scotty only got the engineering gig after his predecessor became Trek’s first ‘red shirt’ victim?

If there’s a flaw, it’s that Abrams tries to foist an emotional subtext onto proceedings – the standard trick that gave life to Lost’s flashbacks but sucked the excitement out of M:I-3. Fortunately, the cast are having too much fun racing around to bother hitting the emotional beats. They’ve recognised, perhaps more than the director, that this is an 80s-style buddy movie, and the joy is in the interplay, especially between chalk-and-cheese buddies Kirk and Spock. Pine’s impish performance somehow makes Kirk’s arrogance enviable, while the oddness Zachary Quinto perfected in Heroes translates naturally to Spock’s sardonic outsider’s perspective. Franchise peril lies ahead in trying to boldly go forward while maintaining those nods to the past, but Abrams’ best advice would be to let the characters – not the plot – dictate things.

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One Comment

  1. Marc McKenzieAug 17, 2010 at 9:14 pmReply

    Well said.

    (But a confession…I did like the Batman/Bond/Galactica re-boots…8-))

    It's funny, but I saw TREK '09 twice in the theater. I rarely do that. The second time I enjoyed it even more than the first. And Lord knows how many times I've watched it again on DVD.

    The film is simply fun. It brings back a lot of the positives that the original TREK had, and you are right about the cast–they were excellent, especially Karl Urban as McCoy. Both Pine and Quinto stepped into their roles as though they were born to play Kirk and Spock, and any worries about them were dashed.

    Is the film flawed? Yes…like every movie ever made. But the flaws are not enough to bring the film to a halt, and they are ignored. This film was great then, and it's great now, watching it a year later. Here's hoping for a superb sequel.

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