I think any kind of review or opinion on JJ Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise is probably best aided by some context of your opinion of the franchise before you see this new film. So here it is.
I found the original series to be quite entertaining, albeit in a campy sort of way where I didn’t really take notice of any of the considerable lore that is now built around the franchise. I enjoyed the formula of travelling to a new planet every episode, beaming down with most of the main characters plus some poor nameless ensign who you knew would die, and then Captain Kirk getting his mack on some green-skinned temptress with pointy ears and a wig. Its absurdity struck the same chord in me that finds super hero comics and professional wrestling appealing.
The later series, starting with The Next Generation brought with them a seriousness which I wasn’t interested in at a younger age. The new formula showed restraint, both with its poe-faced asexual Captain and its conservative alien designs, such as a miniscule ridge on the nose. Every episode felt like it involved a lot of diplomacy which meant standing around on The Bridge and making a moral decision. I tuned out and didn’t watch another episode of the show nor the ten films that would follow.
My partner Jen, as it so happens, is a huge Star Trek fan and has watched every episode of every season of every Star Trek series from The Next Generation onwards which works out to be several hundred hours of moral decision making. When it clicked that the combination of an exciting teaser trailer and JJ Abrams involvement in the new Star Trek was enough to convince me to give the franchise another try, she jumped at the chance to also have me watch the two most highly regarded films in the franchise up to that point: Wrath of Khan and First Contact. With the surrounding hype around the new film, I relented and agreed to watch these two older ones that I had previously passed on.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed these two films. I suspect a lot of it may be to do with finally accepting that the films weren’t going to have the same campy appeal as The Original Series and also to do with the methodical pacing which my teenage self didn’t have the patience for.
It was with this background that I approached the new Star Trek film from JJ Abrams.
Initially, I couldn’t stop laughing at how the film appears to be shot in fast forward compared to its forebearers. Consider the first ten minutes of Wrath of Khan:
A lieutenant-in-training undergoes a simulation of a rescue mission. After failing this simulation, a discussion is had about the result.
Now consider the first ten minutes of the rebooted Star Trek:
An alien spaceship travels through a black hole and then immediately sets upon attacking a Federation space ship! We see many lasers and explosions. The crew frantically try to counter-attack but decide that the ship is lost and that they must evacuate. A mother gives birth to a young baby. The father, who is also the ship’s captain, gives a speech to the mother over an intercom, says farewell, names the baby, then embarks on a suicide mission ramming into the alien ship while the mother and child escape. We fast-forward two decades later and see a young James Kirk breaking the speed limit on Earth and being chased by a robot police officer. Kirk speeds towards a cliff before jumping out of the moving vehicle at the last split second, plunging off the edge of the cliff but managing to grab the ledge, pulling himself back up from what seemed like certain death.
Clearly, Abrams has decided the best way to find a new audience for the series is to introduce some MTV-style editing and crank up the noise. In exchange for throwing away the pacing of the earlier films, he throws the existing fans a bone in the form of in-jokes and subtle references that the new audience won’t notice. Thats about the extent of it.
Using the wonders of time travel, Abrams effectively reboots the series giving him carte-blanche to take it in his own direction. The mandate appears to be obliterating any semblance of the notion that Star Trek may be old and dated. So much so that for the role of an old woman, he casts Winona Ryder, instead of someone who is actually an old woman.
The plot centres around a time travelling alien guy called Nero who seeks to exact vengeance upon Spock. To accomplish this, he goes back some number of years that I don’t recall with the aim of destroying Spock’s home planet. Meanwhile, we get re-aquainted with a new generation of actors playing the roles from The Original Series on their first mission together. Leonard Nimoy also shows up as a crowd pleaser.
This all comes together in a likeable film that has all the summer blockbuster ingredients: there is plenty of action, romance and humour. Importantly, the friendship between Kirk and Spock is given time and there is a chemistry with the two actors which is crucial to making the foundation of the film work (i.e a homo-erotic space drama).
In playing to two audiences, lifelong Star Trek fans and people who normally hate Star Trek, Abrams has a tricky balancing act and he accomplishes this by making a film that doesn’t entirely make sense in isolation but works in the context of the people who watch it. Smaller details of the plot may be left out but fans can fill in the blanks for themselves while the casual viewer is engaged enough with the action sequences to not notice. Its not unlike the theatrical versions of The Lord of the Rings which had the central villain of the whole trilogy dying off-screen in the third film but the mainstream viewer didn’t care anyway and the diehards knew what happened from the books so everyone was still happy.
The end result is a stunning success for Abrams. The series is reborn, the sequels are green-lit and Star Trek currently sits atop the box office throne as the highest grossing film of 2009. In a case of life imitating art, the ‘alternate universe’ reboot also seems to have turned a longstanding pop culture pecking order on its head. Nowadays, Star Trek is the new hotness that mainstream audiences will flock to while arch-rival Star Wars is left peddlng its Clone Wars animated television show to children and the increasingly few adults who still care to follow George Lucas’ vision.