Yes, the world needs another film review for Star Trek. And several days late as well.
Let’s get the assessment out of the way first: I really enjoyed Star Trek. It was entertaining, exciting, fun, engaging, pacy without being rushed, spectacular to look at and leaves you with a good feeling as you leave the cinema. It is an excellent reboot of a series that needed something to energise it and sets up the potential for equally good films.
As with most amateur reviews of the film, I am honour-bound to discuss my connection to Star Trek. So, I watched Star Trek growing up and it had an affect on me: there is the possibility that Spock influenced me becoming a scientist (although I’m not one any more) and I have a preference for clamshell mobile phones because they remind me of Trek communicators. However, I am not a Trekkie/Trekker – I don’t go beyond being a fan of geek entertainment who enjoys science fiction, so I don’t have long-held beliefs in what makes a good Trek film (and my favourite Star Trek film is First Contact). Disclaimer over.
A quick plot synopsis: James T Kirk is born in space as his father dies as a starship captain saving 800 people (including James and his mum); he grows up a rebel, living near where starships are built, until Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) dares him to become a cadet at Starfleet academy. Meanwhile, Spock is a rebel in his own way on Vulcan, refusing to join the Science Academy on Vulcan and joining Starfleet because other Vulcans disapprove of his human ancestry. After cheating on the Kobayashi Maru test, written by Spock, Kirk is suspended but he gets brought on board the Enterprise by his friend Bones McCoy when the cadets are promoted to active duty when the planet Vulcan is under threat. The threat is the same ship responsible for the death of Kirk’s father: Romulans from the future, who holds Spock responsible for the death of his planet, are destroying Vulcan in retaliation. The same singularity that brought them from the future also brings Spock from the future to the present time. The Enterprise is the only ship to be ready when they arrive at Vulcan, with Spock as First Officer – but when Captain Pike is ordered to meet the Romulans, he promotes Spock to Captain and Kirk to First Officer – setting up the dominoes that will fall to give us the bridge crew of the Enterprise that we all know …
First off, the good stuff. The film looks fabulous – the Enterprise looks sex-ay in all the right ways, gleaming and shiny and designery, like an Apple-influenced spaceship. The special effects are great and the action are all spot on (and I like the moments in space, which result in an absence of noise). The casting is perfect: the actors who are playing the younger versions of the characters we know channel them without slavishly impersonating them. Chris Pine is Kirk NOT Shatner, which is an important distinction – Shatner has a, ahem, unique acting style, so an impression wouldn’t have worked, and Pine acts the cockiness, the bravado, the charm, the arrogance; as Kermode said in his review, the way he sat in the captain’s seat WAS Kirk. Zachary Quinto is great as Spock – I’ve never liked him as an actor on Heroes, but here he is perfect as Spock in intonation and delivery and eyebrow arching. But the best is Karl Urban as Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy – the irascibility, the grumpiness, the attitude, the delivery of the snipey aside are just perfect.
The rest of the cast are good: Greenwood does a great Pike, Zoe Saldana is a good Uhura; and Anton Yulchin and John Cho make good Chekov and Sulu, respectively. Simon Pegg is good as Scotty in the sense of being the comic relief – he does comedy with ease and brings real energy to the role. The accent is okay but I could be biased against him knowing that he is English and doing an accent – even though I love Pegg, I have always wondered what it would have been like with an actual Scot in the role, and one who is a huge fan of Star Trek: namely, James McAvoy. But comedy was needed, and Pegg is perfect for that – and he worked with JJ Abrams on Mission: Impossible III.
There are nice in-jokes for Star Trek fans, with some famous lines getting said (‘I’m a doctor, not a physicist’; ‘Fascinating’; ‘I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain!’; ‘Are you out of your Vulcan mind?’) and references to Trek lore (a mention of Admiral Archer from Enterprise, Sulu and fencing, Chekov not being able to enunciate ‘w’), but there is also comedy for non-fans – it’s part of the balance that Abrams and screenwriters Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman tread finely but tremendously successfully, to keep everyone happy with the film they’ve made. The story is straightforward, even with the time-travel element, and provides all the thrills and action anybody could want. And, at its heart, it is a story about friendship – seemingly the only story in Star Trek: the friendship between Spock and Kirk (which does represent the basis of Trek: complete opposites can come together and become a team for good).
The film is very good but it is not perfect, so let’s talk about the bad stuff. From a man who became famous for a television series about a strong female character in Alias, the use of women in the film is rather poor. The character of Uhura was always used badly in the original series, but it was the 1960s, so it has an excuse. In 2009, Uhura and the other women in the film should be used well. However, this is not the case – Kirk’s mother is used only to give birth to him and nothing more; Spock’s mother (Winona Ryder in ageing make-up – why? Wouldn’t it have been easier to have someone of the right age?) has a few lines and only exists to die and instigate Spock’s emotions; the emotional backstory for the villain of the piece is not just the death of his entire planet but also because his wife (and kids) died, because women aren’t people, they are plot points; and Uhura, who is shown to be a smart, resourceful and independent woman before getting on the Enterprise, ends up with nothing to do on the bridge and only interacts with the story by being Spock’s girlfriend. I know that a film is different to a television programme, where you have time to give all characters equal time, and films have to depend on a few main character arcs, but it seems not only a shame but a bit of a miss-step to sideline one of the most famous women in science fiction.
Story-wise, I had a few issues. Not in a Star Trek way, just from a narrative perspective. Using time travel as the plot device and as the way to start Star Trek afresh – basically, this is alternate Earth Star Trek, so they can do anything without worrying about the years of continuity – is a cheat, which is appropriate when we get to see the notorious scene where Kirk cheats on the Kobayashi Maru test (echoing the scene in Wrath of Khan where we learn of this by having Kirk eating an apple). It’s a rather clumsy reboot button, and it niggled me. The time travel aspect also ruins the central idea of the Star Trek canon; namely, the friendship between Kirk and Spock. Having been told by the future Spock that they become friends, it removes the development of the relationship in an organic fashion. If fate has already determined it, where’s the excitement? Still, Pine and Quinto have good chemistry, working off each other well and playing up the classic elements we know, so it’s enough to ignore this element.
There are too many ‘plot-driving contrivances’ – young Spock, who should put Kirk in the brig for his insubordination, decides to jettison him off the ship onto a nearby ice planet. Where, while escaping from some CGI beasties, Kirk happens to be saved by old Spock from the future (who has been dumped on this planet by the man who hated him so much that he supposedly want him to suffer while he killed his entire planet – surely it would be easier to witness his pain if Spock was actually in the room with him?). And then they happen to meet a young Montgomery Scott on this desolate planet, who happens to have the capability to teleport them onto a ship moving at warp speed (after Spock gives him the final variable to his equation that he hasn’t finished yet). It stretches things but you’re too busy enjoying the film to care about them at the time – the film is just too entertaining to get in the way. Humour, action, spectacle, excitement, courageous acts, emotional connection – Star Trek has it all, and it a wonderful summer blockbuster film.