Friday, May 8, 2009

Review: Star Trek (2009)

There are a few spoilers in this post, that do mention a few plot details, but nothing huge.

I heard so many good things about this film. Rotten Tomatoes gives this film a whopping 96% Fresh rating. How could it not be good?

I did not like it. I'm sorry, and I realise this puts me in a tiny 4% minority, but although I started out being reasonably open, although not blown away, the more I watched of the film, the more I started to dislike it. I left the theatre in a frustrated hurry. I hated this film.

Why, in the face of such overwhelming support?

Let's start at the beginning. The opening of the film is a good fifteen minutes long. A starfleet crew is faced with an enormous, terrifyingly ridiculously designed Romulan ship that dwarfs the starship. After the ship is crippled, he submits to the Romulan's demands to come aboard, leaving the ship in the hands of one Kirk (!). Kirk, after ensuring his very pregnant wife (and newborn son) is safely away, employs the time honoured technique of Ramming Speed in order to destract the Romulans for long enough to save the lives of the remaining crew members. In his final moments he Christens his son: James Tiberius Kirk.


A representative of pretty much everything that annoyed me about this film occurred in these fifteen minutes. However, at the time, I was still--although not impressed--looking forward to the film.

This intensely action-filled opening did not engage me in the slightest. I felt no emotional connection with these characters. The action, the desperation, the tenderness of the Kirk family moment, the loss of the lives of the crew... nothing had any meaning. I assumed, at the time, that this was because the characters were just placeholders. But I'm afraid this emotional connection was, for me, almost entirely absent throughout the film.

Perhaps this was because the film had the feeling of a poorly written thriller, where 'exciting' sequences (however meaningless) must occur at regular intervals simply because we haven't had one for a while. After a while, you can predict them. I've said it before and I'll say it again: action sequences do not make a film exciting or tense. Twice, Kirk found himself clinging by his fingertips, Mufasa style, on the edge of a cliff.

So, this film was not exciting or tense, unless you like action for action's sake. Never once did I fear for the life of a character. Weirdly, I feel like they tried to avoid the trap of all prequels, that none of your favourite characters can die, by creating an alternate universe in which all bets were off. And yet, of course, still none of the characters could die. The result: I never once imagined any of them would die, except the Very Obvious Redshirts, who, I may add, were dressed in red. (And never mourned).

Which brings me to a third complaint: unoriginality. Again despite the alternate universe thing, the script was still endlessly bogged down with in-jokes. That is to say, jokes and references that were plucked straight from the fandom of the Star Trek universe. Most of the actors were tied inextricably to their previous incarnations, still repeating the still lines, still treading the same path. When they stepped off it, they stepped off without any real background-- for example Uhura's sudden heartfelt (so to speak) need to help Spock was so sudden and baseless, the film gained nothing from their interaction.

So we come to comedy, which was plentiful. This would ordinarily be great: Star Trek has historically been funny. However, I found this film too funny. Moments of seriousness were so short lived in between the humour and action that no depth was ever achieved.

On top of that, the comedy was poor: In his television show Studio 60, Aaron Sorkin wrote a line I feel applies to this film. One character, struggling with a comedic line about passing butter, asks why she isn't getting the laugh she got before. "You asked for the laugh," her writer tells her. She asks what she did before. "You asked for the butter," he says.

Well--half of the time, the characters were tied to the old jokes and then it's hard not to ask for the laugh, because there was really no other reason for the inclusion of the line. However, this also applied for every other 'new' joke in the script. Again and again, the actors asked for the laugh-- I'd say about a fifth of the people in the theatre laughed. Director's choice; director's mistake.

One actor didn't ask for a laugh, although he had to deliver a few unfortunate lines. Leonard Nimoy, reprising his role as an elderly Ambassador Spock, brought emotional depth and strength and sheer class to the role and to the film. Karl Urban (of Lord of the Rings fame) comes in second place by managing to capture Dr. McCoy beautifully: he, above all of the newcomers, had depth and believability.

The rest of the actors? There was nothing to them: they brought nothing to the role beyond what was written on the page. And there wasn't very much written on the page.

I'm a writer, so for me, films tend to sink or sail on their writing. And this one sunk: it was emotionally dead, sacrificing emotion for action. It lacked logic: as emotional moments shrank to nothing, the movie seemed to seek out what was exciting, rather than what was logical. The biggest, newest, most shiny ship in the fleet has no one more senior than James T. Kirk, who hasn't even graduated from school yet, to take up position of first officer? I'm sorry, you lost me.

Ironically, one half of the film revolved around Spock's 'ongoing mission' (ahem; apparently it's not 'continuing' anymore) to reconcile his Human and Vulcan halves: his emotion and logic. This was swamped by the action-packed mindlessness of James T. Kirk's plot, who's character lacked even the convincing intelligence of his former incarnation, let alone logic or emotion.

I've neglected to mention the driving force of this film, the director and producer, J.J. Abrams. When I heard all the good things about this film, I thought-- maybe he's done it, maybe he pulled it off somehow, after all, it was written by other people, not by Abrams (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman). But this film has Abrams' hamfisted character-numb cliched paws stamped all over it, and that's not a good thing.

You want emotion and logic as well as action and adventure in the Star Trek universe? Do yourself a favour: watch The Voyage Home.

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