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The Lens: Star Blech

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 11, 2009 - Let's not pull any punches here.

J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" is a bad film.

Sure, the special effects are cool, and there are moments in which the film manages to create blips of suspense and tension, and the comic elements that were part of Gene Roddenberry's original 1960s television series are there (largely when Simon Pegg is on screen, but the film holds him back until nearly the final act).

But if this is a portent of the caliber of popcorn movies that Hollywood will be bringing us this year, we're in for a bad summer at the multiplex.

Abrams' entry into the already-crowded "Trek" universe is an origin story, beginning moments before the birth of James Kirk, eventual captain of the Starship Enterprise. (Kirk was played by William Shatner in the original series but portrayed by Chris Pine here. Reportedly, Shatner threw a tantrum when Abrams didn't cast him for even a cameo in this film; as it turns out, he should count himself lucky: Even his campy Priceline commercials are more entertaining than this film). At the moment Kirk is born, his father is dying, sacrificing himself aboard a Federation starship to prevent a Romulan spaceship, led by a crazed captain, from killing the hundreds of crew and passengers trying to escape.

Quickly, the film moves through Kirk's life: When we next meet him, he's a preteen daredevil, driving his stepfather's 300-year-old antique Corvette across the plains of Iowa at breakneck speed, eventually plunging it into a chasm. The film then jumps roughly another dozen years, to when Kirk is, essentially, a pugnacious Iowa punk, who spends his time in bars, trying to pick up the good-looking female cadets of Starfleet Academy and getting into one-against-five brawls with the male cadets who object to his attentions to the women. It is after one of these fights that Kirk meets Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), a Starfleet captain. It seems Pike had written his Academy thesis on the ship Kirk's father had died on and, telling Kirk he sees something of his father in him, invites him to leave the next day, for admission to the academy.

Intercut with Kirk's wild-child youth, Abrams gives us a parallel story: the growth of Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-Earthling, trying to fit into the hyper-logical world of his Vulcan father, where emotion is as unwelcome as the swine flu. Spock eventually tames his emotions and becomes a revered member of Starfleet Academy. This is where Kirk and Spock meet, when, as third-year student, Kirk tries to pass the Hardest Test Ever, a seemingly impossible scenario that Spock devised as a trial for prospective ship's captains and that no one has ever passed.

Kirk passes - but not without cheating, by hacking into the computer program controlling the test - and ends up on probation for his academic dishonesty. Just then, Spock's home planet of Vulcan gets attacked (yes, by the same Romulan captain who killed Kirk's father), and all of the Starfleet students are mobilized to save the planet. All but Kirk, whose probationary status gets him benched. He ends up aboard one of the starships, however, through a ruse concocted by Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelly in the original and here Karl Urban, whose performance so echoes the nuances of Kelly's delivery that he almost seems to be channeling Kelly).

Within minutes of Kirk coming aboard the ship - the Enterprise, then on its maiden voyage, and captained by Christopher Pike - the crew encounters the crazed Romulan captain who demands that Pike come aboard his ship. Agreeing, Pike names Spock captain in his absence and makes Kirk first officer.

Here's where the story falls apart: We have this state-of-the-sciences starship costing (allowing for three centuries of inflation) multi-trillions of dollars, crewed by several hundred Starfleet veterans, and the captain names someone who has not even graduated and who is, in fact, on probation, as second-in-command, a heartbeat away from running the whole shebang. I don't think so.

The problem is that, for us to accept Pike's rash decision, Abrams seems to rely on the audience's foreknowledge of Capt. James Kirk, the character from 80 television episodes that still run in syndication and a half-dozen theatrical films starting 30 years ago. We're supposed to think: OK, because of all the entries in the "Trek" canon, we know Kirk is a gutsy, brilliant, valiant military strategist and tactician. But Abrams is not making a film about that Kirk, but about how Kirk became that Kirk. And he cheats, leaving out the essential developmental story of Kirk, opting instead for this shorthand: Oh, heck, they all know Kirk is great. I can get away with anything.

(The film tries to convince us that Pike's decision is a good one since, just as the Enterprise is about to arrive at Vulcan in the midst of its attack, Kirk just happens to remember that that the event is similar to one during which his father died. Um, OK, but Pike wrote his Starfleet thesis on that ship, particularly focusing on its final 12 minutes, when, commanded by Kirk's father, it was destroyed. Wouldn't Pike remember that as well? And, even if he didn't, why would he accept the word of someone we've only see to this point as a rebellious barroom brawler?)

Over the last few years, we've seen a number of good origin stories. Last year, we had "Iron Man," and a few years before that, we had "Batman Begins." In each case, the filmmakers were dealing with a character who was already an icon, who had even a longer track record as a hero.

Iron Man arrived in the comics three years before Desilu Studios brought Kirk to TV, and Batman arrived 70 years ago, which makes Kirk seem almost adolescent in the hero game by comparison. But the makers of "Batman Begins" didn't take any shortcuts in unspooling the origin story they gave us. They were patient in making sure the audience was grounded in the motivation for Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, crime fighter - we understand his relationship with his father and understand what it means to him when his father and mother are gunned down in front of him. They were also patient in his development as Batman; they devoted great stretches of the film to his training - we see his hard work, his failure before his success, the moment of trial when he has to decide which kind of hero he'll be.

(If you've seen the film, you know the moment I mean: when his teacher orders him to execute a petty criminal, the moment at which the film seems to freeze time as Bruce Wayne contemplates his action. Does he kill the criminal and therefore become a merciless hero or be a merciful one and spare him, a decision that could lead to his own death because of his failure in the eyes of his mentor?)

We get nothing like that at all in "Star Trek." Kirk goes from hellion-on-wheels-to-barrom-brawler-to-academic-cheat-to-second-in-command-to-hero merely because, it seems, the script demands he be whatever it needs him to be at any particular moment, not because he's earned his way there. Part of the problem rests in some of the decisions the writers made.

Why, for example, do we get a several minutes of gratuitous chase scene in which a young Kirk tries to outrun a robotic traffic cop before crashing his stepfather's antique car into a gorge?

The film could have better used those precious minutes giving us a sense of Kirk's brilliance as a student at the academy - letting us see something of his development so that when Pike names him second-in-command, we have reason to accept his decision as being inevitable and not merely step 42 in the plot outline the writers devised for the story. (A lot of the script seems write-by-number: Initial event designed to make the audience feel sorry for the main character? Check: his father dies. Moment to show the main character is reckless? Check: he crashes his stepdad's valuable car. I mean, come on: How many times have we seen a lone sports car speeding across a deserted stretch designed to make us think of the character as wild or the lone character who proves his bravery and toughness in a lopsided barroom brawl?)

So much of the film, too, seems borrowed from other films.

There's a scene in which Kirk gets exiled to a deserted ice planet on which he encounters two odd, sci-fi dinosaur-esque creatures. (Ice Planet Hoth from "Empire Strikes Back," anyone?) And, I wondered, why only two creatures: Did the CG budget for the film fall short? And come on, when Kirk gets rescued by a surprise character who flashes a burning torch in the face of the massive monster pursuing Kirk: We've never seen that anywhere, have we? (Note to self: In case I'm ever in a strange place with 20-foot tall carnivorous creatures, always bring a stick, a gasoline-soaked rag and a book of matches. Everything will be fine.)

There are other flaws in the film as well: We get the obligatory minor character who dies when he accompanies Kirk and Sulu on a mission just so that, by his death, we understand how dangerous the mission in. (Crew man number six from "Galaxy Quest," anyone? In fact, "Galaxy Quest" is a better "Star Trek" than "Star Trek.")

There are also annoying lapses in physics. In the scene in which the minor character dies, he succumbs when he gets sucked into a beam of light strong enough to bore straight through to a planet's core. Minutes later, Sulu almost gets sucked into the same beam of light, coming within inches of it before Kirk saves him, but if the beam of light were powerful enough to drill a hole clear to a planet's core, wouldn't its residual heat be fatal or at least send Sulu to the burn ward back aboard the Enterprise?

The credit sequence for the original series ran accompanied by a voiceover from Shatner, who told us the series centered on "the voyages of the Starship Enterprise [and its] five-year mission ... to boldly go where no man has gone before."

The Abrams' film ends with a different voice reading the same lines, but the writers should have revised it. If this film is any evidence of the quality of any possible series that follows it, it should go: "These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise [and its] so-long-it's-overstayed-its-welcome mission to boldly take your money so that we can go where many films have gone before."

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.

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