Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek (2009)
Released May 8, 2009


The Star Trek franchise, despite having produced five live action television shows, one cartoon series, ten movies, hundreds of novels, and dozens of comic books, and induced thousands of people to pay good money for costumes, toys, and convention tickets, was declared dead. Nemesis had not done well in theaters, and Enterprise had fizzled out on UPN (!) after 4 seasons. It was decreed by Paramount that new blood was needed to invigorate the franchise. It was also decreed that this now movie would return to the roots of the Original Series, recasting the roles of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, et al. J.J. Abrams of Felicity, Alias, and Lost "fame" was brought in to direct. Abrams tapped his frequent collaborators and self professed Star Trek fans Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (they of such respected reboots as Hawaii Five-Oh) to write the script. All would be right with the world... or would it?
Seven actors and a Star Wars fan invade the Apple Store.


Matthew: Okay, look. I'm just going to lay it out here that this entire section will basically be an attack on the writing of this movie. So why not dispense with the pro forma praise of what works early on? I appreciate the motives of the writers in creating a Heroic Journey for Kirk, and to a lesser extent, for Spock. Was it necessary in Real Star Trek? No. Not at all. But I suppose if we're going to "reboot" things, starting with the childhoods of our two principals. Losing a father... interesting? Sure. Original? Hell no, just watch every single Disney movie made in the 20th century. I'll get to the bad choices that transpired in this plot later, but I want to at least acknowledge that, from a certain Screenwriting 101 perspective, the story idea is solid. Spock's childhood scenes are the most effective, because they play on both universal themes (being bullied for being different) as well as recall and update past great stories regarding the character (especially TAS "Yesteryear"). OK, see? I've praised Star Trek (2009). Now let's get on to the business of burying it.

Kevin: Ok, I'm going to agree with all of Matt's criticisms, but I'm going to try to play devil's advocate a little (a very little) just because I think the two of us enraged would make a boring post to read. As far as the idea of a reboot in and of itself, I was always concerned about how well the story would be done, but I was not opposed to the idea from the start. In a way, no matter what happens here, save the "galaxy destroying supernova," nothing else has happened in the universe I really care about, and that universe is just waiting for us to come back to it. In terms of praise for the film, the opening scene is actually pretty good. I have some issues with the physical staging of the fight scene and the look of the engine room, (see Production Values below), but the basic tension was pretty good. George Kirk being all noble (and really hot) made for essentially a good teaser.

Matthew: Let's begin with the problems with the Kirk story arc. The car theft scene was a complete waste of time. What's established? That Kirk is a juvenile delinquent, I guess. Later, Pike calls Kirk a "genius level" slacker. Do we see this, in any way, shape or form? No. Only dialogue informs us, and we instead waste 5 minutes on a scene with loud music, cars driving off of cliffs (in Iowa), and giving guff to the (robot?) police. This doesn't tell me anything worthwhile about Kirk, nor does it give me a reason to root for him. The Pike scene is tasked with all the heavy emotional lifting, as a result. It's an OK scene in a vacuum, but it's not up to the task of giving me everything I need to know and feel about Kirk, especially as it is precipitated by his acting like an utter tool in a bar. Then, we flash forward to the academy. There are dozens of interesting things we could have been shown about his time there. Instead, we skip 3 years and we are given a retelling of the Kobayashi Maru incident. In this universe, Kirk reprograms the scenario in such a way as to make his cheating obvious. He is not rewarded with a commendation for original thinking, he is expelled. None of the character building aspects of "facing the no win scenario" are addressed. No parallels are drawn between his behavior and the sacrifice his father made. Basically, my main beef with the characterization of Kirk in this movie is not that he is a rebel or that he has somehow been changed by Nero's incursion into the past. Those things I can accept easily. Instead, my issue is that I've been given no reason to believe he has anything going for him beyond preternatural confidence in his own ability. And I don't even know why he has that confidence, because I've been shown nothing about his past. I've been given no justification for the notion that people would follow him as a leader, especially on a ship with dozens of more experienced officers (but we'll get to that soon enough). This portrayal is all flash, no substance.

Kevin: The car scene annoyed the hell out of me for several reasons. First, are there gorges in Iowa? Could an Iowan clarify that for me? Second, the Nokia product placement was painful. Even Voyage Home managed to avoid egregious product placement, beyond a verbal reference to Michelob. Third, having the Enterprise being built terrestrially at all bothers me, but having it built in Iowa instead of San Francisco feels like a pointless change to the canon just to set up the shot of Kirk going by on his space motorcycle. It's another example of "it will look cool" rather than "it makes sense in the story."

Matthew: The treatment of Spock starts out wonderfully, as mentioned above. Initially, I am made to care quite a bit about Spock, given his bullied childhood and his struggle to live up to the expectations of his family and his society. Just about any nerdy kid can identify with a story like this. But he quickly devolves into a complete jerk, with none of the admirable features of the TOS Spock, and one incredibly glaring, pretty much fatal, character flaw. This Spock turns into a pedantic, prissy ass who seems to delight in sticking it to others (such as Kirk). He has none of the humor or the pathos that Prime Spock did in TOS or its films. But the big problem is the Uhura romance. No matter what timeline changes Nero has wrought, I simply cannot believe that Spock, who in this portrayal is a pedantic prissy ass bent on enforcing all rules no matter how picayune, would have a sexual relationship with one of his students. It just makes no sense, and it smacks of writers trying to "sex it up," logic be damned. Then, to add insult to injury, he denies Uhura assignment to the ship of her choice, despite acknowledging her superior credentials, in order to avoid the appearance of special treatment. Um, isn't screwing her out of assignments because of your relationship precisely the special treatment you're seeking to avoid? Isn't it essentially an egregious case of sexual harassment that should get Spock booted out of the academy? Now, I suppose someone might suggest that the academy doesn't prohibit relationships of this nature between instructors and cadets. This might ameliorate the relationship itself, but it would not make his inane behavior thereafter any more comprehensible. Also, whoever you are, you're a moron for making such a suggestion. No rationally constructed organization would constitute itself in such a manner. It is suggested all over Trek continuity that fraternization with subordinates is frowned upon, and it just makes no sense that those in charge of evaluating and deciding the careers of students would also be allowed to shtup them with extreme prejudice.

Kevin: I'll get into this more in the acting section, but I actually don't mind prissy Spock here. Without the tempering influences of Kirk's friendship, I could see this as being the path that Spock took. I think it will be actually interesting to see how Spock and the Kirk/Spock friendship plays out in the next movie. I agree that the relationship with Uhura amounts to character assassination. The thing is there was really no reason to make Spock Uhura's superior. Another scene of dialogue before leaving for the Enterprise could have established the relationship bona fides without destroying the credibility of the universe and a character. Even without the teacher/student relationship, both of them being posted to the same ship is going to cause complications for them and that can lead to interesting, credible drama. (See Troi/Riker, Picard/Crusher, Torres/Paris) There was a way to get the sexy time in a sane way, they just chose something quick and cheap to try to create drama.

Matthew: Nero makes no sense. Here is a guy who has witnessed his civilization being destroyed by a (we'll get to it...) "galaxy threatening supernova." Then, he is flung 200 years into his own past, with a tub of super future material A (we'll get to that too...), a mining ship that for some reason is capable of destroying any and all fully decked out starships in the past, and nothing to do. Now, what would you do in this situation? If it were me, I might, oh, I don't know, WARN MY CIVILIZATION. Given 200 years of lead time, an evacuation would not be all that difficult. OK, let's say I'm a little bit crazy. What might I do then? Nero says he wants to create a world in which Romulus exists without the Federation. What might be the best way of achieving this? I might, oh, I don't know, GO TO ROMULUS, give them all this fantastic future technology, and become emperor of a civilization 200 years in advance of everyone else out there. What does Nero actually do? He goes it alone. Because, you know, shut up, that's why. So Nero has concocted this plan of individual mass murder (and somehow convinced each and every single one of his compatriots to join him, I guess these miners were some pretty psychotic dudes), and how does he go about it? He waits TWENTY-FIVE YEARS for Spock to show up, kidnaps him and his red matter, and then, wait for it... decides to maroon Spock on a planet WITH A STARFLEET BASE ON IT. Because, you know, what possible harm to his 25-years-in-the-making plan could that possibly do? Oh yeah, precisely the harm it does in the course of this movie. So basically, Nero is either stupid or insane or both. None of these things is particularly interesting, and none of these things is explained in the movie.

Kevin: My problems with Nero are my problems with the film writ small. Every choice he seems to make is done because the script says he should, not because it makes internal sense for the character. Why would his crew follow him? Marooning Spock on a planet to see Vulcan destroyed but that actually enabling his eventual escape is a contorted piece of logic worthy of a Bond villain. And you know what else has always bugged me? Why is Nero torturing Pike for defense codes? It is safe to assume that Vulcan and Earth have comparable defenses and Nero made quick work of them. I can't help but thinking they thought "Oh, we'll use the Ceti Alpha V earwigs, the Trekkies will love that." I do love a good continuity nod, but this was not one.

Matthew: Science takes a distinct back seat in this fiction. We might as well start with what (I guess) sets this whole plot in motion: a galaxy threatening supernova. Whaaaa? Folks, nothing in the 13.7 billion year history of the universe has had the oomph to "threaten a galaxy," with the possible exception of the big bang itself. I suppose dark energy will "threaten" galaxies, but only if by "threaten" you mean "lead to their dissolution by universal expansion over the course of billions of years." Hey, you know what? There's a movie I'd rather watch. Some interstellar government takes it upon themselves to attempt a solution to the dark-energy driven acceleration of universal expansion, and other powers have issues with such a unilateral solution. Anyway, In order to stop this supernova from destroying the galaxy (sigh), Spock is given red matter. Red matter is... well, it's whatever the plot demands of it. A few drops of it can create black holes, because, I guess, it is so dense. It can shoot you through time if you're not careful. So how much do they give Spock? A fuck-ton. Somehow, his ship can overcome the mass of this fuck-ton of red matter, and a person can inject it with a syringe and not cause themselves to be sucked into oblivion. Spock's plan goes wrong... somehow... and Romulus gets destroyed, setting the aforementioned Nero on his revenge spree. But things go a bit pear-shaped for Nero, resulting in the release of ALL of the red matter, which he has appropriated for his own use. What does this do? Keep in mind, this fuck-ton of red matter is the leftover from the few drops Spock used to suck up the galaxy threatening supernova (sigh) in enough time to save the galaxy (whew!) but not Romulus (darn). It creates... you guessed it, a black hole! But I guess, not a galaxy threatening black hole. The Enterprise is caught within the event horizon of the black hole near the end of the film. Oh no! Now, keep in mind, a black hole is simply an extremely massive object (which, in this case, can only be the red matter, since it was released into open space, which is why I surmise that it is extremely massive) with an escape velocity faster than the speed of light. Go fast enough, you escape. But the Enterprise is stuck! The brilliant solution is hit upon - let's blow up our faster than light propulsion system and "ride the wave" out of the black hole. Totally tubular! Oh wait - matter, which the expanding gas of an explosion is, can't go faster than light due to relativistic restrictions. So it's essentially like farting into a hurricane in an attempt to escape it. You know, a galaxy threatening hurricane.

Kevin: Star Trek has many, many, many times over the years created a technobabble problem with a technobabble solution. That being said, they are usually cloaked in a little more credibility, and they don't break the universe, and we here at Treknobabble have called them on it when they did it. Take Star Trek IV, for example. The probe was a somewhat ill-defined threat that really only served to spur the plot along, but it's not so facially stupid. To compound it, red matter is just magic. It does whatever the plot required of it. Why send a metric ton when only a dab'll do ya? No explanation. Why does it have to be dropped inside a planet, as I'm pretty sure a surface black hole would be as bad? No explanation. I accept that particularly in the movies, solutions tend toward the deus ex machina, but when the problem is just as artificial, it just leaves me uninterested.

Matthew: The construction of this plot is lazy in the extreme. Events occur due to no internal logic of their own, but because the plot demands them to occur to set up given situations. We need to put Kirk in command of the Enterprise, despite the arbitrary restriction of the plot that he is still in the academy, and is expelled. I know, let's say that the entire starfleet is...somewhere else. Why? Shut up, that's why. So while the rest of the fleet picks their collective buttholes in the Laurentian system, we'll staff our ships with cadets. Why? Certainly not because any realistic organization would have hundreds of experienced officers in administrative roles, ready to resume active duty if need be... because... how cool would that be, if these young turks got to save the galaxy on their own! Wheee! Okay, but that's too easy. We need to make Kirk's Heroic Journey (tm) a bit more difficult. Let's have NuSpock maroon him on an ice planet for some reason (because, you know, throwing him in the brig makes too much sense). How about an ice planet with giant carnivorous life bent on killing all mammals.  Well hey, what a coincidence! OldSpock happens to be on that very planet, placed there by the villain, who doesn't care that there is a starfleet base within walking distance! Uh Oh, now we need to get NuKirk and OldSpock back on the ship, but they're warping away to the Laurentian System (you know, instead of those dumb shits heading back in our direction to help, but whatever). We've written ourselves into a pickle, haven't we.... I know! Let's invent a world-breaking technology that would completely obviate the entire franchise. Let's just beam him onto the ship, regardless of how far away it is! This is the kind of lazy bullshit that takes our evaluation beyond "these are simply bad writers" and into "these people actively disdain the thing they've been entrusted with." If you can beam across interstellar distances, there is no need for starships. If there is no need for starships, THERE IS NO STAR TREK.

Kevin: Rewatching DS9 recently, I do note an episode, "Covenant," in which the Dominion seems capable of such technology, though not to an object moving at warp speed, but even there it felt less continuity destroying since the Dominion was supposed to have a leg up on Federation technology and the Dominion do not explore for exploration sake, they send the Jem'Hadar to blow things up. I bring this up because I want to make sure my review avoids even the appearance of falling into the trap of disliking this merely because it is not the Star Trek we grew up with or that we are overlooking similar flaws in old Trek just to make a point. In the DS9 episode, there is an in-story rationale to the Dominion having interstellar beaming technology. The Federation having it, and at the outset of the franchise makes the rest of the franchise kind of pointless. I even hate the way its introduced. Did Prime Scotty invent interstellar beaming and not tell anyone? The cute joke in Star Trek IV about transparent aluminum was a cute hanging of a lantern on a story problem. Having Spock give young Scotty a technological advance ostensibly a century ahead of his time just makes the internal credibility of the universe even less. I will say, again in the interest of fairness, that this is by far not the first time the Enterprise has anomalously been the only ship in range of a crisis, even when they're at Earth, like Generations, so the writers aren't the first ones to commit this sin, but a sin it remains.

Matthew: The icing on the "fuck you, dedicated fans" cake is the ending, in which, after all of the aforementioned hijinks, Kirk is "promoted" to captain. Now, keep in mind, no time is indicated as having passed. Thus, Kirk is not even a graduate of the academy. He has no experience on a starship. At all. His experience is limited to cheating in a simulator and getting launched off of the Enterprise in an escape pod. Even though a significant portion of the fleet was in the Laurentian system, presumably unharmed, none of those officers with careers and experience and diplomas are made captain. Nope. James T. Kirk is made captain over all of them. Now, another aspect of this story that has escaped comment so far is that every character is now, for no apparent reason (since it is difficult to see how Nero's time travel trip could alter the mating habits of dozens of people who know nothing about it), roughly the same age. You didn't know Kirk attended the academy at the same time as Uhura? Affirmative. As Sulu? Jawohl. As Chekov???!? Yep. They are all granted promotions, too. To different ranks. For some reason. Can I even come up with a reason inside the "continuity" of the film? No. It defies explanation. The only reason I can come up with is a real life one - some producer or director or executive insisted that this movie both begin at Starfleet Academy and end with the crew in their familiar places a la the TV show. Logic be damned. I'm starting to use that phrase a lot, aren't I? This decision has the effect not only of making Starfleet a nonsensical organization, but it also eliminates any of the inherent interest of crew members interacting with each other. Does Kirk have any wisdom to give to a green-behind-the-ears Chekov or Sulu? No. How could he? They were in the same classes he was, and he didn't study, according to Dr. McCoy.

Kevin: I agree that the lack of a real, internal system of rules makes the universe less interesting. Of all the sins, this is probably the worst. Star Trek has endured on several occasions silly, poorly constructed plots for the sake of a whiz-bang episode, but something we've both repeatedly stated we loved in the internal sense of reality to the universe. Once you accept FTL engines and forehead ridges, the universe is actually pretty realistic. Actions (usually) have consequences and lives have trajectories. It makes them more interesting. On a more personal level, I think they commit the same sin. Old Spock telling New Spock that he needs Kirk to be his friend never sat right with me. The two (three if you count McCoy) becoming friends organically in the original version actually makes their friendship more valuable since they come to recognize on their own that each have something to contribute to each other's lives. Being told that you have to friends with him makes the friendship less meaningful. "Destiny" is kind of a boring plot point, especially in personal relationships.

Matthew: I've fired the major salvos in the evaluation of the writing. But there are so many other minor things wrong. This story features an aspect which, though it has appeared in some Real Trek series before, at least had the explanation of experience and growth to bolster it. Everybody here is the absolute best at everything. Kirk is a genius (we are told, not shown). McCoy is an amazing Doctor who knows everything about every obscure disease. Chekov is, for whatever reason, the best transporter operator ever (except when the plot dictated that Amanda must die to bug Spock). Uhura is the best Xenolinguist ever. It is neither interesting nor realistic to have a cast of superhumans. It eliminates drama.

Kevin: I could actually handle everyone somehow being The Best in their respective fields if we got a little more organic demonstration of it. I'm even willing to give them some leeway because it's harder to pack all that into a movie than a television series, but they could have found a better way to balance. The movie ending with Kirk being commissioned as a Lieutenant with Pike soberly and a tad paternally acknowledging his talent but telling he still has a lot to learn would have actually upped this movie an entire point for me. It would automatically give the character and the movie more of an arc and more internal reality.

Matthew: I want to address any weirdos who would attempt to defend this travesty by claiming that my questions are answered in the Star Trek: Countdown comic book series which prequelled the movie. First off, I've read it. It doesn't address all of my questions. Yes, it posits that Nero was in a Klingon prison camp for a good portion of the 25 year delay. But does that really answer any questions, or does it raise a host of even worse ones? What happened to the Narada? Why didn't the Klingons use the technology to take over the quadrant? How did he escape and get his ship back? How did he get all the same Romulan compatriots, and still convince them after two decades of prison to resume his revenge fantasy? But here's the thing - even if it did answer these questions to a normal person's (let alone my) satisfaction - IT WASN'T IN THE MOVIE. If you need a comic book to address the problems with your movie's story, you need to rewrite the goddamned movie. All right. That's enough. I can't go on with this any more. I'll have to rely on Kevin to address any more glaring issues.

Kevin: No, I think we've covered them. This has got to be the most extensive review we have ever written. I read the comic book too, and it actually made it worse for me. The Narada steals captured Borg technology from the Tal Shiar. Worf gets stabbed for some reason. It posits that Data has been resurrected, as himself, and not B4, so there's that, at least. But yeah, if you need a handout to explain your plot, you didn't plot well.


Matthew: The two most successful main cast members are Chris Pine and Karl Urban, in my book. Both actors have "it," that ineffable quality of stardom that makes you just plain like them when they're on screen. When the Kirk character goes on his cookie-cutter Heroic Journey (tm), I believe it. I root for Chris Pine's Kirk, and want to see what happens next. I believe that people could be charmed, and maybe even inspired a little bit (but not to the extent of declaring him captain by acclimation) by his verve. Urban's is probably the best performance here. He seems like a real person, not a caricature or an impression of a previous actor. This McCoy is not a southern gentleman. He is a doctor who is irascible and ornery but still good at what he does and identifiable.

Kevin: Here's the thing, and I've been saying this for nigh on four years now. I fully expected to hate this movie from the outset solely on the fact that it was different actors playing characters that (for better or worse) are inextricable from the actors who created them. I pretty much expected to see a SNL skit on the screen. And particularly for Kirk and McCoy, who are rightly singled out by Matt as the best, they achieved what I thought was impossible. It really makes the rest of the sins of the movie all the more egregious given that they did what I believed impossible, and failed at doing what I think it standard. Pine absolutely nailed Kirk's bravado and charm. I'm glad they avoided trying for the Southern Gentlemen with Urban. But even sans accent, he nailed McCoys weariness and competence.

Matthew: I am not in love with Simon Pegg's Scotty. Now, don't get me wrong. I love me some Simon Pegg. I think "Hot Fuzz" is one of the funniest movies ever. And I appreciate his fan cred. But something about the performance (in addition to the writing) was just too broad and comedic. James Doohan's Scotty had a quiet dignity punctuated by booze jokes and Scottish stuff. This is all of the latter and none of the former. John Cho's Sulu just... is. George Takei has a certain inimitable smirk, which became a part of the Sulu character. So, absent a real, compelling backstory, Sulu doesn't have this Takei quality to fall back on. The character just comes and goes without making an impression. The same goes for Anton Yelchin's Chekov. He was young and excited and had an accent. That's about all I got. Zoe Saldana's Uhura is sort of a non-entity to me. It's not her fault that the script used her to completely assassinate two characters. She does a fine job, she is attractive and charming, and I believe she has the hots for Spock and is good at what she does, but I don't care about her.

Kevin: I liked Saldana's Uhura a bit more, any issues I had were more plot than acting. The scene with the roommate and the immediate dismissal of Kirk's schtick were kind of endearing for me. And again, sans plot problems, I bought her romantic attachment to Spock, and it felt of a piece with Uhura's flirting with him in TOS. I agree they wrote Scotty too slapstick too hard. Prime Scotty groomed his reputation as a 'miracle worker' but it was backed up by a sense of gravity about his work, and that wasn't here. I'm kind of reserving judgment until the next movie until I really render a verdict about Pegg's interpretation. With Chekov and Sulu, those characters didn't get a ton to do in the original show, so there's less for them to break from or be inspired by. Their acting jobs certainly didn't bother me, there was just nothing there to showcase.

Matthew: I think Zachary Quinto's Spock is a decent imitation of Leonard Nimoy, and a decent "Vulcan" performance in general. But it has none of the depth or the subtlety, the barely hidden pathos peeking out of the strained edges of the psyche. And that's really the problem. Without a hidden depth, Spock is just a douche. I don't see his side of the argument when he's butting heads with Kirk. I just want Kirk to win. Now, a lot of this is the script. But the actor can bring a quality to even a bad script that makes things more complex. Quinto did not. Speaking of Nimoy, his Old Spock was credible, though perhaps a shade too emotional and sentimental. I'm willing to believe that this is where the character has gone, though.

Kevin: I, again, liked the acting job here more than you did. I think he does "Vulcan" pretty well, and I am even willing to give Quinto the benefit of the doubt that "officious prick" is kind of the path our Spock would have taken without the tempering influences of his friendships with Pike and Kirk, so I get Matt's problems, but can almost see an internal acting choice at work. Pine and Quinto were taking on the most established characters so they had the hardest tight rope to walk, and I think Pine does it better, but any problems I have with this Spock are the writing and not the acting.

Matthew: Bruce Greenwood was effective as Christopher Pike. It's too bad the script gave him precious little to do. The same goes for Jennifer Morrison, who I've always liked in everything she does. Instead of Kirk trashing a car, I think it would have been more effective and enjoyable to see her raising young Kirk, perhaps scolding him for not paying attention to his studies (which Prime Kirk would have in the other timeline).

Kevin: Maybe as one only had one episode and the other was a wholly new creation, the actors were able to relax a little and just act. I always found Jennifer Morrison a little annoying on House, but I certainly was engaged in the birth scene. And Greenwood really nailed "authority figure." I also want to single out Chris Hemsworth who, in addition to being easy on the eyes, really got me invested in the opening scene. I defy anyone not to get a little choked up when he hears his newborn son over the comm line.

Matthew: I'm willing to give Eric Bana a pass on Nero. The script game him nothing. Less than nothing, in fact. It's one thing to play a villain with no motivation (Heath Ledger, anyone?). It's quite another to be saddled with a dumb motivation and be painted into a corner by the stupid choices your character has made. Bana's Nero was growly and mad and reasonably imposing physically. I guess that's all we could have hoped for given the script.

Kevin: I don't have much to add here. Laurence Olivier couldn't have given that character an internal life. His motivations are absent at best, contradictory and stupid at worst, and there's just so much you can do with that.

Production Values
Matthew: The CGI in this film is top notch, there are no two ways about it. No Star Trek fan need be ashamed or defensive about the quality of the effects on display. They spent $140 million on this movie, more than twice any of the previous film's budgets, and it shows. Digital mattes also look very good. The ice planet looked nice. San Francisco looks a bit overdeveloped, but the matte is convincing. Starfleet Academy looks good. That said, there are some severe stylistic issues that compromise viewer enjoyment. Like "Cloverfield," the shaky cam here really disorients the viewer, making it difficult to know where things are occurring on screen, which is a problem for understanding space battles. Then, there's the lens flare. "I love the idea that the future was so bright it couldn't be contained in the frame," Abrams has said in an interview.  The future is... brighter than the present? I guess that makes as much sense as anything in the story. Hey, you know what, J.J.? You're a dumbass.

Kevin: I agree the effects are certainly top-notch in terms of raw production value, but as applied they fall apart. I would go so far as to say I even kind of liked the Kelvin, but I never got a good enough look at it to really get a sense for the ship. Part of my problem with all of the external shots is that there is no sense of staging or progression. In WOK, there is a clear sense of where the ships are and what they are doing. I never get the same sense in this movie. The camera cuts are all too quick and jerky and too close. To this day, I don't think I could tell you what the Narada actually looks like. It's not enough to make dazzling effects, you actually have to use them in service of the story, and the visual chaos of the effects shots didn't help tell the story.

Matthew: I have been, and always will be, a staunch defender of both the original and the movie refit Enterprise design. They are both of them beautiful designs that need no alteration. A cursory glance at the TOS Blu-Rays will show you how good the original Matt Jeffries design can look at a high level of detail. I don't think I even need to try to convince anyone the same about the movie "Refit" Enterprise. It is an acknowledged triumph of movie model-making.  As such, I really don't think there was any need to change them for this movie. The saucer looked fine, because it was essentially ripped straight from the TOS movies. The stardrive section? Didn't love it. I don't like how it juts forward so much. I hate the nacelles. They are so oversized as to be ridiculous, at least to my sensibilities, trained by the shows. But I am willing to admit that to a non-fan, the ship probable looks cool. At least they didn't destroy the basic lines of the design. The bridge, on the other hand, makes no goddamned sense whatever. Yes, they kept the basic shape of things. But they have cloaked everything in so many pin spotlights, and made so many surfaces transparent glass with white writing on them, that the thing overall makes no sense as a workplace where something actually gets done. And don't get me started on the viewscreen being an actual window to the outside. Besides being an obvious weak point for attack, they also very clearly show that it is transparent to the outside as well, and that the HUD information is clearly visible from the outside. I can't imagine a worse method of trying to keep anything secret that this. It just makes no sense, although I'm sure the mantra was that "make it look cool, logic be damned."

Kevin: I agree the bridge looks like the Apple store and the screens can't possibly be readable by people actually doing their jobs. The viewscreen thing is ridiculous. The warp nacelles look like hair dryers. Maybe I am just colored by love of the earlier designs, but they are just too big if nothing else. It throws off the proportions of the ship, and it makes the ship look less majestic. The brewery/engineering set did also not make me happy. The engine room on the Kelvin was obnoxious and kind of a microcosm of the problems with Abrams' design overall. It wasn't an actual place with an engine, it was a bunch of elevators and scaffolding. It was a music video set. And that goes double for the Narada. Before the destruction of Romulus, this was a real place where people worked for a living. Who the hell's office is full of gaping chasms? Where did the standing water come from? The ship was reverse designed from the desire for it to be "dark" and "scary" and it shows.


Matthew: "Reboots" are a tricky business. What do you keep? What do you change? Presumably, the thinking was that certain aspects of the Trek Franchise needed to be changed. People were bored, I guess. The movies were too talky? Hard to justify given Nemesis... The actors were too old? Hmm. Seemed to work for Star Trek VI. Anyway, Abrams and Company jettisoned some things that, in my estimation, should not have been, and added things that were inappropriate to the franchise. They got rid of story logic. They got rid of continuity. They got rid of coherence and structure in the institutions that are supposed to make up the Star Trek universe. They added magic, they added technology that calls into question basic features of the franchise, and they added a sexual relationship that destroys the credibility of one (very important) character. Contrast this with the Harve Bennett reboot. I think Star Trek II can legitimately be called a reboot of the franchise. The first movie, though financially successful, was, rightly or wrongly, deemed slow, talky, and uninteresting. Bennett was a neophyte, new blood, to the Trek franchise (which wasn't a franchise at the time). What did he change? How did he go about retooling? He watched the show. He must have said something along the lines of "Well, they were doing something right if people are this passionate about it. Why not look for something to use from this rich tapestry of beloved stories?" Guess what he found - Khan. He also found Starfleet, the Federation, characters who were dealing with getting older, with lost opportunities given their rarefied careers. Yes, the movie is more action oriented. Yes, it has more romance. Yes, it focuses on a big, personal villain instead of a nebulous concept or emotionless machine. Bennett certainly added things to the tableaux, and in doing so created a refreshed formula that set the franchise on the road to two decades of success. But he didn't jettison those aspects of the Trek universe that kept people coming back. A world that makes sense. A world that makes us want to live in it. Characters with realistic lives, career arcs, strengths and weaknesses, with whom we can identify. Continuity.

Look. I don't think I'm one of those hidebound fans who hates any change whatsoever. There are those who say anything after TOS isn't "real" Star Trek. There are those who say anything after the death of Roddenberry fails to qualify. But I'm really not one of them. DS9 is as different as it comes stylistically and tonally, but I still enjoy it. Enterprise, for all its faults, is something I watched from start to finish more than once. It was pretty different. I think the idea of Star Trek can contain many, many things, a whole panoply of styles, themes, settings, and characters. That's its great strength.

But what it can't be is dumb. You know how, when you're a kid, you might like something, and your parents or relatives might snort derisively and dismiss it as stupid? That's a really sucky feeling. Well, when it comes to Star Trek, I've always felt that any such criticism was baseless. You can say it's for nerds. You can say it's for sci-fi fans only. I'd think you're wrong, but I at least understand those criticisms. You could never say it was stupid, until now. J.J. Abrams has created a dumb action movie, on a par with the Michael Bay Transformers flicks. A bunch of stuff happens on screen, with precious little explanation or story logic behind it. Things explode, people shout a lot, lots of running takes place. While it's on screen, it is visually exciting. But when it stops? Nothing. I feel nothing for this movie. It doesn't make me wonder. It doesn't make me think. It doesn't make me dream. It just fills me with a bunch of annoyed questions to which there are no answers, and it makes me wish Real Star Trek were back.

But I have to rate this as Star Trek. Where does it rate compared to other stories in the franchise? The story is abysmal and world breaking. The acting is decent. The production values are great in spots, but extremely problematic in others. Is it in the top decile of Trek? Short answer: No. Long answer: Noooooooooo. Nor is it upper quartile, nor is it in the fat portion of the bell curve. An average episode such as "Tin Man" is more entertaining to me than this. It has more science fiction (that is, it has any at all). It has more character development. It has more wonder. So is this a 2 or a 1? According to our rating system, a 2 has "one or two redeeming facets, significant flaws in one or more areas hamper viewer enjoyment." Hmm. Maybe. Whereas a 1 on our scale "Exhibits very low quality execution in one or more areas... May even call into question important aspects of Star Trek by violating logic and continuity." Ding ding ding! Given this, I think we need to call a spade a spade. This movie is an irredeemable piece of shit, and I hate it. It's a 1.

Kevin: I was reading through some other critiques, both of this and the forthcoming film, and a lot of people seem to like it, even professed Star Trek fans. I've said before that when I was watching it in the theaters, the film certainly had a certain energy that kept me engaged while the film was on the screen and it wasn't until I was walking home that a lot of what was wrong with the film sunk in. I've seriously asked myself on several occasions if I was just being a curmudgeon and would any "reboot," no matter how well done, fail to satisfy me. Then I stumbled on the review of this film written by the late Roger Ebert. He gave the film 2.5 stars out of four and said, "The Gene Roddenberry years, when stories might play with questions of science, ideals or philosophy, have been replaced by stories reduced to loud and colorful action." This upsets me because first, it is true. Second, Ebert managed to say in twenty six words what it took Matt and I several thousand. Even if they made a well crafted piece of popcorn fare, it would still lack the things about Star Trek that made me love it in the first place. The remaining internal continuity and logic problems only make this non-Star Trek movie even less enjoyable. An idea we have come back to again and again in other low points of the franchise is that we never felt patronized or taken for granted by the production staff of the show. Their failures were genuine and enthusiastic attempts. This feels like a crass commercial to milk as much money as possible from CBS' intellectual property holdings. I'll admit, I can't quite muster the overt rage that has consumed every moment of Matt's life for the past four years, but maybe that's because this just makes me sad. It may also have something to do with the fact that I didn't watch TOS as much in my childhood, and if this were TNG they were desecrating  I could muster some more vitriol.

And again, it just kills me that a talented group of actors actually managed to do what I would have thought impossible only to have those efforts wasted on a story that didn't care if their characterizations were good. The production values are great, but they were spent on designs that felt generic. This just isn't a good movie, as Star Trek or otherwise. Maybe the financial success of this and possibly the next film will inspire them to go make more actual Star Trek, but I doubt it. I agree with the 1, for a total of 2.



  1. By the way, I haven't been consumed by four straight years of rage. It just might seem that way to Kevin, because a good 80% of our conversations are about Star Trek.

  2. I actually like to picture you in the sand-resistant wrap headpiece on Ceti Alpha V slowly nursing your hatred of J.J. Abrams.

    "From hell's heart, I stab at these. For hate sake, I spit my last breath at thee." Totally you. :)

  3. I don't know you, Damen Lindelof. But you, J.J. Abrams... I never forget a face...

  4. Wow that is a really really harsh review. I think this deserved better.

  5. You should feel free to tell us why!

  6. My main question is this: do you think that he'll make a good Star Wars movie?

    1. @Sara,

      I actually have somewhat middling to high hopes for an Abrams Star Wars sequel. I think that franchise is much more in his weelhouse, given his demonstrated storytelling predilections (the presence and use of magic, the desire to create heroic stories that take characters on journeys that test them, trying to make things visually cool). Where I think his storytelling strengths are not those that need to be emphasized in Trek, they fit Star Wars much better.

      Of course, I am still troubled by his tendency to tell stories with gaping holes in logic. But a tightly constructed story is just less important overall in Star Wars, which to me is more about character journeys than universe creation.

    2. I agree with Matt. Also, given his stated fandom of Star Wars, he may actually act with more care. And like Matt said, intricate world building is just not part of the Star Wars universe. It's a grand morality tale, and that's fine.

    3. I do think the plain inability to tell a story without making huge and basic errors, as was so blatantly the case with Star Trek, bodes ill.
      There's a range of ability for any scriptwriter or overseer of scripts to cause plots to cohere. Some people are great at it, some are fairly good, occasionally sacrificing intelligibility or character arc for the sake of the plot, and some are simply
      Abrams. As you both note, there's so much wrong with the plot of Star Trek (and its sequel) that it's no longer a case of the organizing figure for the material just not happening to do well on a given project. Rather, his performance betrays a fundamental inability to tell a coherent story.
      That performance also betrays an unfortunate disinterest in science. It's not that you have to get everything right. Most science fiction in fact falls apart when you DO get everything right. It's absurd, for example, to think a starship traveling and fighting at warp speeds and with weapons the destructive force of which travel at the speed of light, can be successfully commanded by humans. (Digression: that’s one reason Balance of Terror in TOS is so damned good. It manages to make its science credible enough that we can overlook the impossibility of the story.) The problem is that it’s obvious Abrams and his script compilers, despite all the resources at their disposal, are so entirely disinterested in science that they didn’t trouble to have someone even moderately versed in astrophysics available for consultation. The sort of person you can send a couple of script pages to as you’re writing them who keeps you from making absurd blunders. It’s necessary simply because if you wait until you’ve completed a draft, your advisor too often tells a writer with no science background that their script is preposterously implausible.
      In any case, Abrams and his current group cannot tell a complicated, coherent story. Whatever it might be that they do do well, telling a good story that’s not ridiculously far fetched is not one of those things. Getting back to Sarah’s question, if anyone is hoping that short of dismissing the perpetrators of the two TOS reboots Abrams not only will be able to tell a watchable story, he’ll tell a good one, I think those hopes are startlingly misplaced.

      Matthew, you mention ’character journeys’ in your reply. If ST:ID showed us anything, that’s not one of Abrams’ strengths. Either.
      I guess you can hope he knows the journeys of the existing Star Wars characters in a way he clearly didn’t with TOS, and can therefore work from a higher, starting platform. I guess you can.

  7. I agree with many of you comments, and I found for example the fact that we was promoted so quickly a really really stupid beyond suspension of disbelief event.... that being said.. Kirk needs to be captain and I can't think of a better way to do it with out jumping ahead in years twice in one movie.
    I especially agree with you about the need to have read the comic book to understand the movie. I just finished taking a usability testing class here at Michigan and the site my group was testing required teachers to provide step by step instructions to help students to create a portfolio. A good site should not need step by step instructions and so I completely agree with you here. A good movie should be totally self contained(unless a sequel or a series) That issue and how Nero somehow got captured are to me the biggest flaws of this movie. I don't mind the issue of Kirk being in school with all of his buddies. From the way I understand it if Kirk's father had not died Kirk would have already gone to the academy and thus been ahead of his crew mates.

    I also don't see why you are so mad about the Kobayashi Maru Test. We never see Kirk Prime cheat. We don't know that when he reprogramed it was not just as obvious as Kirk Pine. I think you take too much injustice with what happens to Kirk as result.

    I will be honest I have not fully read your entire review I was waking up when I read it and read the scripting issues and scanned much of the rest. I frankly don't mind the lens flare stuff and lets be honest if they pulled out an old school TOS movie style bridge the young people who expect more flash and cgi in their movies would not go see it. I agree about the engine room btw.

    I am going to ignore the science for another response.

    What I will say is I think a 8 would be way to high clearly for what is mucking the franchise. That being said I think a two is way too low.

    1. @Andrew,

      I agree that if this movie were being judged "qua movie," it would rate higher. In my Amazon review, I attempt to review it (more briefly) wearing both hats. As a movie, I think it's resoundingly average, due to its exciting effects and staging, but dragged down a bit by its impenetrably illogical storytelling choices. To put it in the context of sci-fi/fantasy/adventure action movies, something like "Raiders" would be a 10. "Inception" might be a 9. The Bruce Willis oeuvre would probably inhabit the 5-7 range. Michael Bay movies would more likely be in the 4-6 range. I think, at best, this movie is a solid 6 for someone who just wants a popcorn action flick. Roger Ebert's review, which Kevin cites above, is quite fair to it.

      But we're reviewing it as Star Trek. And as Star Trek, it's a dismal failure. I don't think it's unfair to expect the continuation of a given intellectual property to retain the essential elements of that property. Take Batman. The 1989 movie was a reboot of the camp 60s iteration. The Nolan movies rebooted that reboot. But all were *essentially* Batman, regardless of their aesthetic trappings. All featured a wealthy playboy whose parents were murdered, and who seeks vengeance and justice by donning a costume and fighting crime. Those are, I think, the essential elements. If you eliminate any of them, it's just not Batman, and anyone going to a theater expecting Batman has a right to be pissed off.

      So what is Star Trek? To my mind, Star Trek is a utopian fiction centered around a humanity that has been changed by certain technologies that eliminate scarcity on their own planet. As a result, they turn their energies outward and seek self-improvement by learning about the wider universe they inhabit. This exploration is accomplished with starships and is governed by the ideals of Starfleet and the Federation. I think each of these elements needs to be present in order to call it Star Trek. And to call it good Star Trek, these elements need to be treated in a manner that makes sense.

      Say what you want about the continuity missteps of TOS, but it was *trying* to make sense of the formula. By TNG, the formula was rock solid and established. It's no accident, then, that TNG was the apex of the franchise.

      This movie ignores certain aspects of this formula (utopian technology, self improvement) and makes other aspects nonsensical (Starfleet, the behavior if its officers, exploration via starship). It does not attempt to weave them into a cohesive whole that has a comprehensible story. It's just a bunch of stuff that happens, for no logic other than what will make for the coolest fistfight/space battle/chase/love scene.

      Thus, as Star Trek, I stand by my statement that it is a piece of shit, deserving to be categorized among the lowest in the catalog, if not as the lowest.

    2. "Say what you want about the continuity missteps of TOS, but it was *trying* to make sense of the formula. By TNG, the formula was rock solid and established. It's no accident, then, that TNG was the apex of the franchise."

      I'll hardly ask you to reopen the debate, as I hear experienced watchers of both are sick of the discussion, but I find this baffling in the extreme. If you can point me to the seminal comparison of the two franchises, I’d greatly appreciate it. As someone who enjoyed TOS as a teen but in no sense worshipped it, indeed forgot about it for some 30 years, then came back to it startled by how extraordinarily good it is at its best, I cannot even begin to fathom how someone could see TNG not only as its equal, but as better than TOS.

      I find TNG at its reputed best barely watchable; an average episode sends me mad with its inability to marshal even the basics of good, solid, episodic television. The beige sets and beige scripts are striking in their almost willful blandness. I even wondered if somewhere in the show’s book there was a commandment forbidding colorful metaphors and powerful writing. The second and third-rate acting are startling for appearing in a show with a real budget. The cameras seem nailed to the set floors, startling for a show that lasted into the mid-90s. Not to be intentionally offensive, but the show does seem very much targeted at bright teens, while TOS's main aim is at adult watchers. The inclusion of Wesley Crusher seems conclusive on that point. Granted he’s TNG’s Jar-Jar Binks, but it’s not as if he was a bizarre accident; his casting and persistence in scripts was more of the low end of the show‘s continuum than an unaccountable phenomenon. That the kid is the focus of so much of the show simply makes clear who the show was aimed at.
      Two more things, and I don’t mean to turn this into a rant. I’m only trying to give some body to my genuine puzzlement over your quote with which I began this comment: The creation and casting of Worf is a startling mistake. Michael Dorn, an unimpressive actor to begin with, is simply crippled by the thinness of the (re-) characterization. The script for Errand of Mercy and casting of John Colicos as Kor, the Klingon Commander, showed us how this ought to be done. Dorn just has none of Colicos’ flair, and the TNG scripts only reinforce the actor’s plain inability to play much beyond gruff earnestness. Second, Roddenberry’s imagining that especially within a ship’s company the future will be one of reduced interpersonal conflict, might indeed be correct. To advance that far perhaps what peace is in our natures will increasingly come to the fore, but boy, it makes for thin drama.

      If context is of any use, I probably rate individual TOS episodes within a half point of your average 80% of the time. I find ST Voyager compelling more often than not, to the point of typing up 15,000 words while I watched. I don’t get excited about DS9 but understand its adherents. I even thought the first season of Enterprise extremely promising (20,000 words, just for fun). And I find ST TNG, as I said, essentially unwatchable.
      So, if you’ve borne with my plaint this long and are interested in doing so, please give a link or two to a discussion you think illuminating on the virtues of TNG, especially in comparison with TOS.

      Thanks, and thanks for putting in the time on a terrific website.


    3. Jack,

      The conclusion of our Season 7 recap is a pretty good summation of our feelings about TNG.

      We do something similar for TOS in that recap.

    4. As far as TNG vs. TOS, it's obvious that Kevin and I disagree with you, but we would never be loath to re-open a debate :)

      I would agree with the basic sentiment that TOS might be, *as television,* better than TNG. By that I mean that your average 51 minute teleplay has more action, more character conflict, more T&A. And I don't use those terms in a pejorative sense. It was a part of the genius of Roddenberry's formula that you could use the clothing of a "Wagon Train in Space" to keep people glued to their sets while also telling a sci-fi story with moral or philosophical elements. The best TOS episodes have both action and ideas.

      TNG, as far as I can tell in my reading, was Roddenberry feeling less shackled to the needs of a network entity, allowed more free reign to create something "purer." As such, it eschews to some degree some of the elements that people enjoyed with TOS (character conflict, T&A, action) and doubles down on the philosophical elements (e.g. discussion scenes, which TOS had too, just not every episode). As such, for the average viewer, TNG might not be as immediately appealing. But for someone already invested heart and soul in the Trek universe, TNG might be *more* appealing as a result. But the best TNG stories generally also meld action to the ideas. TNG also got way better once Roddenberry stepped back a bit - writers were chafing against his "no conflict" dictum from the start, and later season highlights like "The Pegasus" would never have happened in S1 or S2.

  8. You may have seen this before, but, if not... present for you: