So let’s review. Paramount hired JJ Abrams to reboot Star Trek, which he did fairly well, once you accept that the feature films can never be and will never be what the show once was. Then the same team bungled the follow-up, Into Darkness, a mostly terrific movie marred by a terrible ending. Then Abrams left to make The Force Awakens, where it seems that his spirit lay from the start. Then Paramount was quoted as saying they wanted the next Trek to be “more like Guardians of the Galaxy,” and hired Justin Lin, who made four (4) films in the Fast and Furious series. Both of these developments caused further recession into gloom and sad, haunted existences for old-time Trek fans, who were forced to give up hope. But promising news appeared that smart fellow and fanboy Simon Pegg would co-write the script, so we knew that there was at least one person on board who actually cared that the movie be good. And then it turns out that Justin Lin is not a stupid person either and also wanted to produce a quality movie and… all of these factors combined to create the movie that is out now, which is very good in many ways, is definitely a welcome change of pace for the already-fatigued franchise, and… a bit 2 Fast 2 Furious, all at the same time.
We open with Kirk having to deliver a ceremonial gift from one alien culture to another. This is in service of voiceover telling us how he’s bored with his job, but brought a smile to my face because it’s like the old boring things captains had to do on the many shows. This scene seems like throwaway, but it actually turns out to be crucial to the plot, as the doo-dad Kirk brings back turns out to be exactly what the villain here is after. Anyway, they are three years into the five-year mission, and we see Kirk looking at an endless row of yellow shirts, wandering the halls listlessly, and doing other stuff that gets across that life in space is a bit boring. This is an okay gambit, although it pays very few benefits later and barely ties back into the overall narrative. Oh, and is pretty much forgotten about pretty soon, but you know, at least they’re engaging character is some way.
Soon they are docking at the Yorktown, a federation starbase, and already we have to stop and talk about what’s going right with this movie. First and foremost, the film loves looking at the Enterprise and gives it lots of great coverage, which was somehow fleeting and unsatisfying in the first two films. It also has a visual sense that the other films didn’t, and shots are striking, nicely layered in 3D, kinetic and exciting, and more than willing to give you the spaceship/Enterprise visual excitement that the first two films skimped on. The starbase [and much of the film] fulfills the promise of making a feature of a TV show, in that here is the deluxe, fully-fleshed out version of things you had to visualize and imagine with the show. The starbase is spectacular, and I love the visual detail of the starships cruising underwater in the city’s rivers. However, I was a bit surprised that the time here is so short—really, only time to introduce the place—before they are called out to respond to a distress call. Also in the positive column: they are headed into uncharted space, and we don’t visit Earth once during the film.
They are barely through a nearby nebula [looks more like an asteroid field to me] when they are attacked by a bunch of tiny ships, as you see in the trailer. I definitely like the idea of the Enterprise being attacked by small ships, which has long been a design deficiency all the series’ and films have simply avoided, and it was refreshing they simply acknowledge: “We are not capable of withstanding this kind of attack.” The sequence is handled fairly well, gliding smoothly between the stages of: "we’re under attack/oh, that’s a serious attack/woah, they’re really hurting the ship/OMG, the ship won’t survive/we must abandon and hope to live. I could have done with a bit more drama, especially at the “OMG the ship is doomed” moment, but he film goes for relentless forward motion. This, by the way, takes its place as the definitive destruction of the Enterprise thus far, and you will get numerous loving shots as the ship is ripped apart and becomes a flaming projectile. I recall a friend telling me [like 30 years ago] that he loved the shot in Search for Spock in which “you could see the structure inside the saucer” and, well, if you like that kind of thing, this film eagerly and ecstatically puts a lot of the structure of the Enterprise right in your face. By the way, I thought separating the saucer section wasn’t something that came about until TNG? Here they do it casually, where I thought it might be a funny call-out [there are numerous callouts, as you can imagine] in which someone says “If only we could separate the saucer section!” Anyway, the crew are scattered [another clever conceit of the film] across the planet… just not so far that they won’t find each other eventually.
SPOILERS > > >
Kirk lands with Chekov and they head to the crashed saucer to retrieve the doo-dad. Uhura and Sulu are together with the baddie, Krall. Scotty is alone but soon meets new addition Jaylah, an escapee from Krall who just so happens to live in a crashed starship that just so happens to be perfectly operational and just so happens to have a cloaking device to keep it hidden [although if it is making static that badly, can it really be considered hidden?]. And most rewardingly, Spock and McCoy are marooned together. McCoy was all but ignored in the previous two, which felt that they must elevate the one black woman to main character status, shunting McCoy aside in favor of Uhura. The previous films were also all about Kirk-Spock, so it’s nice to see McCoy given his due importance, and for he and Spock to finally [in this incarnation] get to know each other. They get the best lines of the film. And it must finally be publicly acknowledged that Karl Urban has a head of really quite thick, lustrous hair. And is really rather handsome.
Unfortunately, what’s good about the film begins to slowly drain away and be replaced by still-fun but generic action beats. It seems now that all films, of any kind, must have at least one fistfight, a gun/laser fight, a car/motorcycle chase, a scene in which one person takes down a horde, and these films in particular must have a space battle. I was thinking that film genres used to be more pure, like you could have a suspense film that happened to have a fistfight, or a thriller that happened to have a car chase, but now every film of every genre must have a car chase, a fistfight, a gunfight… And you just switch out certain elements, but essentially have the same movie. Which is why this one ends up feeling much more like a Fast and Furious film than you thought Trek probably ever could.
It all just gets a bit generic as you’re realizing that it’s starting to wrap up and you don’t really feel like you’ve been through something that had a shape and was resolved. And you start to realize that it has been pretty much nonstop action for what seems like an hour. And then the questions pile up, like: what are all those people at Krall’s camp DOING? Why are they all marching in lines, if they’re essentially nothing but Scooby Snacks? And how exactly did Krall raise that massive army of spaceships if there’s nothing on this planet but rocks? And we see that each of those ships [or is it only some?] have two people in them, so where do all those people go and where do they sleep? What does anyone eat?
So, last night I saw it again, and to my surprise, I liked it better, not worse. It is a very welcome change of direction, while I still liked the other two. I like that we finally see McCoy be a doctor. I love the newly-expanded visual sense. I like that Kirk has a bit of gravitas, and isn't just a frat boy. And it's just pleasant and fun, with themes in there, just muddled by all the action. But we'll get to that.
One thing I notice in this version is that for all the effort expended, Kirk and Spock are not friends in this series. They have NO warmth for each other, and are just as stiff and awkward with each other as the day they met. On the series, they wouldn't hug, but there was obvious affection and respect and they confided in and consulted with each other. Here, they get in the elevator and things are STRAINED, and Kirk says he wants to "sit down" with Spock as though he's an employee he hasn't caught up with in several months. When I hear that line, I'm like "So you guys don't TALK?" And the effect that comes across is that they're still getting to know each other, and still like each other, but are not close or confidants in any way. When you factor in that they've supposedly been working closely together for three years, they come off as REALLY estranged, as they're still this silent and awkward with each other after all that time.
Upon second viewing, the theme of Kirk being bored with his mission does get resolved, it's just that it gets lost in all the wearying action. The movie... after a certain point, it just does not slow down, and I don't mean that as a compliment. It becomes just one action scene after another, and when, as I said, EVERY movie of EVERY genre has a fistfight, a gunfight, a chase... I know this movie is already two hours, but it's two hours of generic action that could have been made memorable by having some individuality and texture. When we finally get the truth about who Krall is and his journey, it could have been very interesting and moving, only it's thrown out in tiny shards amongst the fistfights and explosions, so we don't have time to think about any of it. Kirk's reaction, and re-commitment to his job, is delivered between punches during the climax, so it has no opportunity to move us. Remember guys, Blade Runner rose to greatness when they took out blather and gave us time to think about it. It's unfortunate that movies are going in this direction toward being akin to someone violently shaking you for two hours, even as the rise of television is signaling that people want more involved, richer stories.
It is mainly the coda in which the movie really feels like a Fast and Furious entry, with everyone in their leather jackets at a cocktail party, and women with VERY contemporary ringlet hairstyles [a constant bugbear of science fiction are the present-day hairstyles]. It ends with a nice, we-love-diversity feel, especially with the entire cast reading the Trek mantra, and it's all fun and looks great. In the end, the movie is most notable for its visual sense, which is really quite staggering, and while it's great that the story is fun... it didn't need to be quite such empty fun.
Definitely, it just could have been so much better.