Star Trek is so light on its feet and cheerfully reckless it is almost impossible to dislike. Except that it does a whole lot worthy of disliking. This is a film wholly dedicated to lean, mean, efficient summer-blockbuster filmmaking. And if it is a decent entertainment for this reason, it sure isn’t interested in doing away with many of the flaws found in modern mainstream blockbusters. Yes, when it came out in 2009 it was the perfect fix for weary summer movie goers tired of sequels and superhero films, and, as the icing on the cake, it filled a void for Star Wars fanboys who couldn’t get over George Lucas’ recent efforts. Except…apparently what they wanted was a rather competent blockbuster so concerned with action it fails to concern itself with anything else. This achieves the rather depressing goal of creating a fairly solid and sturdy action extravaganza, while also somewhat sapping the film of most of its heart and soul.
Star Trek moves quickly, perhaps necessarily so. It has a lot to set up, but that’s not exactly a good thing in the first place. It’s an origin story for the crew of the enterprise and an attempt to boast a self-contained story at the same time, all while needing to incorporate the requisite special-effects enhanced action expected from this kind of film seemingly every few minutes. Needless to say, something is lost in the mix. For starters, the whole self-contained arc of the film, which includes time travel, parallel dimensions, and a villain who conveniently appears just in time to allow Kirk to show Starfleet what he’s made of, plays too fast and loose to render much of an impact. The biggest disappointment is villain Nero, who boasts a theoretically compelling backstory but can’t muster enough personality or deviousness to make it believable. It’s not Eric Bana’s fault, though; he’s an actor of considerable talent, but the film, in its breathless rush of energy, leaves him hanging and renders just another garden variety warlord on a path of destruction.
Elsewhere, the film’s emotional component is somewhat muted. There’s a pleasant enough banter between the leads and supporting characters, but there’s never really a sense that their lives are in danger or that they would care if they were. This is perhaps par for the course, since the film is after all about them learning to work as a team rather than functioning as one, but it still leaves a hole in the proceedings.
Thankfully, the actors are more than capable of filling this hole. Chris Pine does a solid job as Kirk, but there’s something of Shatner’s humanism lost in his cocksure portrayal. He captures the essence of the revered captain, a surfeit of swagger bolstered by a sense of recklessness and none-too-developed a social conscious, but he doesn’t find the man underneath. He’s a monstrous egotist, and if the gall of a film not softening its main character is enough for you, this portrayal is a sure winner. If the idea of an annoying main character matched with a film that doesn’t much intend to be subversive for having such a character turns you off, well the film matches you there too.
However, Zachary Quinto’s Spock is a resounding success, managing to capture both the character’s cold intellectualism and nervous humanism, all wrapped up in something of, ironically, the boldness of a Kirk. He’s coldly logical yet in some ways deeply unsure of himself, struggling between the dual identities (he’s half human, half Vulcan) which make him up and foreground the emotional tension of his character’s journey. We learn that his logic isn’t something he entirely feels comfortable with, and that he has to hide this to present an image expected of him as a Vulcan. He and Kirk are different sorts, but the film’s center is in the two of them coming to realize how like each other they are and how much they need each other to complement their own faults. And more importantly, to have a friend who can understand them.
Of course, the third, and often underappreciated, wheel, in this relationship is the pragmatic, rural humanism of Dr. Leonard Bones McCoy, a medical man who rejects Spock’s rationalism in favor of a countrified soul and morality, a deep concern for human life, and a rejection of doing immediate harm to individuals even for the greater good later on. He nonetheless maintains an air of sardonic wit as a defense mechanism equaled only by Spock himself – only, McCoy does it with less detachment and more genuine fear and melancholic longing. Karl Urban is terrific in the part, gifting a much-needed human sensibility to a genre that often gets watered down in techno-speak and favoring the head over the heart.
In this sense, the film’s true essence isn’t far off from romance, with two heterosexual males coming to terms with one another and realizing how they complete each other, and a third on the side witnessing the tension like an annoyed friend trying to make both head-strong figures happy. The only problem is that the film moves so quickly, and it is so interested in being a big ol’ action movie and in telling some time travel twaddle storyline, that the central relationship gets lost somewhere in the cold emptiness of space. If Abrams was a better filmmaker with more directorial flare (speaking of which, the lens flare doesn’t particularly hurt the film, but it’s no benefit either) who knew more than close-ups on close-ups on close-ups when it came to film technique, the off-the-cuff fun of the film might have been enough to overcome the film’s slightness. As it is, it feels like it’s struggling to achieve something of more depth it can’t quite come to terms with.
Star Trek Into Darkness
And what of the slightly belated sequel? Well, like its predecessor, it’s a complete mess on multiple levels. Like its predecessor, its self-contained narrative isn’t particularly thoughtful nor does it amount to much. Like its predecessor, it so desperately wants to be a big,grand, important action film it sometimes finds its sense of pace lost amidst the rubble it leaves in its wake.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the central relationship between the film’s characters is afforded far more screen-time here, and it is entirely to the film’s benefit. The less prominent roles are capably filled, but it’s the central moral triangle between logic, humanism, and impudent rashness that always made Star Trek so compelling to begin with. This does not change here, and in fact, the film goes to great lengths to remind us that its heart and soul lie in its main characters. Notably improved is Chris Pine’s Kirk, who here has grown into himself and developed an honest-to-god flawed human conscience. His relationship with Spock is less one of clinical detachment and one-ups-man-ship than it is a relationship between romantic sparring partners. Quinto is as good as he was four years before, and the two play off each other with style, panache, and humanity.
Best of all, there’s a sense that their relationship has evolved beyond passion and pizzaz and into the lagging stages of a rut – they know so much about each other now that surprises are few and far between. This is a relationship that goes beyond chemistry and into true personal understanding. It’s charismatic, sure, but there’s care and nervous anxiety about the future of the partnership. There’s a sense, of all things, of boredom, and that is perhaps the most human thing of all. For all the twists and turns Abrams and his screenwriters can muster, there is no greater surprise.
Thankfully, when the film gets a little too mired in all of the complications it can add-on to its narrative, it doesn’t forget that character should trump narrative in almost all cases. It goes to great lengths to detail the differences and similarities in its characters, their worldviews, and the way they work off of, disagree with, and learn from each other. It is this pop-anarchism, this sense of zany energy at pitting characters as worldviews together and seeing what happens, that makes the film.
As for when the film does get mired in complication? All the stuff about the villain is a great improvement over the first film insofar as the character at least registers as a threat, but the film’s interpretation of Khan (big surprise, huh?) is not an all-time screen villain. He’s menacing, dangerous, conflicted, and determined (and given an air of obsession and a thick baritone by the pipes of Benedict Cumberbatch), but he comes off more as a robot feigning humanity. Ricardo Montalban, campiness and all, brought a warmth and joy to the part, and there can be none of this in Abrams’ acceptance of the modern “dark reboot” blockbuster world. Had this interpretation come before many others like it over the past decade, maybe it would be more notable. Alas, film does not exist in a vacuum.
The bigger problem is that the film really just hammers on the Wrath of Khan-isms – even to the point of re-creating a scene almost wholesale – to the point that it can never truly evolve out of the shadow of its predecessor. Even worse, it makes the affair needlessly complicated when it ought to be streamlined, and leaves us throwing our hands up in the air when it all comes down to something as meaningful as a fistfight atop a moving vehicle. Complication upon complication, however, can’t do anything to murder the film’s soul, its faith in its characters. If the film sometimes fights them for screen-time, they stand tall nonetheless.