by J. J. Abrams
First off, I have to admit to not being a fan of the whole Star Trek thing. If you want to know why, just go here. In fact the only bit I do like (and actually like a hell of a lot) is the second film, The Wrath of Khan, and having heard that even seasoned Trekkies think The Wrath of Khan is the best of the bunch and that this film was in the same league, I was happy to go and see it. And on the whole, it lived up.
The opening sequence, and the fight between the USS Kelvin and the Romulan Nero’s huge warship (actually a converted mining ship, we’re later told) gave a great taster of the kind of well-paced, well executed action that would be a feature of the rest of the film. There’s slightly too much hardware flying around at some points to really see what’s going on, which seems to be a symptom of CGI effects these days where the limitless object count tempts filmmakers to lay it on thick, but I can forgive it that. Just what George Kirk’s heavily pregnant wife was doing on board was never explained though, and then there was the frankly pretty contrived conversation where she and he try and find a name for the newly arrived mini-Kirk (Jim after his dad, Tiberius after hers), but the final death plunge when Kirk Snr flies the ruined ship into the Romulan vessel, collision alarms going off all over the place, was real edge-of-the-seat stuff.
Cut a few years forward to Jim Kirk, disaffected car-stealing youngster, in trouble with the law by the time he’s twelve. A bit of a cliche, but it’s over quite fast. Then the cocky young guy pissing his life away getting into bar fights he can’t hope to win — well, we’ve seen that character a few times too. But then comes the surrogate father figure Christopher Pike, ready with a few words of friendly advice to set Jim on the straight and narrow. And so his adventures with Starfleet begin.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the Kobayashi Maru episode depicted here, an event alluded to in The Wrath of Khan when Saavik takes (and fails) the same test. Often those kinds of things — when filmmakers give in to temptation and try to flesh out events or circumstances portrayed fleetingly in another film — can fall flat (e.g. the recent Indiana Jones film when they just had to show us the big warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the rest of us were quite happy imagining what must be in there and being impressed at the first film’s ability to leave the intrigue hanging). However here it worked, and set Kirk’s leadership style up nicely.
What did fall flat however was the attempts at humour. It was as if they were trying too hard, laying on the comedy too thickly as a result. One example was the green Orion girl that Kirk cops off with at the academy — painting people green to represent aliens was an artefact of the effects budget being so low in the original series; here it just looked silly. Another was when Kirk was being given one injection after another by McCoy to get him sick enough to be classed as McCoy’s patient — weirdly bloated arms and numb tongue might have sounded like high comedy at the time, but on screen it was just daft. Then we have Scotty beaming into a water tank on board the Enterprise — sure we’ve all wondered what would happen if someone materialised where there was already something solid (or liquid) there, but the resultant clattering spluttering excursion through the pipework owed more to Willy Wonka than Gene Roddenbury. Hilarious? Maybe not.
(Compare the slight, subtle moments of comedy in The Wrath of Khan, such as when Saavik drives the ship out of Spacedock for the first time and Kirk looks like he’s about to faint while McCoy asks if he wants a tranquilliser — not exactly side-splitting stuff, but way better than hamming it up off the scale.)
In fact the only light relief that actually worked in this film was the presence of Simon Pegg, already firmly established in my mind as the god of all things SF after the hugely popular series “Spaced” actually made it cool to be a geek. Despite liking him so much I did have to wonder whether he’d pull it off, rising to the not inconsiderable task of playing a precursor to James Doohan, but that he did, including some warm, funny moments depicting his friendship with the odd little alien sidekick we first see him with.
But then it’s back to the action, including one pretty eye-popping stunt where Kirk and Sulu effectively skydive from orbit, hundreds of miles down the side of the planetary drill that Nero is using to reach the core of Vulcan. (I actually have something similar planned for one of my own works-in-progress involving a freefall down the side of a space elevator — it’s going to look like I just copied now…) And from then on the space battles and explosions continue.
One thing I might have done differently if I was writing the script was the whole time travel / alternate timelines thing. That kind of plot device is always a causal minefield, and in this case had me scratching my head at the end on at least a couple of points. As I understand it, at some time in the future (129 years after the time the film is set) the planet Romulus is destroyed by a supernova, despite the best efforts of Spock (old Spock at that point, i.e. the Leonard Nimoy we’re all familiar with) who is then propelled back in time to the present-day of the film by a black-hole-induced timewarp. Seeking revenge for his dead planet, the enraged Romulan Nero played by Eric Bana (or should that be Eric Henna given the Glastonbury-style facepaint he’s wearing) follows him back, vowing justice against Spock in either his old or young incarnation, whichever he finds first. All of which sets the scene for the battles and escapades that bring Spock and Kirk and the rest of the familiar faces together. Except, we learn at one point, that other timeline where Nero hadn’t come back (and therefore hadn’t encountered the USS Kelvin and killed Kirk’s dad) still saw Kirk captaining the Enterprise, with his father alive to witness the event. It also saw the old crew together, just as in this film, with Spock knowing Kirk (which we know because when old Spock meets young Kirk in that ice cave he declares them to be old friends); and it also saw old Spock knowing Scotty (which we know because when they meet at the research station Spock is fully aware of who Scotty is). Confused? I am, and I write this kind of stuff all the time. The basic problem is that if both timelines (the one old Spock lived to get to the point where Romulus was destroyed) and the new one (branching off from when he and Nero came back in time) both have Kirk commanding the Enterprise and both have all major characters knowing each other, which one is the “real” one? I.e. the one that contains Kirk’s voyages from the original series, and all the spin-offs and sequels that followed? Of course this is a reboot, but I think the original story had plenty of room for the kind of adventures this film wanted to show without mashing up the established history to quite this extent. (Though if it gives an opportunity to get Leonard Nimoy on screen alongside his younger self, bringing his significant gravitas and presence to proceedings, I’m all for it).
On the whole though, this film is definitely one to see, and one to own.