Whatever You Do, Don't Sell Any Copies.

Every time I go into Walmart, there they are: racks of 2009's Star Trek reboot DVD's, in both the no-frills and 2-disc special edition versions. Now approaching two years of age, Walmart continues to refuse to discount these DVD's off of their $19.99 and $24.99 list prices. I don't know if this is Walmart or Paramount's doing, but an employee told me on the QT that Walmart had bought dozens of pallets of the disc when it first shipped, assuming the film would fly off the shelves. The employee speculates Walmart paid too much for the discs and discounting them as they normally do DVD's after six and twelve and eighteen months would cause the store to lose money. So, there they sit. Two years later, still full price.

Films that came out around the same time and even after Trek are retailing for ten bucks, and previously viewed copies abound at about $7.99. The same strange phenomena happened with the stillborn Superman Returns, literally thousands of copies of which gathered dust in a huge, cardboard cube display (about five feet squared) for about two years. No store in town would lower the price for Returns from it's $19.99 list of the basic disc and an eye-gouging $29.99 for the deluxe set. This feels a lot like Apple Computer's price fixing: shop all you want, an iPad is $499 wherever you go. I'm not sure what the point is, for either Walmart or, even more puzzling, Paramount, to want to keep this film out of peoples' hands by demanding top rate for a two-year old movie, but most all things Trek have traditionally been grossly overpriced, $149 per season for most Trek box sets when you can catch House on sale for around $39.95. Maybe it's a contractual thing with director JJ Abrams. Maybe it's some uncanny marketing strategy that just sails over my head. In any case, I found a used copy for $4.99 and was just as thrilled.

Didn't We Just See This Movie?: Eric Bana as the terribly-named Nero (a popular CD-burning
software) echoes Tom Hardy's disastrous Shinzon from the franchise-killing Star Trek: Nemesis.
The ships look identical, they look identical. What on earth was Abrams thinking?

They got the Romulans wrong. Again.

The last Star Trek film, Nemesis, which killed the franchise, made the Romulans stupid. Made them stupid Roman Centurions who get hoodwinked by a piece of bad casting (click here to read my review). Tom Hardy portrayed Shinzon, a supposed clone of The Next Generation’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Regrettably Hardy, the actor playing Shinzon, couldn’t credibly stand in the same room with Patrick Stewart, the wonderful Shakespearean actor who played Picard for two decades, so the whole “clone” notion never worked, not from frame one. Had they cast Stewart to play his own clone, a much brighter idea, TNG franchise might still be making flicks today. Astonishingly poor choices were made all around, but I guess that's why the named them dinosaurs. Make no mistake about it: Star Trek is a fun movie and well worth seeing. But is it really Trek?

As with Nemesis, this new Star Trek places a rogue Romulan at the center and then gets the Romulans completely wrong. The entire point of Romulans are that they are liars. That they say one thing then do another. Duplicity is their stock and trade. It is, ultimately, what makes them interesting. TV Show Romulans rarely, if ever, raised their voice. They spoke with an even, calculated tone while never taking their eyes off you. They polarized whatever room they might have been in. They were thinkers moreso than warriors, and they used their intellect to nefarious purposes.

Here, as in the awful Nemesis, the producers made the Romulans simply stooges. Every Romulan in this film is a stooge who screams and snarls and beats people up. Wrong. Romulans don’t beat people up. They outsmart people, manipulating them into beating themselves up. So, right away, I realize this is yet another Star Trek film produced by people whose understanding of Star Trek never makes it far below the Trek epidermis: the bare basics of what the phenomena is about. And, what’s the big deal? many will ask. The big deal is this: the difference between a film and a franchise is how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Designed By Steve Jobs:: The Enterprise bridge now looks like an Apple iPod or, say, a dentist's office.

The New Guy

Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful future was not there. It was implied, perhaps taken for granted, but it was not evidenced in any meaningful or significant way. That future—one in which poverty, disease, war, hunger, and most human vices have been eliminated—was what made Star Trek rise above most other science-future spaceship serials. This is something director J.J. Abrams either didn’t understand or didn’t care about: hope was a huge component of Star Trek. Abrams left hope on the cutting room floor.

The show also has heart disease. It’s a very clever film with very interesting performances, but the film has no beating heart at its center. Zachary Quinto, whose most compelling reason for being there is his uncanny resemblance to Leonard Nimoy, comes about as close to being, ironically, the picture's emotional nexus as we get. Quinto's appropriately reserved inner turmoil requires the audience to already know who Spock is and, therefore, read into his performance a bit. Those less-informed viewers might bounce off of Quinto's Spock as wooden and uneven, but for those in the know, the new guy clearly runs away with the picture, mowing down Chris Pine's unsatisfying Kirk at every opportunity. Ironically, whiffs in the wind have it that all of Trek's cast have re-signed for the sequel except Quinto, mirroring original Spock Leonard Nimoy's repeated foot-dragging/rope-a-dope which got old fairly quickly. Trek is the biggest thing to happen to Quinto, who is likely and understandably concerned about typecasting and therefore needs to find some career ballast in other high-profile roles before he can commit again to the ears. Additionally, Quinto likely knows the entire picture rested on his shoulders and his spooky resemblance to Nimoy. There was no one else in that picture who enthralled us, no other arc worth following from Act One through Act Three. That's real capital for Qunito, and smart management will explore ways to use it.

Quinto plays Spock as if he’s never seen a Nimoy performance, which may have been the point. Quinto's Spock is so uninformed—lacking the charm and pristinely calculated wit of the original—that every time he opened his mouth I was disappointed. The Spock we’ve come to know over 30+ years (unnervingly echoed by Tim Russ’ coolly disciplined Tuvok from that awful Lost In Space Star Trek show) would never order Kirk out of his chair (a funny line, but decidedly Not Spock). Thus, Spock’s ongoing conflicts about his divided lineage simply ring hollow: the young actor simply cannot bring Spock home for me, and I’ve been waiting a very long time (thank goodness the real thing appears in two extended cameos).

Worse, Chris Pine’s Kirk cannot hold the center of the film. He simply lacks the gravity of William Shatner’s chronic self-absorption, which informed Shatner’s performance as James Tiberius Kirk. Bruce Greenwood, as Captain Christopher Pike, simply mops the floor with Pine in every scene they share together, upstaging the younger actor with Greenwood’s meaty dimension as an actor and his character’s father figure to the young Kirk. As ridiculous as it was, I actually bought Pike promoting Kirk to first officer, largely on the strength of Greenwood’s performance. It's not the absurdity of the plot contrivance so much as how a seasoned actor sells it. Greenwood's Pike saw greatness in Kirk. Had he a boat full of veterans rather than 17-year olds like Chekov, he might have made another choice. I would have groaned at the evasion of logic, here, had any lesser actor spoken that line.

Kirk himself, however, is completely missing from the film. Abrams seemingly capriciously banned Shatner (in both body and spirit) from the production. It felt deliberate. It felt mean. And it tinged my enjoyment of what is certainly a great movie. The whole film felt hostile to Shatner. So much so that, instead of simply enjoying the movie, I kept wondering what ax Paramount or Abrams had to grind against the guy. The film's finale uses a crane shot to discover Spock observing from a balcony. I assure you every Trek fan who went to see this expected this to lead to a reveal of Spock speaking with Kirk--Shatner Kirk. The cameo would have lasted about thirty seconds, and it would have been a powerful moment for the fans, for Shatner and for the franchise. As is, the hand-off to the new kids feels like a convenience store stick-up. I felt emotionally ripped off that this movie would not handshake itself properly from the legacy that made it possible.

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others:: Shatner who? In attempting to shed Trek of Shatner's ham, they also shed Trek of Trek. Rather than coming off as original, Pine cam across as if he can't act. Every time the camera pulled in on Pine, it was jarring, snapped me right out of the story. They should have either (a) toned down all that mirroring going on with the rest of the cast or (b) allowed Pine even a few brief moments to echo Shatner the way the remaining cast echoed their characters' previous incarnations.

He's Dead, Jim

The film's anti-Shatner bias is a strong undertow that distracts from the narrative. Pine plays Kirk as though he’s never heard of William Shatner. I frankly do not know anyone alive over the age of 30 who can not do a Captain Kirk/William Shatner imitation. Most every other member of the cast (except Zoe Saldana, who plays a terrific character called Uhura but who lacks the quiet strength and discipline of Nichelle Nichols) seems to have used the original characters as the foundation for their performances. They certainly went their own way and made the characters their own (perhaps most successfully, Simon Pegg’s very funny Scotty), but Pine seems to have deliberately abandoned Shatner. Coupled with the choice to not cast Shatner even in a cameo (the plot re-shuffles the continuity deck so efficiently, no explanation of Shatner’s walk-on would have been necessary), that I’m left to conclude the producers wanted a Shatner-less Star Trek, which is to miss the joy of Trek entirely.

As annoying and occasionally overblown as Shatner’s performances can be, it is those very qualities which make Spock Spock and McCoy McCoy. The new kid was simply too generic, a pale echo of Tom Cruise’s Maverick from Top Gun (including an homage to Maverick’s arrival at the air base on his motorcycle, Air Force jets flying overhead. This is re-created, almost note for note, here in Trek).

The casting, therefore, is out of balance. Pine’s groping, generic Maverick Lite is no Kirk. Not even close. Not even a hint, an echo, of that note in the symphony. So the triad of Spock, Kirk, and McCoy simply does not work, here. Spock’s arguments with McCoy seem strained and flat, missing the fire of Deforest Kelley’s seeming disdain for Nimoy.

Worse, at no point does Kirk save the day. He performs heroic acts but he is not a hero. At no point do I ever feel like he was in any real peril, and the Kobayashi Maru “no win” scenario never plays itself out in the plotline.

The film goes out of its way not to reimagine Kirk so much as to banish Shatner, as if Shatner’s ghost might hold back a new franchise. What might hold back a new franchise is the thinness of the new premise, the performances being satire once removed, and the lack of a Shatner at the center. Quinto’s Spock’s lack of charm (not to mention his lack of Nimoy’s classic baritone) doesn’t help. This film could easily have tipped over into the realm of a Saturday Night Live sketch. As is, it teeters on the brink.

What Were They Thinking?:: Trek undresses the only major African American cast member,
Zoe Saldana's Uhura. They should have (a) cast an additional major black cast member or
(b) kept her clothes on. The Anglo-centric Trek deeply insulted the African American
community (and Uhura fans) with this nonsense.

Here And Gone

There weren’t enough shots of the Enterprise, Abrams again missing a crucial point that the Enterprise herself is a major character in the franchise. We get, at best, fleeting occasional glimpses of the ship’s exterior with it's silly-looking Popeye-arm nacelles, and we’re left blinking and wondering what this version of the ship actually looks like. This is a mistake every film director has made with Trek since Robert Wise's lumbering and over-long tour of the Enterprise in space dock in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a consequence of a rushed editing process as that show was being hurried to the airport, prints still wet in the cans lined up on the tarmac mere hours before the film's opening. Scoff at that lonnnnng leisurely tour of the ship all you want. Back in 1979, on a 40-foot widescreen, I distinctly recall gasps and then hushed silence as the packed movie house engaged in a kind of worship ceremony. There she was. The old gal completely reimagined and in such compelling detail we knew the model itself had to be huge. We wanted that long look. After ten years of waiting, that tour wasn't for Kirk, who could have pulled up the ship from dozens of angles on a huge widescreen monitor in his office. The tour was for us.

Every director since, perhaps wary of criticism over Wise's overlong tour (which seems overlong only on subsequent or repeated viewings; I'm telling you, first time you see this thing, in 40-feet of glorious Panavision, it's practically a theophany) has given us only fleeting glimpses of the ship. And they're all idiots. Including Nimoy, who gave us barely an eye blink of 1701-A just before rolling the credits on Star Trek IV. The  notable exception was Nicholas Meyer in Trek's standard-bearer Wrath of Khan, whose budget was slashed from TMP's jaw-breaking numbers and therefore had to recycle Industrial Light and Magic's marvelous footage of the ship exterior. Meyer gave us an abbreviated lingering look at our beloved Enterprise, and did not rush us with subsequent exterior shots during the course of the film.

Ben Cross turns in a simply dreadful performance as Sarek, Spock’s father. The part was played for decades by the inimitable Mark Lenard, who passed away in 1996. Lenard’s Sarek was Spock without the compassion. He was all discipline, and Lenard’s performance had a through-point of self-loathing for Sarek’s obvious compassion for his half-human son, and anger at his son for causing Sarek to so obviously display that compassion. Anger which, in wonderfully nuanced layers from a brilliant actor, humiliated Sarek. Cross’s befuddled, doddering, single-note performance fairly insults the richness of that memory.

Finally, God was not in this movie. Not that He specifically needed to be, but Star Trek not only had an innate sense of hope, but was fairly evangelical in Kirk’s sense of faith. If not faith in a specific Judeo Christian God, faith in the bright future for mankind and, ultimately, the universe. Via his trademark, halting speeches, Kirk routinely pondered the big questions and gazed out at the stars. Whether deliberate or not, he came across as a man of faith, and that hopeful optimism is what made Trek Trek. Most all of that is missing from this new Star Trek, which seems much less concerned about the hopeful future, hitting the action beats squarely while forgetting to give the film an actual soul.

There’s really not much here for young people except action and a gratuitous scene of Uhura in her panties. It was an unnecessary titillation that demeaned the actor’s otherwise terrific performance and something Nichelle Nichols, the original Uhura, would never have agreed to. The one major female (and black) character in the film, and they made her take her clothes off. The major reboot performances are only interesting if you’re familiar with the originals, which these performances vaguely echo without actually measuring up to. Eye candy, lots of fun, but not enough depth to make the film compelling. No lessons learned, no questions pondered, no hope extended to us. They beat the bad guy, missing the point that, for most of its existence and for most of its incarnations, Star Trek had no bad guy. Conflict was created out of larger issues, with even perceived bad guys Klingon, Borg, etc. acting as agents of conflict while being consistent to their internal logic.

There were precious few mustache-twirling villains in Trek, including the greatest villain of all, Ricardo Montalban's hammy, scenery-chewing Khan, whose gregarious histrionics went toe-to-toe with Shatner's own. In 30 years of trying, Khan's villainy has simply been unmatched. The sad legacy of the trek franchise is their repeated attempts to cath lightning in a bottle. With perhaps the lowest budget of any of the franchise's films and an untested young director (Meyer), cast and crew created the landmark and definitive Star Trek film, one Paramount has spent hundreds of millions unsuccessfully trying to recreate. Eric Bana's Nero's obsession with Spock, blaming Spock for something Spock failed to do--a real stretch to sell to the audience--was intended, I suppose, to mirror Khan's obsession with Kirk, but echoed instead the disastrous Shinzon from the franchise-killer Nemesis. Even the ship looked the same. What on earth (or in space) was Abrams thinking? Khan was all passion, a kind of mirror to Kirk. Nero had absolutely no resonance with either New or Classic Spock. As fun a way to kill an afternoon as any, and I suppose the film will rake in lots of cash. But, for this Trek fan, it serves manly to underscore just how great the original was.

Christopher J. Priest
11 May 2009