Captain James T. Kirk and Commander Spock are two iconic characters. They're a part of pop culture. Since 1966, millions and millions of people here and abroad have followed their adventures through space, the final frontier, seeking new life and new civilizations, boldly going where no man has gone before.
Kirk is the smooth, intrepid leader. Spock is his logical, tough, pointy-eared second in command and best friend. We've seen them fight. We've seen them love. We've seen them age. We've even seen each of them die.
In the mid-1990s, just after Kirk retired his chair and Spock hung up his pointy ears, George Lucas had come up with the idea to do some prequels of his iconic characters. We already know who and what the characters were. The prequel serves to explain the back-story of how and why the characters came to be.
All of a sudden, we now have prequels coming at us left and right. May 2009 alone has X-Men Origins, Angels & Demons, which is the prequel to The Da Vinci Code (2006), Terminator: Salvation, which despite taking place in the future is technically the prequel to the 1984 film by James Cameron, and, finally this film.
Except, if you're expecting this to be an honest prequel and to see the back-story, the one implied by the 30-year existence of Kirk and Spock in American culture, the one first conceived by the late, great Gene Roddenberry, you're in for a bit of a letdown, and, in my opinion, a bit of a betrayal too.
When I first saw the preview for this movie, I was apprehensive. I'm a Trekkie; not a hard-core fan who goes to conventions and dresses up like a Klingon, but I appreciate the TV show as a well-written and well-acted piece of weekly theater. Sadly, whatever appreciation I had was shattered by the preview.
All of which made this movie look like it'd be a pure, action flick, a pre-summer, popcorn picture geared toward teenage or college-aged boys looking to see blood and bombs. As I watched the actual movie on the evening of May 7, its opening day, I saw that a popcorn picture is exactly what it is. The first and last good thing I'll say about this movie is that it is a relatively entertaining action film.
There are very intense battle scenes, both in space and hand-to-hand, that are very quick-paced and have so many edits with swift, sweeping moves you'd think you were watching The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) or Casino Royale (2006). From parachute jumping from a spaceship to phaser fights from death-defying heights, this film will not bore you, although I could have done without all the snap zooms.
I suppose for the masses who aren't Trekkies that's all the filmmakers need to do, but for those of us who were fans of the TV shows and initial films, or even those who want more than just bang bangs, I reiterate this movie will betray you. Anyone who has seen the original TV series knows it wasn't an action show. Yes, it was described as a space Western, but the show was always more philosophical than filled with physical force.
There was always that one scene in each episode where Kirk would get into fisticuffs and end with a ripped shirt and bruised cheek. Beyond that, the show was really all talk. While it might have been off-putting to some, I always loved the fact that Star Trek had an intellectual side, and I don't mean the spitting of technical jargon.
Where the original TV series and the subsequent spin-offs soared were their subtle, sometimes stunning, allegorical storytelling that dealt with powerful and pertinent social issues of the time. The original series in particular even in the heat of the 1960s was not afraid to tackle issues like racism, sexism, religion, the Cold War, as well as a host of moral and political problems.
Sometimes the episodes would play out in outlandish ways, but each episode wasn't without purpose, or without some intellectual debate to be had, one that would always have personal, emotional repercussions with the characters.
I look at episodes from the original series like episode 13, "The Conscience of the King," which took its title from Shakespeare's Hamlet or episode 65, "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky," which touches upon religion and mortality in such poetic forms. These episodes had literary backgrounds with smart, higher-thinking notions being put on display. Tried as hard as I did, I couldn't say the same about this movie.
No, this is not smart filmmaking or writing that asks for higher thinking. It's basically a revenge story where the villain is so simply painted. The writers here didn't work to give this villain, named Nero, any depth, nuance or reasoning. He's just your typical, cartoon bad guy, one-dimensional. He's certainly no Khan.
If this movie is a betrayal, which I believe it is, it's certainly because it gives no depth to its antagonist. Even in episode 26, "The Devil in the Dark," where Kirk had to fight what amounted to be a living rock, the rock had more personality than Nero.
And, it's not just the villain. This film betrays the Star Trek canon and lore from the very start. The movie begins by having us believe that Kirk was born in space, far from Earth on board the USS Kelvin. According to episode 40, "The Deadly Years," and the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Kirk was actually born in 2233 in the state of Iowa.
In the movie, we're led to believe that Kirk was always a brash, cocky womanizer during his time at Starfleet Academy. However, according to episode 2, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," Kirk was a stack of books with legs. The TV series painted a different picture of younger Kirk that this film wants to paint, and it seems almost initially to be a vastly different picture, a sloppier one.
When it came to Spock's picture, it was a bit neater. In fact, we see Spock getting bullied and that matches what the TV series told us about Spock's younger years. Where it starts to blur is with Spock's relationship with his father. According to episode 44, "Journey to Babel," Spock and his father didn't get along and hadn't spoken to each other for 18 years. Whatever fundamental disagreement split them apart, it isn't present in this movie.
Other relationships with Spock that got screwed up in this movie are his relationships with women. In this movie, Spock and Uhura are boyfriend and girlfriend, but, in episode 34, "Amok Time," Spock is revealed to be married to a Vulcan woman, and even after his marriage was annulled, Spock still refrained from romances while serving in Starfleet. His romance with Uhura here is a complete contradiction.
We're then led to believe that Kirk and Spock met at Starfleet Academy in San Francisco and their first assignment was with the USS Enterprise during its maiden voyage. According to episode 15, "Court Martial," Kirk's first assignment was the USS Farragut. Episode 16, "The Menagerie," does describe how, as a young cadet, Spock served for 11 years on the USS Enterprise under Captain Christopher Pike, but it was believed that he and Kirk didn't know each other then.
All these contradictions couldn't have been overlooked. The writers explain them away by the magic of time travel. Time travel has been a staple in Star Trek. In the 79 original episodes, time travel was the basis of about a half-dozen stories. Usually the idea is to try to prevent history from being altered, but not here.
Here, the filmmakers use time travel as a way of perverting history. JJ Abrams who directed the film is also the producer of the ABC series Lost, which is currently dealing with time travel, so this is familiar territory for him. The problem is on Lost the time traveling is used to tell a more thought-provoking, character-challenging story. In this movie, it's basically a crutch to excuse the filmmakers' betrayal of Star Trek's past as fans have come to understand it.
Abrams may claim artistic license for this sci-fi reboot. It's not creative interpretation of Roddenberry's characters. It's revisionist history. Abrams has veered off course from where Roddenberry started that it's literally laughable.
For most of the movie, I was rolling my eyes and saying, "Come on!" I'm a Trekkie who understands how ridiculous episode 42 was. Episode 42 was "The Trouble With Tribbles." Yes, that was a ridiculous episode, but I never rolled my eyes at it. I did roll my eyes at this movie.
I look at the makeup and the art direction of the original series, and I agree it was corny, campy or silly even for the 60s. Yet, what gave it weight was the gravity of its writing and stories. When you saw Kirk kiss a green girl on the 60s show, it had more pull because it had a deeper purpose. It wasn't just to get teenage boys out to the movie theater. When you see Kirk kiss a green girl in this movie, and he does, it's only laughable.
From the exaggerated and over-the-top caricatures from the actors playing country, Southern doctor McCoy, thick, Russian-accented navigator Chekhov, and wise-cracking engineer Scotty, it felt as if the filmmakers were more mocking and making a parody than a serious drama.
Maybe it's just me, but I think if Abrams has done anything, he's also succeeded in turning Star Trek into Star Wars. Here, Kirk is a rebellious farm boy with daddy issues who goes off with an older man who used to know his father in order to join a military force and fight a dark villain. This is an accurate, if brief description. Yet, substitute Kirk with Luke Skywalker and you have the same logline for Star Wars.
In this movie, the villain has a weapon that can destroy an entire planet. Anyone remember the Death Star? In this movie, Kirk goes to an ice planet and fights a big, hairy monster. Anyone remember the first reel of Empire Strikes Back?
So, not only is this movie a betrayal. It's a rip off!
One Star out of Five
Rated PG-13 for violence and sexual content
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 6 mins.