Monday, 6 April 2015

Star Trek (2009)

Everything I knew about Star Trek before I watched the 2009 film for the first time:
  • Captain Kirk was in charge of the Starship Enterprise, and was a bit of a womaniser
  • Leonard Nimoy was Spock, and irreplaceable, an utter legend. 
  • George Takei was Mr Sulu. 
  • Scotty beamed people up. 
  • Uhura was an enormously significant character, a black lady in an important and interesting role in 1960s TV. 
  • I did not know of the existence of Dr "Bones" McCoy, or Pavel Chekov, or Nurse Chapel.
  • Vulcans had pointy ears, severe straight fringes, and lived by logic over emotion.
  • Other alien species included the Klingons, who had a fully-formed language and whose spaceships were called Birds of Prey, and also Romulans.
  • Spock dies in Wrath of Khan. (I did not know, then, that he would return, but I did know that he has been, and always shall be, Kirk's friend.)
  • "To boldly go where no man has gone before."
  • "Set phasers to stun."

This is where it all began with me. Until early 2013, I was quite comfortable with my nerd status, but I held that there were certain lines which, once crossed, marked the point of no return. I was not into Dungeons and Dragons. I was not into Star Trek. But my friends were organising a trip to see Into Darkness when it hit the cinemas, and the trailer intrigued me, so I thought I ought to give myself a bit of insider knowledge of the Star Trek universe, so that I could understand what was going on. The 2009 reboot film seemed like a logical place to start, not requiring decades of catching up with the series and the original films, but just one film. Who was I kidding? Not even myself, I think. I knew as I sat down to watch Star Trek on TV that this was going to be a big deal. How big, though, I had not conceived.

It took me most of the pre-credits sequence to understand what was going on. I was thrown straight into an attack by Romulans on a Federation starship, full of chaos and explosions and J.J. Abram's traditional lens flares. The Romulans spoke of Ambassador Spock, and a young Starfleet officer named Kirk is rapidly promoted to Captain. But the Spock the Romulans seek is old, and the Captain Kirk is not James Tiberius, but his father, George, who sacrifices his own life while his wife gives birth to their child. Among the chaos, the special effects are breathtaking, but do not draw too much attention to them; my brain just accepted what it was seeing. And the music is beautiful, a simple but haunting theme as the titles flash up.

This film introduces the key characters and concepts of the Star Trek universe simply and concisely. The twelve-year-old Kirk stealing his stepfather's car gives an insight in what we can expect from this character: a rebel, brave but reckless and arrogant. (More on this version of James Kirk later.) Meanwhile, on Vulcan, a young Spock is bullied by his peers, and a few short scenes with him and his father Sarek establish the Vulcan philosophy of logic which covers a passionately emotional nature, as well as Spock's unique conflict between his human and Vulcan halves. 

I thought I knew what to expect from Spock, and did not expect to warm to such a coldly logical character. Wow, I thought, with some surprise and glee, when Spock confronts Kirk for the first time in his trial for cheating at the Kobayashi Maru test. Spock's a bit of a jerk! However, I did not like this Kirk at all, and enjoyed watching the animosity between them. But it is that inner turmoil between his two natures that makes Spock such a fascinating character, and the more he suppresses any human emotion, the more you sense it beneath the frosty facade. Zachary Quinto gives a marvelously nuanced performance here, and is solely responsible for sending me back to the original series, which made me fall utterly in love with the character who piqued my interest from his first, contemptuous, "live long and prosper," in response to insults from the Vulcan Academy. Several days later, on a quiet shift at work, I realised I was being haunted by the look on his face as he watched his mother plummet to her death. Oh dear, I thought, This isn't such a casual interest after all. (Oh Katie. Do you have any casual interests?) 

With the audacious decision to destroy the planet of Vulcan, J. J. Abrams and his crew of storytellers demonstrated that this Star Trek is no mere prequel. Spock spells it out: the Romulans came through a wormhole in time, and by doing so, changed the course of history enough to create an alternative universe. Anything can happen. Nothing and no one is safe. It certainly adds a sense of suspense to the film, because it doesn't have to seamlessly join up to the original series. And with this plot twist, Star Trek hooked my imagination, went from interesting to something clever and extraordinary.

After being a bossy, shouty brat one too many times, Jim Kirk finds himself marooned on a frozen planet - rather an extreme punishment, I can't help thinking -  where he encounters a most unexpected and familiar figure: his nemesis Spock, as an old man, played, of course, by Leonard Nimoy, the biggest legend of the entire franchise. Even as a brand new not-quite-Trekkie, I recognised this as a Really Big Deal and fangirled accordingly. This Spock has changed a lot - which old fans will have watched through the original series and films - to become a wise, warm and calm presence, at peace with his dual nature, and a little bit mischievous.
(Old Spock: "He inferred that universe-ending paradoxes would ensue should he break his promise." Young Spock: "You lied?" Old Spock: "Oh... I implied.")
Although Chris Pine's Kirk is the main protagonist of this Star Trek film, really it is Spock who is at its heart: the old and the young. It is a perceived wrong by the old Spock that sets the events in motion, a tragic sequel to the "Unification" episodes of The Next Generation in which Spock attempts to form peace between the Romulan and Vulcan people, and from Star Trek: Nemesis, at the same time as being a sort-of prequel. And as well as being integral to the plot of the film, Leonard Nimoy's presence marked a link between the two universes, the old and the new series. Yes, the series that began nearly fifty years ago, is still (boldly) going strong. This passing-on of the torch gains an extra layer of poignancy now, seen after Mr Nimoy's death. The supporting cast are pretty wonderful, bringing warmth and humour to the story. Simon Pegg is an inspired choice as Scotty, with his comic timing and expression, and clearly a lot of joy to be part of this project. And oh, Karl Urban, who plays Doctor "Bones" McCoy, is DeForest Kelley all over again. The likeness is really quite uncanny in some places. John Cho's Sulu is the quiet, self-assured helmsman - even if he forgets a rather crucial stage in warp-speed travel on his first day. And Anton Yelchin, while not an awful lot like the original Chekov (apart from the character's youth and accent) is altogether sweet and endearing.

Perhaps Star Trek is a little bit longer than it needs to be, with action sequences that make me lose concentration towards the end - but this is a minor criticism, and one that I'd apply to most films these days. For the most part, it is an edge-of-the-seat adventure with an interesting plot, evoking a breathtaking longing for space travel. By the time the elder Spock gives the traditional "Space, the final frontier" monologue, I had a big goofy grin on my face, feeling as though I was coming to a home I didn't know was mine. This was where it began for me, two years ago. And I'm very glad it did. I came very late to the party, and now I'm here to stay,

There are, however, a few factors which, though they did not spoil the film for me, must be discussed, and by "discussed," I mean "ranted about at great length." So if you want to stop reading here, I'll put in the very first teaser trailer in here. Oh, what must it have been like to be a long-term Star Trek fan and see this in the cinema, wondering what can this be? before the dawning thrill of realisation? I'm sorry not to have been able to experience that first hand. But it's a beautiful teaser nonetheless.



And now, the rants.

First of all: I do not like Chris Pine's version of James T. Kirk. We get told that Jim Kirk is a genius, but we don't really see any evidence of that. He'll come out with some impressive knowledge once or twice, but his character is not that of suitable officer material. He's a cadet at Starfleet Academy, he is arrogant and rebellious and shouts over everyone else. Kirk has always been a bit arrogant, and one to decide whether or not to follow orders, but at least in the original series he had some wisdom and an air of authority. This young Kirk just comes across as a brat.

And then there's his way with women. There is a fine line between smarm and charm. For all his faults, the original Kirk, played by William Shatner, mostly fell the right side of that line. Chris Pine's version, however, is so far through smarmy that he is repulsive. At least in the original series, he shows a genuine interest in whichever lady is his love interest of the week. This young Kirk, on the other hand, is that guy who hangs around in bars, hits on women who are clearly not interested, and even if he's trying to show an interest, his ulterior motive shows through. He wants the pretty women to be interested in him. What a creep. It feels to me that this version of Kirk is based upon the idea of Kirk the Ladies' Man, rather than the actual character. I suspect that the different eras in which the stories were made does not help matters. In the 1960s, Star Trek would show the courtship, and perhaps there might be a tasteful scene later on showing the lady brushing her hair in the Captain's quarters. In the 2009 film, there is the opposite. We don't get to know Kirk's latest conquest, she doesn't get a character, all we get is a scene of them cavorting in their underwear on her bed. Oh, and then Uhura comes in and strips down to her underwear, as you do, as if to confirm the tired old stereotype that Star Trek is for sad, overgrown teenage boys who can't get a girlfriend.

And on the subject of Uhura, I felt that she was a rather two-dimensional character, a Strong Female who could be interchangeable with many other Strong Female Characters: forceful and demanding, most notably in the scene where she confronts Spock, her superior officer about assigning her to the starship she wants to work on. "No. I'm assigned to the Enterprise." No doubt this was an attempt to avoid the 1960s stereotypes of what a woman ought to be like: demure, softly-spoken, sweet-tempered. But surely true feminism means to embrace traditionally feminine traits as just as valuable as traditionally masculine? Yes, the original Uhura was sweet and "girly," but she was much more than just a pretty face; she had a quiet strength, a calm authority, as well as a musical talent and a cheeky sense of humour, (remember her comeback of "sorry, neither" to a swashbuckling Sulu calling her a "fair maiden." It makes sense in context.) She was a rounded individual, and I feel that in trying to fit her into the 21st century mould of Strong Female Character, she lost a lot of her personality.

Finally, and I am not saying this because I have a "shipping" problem - after all, one of the beauties of alternative universes is exploring how a story would be different when different choices are made - but I do find the pairing of Spock and Uhura a bizarre one. It does not seem logical for this Spock, at this time in his life, when he's trying so hard to be a true Vulcan, to get involved in a very human romantic relationship. Moreover, I can't see what Uhura gets out of such a relationship. No, that's not quite true. Zachary Quinto is a very attractive man, and Spock is a wonderful character. We have established my fondness for Spock, for every version of Spock. But there is a difference between loving a complex fictional character and wanting them for a romantic partner. It must be very challenging to fall in love with a Vulcan, especially if you're a passionate character like Uhura. I can't imagine such a love affair to be fulfilling to either of them.

That being said, it does come as a relief to see someone try to comfort Spock at the lowest point of his life, when his planet is destroyed, and his mother killed. As a viewer I just wanted to give the poor guy a hug, so it was good to see Uhura stand in as proxy.

But even as grumpy as I get about these issues of characterisation, some of which only started to bother me as I got to know the original series, they don't really stand in the way of my enjoyment of the film. If you're looking for a way into the Star Trek universe, the 2009 film is an excellent place to start, accessible, exciting and lovable. But beware. Venturing across the final frontier may be a one-way journey. It certainly proved so for me.

Live long and prosper.

4 comments:

  1. Great post. I had a very similar Star Trek experience: I only watched the 2009 movie a few days before I was "dragged along" to a midnight showing of Into Darkness... Then the universe never quite left me alone and I started watching TOS and, well...

    I agree that Shatner's Kirk is better. I guess for the movie they wanted to set up a more direct opposition between Kirk and Spock... but I much prefer the more nuanced Kirk in the series, the one who got pushed around at the academy but grew up to be the badass decorated captain of the Enterprise, Spock's intellectual equal and chess partner. It makes him a much more likeable and believeable character IMO.

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    1. Welcome to the book-blogging world, Gemma! I think in the original series, you've got that contrast between the hot-headed and emotional Dr McCoy and the cool, logical Spock, with Kirk taking the middle approach. In the new films McCoy hasn't been so prominent. I can see how, given ten years or so Kirk could grow to be a good starship captain, but he's not there yet. This film did kind of throw all the new graduates and cadets into the role that should be taken by experienced officers. I guess it's one way of getting that experience.

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    1. Oops, I'm so sorry Ellie, I did not mean to delete your comment, and now I can't get it back. :( My brain did a stupid for a moment. But in reply: I somehow managed to completely avoid Star Trek as a kid, although I have a vague memory of a teacher showing me a clip of Patrick Stewart being awesome when I was about 12 - but I have no idea why the teacher I'm thinking of would do that (it was my music teacher, if my memory is playing tricks on me.) And I was surprised to be interested by that clip. Also, one of the only things I remember from A-Level Philosophy was "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." And there was me thinking it was a quote from some ancient philosopher...

      I think films in general are a bit too long now, and that the optimum length is about 90 minutes. That is the exact length of the Princess Bride, one of the few films which keeps my attention throughout, with exactly the right pacing of drama, wit and action, and which I really need to fangirl about in a post (I can't promise a review in any objective sense of the word.) The Avengers is so close to being a perfect film, one which improves with every watching, but it could benefit from trimming down the final battle sequence, it just loses me when it's just a load of smashing of New York.

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