(No Spoilers) 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 Tom Hardy as 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, we’d have just watched the fifth or sixth Next Gen movie, but astonishingly poor choices were made all around and here we are with this energetic and fun reboot. 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. In Star Trek, a fun but ultimately empty-calorie fetish film, that rabbit hole is fairly shallow.
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 realize or didn’t care about. Hope was a huge component of Star Trek, and 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 the center. Zachary Quinto, whose most compelling reason for being there is his uncanny resemblance to Leonard Nimoy, plays Spock as if he’s never seen a Nimoy performance. 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.
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 Anti-Shatner if not Anti-Kirk. It felt hostile to Shatner. With no hopeful future and such unspoken hostility toward Kirk, is it Trek?
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: Cruise stops briefly, watches the jets, then kicks his bike into high gear, heading for the air base. 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.
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, and we’re left blinking and wondering what this version of the ship actually looks like.
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. I mean it, every time I saw Sarek in the film I winced. Ouch.
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, but 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. 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.