Sunday, 10 May 2009

Review - Star Trek

J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek is a modern reimagining of the classic science-fiction series - emphasis on the ‘modern’. Everything about the film screams out its desire to move away from the dated plot structure of the old Trek and to emerge as a product of the early 21st Century. It’s almost as if the film was constructed as an exercise in modern film cliché to bring the Trek franchise kicking and screaming into the current entertainment paradigm. The narrative’s three act structure, the pop-culture cameos, the choral music during battle scenes, the relentless CGI, and the constant lens flares are all hallmarks of modern cinema.

Thus it seems that I fall into the demographic that the filmmakers were targeting. I dislike old Trek: I feel that I’ve been spoiled by modern intelligent science-fiction like Battlestar Galactica. Yet, I enjoyed J. J. Abrams’ NEW Trek. It doesn’t represent a Battlestar-ing of the franchise since the new film shies away from any sort of depth or intelligent nuance in favour of quick, cinematic character development and space-battle action. The reinvention is best compared with Doctor Who which, apart from a few episodes like Steven Moffat’s, is just “fun” and “watchable”. Star Trek’s obvious attempts to appeal to a modern audience make it an easy film to appreciate: since the audience are so familiar with all the cinematic clichés, they can easily absorb and enjoy the film through a cultural osmosis.

The real star turn, as indicated in Annalee Newitz’s review at io9.com, is Zachary Quinto as Spock. Quinto previously offered a fascinating portrayal of a super-villain psychopath in the show Heroes before the writers started changing the character every episode and it all dissolved into an incomprehensible mess. Playing the young Spock, Quinto gives a performance that not only matches Leonard Nimoy’s original portrayal but expands upon the character’s emotional engagement with the audience. Flashbacks into Spock’s Vulcan childhood and constant reminders of his struggle between logic and emotion – reason and intuition – yields an unlikely everyman character: an alien who somehow represents one of the fundamental dichotomies of human existence. Spock comes across as more sympathetic and more tragic than anyone else aboard the Enterprise, so much so that it’s easy to share his annoyance at the brash young Kirk.

Conversely, the Romulan villain Nero is a disappointment and a missed opportunity. Nero’s situation parallels Spock’s and so offers an interesting insight into the nature of the two characters. Nero chooses to act in revenge and anger whereas Spock chooses stoic determination and acceptance. It presents a meditation on the nature of choice and its effect on future events particularly in a universe where free will apparently exists (evidenced by the film’s alternate-timeline school of time travel). The writers should have developed the parallel between the hero and the villain and included a scene where Spock and Nero actually talk. It could have gone a long way to providing the film with much-needed depth. Unfortunately Nero spends the whole film stereotypically brooding in the shadows, nursing his pointy sceptre, and doing his best to look menacing replete with grungy clothes and facial tattoos. Maybe the filmmakers thought it would be disingenuous to take on a barrel of modern conventions and not adopt a conventional approach to presenting the villain.

I enjoyed Star Trek. It was fun and exciting science-fiction in a classic space-faring vein, arguably something that Hollywood usually avoids.

And yet, even though I never liked old Trek, it feels as if something special has been lost. By adapting Trek and turning the property into a modern franchise, Abrams and the other creators have taken something unique and made it into something conventional. Although it didn’t appeal to me, the old Star Trek was different to everything else out there. Sometimes it’s better to die as a sighted person in the land of the blind than to mutilate yourself to fit in. We have witnessed the passing of Star Trek and the birth of another generic, CGI-laden, entertainment property. Let’s hope that the new Trek aims towards the originality of its predecessor even if, in doing so, it alienates its new fair-weather fans.

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