It's almost a given that techno-geeks love Star Trek; The Big Bang Theory has made that point quite eloquently over the years. I'm happy to say the Tech Daddy is no exception. I've enjoyed every incarnation of Trek -- both on TV and at the movies -- since the original show in the mid 60s. After Enterprise was canceled, and years went by with nothing new in the pipeline, I became a bit despondent. After almost 50 years, life without Star Trek? Unthinkable!
Like many others, I was excited when JJ Abrams released his revamped Star Trek in 2009. I saw it and had a great time at the theater ... but something was nagging at me afterward. At the time, I couldn't put my finger on it. In preparation for seeing the new film, Star Trek: Into Darkness, I watched the Blu-Ray of the first film the night before. Even though I enjoyed the new Trek (in glorious 2D) as much as the first one, seeing them together allowed me to finally figure out what's been bugging me.
These are fun, enjoyable sci-fi action movies ... but they are not Star Trek.
There is a hilarious series of "honest" movie trailers on YouTube by the Screen Junkies, and the one they did for 2009's "Star Trek" nailed it. They said out loud what I'd been thinking: fifty years of one of the richest "canons" in science fiction thrown out the window, to be replaced with ... lens flares? If you haven't seen the trailer yet, go watch it and then come back here.
When Star Trek is firing on all cylinders, you get comedy, action, great character development and insight into the human condition along with boundless optimism about our future. Yes, that could get a bit preachy at times, but at its best Trek excelled at shining a light on who we are and what we could be. These new films are heavy on action and comedy, but light on everything else. OK, this new one has a kind of "homeland security" angle that plays to post-9/11 paranoia, but just barely.
Here's my JJ Abrams Beef Breakdown:
• He'd rather be doing Star Wars -- As the "honest trailer" intimated, these movies are essentially demo reels for Abrams' take on Star Wars (SW). Abrams publicly admitted years ago he was a Star Wars fan and never liked Star Trek (ST) all that much, nor even watched it. And it shows: a lot of the battle scenes in this movie (and the last one) are more reminiscent of SW than ST. And I swear that I heard actual SW sfx in this one during some of those scenes! Especially from the phaser pistols. Not funny.
• Stop with the lens flares already -- Again, as pointed out by almost everyone on the Internet who's ever seen an Abrams movie, the boy loves his lens flares! A few are OK, but they were happening so often during the new film I couldn't not notice them. It's now becoming a major distraction.
• The Bridge of the new Enterprise looks like an Apple Store -- Even if you've never seen a Trek show or movie, the new Bridge makes no sense whatsoever. It's part of Abrams' hyper-kineticized, super amped-up approach to filmmaking where the camera is always moving, or doing a punch-zoom in and out again, or swish-panning, etc. I'd noted that in both films, the Enterprise bridge is so over-lit and cluttered with needless glass panels, I literally could not tell where the various "stations" were or what they were for.
• The style mashup is a mess -- Trying to mix the old and the new in these movies just doesn't work. As a result, the captain's chair is just as silly looking as Shatner's was in the original show (TOS), and they have goose-neck lamps -- apparently using the brightest bulbs in existence -- at the various bridge stations, and Sulu driving the ship with that 1964 Mustang accelerator handle, again as in TOS. Yet everything else on the ship is super-modern, making these juxtapositions not only irritating but pointless and silly.
And this extends to costuming: the female Starfleet crew are again in short skirts, just like TOS, but for no real reason other than the obvious (remember that Gene Roddenberry was a notorious lech when it came to the ladies), plus the guys are back to wearing similar outfits as they did in TOS. Yet, in sickbay the uniforms are completely different (and very stiff looking), while in the land-based scenes the uniforms are completely and utterly different. And might I add that those Paraguayan Police force hats the Starfleet cadets have to wear are really stupid looking?
• WTF is the deal with the engine room? -- Granted, the engine room on TOS was a joke: the warp core was a red glow behind some chicken wire, with plastic pipes trying to pass as metallic. As the TV shows and movies got more sophisticated, so did the engine room -- usually getting bigger (multi-story on TNG), or more gritty as on Enterprise. The idea was to convey something that was powerful enough to drive a ship of that size at warp, but looking modern enough to encompass the idea of warp physics. But in the Abrams movies, the engine room now looks like the LA Sanitation Works in Long Beach. Oh wait ... that's because it is the LA Sanitation Works in Long Beach! Also some additional shots were done at Lawrence Livermore for this one. So you've got these sleek, white curved hallways and an ultra-modern (and ultra-bright) sickbay and bridge, but the engine room is dimly lit and full of metallic catwalks and thousands of pipes? Really? Scotty wouldn't set one foot in that place! At least the Scotty we all knew.
• Space is now messy -- Space is famous for being ... spacious. As in empty for the most part. But apparently Abrams never got that memo, because space in his universe is absolutely, utterly cluttered with debris all the time, everywhere. Almost every exterior shot of a spaceship or craft of some kind involves rubble or debris from some battle ... or rubble and debris that just happens to be there for no particular reason. Characters in this movie even have rubble and debris falling off of them. So now space itself is as cluttered as the Enterprise bridge. About the only spartan thing in these movies is the brig! They couldn't even put a chair or bench in a holding cell? Wow, that's strict.
• Shimmer simmer -- Every version of Trek, be it TV or movie, re-invents the transporter "shimmer" effect. This one has to be the worst by far: it takes three times as long for someone to materialize, just so you can see the cool transporter effect which in reality looks like someone has been enveloped in radioactive spaghetti.
• The Enterprise under the ocean?! -- This is the biggest disconnect with Trek reality. It's well-known that the design of the Enterprise was of a ship that will always be in space, without the ability to enter a planet's atmosphere. That's why the ships in Trek look the way they do. They're even assembled in space, as in space docks, seen prevalently in previous TV shows and films. So when you see an Earth-bound shipyard, or later the Enterprise coming up from the ocean, or even later when it enters Earth's atmosphere and then stabilizes with rocket thrusters (Huh? What happened to impulse power?) it rings hugely false.
• Beloved characters have been reduced to cyphers -- What do we really know about all the lead characters? Kirk is an unrepentant booze hound and horn-dog, Spock is logical, but can be provoked, McCoy blusters about everything ("I'm a doctor, not an engineer!"), Uhura is good at her job and has the hots for Spock, and Scotty loves analogies that make no sense. It's like each character is now defined by a catchphrase. Two movies, and we don't really know much more about any of the people that make them worth watching.
• A sequel and a remake in one -- Although the new film's plot has resonance for our time as I mentioned, it is also a riff on a previous Trek movie from the early 80s. As in "let's do a few reversals, where Spock says things that Kirk did in the original. That'll make the fans happy!" No, what would make this fan really happy is to come up with an original storyline instead of re-telling an old one. Granted, our new villain is a much better actor than the original (almost anyone would be), but that's about it. At least the 2009 film was an original story, but its problem was that it was in service of explaining the 're-boot' and why things and people were slightly different than before. As such, it wasn't as satisfying as it could be. Same here. A truly original story, with compelling characters and an involving plot line, would be more welcome than just re-doing old stories in a new way. (I'm talking to you, "Man of Steel.")
Other than that? Abrams aced it! :) The truth is, I love Trek so much I'll watch anything I can get. I'd just like to not feel so embarassed afterward.