I can’t decide whether or not I liked JJ Abrams latest Star Trek outing. I felt the same way about the first of this ‘rebooted’ series. The creation of an alternative timeline was an elegant way to free up the Star Trek characters to experience a whole new set of adventures, and ST:ID takes that further; perhaps too far.
The production looks great, and the way they subtly, and sometimes not too subtly, update the Trek: Original Series (TOS) costumes, sets and gizmos is very clever. The acting is good too. Quinto and Urban pull off a very believable Spock and McCoy, and Chris Pine has his moments too channeling Kirk. But are they playing these characters, or are they playing Nimoy, De Kelley and Shatner playing these characters? Too often if felt like the latter and here’s a theme that emerged during my watching ST:ID. What’s the tipping point between ‘homage’, ‘pastiche’ and just ‘shi**ing on your memories of a cherished series of shows and movies’?
The alternative timeline allows Abrams to play with our memory of TOS. So there’s Khan — yes, despite Cumberbatch’s protestations to the contrary — and the rest of his genetically enhanced family (although they stay in cold-freeze this time instead of wreaking havoc as in Space Seed or Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan). There’s also Carol Marcus, progenitor of the Genesis Device again from Star Trek 2. So we get winks and nods and sly references and it’s all a nice ‘in-joke’ for those in the audience that know the mythos.
But Abrams takes things too far when he stages an alternative Wrath of Khan death scene. The original scene with Spock sacrificing his life because, ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’ stands as the single greatest scene from the long run of TOS movies. Pitch perfect acting from Shatner and Nimoy, building on a relationship that had played out to the audience over 80 odd TV episodes brought the house down and continued to be felt through The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home as the cast (and the audience) searched for healing after a deep wounding.
The reversal that Abrams stages with Kirk speaking his dying words to Spock, with Spock crying(!) and absurdly screaming, ‘KHAN!!!!’ could never stand up to the original movie. It was a serious misstep because it highlights the uncomfortable truth that these people are not Shatner and Nimoy, they do not have the history of Shatner and Nimoy, and as a result they cannot hope to bring the same emotional gravitas to the scene as Shatner and Nimoy. Instead it comes off as a couple of kids attempting some cosplay death scene re-enactment.
Annoyingly there were also a lot of stupid plot points in ST:ID. You can forgive most of these but when the plot forces the characters to behave in a monumentally stupid manner, you can’t let that slide. So, Kirk dies. But McCoy learns that Khan’s blood has amazing restorative powers. So Spock chases after Khan to get said blood. In the meantime McCoy brings up one of Khan’s supergenetic brothers who is frozen in stasis and takes him out of the stasis tube. Since this brother is exactly like Khan, couldn’t they just use that guy’s blood? Nope. They don’t even think about it or invent some psycho-babble about how that wouldn’t work. They take the guy out the stasis tube and stick Kirk in it to keep him safe till Spock catches Khan. That is one huge elephant sitting in the corner of Sick Bay. I felt insulted, not just for me but for McCoy too.
The other thing that wore on me was all the ’splosions and fist fights. I ended up getting explosion fatigue. I got confused about whether I was watching a Star Trek movie or a Die Hard movie. Interestingly this escalating violence was played out as a theme with the evil Admiral Marcus pushing a more militaristic agenda for Starfleet (and Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer was criticised for the same thing). But when the dust and rubble eventually die down we learn that all that fighting and shooting at things is behind Starfleet. This is the beginning of the Enterprise’s historic five year mission of exploration, ‘to seek out new life and new civilisations’ and hopefully not kill them. I don’t know what’s up next for the Star Trek franchise. I hope, going on the movie’s ending, that the next movie might be less about fighting and killing and more about exploration and some of the moral dilemmas Star Trek used to do so well. But maybe that’s not possible in today’s cinema. Maybe Star Trek will never be able to move past the darkness and terror of threats and violence. That would be a pity.