Today I and about 400 other journalist types gathered at the Paramount lot in Hollywood to see (what I assume is) the final leg of the JJ Abrams Star Trek roadshow. Also in attendance at this installment: Chris Pine, John Cho, Zachary Quinto and Bruce Greenwood. Unfortunately, there were no questions for the director or cast, so all I can tell you about is the footage, which you’ve already seen described in great detail elsewhere (check out how Empire and Coming Soon described it). Rather than try to replicate the good work other people have done, I’m going to chip in with some opinions.
First up, you should know that I’ve been skeptical about this film for a little while now. Some of the Paramount PR reps called it ‘being mean,’ but I feel that I’ve just been honest. And I’ve tried to avoid being too nit-picky. At least I like to think that I’ve avoided this – my concerns about the film aren’t about getting costumes or designs right (although I do think that the Enterprise redesign appears to be kind of clunky) but rather things like tone and intentionality. To me the details are superficial, and I’ll roll with changes to canon as long as the characters feel right and the tone of the original series is kept intact.
Second, it’s important to keep in mind that twenty minutes of footage do not a movie make. There could be 100 other amazing or terrible minutes still waiting to be seen, so I’m not jumping to any conclusions about the final quality of the film. I am only reporting back to you my impressions of what we were shown, mixed in with aspects of what I know about the film from other sources, be they official or otherwise. Impressions that I have gotten from this footage and other sources may be totally wrong, and I could find myself ashamed at the conclusions to which I jumped when I see the finished film next summer. In fact, I hope that the finished film blows me away, because I want nothing more than to have a vital, exciting and commercially viable Star Trek franchise in theaters again.
Third, I’m giving it all a pass on continuity. The film busts established continuity wide open just from the concept – in the classic original series episode Balance of Terror it’s established no one in the Federation has ever seen a Romulan, which seems weird when Kirk himself is up against them in this, his first mission – and it plays fast and loose from there. I believe that in the end this won’t be an issue, and there are even indications in the twenty minutes of footage that what we’re seeing was not in the original continuity (time traveling Old Spock is surprised to run into Scotty at one point, which seems to mean that in his timeline Scotty wasn’t on the Enterprise at this time).
The footage we were shown today did not live up to my worst nightmares, but it also did not do much to change my mind about what JJ is doing with this franchise. Reading some of the reports from other journalists, I was horrified by a few of the details – Kirk grabbing Uhura’s tits in a bar fight, atrocious jokes that read like lead on paper – but most of the things I hated from those reports are fleeting. Unfortunately, they also tend to accumulate. There’s a lot of humor in the footage we saw. Some of it – like almost every line Simon Pegg delivers as Scotty, or Karl Urban’s character work as Bones – works. But other bits are cheap, silly slapstick that makes the cheesiest stuff in The Voyage Home play like Oscar Wilde. Kirk has a bad reaction to a shot that Bones gives him and his hands swell up… and then his tongue goes numb. Kirk first meets Pike after being beaten to a pulp in a bar fight, and he has a wise guy movie one liner to give at that moment, laying on his back, blood coming out of his nose.
Again, it’s hard to judge the movie based on just these scenes – maybe all the worst gags and one-liners happened to be in these twenty minutes – but something tells me that these characters are going to be about endless ‘snappy’ banter that’s never funny and barely counts as dialogue. This is what screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman bring to all the material they write – terrible, tortured dialogue. They’re blockbuster blueprinters, not real writers, and having them on this film is probably the greatest strike against it. Abrams keeps things snappy (maybe too much so? One of the scenes we saw felt like it should have been a character scene but instead played half frantic, like His Girl Friday on a starship), and cinematographer Daniel Mindel really makes the most of the sets he’s given (although it should be noted that he shoots the interior of the Enterprise like a dream sequence – all gauzy white lights), but Orci and Kurtzman remain the kind of screenwriters people praise for their structure. They’re exactly the sort of writers who are killing Hollywood, the writers whose ideas feel as formatted and predictable and friendly as their Final Draft scripts. They don’t write real characters or real situations, and nothing in the footage I saw today indicates that this project brought out anything special.
The thing that most exemplified the lazy writing of Orci and Kurtzman for me was the fact that the Enterprise is shown being built in the middle of a field in Iowa. And it’s not just the shipyard that’s in Kirk’s backyard – so is Starfleet Academy, it seems. Now, maybe all of Starfleet was moved to Iowa in honor of Kirk’s late father, killed on the day of our hero’s birth by the time-traveling Romulans, but more likely it’s there so that Orci and Kurtzman can have Kirk do a Tom Cruise in Top Gun scene where, filled with angst and uncertainty, he drives his motorcycle up to the ship. Whatever ‘reason’ is given in the movie for having the shipyard in Iowa, the real reason is this shot and the fact that these writers couldn’t be bothered to find another way to have Kirk meet the ship (which we don’t even need anyway). Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think scripts should bend to meet the demands of characters and story, not cool shots.
I keep getting hung up on the ship in the field because it’s so simply dumb. You wouldn’t build a battleship in New Mexico, and you wouldn’t build a starship on the ground. That ship is not designed to be launched, and I have to wonder if the neck and the nacelle arms would even be load-bearing in Earth gravity. This indicates to me the film isn’t being approached as science fiction but as space opera. Rather than being based on scientific concepts of any sort, no matter how wacky or far-fetched, JJ Abrams’ Star Trek seems to be on the Star Wars wavelength, which is fantasy dressed up in science fiction clothes. Another writer noted that Star Trek sent many people to careers in NASA, while Star Wars hasn’t. To me there’s an honor in Star Trek‘s science fiction background that is lost when you turn it into space fantasy.
But it really isn’t science fiction that’ll make the movie work, and no matter how banal Orci and Kurtzman’s John McClane with a head injury banter is, it isn’t the script that will provide the magic spark that could turn this film into real Star Trek. It’s the cast, and their chemistry, that will do that. The good news: Karl Urban is an inspired choice to play Bones. He’s just amazing, capturing the crotchety aspects of DeForrest Kelly’s performances without doing anything approximating an impersonation. Simon Pegg is great as Scotty, despite this character being written in a way that doesn’t at all remind me of the original character. Bruce Greenwood is phenomenal in the few moments he’s on screen in this footage, and it’s not hard to imagine (and really want) a new Star Trek TV series about the adventures of the Enterprise under Captain Pike. John Cho and Zoe Saldana seem serviceable to good, based on what little I saw. The biggest embarrasment looks to be Anton Yelchin as Chekov. You know you’re in trouble when he’s introduced as ‘that Russian whiz kid’ (oh Orci and Kurtzman! Billy Wilder gnaws his fist in ghostly envy), but Yelchin’s accent plays like a big, unfunny joke. There’s even a gratuitious nod to the ‘nuclear wessels’ bit in Star Trek IV. I’m really hoping that Chekov has very limited screen time.
Which brings us to the big two (we didn’t see enough of Eric Bana as Nero to make any sort of judgment, except that Romulan styles have changed since I last checked in on them). Chris Pine makes a fine enough movie lead, but there wasn’t a single moment where I found him Kirk-y. That said, I’m withholding all judgment until I see the full film, if only because Pine has enough charisma and presence to make up for the fact that he’s not playing the character ‘right.’ And who knows, maybe the whole film is the process of getting Kirk to be something like the character I know from the original series. It is worth noting that Kirk’s relationship with Uhura in this footage was the sort that troubles me deeply in that I can’t imagine these two working together in a professional setting after their interactions here.
I won’t withhold judgment against Zachary Quinto, though, who is simply terrible in the role of Spock. I couldn’t help but feel that Chevy Chase did a better Spock on Saturday Night Live that Quinto does here. That’s taking into account that his version of Spock may be informed by The Cage, the unaired pilot where a young Spock is portrayed as much more emotional and brash (for the record, I don’t think it’s informed by that at all). Quinto is simply not a very good actor, and having the real Spock in another scene as a comparison point does him no favors.
There are elements in these actors that could prove to be the saving grace of the film, although I’m deeply troubled by the sheer awfulness on display in Quinto’s scenes in these 20 minutes of footage.
There’s another problem I’m going to have with the movie that seems to be upheld by the footage I saw; in the course of the twenty minutes Bones gets promoted to Chief Medical Officer and Uhura takes over the communications station. I imagine Scotty will wind up running the engine room and, by the finale, we’ll have the ‘original crew’ in place, defeating Nero and working together as the well-oiled team we know from the original series. I really, really hate this. It speaks to a streak of Joseph Cambell-ian myth-making that remains the dominant form of storytelling in our fantastical films. One of the great things about Trek is that these were people who were just assigned together, not folks whose destinies were inextricably linked. If Abrams really wanted to get the original crew in their traditional spots, he probably should have told a story about James Kirk taking over the Enterprise, not a hybrid Starfleet Academy story.
As for the rest of it? Abrams has shot some very nice looking footage,and the action scene between Kirk, Sulu and two Romulans, is engaging if a bit goofy. It opens with a skydive from space with our heroes and a red shirt (who is such a red shirt he should just announce that he’s about to die when introduced) – a skydive which oddly creates no friction on their space suits. I’m all for the idea of space suits that can withstand atmospheric reentry, but I couldn’t believe that no one thought to put some flames on these guys in post. I guess there’s still time to fix this minor, but potentially telling, mistake. Anyway, the fight is well-staged and ends in a thrilling (and yet again, science-busting) climax, all of which looks great. Abrams’ TV-director instincts, so painfully obvious in the sub-par Mission: Impossible III, are still here but they’re tempered a bit. And they fit the material in a way.
The other journalists with whom I spoke were divided. One other journalist, who will not be named, said, ‘If JJ wants to make Space: Above and Beyond The Movie, why not make it?’ Others compared it to Starship Troopers, but not favorably, rather talking about the teenybopper aspect of the casting (what’s weird is that this cast is, on average, only a little younger than the original cast was in the first season of the original series, which makes sense when you realize this takes place a few years before that. The problem, simply, is that forty years ago adult male actors looked like men. Today they look like college juniors. It’s so rare to see a grown ‘pretty’ actor who looks like an actual man and not a boy). The ones who liked it dismissed what they saw as petty concerns, like the ship being built on the ground in Iowa, and said that the footage looked good. ‘I had a good time with it,’ someone told me.
And yeah, I guess the footage does look ‘fun.’ This is a very active Star Trek – not in the sense that the editing is hyperactive but in the sense that every scene we saw had people on the movie, doing things, talking quickly. I think that the 20 minutes of footage sell the concept ‘This is not The Next Generation,’ which is obviously a good thing, as that shit was boring and talky. But did it sell ‘This is the original Star Trek‘? I don’t know. Not to me. If this film had been called JJ Abrams’ Space Adventure I might have walked out of that screening plenty excited, and I think that people with no connection to Trek will probably like this film as a disposable summer entertainment. But I do have a connection with the original Star Trek, and I have to wonder what the point of going to that well is if you’re not going to use it properly. I mean, the business side of my brain understands that the point is having a recognizable brand, the same reason anybody remakes anything, but Abrams and company are also fighting an uphill battle against decades of franchise decay. Again, as someone said, he probably should have just made Space: Above and Beyond.
What makes all of this most baffling is the extent of fan service in the film. Rather than just restart the series, Abrams and his writers concoct a time travel story that forces us to place this movie in the context of what has gone before. This isn’t like retaining Judi Dench as M when rebooting James Bond in Casino Royale, this is more like having Judi Dench tell Daniel Craig that the last Bond died in action or something. And that aspect of fan service is only compounded by what looks to be a number of winks in the fans’ direction with references to the movies and TV show (Sulu seems to fight a Romulan with a sword only because of his famous sword escapades in Naked Time). This is a movie serving two masters, and I wonder why it bothers. There’s no way you’re going to make nerds like me totally happy – Trek fans are the original detail-oriented nit-pickers – unless you do it right. Not correctly, but right. Abrams should have jettisoned all concerns about continuity and what came before and taken the concept of Star Trek and the characters and done them anew, but right. How Batman Begins did it. How Casino Royale did it. How Superman Returns didn’t do it.
Maybe I’m holding JJ Abrams’ film up to high standards. That’s not a bad thing – why do we expect to just lay down and let every summer blockbuster steamroll over us? Star Trek, at its best, is smarter and more satisfying than that, and there’s no reason to expect that Abrams would be doing the same with his movie. There was a lot that was right in what I saw on the Paramount lot – this is going to be the best looking Star Trek film ever, for instance – but there was also stuff that raises an eyebrow. Loud, dumb and fun is fine for Transformers or Mission: Impossible. I’m hoping for something more from Star Trek. And whatever else I see between now and the first press screening of the finished film, I’ll be sitting in my seat with an open mind, hoping for nothing but the best.