Shiny Shelf

Star Trek

By Jim Smith on 04 May 2009

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

The new ‘Star Trek’ presents you with difficult choices as a reviewer. Spoiler free or spoiler filled? Do I review this for the general audience that will, I suspect, flock to this dazzling, exciting blockbuster in droves or do I review it for my fellow long term ‘Star Trek’ fans? Do I assuage their worries and answer their concerned questions about continuity? And which me gets to review the movie, anyway? The one who wants to talk about how cunning the movie is in its revitalisation of a damaged brand for a new century or the one who felt his eyes prick when faced with the birth of James Kirk and a sudden, brilliantly staged appearance of Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock. The only option is to plunge in and try very hard – as this movie itself does – to be as many things as possible to as many people as possible.

However, I need to get one thing out of the way, because the highways and byways of this review won’t leave a lot of space for the kind of qualitative opinion most people look for in a review: this movie is very, very good indeed, I loved virtually every frame and I can’t wait to see it again.

Abrams’ film is both prequel and sequel. It’s a story about how James Kirk and Spock grew up on different planets, met, served together and finally became friends. It’s a story about a much older Spock being accidentally thrown back in time and and the repercussions for his past of his future failure to save millions of innocent lives. It’s a story about a simple man, Romulan miner Nero, driven to commit unspeakable destructive acts by overwhelming grief. It is both ‘Kirk Begins’ (and to a lesser extent ‘Spock Begins’) and ‘Spock Ends’. It has all the hallmarks of a classic re-start and yet it’s something that cannot exist without forty years of continuity, and the weight that that gives, behind it. In the same way that ‘The Wrath of Khan’ is an excellent standalone story about ageing heroes that benefits from some of the audience having obsessively watched a television series with the same characters and actors, this is an excellent adventure story that will benefit some of its audience if they are familiar with the prior series and films.

Fans will debate (well, argue) long and hard as to whether the changes wrought to the ‘Star Trek’ timeline by Nero and Nimoy-Spock’s journeys into the past create an alternative, parallel timeline in which any future Abrams/Kurtzman/Orci films will take place or whether it actually constitutes a destabilising, a re-writing, of what fans like to call the ‘canon’ universe. The film itself is ambiguous on this point; the writers have indicated that they intended the former. This is a new ‘Star Trek’ continuity, parallel to and grown from the old one, but new nonetheless. It’s the Silver Age Earth 1 ‘Star Trek’ to the original series Golden Age Earth 2 ‘Star Trek’. Which makes Nimoy’s Spock Jay Garrick or possibly Kal-L.

That I can explain this only using a comics analogy does not seem to bode well for a film that simply must bring back the casual, mainstream audience back to ‘Star Trek’. However, I honestly think that the temporal twisting elements of the story, the funny little plot jinkies and odd lines of dialogue that justify, to the hardcore fans, certain deaths and disasters and the appearances of certain characters, will either pass the casual audience by or be understood in the right way. Plenty of the mainstream audience will get it; the rest will be too busy being gripped by the human story which is on display here, enjoying ILM’s jaw-dropping FX work, enjoying the snappy dialogue and marvelling at the tremendous ensemble cast director/producer Abrams has assembled. (Every single recast is note perfect, it’s that simple.)

What I’m saying it that ‘Star Trek’ has its cake and eats it. It’s a fast-paced, thrilling, energetic adventure story about young people that doesn’t demand that its audience has seen something else with the same characters in before it. It does not assume that its audience has a prior interest in ‘Star Trek’ but it gives a different, and equally valid, experience to an audience immersed in ‘Trek’ lore. I believe the movie will work for both of its intended audiences. The mainstream audience has embraced some very odd ‘Star Trek’ when it has been delivered with conviction and passion; ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’ and ‘All Good Things…’ are two of the most popular episodes of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ and they deal with parallel worlds and shifting timelines. ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’ and ‘Mirror, Mirror’ are iconic episodes of the original ‘Star Trek’ which do likewise.

‘Star Trek’ like ‘Doctor Who’ needs to be popular outside its devoted fanbase; being popular is what is it *for*. It’s mass market entertainment and no amount of fan snobbery can change that. Abrams and his team understand this; in trying to restore ‘Star Trek’ to a place in the popular imagination they have taken a lot of creative risks. In the process they’ve created the most cinematic, the slickest and the most impressive ‘Star Trek’ motion picture yet. In the 1970s Paramount Pictures believed that a ‘Star Trek’ film could, if handled right, seize the public’s attention and take the series’ profile to another level entirely. It never quite happened like that. This may well be the movie that finally does it. It certainly deserves to.

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