Shiny Shelf

The Star Trek Wars or the Star Wars Trek?

By Jim Smith on 15 May 2009

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

This excellent video has forced my hand, somewhat. Ever since the press screening of JJ Abrams’ brilliant ‘Star Trek’ movie I’ve been mulling over the best way, and the best place, to demonstrate the very considerable debt it owes to George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’ series. The video is good, of course, but it tells less than half the story – although it tells it in a compelling, fancy dancy way, there’s no denying that.

Abrams’ movie has widely been praised for reintroducing excitement and flair to a series that had, it’s universally acknowledged, lost its way. The movie looks set to take around the same amount of money as the previous four films in the series put together and has an Obama like approval rating on metacritic. This is as opposed to ‘Star Trek: Nemesis’ (2002), the last in the series, which has numbers of the kind you’d associate with Obama’s immediate predecessor. (Speaking of Obama, the President himself has requested a screening of the movie at the White House. The first time a Star Trek film has been shown on Pennsylvania Avenue since Ronald Reagan requested a screening ‘Star Trek III The Search for Spock’ in 1984. No, really. He did. I wouldn’t make something like that up.)

Abrams’ has never made any secret of preferring ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Star Trek’ and as the video above demonstrates, the new movie’s debt to the original 1977 ‘Star Wars’ is deep. ‘Star Trek’ (2009) is everything people say it is – huge, exciting heartfelt, beautifully made and astonishingly well cast – but it is frequently more reminiscent of ‘Star Wars’ than ‘Star Trek’.

This isn’t just because the film’s magnificent special effects were produced by ‘Star Wars’ writer/director George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic Company. Nor is it entirely due to the sound effects and sound editing being the responsibility of ‘Star Wars’ own Oscar winning Ben Burtt. (Although together these elements understandably exert a powerful influence on the film’s overall aesthetic.) There are similarities in terms of the visual and audio elements, yes – and that’s what the ‘College Humour’ video mostly deals with, but the more persuasive ones are in the areas of character and plot elements. There are also resemblances to all six episodes of ‘Star Wars’, not just the Best Picture nominated original.

Allow me to demonstrate:

The opening shot is of an impressively huge space ship (Episodes IV
and V), which is then dwarfed by a seemingly infinitely bigger one.
(Episode V)

The hero is a farmboy (Episode IV) who grows up in a desert (Episodes
I and IV) raised by his Uncle (Episode IV).

He likes racing cars and is a bit of a speed nut (Episodes I and IV)

The hero meets an old comrade of his Father’s who a) tells him that
his Father died a hero b) encourages him to follow in his footsteps
and c) saves him from being beaten to a pulp in a fight in a bar full
of aliens. (Episode IV, duh)

The hero meets a girl and likes her, but she prefers another character
whom the hero is initially antagonistic towards. This character then
becomes the hero’s best friend and joint hero of the piece. (Episodes
IV – VI)

Someone says ”Punch it!” meaning ”Make this ship go faster than
light”. (Episodes I, IV, V and VI)

The principle spaceship arrives at its destination to find a shocking
field of debris, the aftermath of a massacre. (Episode IV)

A character is placed into a small pod and ejected onto a seemingly
lifeless planet where they then meet an ageing hero played by a
veteran actor, who explains the plot to them. (Episode IV)

The villain has a moving space borne weapons platform which destroys
entire planets with a single shot. (Episodes II, III, IV and VI)

He uses it to destroy the home planet of one of the main characters,
killing one of that character’s parents in the process. (Episode IV)

The hero is chased by a large CGI monster, which is then killed and
eaten by an even larger CGI monster. (Episode I)

One character has an odd CGI ‘comedy’ sidekick with buggy eyes. The
hardcore fans find this character annoying and bitch about him on the internet. (Episode I)

In the finale the two heroes fight the chief villain’s henchman by
leaping, armed to the teeth, between large circular platforms while being heavily lit with green light.
(Episode I)

There’s a big swordfight. (Seriously, there are no sword duels in proper ‘Star Trek’ before this.)

A heroic character hangs off the edge of something circular during the
climactic fight and drags themselves back up by their fingernails. Twice.
(Episodes I, V and III)

The hero has to use the villain’s stolen gun to finish the job (Episode III)

The villain’s henchmen falls into a pit in a distinctive ‘head over
heels’ manner as he dies, having been killed in a surprising way as he
was about to gleefully kill the hero. (Episode I)

A character flies a small, advanced spaceship into a much bigger one
and blows it up, escaping with their life in the nick of time
(Episodes I, IV and VI)

The film ends with a ceremony in which the hero is awarded a medal for
his efforts and everyone cheers. (Episodes I and IV)

Oh, and the only credits at the front of the movie are the production company logos and the title.

To say that ‘Star Trek’ (2009) is modelled on the ‘Star Wars’ series to the same extent that ‘Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest’ is modeled on ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1981) would be an exaggeration, but the amount of resonance is almost startling.

With the involvement of Lucas’s companies in Abrams’ film (and indeed ‘Dead Man’s Chest’) there isn’t any question of this constituting plagarism, but it also means that it can’t be dismissed as an astonishing series of accidents and coincidences. Abrams and Lucas seem to have a good relationship, with Lucas praising Abrams’ ‘Mission Impossible III’ when it was released and Abrams talking about how much he has enjoyed working with ILM on the special effects for his films. There’s also this nice photograph of the two men deep in conversation after an industry shindig of some kind.

Abrams seems to have taken his brief from Paramount Pictures very seriously. Faced with making ‘Star Trek’ appeal to a bigger audience than before, and armed with a larger budget than any previous ‘Star Trek’ director, he’s deliberately given ‘Trek’ a healthy dose of elements from another series entirely; one that has always been rather more successful when it comes to bums on cinema seats and money into filmmakers’ coffers. (It’s tempting to say ’studio coffers’ but it’s important to remember that ‘Star Wars’ is not, unlike ‘Star Trek’, a Hollywood studio product and Lucas himself remains, technically, an independent filmmaker.)

The original ‘Star Wars’ was a massive success despite a low above the line budget ($8.5 million) and, initially at least, an absolute lack of marketing spend and support from its distributor, Twentieth Century Fox. It, and this is a little reported fact, initially opened on less than forty screens. It grabbed people because of something it contained and largely without outside help. It seems that Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Robert Kurtzmann wanted to transfer some elements of the secret sauce that made ‘Star Wars’ an unexpected, overnight success to Paramount’s damaged, nay mauled, brand.

In the process of making ‘Star Trek’ (2009), at least judging by the box office receipts and the critical response, Abrams seems to have made something for very nearly everyone. The ‘Star Wars’ elements clearly helped. It’s appropriate then, that one group seemingly (self) excluded from the love-in for new ‘Star Trek’ is a certain kind of hardcore ‘Star Trek’ fan; people who don’t want to see their series being diluted by elements from what some of them see as a a ‘rival power’. It would be ironic if this lack of some kind of ‘purity’ would prevent this franchise’s most committed audience from enjoying what looks to be – fairly in my view – its most successful incarnation yet.

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