Not stunningly bad, like The Final Frontier, but nowhere approaching good. I can't see what everyone's getting into such a tizzy about.
Warning: The following is long, and chock full of spoilery goodness.
Let me start with what I like in the film:
- The action scenes are first rate--especially the breathtaking skydive/hand-to-hand combat sequence on Vulcan. The camera work, fight choreography, editing, and visual effects make this set piece a bone-jarring thrill ride that might in itself be worth the price of admission. It's so much fun, in fact, that the action scenes following it pale by comparison.
- The acting is quite good. I'm especially impressed with the performances of Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban, as the young Spock and McCoy, respectively. I can almost see Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley superimposed on them. The rest of the cast is fine, too. Chris Pine effectively assays the young Kirk as a brazen hothead, and the chemistry between him and Quinto is entertaining and often funny.
- It gets off to a zippy start, with a Romulan attack that takes the life of Kirk's father just as little James is born. In fact, everything up to and including the fight scene on Vulcan works pretty well for me--moving along briskly, introducing most of the major players, providing laughs in all the right places.
Then the movie starts to explain what's going on--or attempts to, anyway--and it all goes downhill. Rapidly.
Now, Star Trek has never been, shall we say, rigorous with its scientific extrapolation. But even by Trek standards, the "science" here is bad. I'm talking "It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs" bad. I'm talking midi-chlorians bad. And let me tell you, that's pretty damned bad.
In rapid order, we are required to swallow the following whoppers:
- A star going supernova threatens the entire galaxy. Not just one planetary system and maybe neighboring systems, but the entire galaxy. That's, like, a super supernova, or something. Dude.
- Said supernova is apparently exploding veerrrry sloooowly, as explosions do--so slowly, in fact, that there's enough time for Old Spock From The Future (Leonard Nimoy) to put together a mission to stop it.
- Old Spock has this Red Matter--some red goop that might have come from a lava lamp--which can magically produce singularities. No, I'm not kidding.
- Spock's plan? Use the lava lamp goop to create a singularity that will stop the supernova before it engulfs Romulus--because everyone knows that it's much better to have your planet right next to a black hole than a supernova.
- The singularities created by the lava lamp goop either destroy planets or send spaceships back through time--depending, apparently, on the whims of the writers.
Oh, but the silliness doesn't end with the science. Consider: Old Spock, having been sent back in time, is dumped by the evil Romulan Nero (Eric Bana) on the ice world of
Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood, playing Viper to Chris Pine's Maverick) is captured by Nero, who subjects the good captain to what I guess are close cousins of the little armadillo creatures from Wrath of Khan, in order to get him to spill the beans about Starfleet's defenses. We're told these creatures release a toxin while they're inside you. But when Pike is later rescued, he's pretty much right as rain, showing no ill effects from the mistreatment, nor any kind of remorse/regret/emotional distress over the Romulans succeeding in breaking him. And for all we know, he still has one of the damn things crawling around inside, somewhere.
Zoe Saldana plays Uhura, making her just as smart and fiercely independent as you want her to be. Too bad the writers couldn't think of anything more important for her to do in this movie but make Spock feel better about himself. Because, you know, that's what chicks do in action flicks.
And this whole concept of a "reboot"--a bold move, intended to breathe new life into the series--didn't work for me. Call me unwilling to let go of the past, but it just reeks of contrivance. Thanks to this radical change to the Trek timeline, none of the adventures we know and love have ever happened. Captain Pike never goes to Talos IV. Kirk never sends Khan Noonian Singh to Ceti Alpha V. Spock's brain is never stolen by aliens. (OK, maybe we can live without that one.) I don't care what kind of time travel tricks you use to explain it all away, it still feels like the "it was all a dream" episode of Dallas. Or the opening of Alien 3, in which the people Ripley sacrificed so much for die offscreen, unceremoniously discarded because no one had written parts for them in the sequel. Changes to the timeline are nothing new to Trek, but they've been handled better, cf. The City on the Edge of Forever, Yesterday's Enterprise, and even The Voyage Home.
Maybe the problem is that the whole time travel trope has become entirely too convenient, to the point where, as Roger Ebert so rightly says in his review, none of the characters are as shocked by it as they should be. Spock figures out way too easily that the marauding Romulan ship is from the future. Kirk takes meeting Old Spock with only a moment or two of the obligatory incredulity, which he quickly gets over--largely because the plot needs him to. And a time traveling person meeting himself? Pfft. No big deal.
This marks the third J.J. Abrams-directed/produced film I've seen, and I've detected a pattern. All three of them--Mission: Impossible III, Cloverfield, and Star Trek--are just OK. Some great action sequences, nice performances, good villains . . . and plots that don't even bother trying to make sense.
The "Rabbit's Foot" that everyone is after in M:I III? You never find out what it is. Yeah, I know--it doesn't really matter. It's a MacGuffin. I get it. But this kind of trick works only occasionally, and only with a certain kind of film. It was fine for Pulp Fiction. Didn't quite play in M:I III, though.
Then we get Cloverfield, with a monster that appears out of nowhere for no particular reason.
And as for Star Trek--well, see the preceding paragraphs.
Once is cute. Twice is questionable. Three times? Now it's starting to smack of laziness.
Abrams strikes me as someone who's just fooling around. He's discovered what Orson Welles once called "the best set of electric trains a boy ever had," and he's playing here. Granted, he does so with much of a child's enthusiasm and joy--but he hasn't yet matured into a storyteller. (Not on the big screen, anyway. I haven't seen any of his television work, so I won't presume to judge it.)
That said, there is a sense that Abrams is capable of much more. Case in point: He employs a visual motif three times in Star Trek--that of Kirk pulling himself up from the brink of some literal abyss. You see it first when Kirk is a boy, then again during the battle on Vulcan, and again at the film's climax. This is actually kind of cool--a visual metaphor for the way Kirk lives his life, careening over the edge and then clawing his way back.
Except that it misfires. The idea is good, but the film's execution is so botched that by the time the climax rolls around, by the time it becomes clear that Abrams is deliberately repeating this image, I no longer care.
"Oh, but you're thinking too hard about it," people will say. "You're over-analyzing it. It's supposed to be entertaining, that's all. Lighten up, wouldya?"
To which I respond: Bite me.
Hey, I love a good action flick. I'm cool with things blowing up every few seconds. Make me cringe; make me jump in my seat; get my heart racing. I'm down. I want to be entertained. I'm even willing to let you get away with a few cheats here and there (like the highly improbable line of school buses in Dark Knight).
But when the entire premise of your plot is based on a cheat, or on a truckload of them, when your characters act in wholly unbelievable ways, when you can't get from point A to point B without tripping over your own faulty logic--no. You fail Verisimilitude 101. And when that happens, I'm not in the movie anymore. I'm just a guy in a dark roomful of strangers, watching a bunch of flickering lights on a screen.
"Are you not entertained?" a defiant Maximus roars at the crowd in Gladiator. I can almost see Abrams doing the same, screaming at us: "Look! I have dizzying action and dazzling special effects! I have everyone's favorite catchphrases! I have the Kobayashi Maru! I have Leonard friggin' Nimoy! Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained?"
Well, no, not really. In fact, I'm kinda bored.