This Is No “95%” Movie

I know, I’m a little late to the game here. I’ve had other priorities. But Star Trek is nowhere near as good as Rotten Tomatoes might indicate. Oh, sure, it’s good. Don’t get me wrong. But it’s not the level of sheer awesomeness that a 95%-fresh rating might indicate. Here are some other movies that have a 95% freshness: Monsters, Inc., Pan’s Labyrinth, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit [man, it’s hard finding movies that i’ve seen with exactly a 95% fresh rating]. Probably a better measure of why this isn’t the right rating is to look at a few really excellent recent movies with lower overall ratings (in no particular order):

Supposedly, Star Trek is better than all of these movies, even the ones you liked. I don’t buy it.

Now, to be clear, my point is not “the ratings system on Rotten Tomatoes is wrong” or even “imprecise”–obviously, even averaging hundreds of reviews will still at least occasionally, if not frequently, produce bogus results. And then there are matters of taste–i’m sure there are plenty of really excellent movies out there that wouldn’t appeal to any given person. No, I have very specific critiques of this film. Some of them are certainly matters of taste (the pacing)—though i’ll make supporting arguments for my position—but others are based on the criteria set up by the filmmakers. Specifically, this film fails to live up to the expectations that it be a ‘Star Trek’ film.

Star Trek, starting with the original series, and through every incarnation—yes, even Voyager and Enterprise—was a blend of two genres: science fiction, and morality play. The end result of blending these usually ended up as space opera: not quite “real” science fiction, with just the trappings of space ships and ray guns, while the characters demonstrated some morality lesson. But, it at least aspired to both of these things—sometimes in turn, sometimes both at once. Most of the very best episodes succeeding in combining both, using a wonderful [pseudo-]scientific “what if?” to drive a genuine moral question into the foreground. Most of the episodes that weren’t awful at least strove for one of these, if perhaps falling short on the execution.

The new Star Trek doesn’t even seem to try for either of these things. Let’s start with the morality play aspect. Where’s the moral message in this movie? “If we kill the bad guy, we’re no different than the bad guy. Unless he doesn’t make it easy to save him—then it’s ok.”? How about “You can’t be logical if you’re being emotional.”? Pretty much whatever I come up with, the movie ends up undermining itself, rather than providing a consistent message. Well, other than perhaps “When Kirk makes a snap judgement based on incomplete information, trust his gut; when anybody else does, they’re probably wrong.” Which doesn’t have the [purported] universality of the moral messages of any of the other series—something that was key not only in the original series, but most of the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine episodes, too. Yes, the movie does seem to be saying “go for it”, but that’s not much of a moral lesson. To really have a moral lesson, it needs to say something that requires some moral strength, some ideals. Something more than the hollow platitudes of your typical action movie.

Now, as for the science fiction: yes, Star Trek has most of the trappings of the series, like FTL, transporters, shields, phasers, etc.—not to mention artifical gravity and other such things that aren’t even usually called out in ‘Trek. But what about the central elements of its plot: an artificial black hole used for time travel that functions at the speed of plot, with no discussion of it, or even technobabble exploration. In any other ‘Trek, at least part of the plot would be devoted to exploring the anomaly of the week, and explaining how/why it works the way it does. Likewise, the red matter didn’t have to be just a plot device—it could’ve been a source of technobabble, too. But, really, any sort of exploration of a science fiction-y “what if” would’ve been nice. We got lots of wondrous unexplained things happening (like mining ships that can wipe out an entire navy), but no exploration of consequences or workings or, well, anything. This movie firmly moved from “science fiction” (something that Star Trek may have only had a tenuous hold on—but it definitely claimed to be) to fantasy—fantasy with spaceships and black holes, but fantasy nonetheless.

And what’s worse, both of these could’ve been in the movie, without “bogging down” the movie. The opportunities were there, even the scenes—all it would’ve taken was a bit of dialogue, in most cases. For example, if you want to make the message something like “there’s always a way” you could’ve had Kirk defending his actions in the Kobayashi Maru simulation, arguing that while it is important to know how to deal with a no-win situation, it’s even more important, in the real world, when lives are on the line, to pull every trick in the book to find a way to win. Basically a variation on “the ends justify the means”—and maybe some exploration of whether that’s really true. Does it matter that Kirk got the command through the proper channels, by getting Spock to relieve himself of command? If so, does that mean that Spock was right: at least sometimes, you have to play by the rules? And that’s just one example, off the top of my head.

Similarly, a bit of dialogue, once they figured out what was going on, could’ve at least been devoted to considering the possibility of stopping the nova, and thus averting the whole problem before it occurred. Even if the end result was “too late—once the USS Kelvin was destroyed, the timeline was altered, so unless we can go back in time to stop that, we can’t fix the rest of it.” After all, ultimately, it’s fiction, so it’s all under the writers’ control. They can get to wherever they want to get to. What makes it science fiction or not, Star Trek or not, is the path, not the destination. And this movie took a non-Star Trek path.

And that’s without even getting into all of the details that’ve been changed—because I agree with the creators of this movie that you can change a lot of those, and still have “Star Trek”, and that some of them needed to be changed. Like updating the look of the bridge, and giving the starships a lot more obvious firepower. I forget now, but i think somebody finally put some fuses somewhere between the outside of the ship and the control consoles, too. (Though, of all the details, why choosing the female crew wearing miniskirts as one to keep baffles me. I mean, beyond the obvious sex appeal.)

However, some of the details they change are elements that set Star Trek apart from other science fiction/space opera. Which is not to say that changing them is necessarily bad, but I do question changing a fundamental aspect of the universe of ‘Trek, just to accommodate your plot, rather than working within the constraints of the universe when craftnig yoru plot. A prime example is the warp travel. In lots of space opera—almost the entirety of TV/movie space opera—FTL involves somehow sidestepping the regular universe. Star Trek is nearly unique in that their version of FTL takes place basically in normal space (warp bubble notwithstanding). It doesn’t distinguish ‘Trek nearly as much, but it’s also important to much of ‘Trek that distance and travel time are roughly proportional. Suddenly appearing in the midst of an ambush, because you’re traveling blind and can’t change your destination once you start going, is something that can occur in Babylon 5, Star Wars, Farscape, Stargate, and any number of other space opera series. But not with Star Trek’s warp travel. And, what’s worse, it’s not like they couldn’t’ve had their cake without ruining the meal: Star Trek is practically defined by the use of technobabble. Instead of completely changing the nature of FTL in the ‘Trek universe, all it would’ve taken was a line about “some sort of interference preventing our sensors from seeing what’s going on around Vulcan” or the like. With or without further exploration of the details, or a plot point about overcoming/circumventing/compensating for said interference. It worked for knocking out the transporters, after all.

There are also plot holes to drive a starship through—and not just something small like the Constellation-class Enterprise. I won’t bother enumerating every single one, but just grab the two biggest—the two that it’d take more than a line or two of technobabble to fill in. First, Pike is the guy who did his dissertation on the destruction of the USS Kelvin, but he doesn’t recognize the similarity of the situation? It takes Kirk to notice the parallels? Second, a Federation starship is destroyed, the captain first captured and probably killed, and the crew saved only by extraordinary actions of a crew member, and yet nobody investigates? In the 25 years, or so, since then, nobody has spotted this extraordinary ship, or tried to hunt it down, or, you know, checked out the anomaly-of-the-week that it is apparently hanging out near it for 25 years? Now, I understand that there was some dialogue that explained that the mining ship was somewhere else in the meantime, and Nero and/or the crew imprisoned, but that bit was cut from the film. Well, guess what? That bit was important. And, even with that bit back in, I’m not sure that explaining where they were, how they knew when to come back, and how they managed to conveniently stage the prison break at the right time, but couldn’t do it any earlier, would be any easier on the ol’ suspension of disbelief.

Finally, it’s a bit too relentlessly paced—I’ve read several reviews that praised the non-stop action but, personally, even in an adrenalin-fueled action movie, I want a few breathers. The breathers make the action more enjoyable; when it’s non-stop, it’s just wearying. Even Transporter, The Fast and The Furious, and Crank had breathers, and it’s hard to think of more adrenaline-driven movies. And, like I said, don’t think too hard about the plot. And the science is horribly inconsistent, even by Star Trek standards. (Historically, ‘Trek has usually at least been consistent within a given episode/movie. Usually. If you don’t think too hard.)

So, did I like it? Yeah, I did. I actually really enjoyed it. But it wasn’t enjoyable enough to distract me from the plot holes or lack of Star Trek-ness, at the time. And once I was done watching, they stuck with me a lot more than the fun. I certainly won’t spend money to watch it again. If it hadn’t claimed to be Star Trek movie, I probably would’ve enjoyed it more, since I wouldn’t be expecting it to, well, reflect the universe of Star Trek. Star Trek is a good movie. But it is not a great movie. And certainly not the near-flawless, universally-appealing movie that a 95%-fresh rating should indicate. If you want an exhilarating action romp, you’ll probably love it. If you want a science fiction movie, don’t bother. And if you want a Star Trek movie? I’m not sure—it really depends on what elements of Star Trek you like.


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