Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban, John Cho, Winona Ryder, Ben Cross, Simon Pegg
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 8 May 2009 (General release); 2009)
While his massively successful Star Wars was raking in the ‘70s blockbuster bucks, creator George Lucas let slip that we was considering not one, but three trilogies for the fledgling franchise. First, he would finish up the adventures of Luke, Lea, Han, and the rest, then he would go back and explain the origins of these familiar characters (the last three would deal with some future scenario long since forgotten). At the time, the announcement was met with great enthusiasm, fans eager to see how such familiar icons in the making found their niche in such an epic environment. Ten years ago, we got the first of these pathetic prequels, films that failed to realize any of the aims that many Wars Heads had for the mythos. Now, in retrospect, Lucas’ lame excuse for a series start-up is often sited as the main reason why these kinds of film, in general, do not work. And they are, for the most part, pretty bad.
Enter J. J. Abrams and the next to impossible task of taking Star Trek back to its Starfleet Academy days. Paramount, eager to jumpstart its once mighty motion picture series, gave the Lost man an interesting ultimatum - turn the aging voyages of the Starship Enterprise into something so unique that both old and new fans could enjoy it. Initial buzz was sketchy, with casting being the biggest concern. Happily, Abrams delivered, turning the once over the hill catalog entry into a new and very viable tentpole. Naturally, this has Wars fans wondering what could have been. What if George Lucas wasn’t such an insular entrepreneur and hadn’t insisted upon writing and directing all three of the prequels? What if he had made better casting or character choices? In fact, what if he had scrapped the original legacy of his beloved heroes and villains and, instead, taken some much needed risks with these overly familiar icons?
Sadly, we can play the game of ‘what if’ all day long. Lucas made his messy early events bed and now he has to lie in it. Abrams on the other hand has guided Trek to its first beginning installment, and it will take a couple more before the cinematic jury returns a clear verdict. In the meantime, we can do what we fans do best—some classic compare and contrast. For many, there is no contest. Wars rules and Trek has always and forever shall drool. But thanks to how surprisingly success Abrams was in reinventing the franchise, the residents of Skywalker Ranch can’t sit on their laurels quite yet. Breaking it down into five distinct categories (Characters, Storyline, Actors, Writers, and Directors) we can make a judgment as to which prequel(s) do(es) the best job of delivering on what lovers of each series enjoy about their entertainment. Let’s begin with perhaps the most contentious of all the divisions:
Kirk vs. Obi-Wan. Spock vs. Anakin. Uhura vs. Amadala. It has to be said that, as potential players in their respective domains, both Lucas and Gene Roddenberry (the originator of all things Trek) came up with some classic characters. Between Jedi Masters, wannabe padawans, a politically minded princess and a rough and tumble band of starship officers, we have quite a competition. You can’t really choose between one group’s heroics and the others equally impressive old school bravery. And both sides have their own hackneyed hate crimes to worry about (Mr. Binks wins the race by a floppy eared Stepin Fetchit mile). Still, if we try to pick one group over the other, the purists will balk either way. Without arguing over the merits of the actors who played them - more on this in a moment - we will simply call things even and move on. Judgment: It’s a Draw.
This one is dead easy - taxation and trade route issues being hammered out in a mammoth galaxian Congress vs. pissed off Romulans running around time blowing up planets. Political intrigue vs. pulse pounding action. Of sure, Wars had the pod race and various CG setpieces. The new Trek responds with a couple of classic oversized starship dogfights and a stunning drilling platform assault. Granted, both narratives have plot holes the size of a small satellite, and the ultimate payoff for one leads to the nastiest of conflicts, otherwise known as the Clone Wars. Still, we’ll take the slam bang set-up over the talky, treaty-based foundation of the Empire’s evil plan. If we wanted to watch the inner workings of space government, we’d have signed on for a course in speculative poli-sci. Judgment: Trek Wins!
Wow - this isn’t even close. The opening salvo in the Wars prequels has Ray Park (Darth Maul, baby!), Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Ian McDiarmid as the main members of the various ‘Forces’ in conflict. For Trek, we have a bunch of whelps and whiners. So Uncle George wins this one, right? Wrong! Indeed, when one looks at the performances pitched between the two, the Enterprise gang makes the others look like real amateurs. Of course, a lot of this comes down to whose sitting in the director’s chair, calling the thespian shots, but even the reliable McGregor and Neeson look uncomfortable and out of place in their greenscreen setting. On the other hand, someone like Karl Urban and his mastery of Dr. McCoy runs rings around the likes of a blank as a fart Natalie Portman (and let’s not even start with Anakin the Mannequin, Hayden Christiansen). Judgment: Trek Wins!
Something clearly happened to George Lucas over the decades since he last sat behind the typewriter and tapped out his first journey to far, far away galaxy from a long time ago. He has wisely turned over the scripting of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to proper big screen scribes, but when he came back to the material, he must have felt like a wounded suitor. He wouldn’t let anyone else near his dopey dialogue, with the unexceptional Jonathan Hales stepping in for a less than helping Attack of the Clones hands. Every crappy idea, every less than developed subplot sits right at the doorstep of Lucas and his lousy approach. On the other hand, Trek writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were old hands at epic storytelling, having giving both Transformers films their spectacle and heft. Beyond that, everything Wars gets wrong the Trek screenplay masters effortlessly. Judgment: Trek Wins!
Oddly enough, this is tougher than it appears. Abrams has the most limited of the two creative canons, and we’re talking exclusively about guiding big budget motion pictures across a commercial landscape. Aside from Mission: Impossible III, his greatest cinematic claim to fame is producing Cloverfield. Lucas has THX 1138, Wars, the prequels, and the amazing American Graffiti to his credit. So if you laid out their accomplishments head to head, it would be hard to pick a winner. Even better, Abrams has yet to prove he can keep Trek from being a one hit wonder. At least Sir George delivered some visionary work amongst the obvious creative miscalculations. In the end, it’s hard to pick the novice over the known (if slightly underwhelming) quantity. Judgment: It’s a Draw.
Winner - Star Trek! - That’s right. With three of the five categories in its favor, and without a single loss in any one area, the reboot beats the return handily. Let the Lucas apologists protest and the Wars fanatics foam. When it comes to who successfully restarted their particular franchise, Star Trek beats the Force by a wide margin. Of course, Wars really didn’t need to be jumpstarted in the first place - but that’s a discussion for another day.