A Shortage of Villainy

2009-05-08 (General release)

Just minutes into J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, you’re left with no illusions that it’s not going to be a dramatically different creature. As James T. Kirk’s mother screams in the pains of labor while onboard a shuttle hurtling away from a doomed Starfleet vessel that his father is piloting on a kamikaze mission toward a menacing Romulan ship (sacrificing himself to save the hundreds of crew on those shuttles), it seems less like something out of Next Generation than a flash-forward scene from Lost. Not surprisingly, Kirk (Chris Pine, who assumes the character’s egomaniacal mantle with shocking ease) grows up to be a danger-seeking punk with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Enterprise, and a dueling interior drive to either ignore or somehow surpass his father’s towering legacy.

This shameless hammering of emotions and its vision of a person born out of conflict and fire is pure new millennial televisual drama of the kind that fuses thriller conventions with soap opera relationship fireworks. And for the most part, it’s exactly what the Star Trek needed to blast away the fusty old traditions that had barnacled the franchise over the course of ten feature films and five series. But while director Abrams’ handling of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s propulsive screenplay — which introduces each of the franchise’s main characters with a smooth élan — is sleek and spiffy, to say the least, it ultimately hews far closer to his television work than might have been wise for a big-screen reboot.

In short: there’s no Khan.

Eric Bana as Nero in Star Trek

Abrams’ style has tended to emphasize the interplay of relationships between his protagonists — their rivalries and loves, in addition to the inevitable moment of heart-clenching sacrifice — at the expense of the opponent they are arrayed against. So it is with Star Trek, in which the villain, a hulking rogue Romulan miner named Nero (Eric Bana), rates barely a flicker of interest. The film is so enveloped by the hormone-stoked heat and pulse of its intertwined origin stories (all those over-achieving young Starfleet cadets), that when they finally face up against Nero and his seemingly unstoppable titan of a planet-annihilating ship, there’s little to latch on to with the guy, much less fear.

Beneath the bulk and tribal tattoos — this film’s Romulans are to their distant cousins the Vulcans what Tolkien’s orcs were to his elves — Bana manages a few flickers of sulfurous enmity, but it all seems more of a delaying tactic before the film gets back to its real interest: the growing friendship between Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto).

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in Star Trek

It’s in the spiky moments of this relationship that Abrams finds the beating heart of the story, not the clashes between Starfleet and Nero. An overly quick scrap of exposition about the reason behind Nero’s universe-destroying rage plugs the necessary holes in the plot, but is hardly the stuff of epic drama.

This is not necessarily a bad move, as the whole point of this Star Trek was to reintroduce the franchise to a new generation, and on that score the filmmakers have done a superb job, updating the characters without losing a bit of what made them special in the first place. Also, it doesn’t set up the sequel for automatic disappointment, in the particular way that Star Trek III and IV couldn’t help but seem wan and pale after Ricardo Montalban ran away with Wrath of Khan.

And just think, they haven’t gotten to the Klingons yet…