Abrams got Star Trek right in so many ways: the movie was beautiful to look at, the tech and effects were updated but still recognizable, the plot was exciting, the actors charismatic, and he made us really “feel it”: I’ve watched the introduction of the movie 4 or 5 times now and I still get misty-eyed. It’s fair to say that I really like, if not love, this movie.But this is not a review of everything they got right.
Actually, it’s not even a review: I want to discuss a couple things that the writers (and their defenders) got wrong, not for its own sake, or as a rant, or to put together a big comprehensive list, but to talk about the heart of Star Trek itself.
Most people who have given the plot any thought at all are aware of its weaknesses. To name just a few: Nero’s decision to spend 25 years stewing in hate (and not, say, creating a new Romulan Order), the colossal coincidence of Kirk, Spock, and Scotty being within a few kilometers of each other on Delta Vega, how transwarp beaming would drastically change the social and tech parameters of the universe (not to mention how you can upgrade your equipment with just an equation and no hardware), and the massive risk old Spock took by not having Kirk reveal the whole truth of the situation to young Spock to foster their friendship and promote their “destiny.”
And that last point embodies the essential theme of the movie: the idea of destiny, the heroic journey, the conceit that some people are meant to be great and do great things. It is this conceit that runs contrary to everything Star Trek stands for. Star Trek is, at its core, a metaphor: it’s not swashbuckling adventure, it’s not superheroics, it’s not even really science fiction, insofar as it doesn’t take a serious go at exploring the effects of technology or scientific development on society: it’s about politics, about identity. It’s about us, who we are, how we affect each other, and the problems we’re having today. It’s an exploration of what we believe in and what we ought to be.
Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman’s Star Trek, however, was about the journey of a young, sandy-haired, farm-boy with a special connection to epic events who gets called to action by a world that needs him and rises to the challenge of defeating monstrous evil. This was hero-fantasy, boys’ adventure, Star Wars; Kirk was meant for “something better, something special.” This Star Trek, for Abrams, is about “fate and friendship”; in a deleted scene, Spock explains to Kirk that their chance encounter “is a result of the universe trying to restore balance after the time line is changed … They acknowledged the coincidence as a function of the universe to heal itself.” (http://www.wired.com/underwire/2009/10/abrams-star-trek-dvd-sequel/)
It is this explanation which demonstrates that Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman may understand the form of Star Trek; they may love the characters, the technology, the action, but they do not demonstrate an understanding of the substance. The universe is now a transcendent entity with intent; far from Gene Roddenberry’s vision of an enlightened people who fix their own problems, we have, essentially, a Creator God prodding us along.
Now consider this: the universe influenced events not to save the lives of the 800 people aboard the U.S.S. Kelvin, not to prevent the loss of 40 Klingon ships and thousands of lives, not to avert the death of 6 billion Vulcans and the destruction of a founding world of the Federation, but to save the friendship of Kirk and Spock. This was the universe healing itself. This is narcissism in the extreme: the idea that the hero and his friends are so important that God Himself is looking out not just for their lives, but for their relationships. It’s destiny. This degree of self-absorption, of self-importance, reduces Star Trek into a child’s power fantasy and not an adult’s vision of who we are, and what we might yet be.
Abrams and his writers have accomplished a great deal: they have re-energized a franchise, a universe, thought to be on its last legs. They have injected a renewed sense of vigor, excitement, and optimism; they have demonstrated dedication and enthusiasm, but not, as yet, a mature vision. This will come, I hope, with the second movie. They showed us why Star Trek is cool; now they have to show us why it matters.