One might think that being a math student would forever prohibit you from actually being allowed to write anything longer than an equation. Sound logic will always salvage linguistic ineptitude in the scientific disciplines, and because of such low expectations we bachelors of science are never expected to output any text with more syllables than ‘x’. It is for this reason that I was rather shocked to find that my vague preamble into amateur journalism did not result in terrible failure, and positively flabbergasted when I found myself hooked from the masses and told I was to travel to Leicester Square to attend the unveiling of tantalising new footage from the new Star Trek film (releasing this May). Some may say that the editorial poll to see what films we were most looking forward to in 2009 confirmed that I was the only one interested in JJ Abram’s latest offering, but mathematicians would never get anything done if they let common sense get in the way.
Regardless, two months on after that fateful day I have finally found myself without exams, without a dissertation report deadline and without coursework worth 50% of a module to panic about. Still, better late than never eh? I shall not bore you with the details of my starry-eyed trip to London. I am told by a friend that if I had experienced the Tube an hour earlier during the busy period I would not be so romantic about our capital. Nor would I be so alive, given my naivety to Transport For London. Instead, please read on for a layman’s take on what is possibly the most exciting blockbuster of 2009, potentially doing for Star Trek what The Dark Knight did to Batman. Even if you have no interest in hearing about such a wonder (shame on you), I would urge you to read on if only to hear my ego-swelling spiel on how one of your very own university’s students found himself in the same room as a couple of people you might have heard of.
The first subject of my name dropping is the acclaimed JJ Abrams. It is a strange thing to see a man responsible for managing to cross the border between financial and critical success appear so modest. It was perhaps apprehension coursing through him that day, since he was unveiling his baby to audiences for the first time and was doing so a clearly six months before its release in theatres, possibly at the behest of Paramount, who seemed keen to parade around their new Golden Boy for all he was worth.
And rightly so.
For all his self-deprecation, he still managed to whet the appetite of everyone in the room simply by relating to them. Having established that he was never a fan of the series, disappointed by its lack of production values, he says this is the stigma he wants to heal Star Trek of, to make a film which non-fans would want to see. Running purely on the footage shown, I would say he has at least one believer.
Given the disconnected plot between scenes, each clip was preceded with an explanation from either Abrams or the friend he brought along. This first clip is at the beginning, and is the first glimpse the audience gets of the young man James Kirk.
A young female cadet from Star Trek saunters through the crowd in a seedy country & western bar in a desert in Iowa, unperturbed by the presence of clearly alien customers drinking, chatting amiably or playing with the futuristic bar entertainment. She approaches the bar and makes a large order (cheesy cocktail names like Cardassian Sunrise are still en vogue) when a rugged twenty-something with an easy smile offers to pick up the tab. She declines, prompting a verbal wrestling match where she reveals her name is Uhura and she studies xenolinguistics. Kirk is unfazed by her big words, stating it is the study of alien languages, and the audience can tell that that one impressed her.
The scene is interrupted by a gang of male cadets who ask if the local is bothering himself. Despite her declination, the cadets are looking for trouble, and Kirk’s dismissive attitude is enough to start a brawl, yet he is able to fend all four of them off whilst managing to accidentally/on purpose grab Uhura’s breasts halfway through. The action is shot well and the comedic interlude shows Abrams has a knack for offsetting the seriousness of his production in the name of accessibility, without it feeling contrived. The numbers eventually began to tell and Kirk ends up having seven shades punched out of him on a bar table, until Starfleet Captain Pike intervenes and sends them packing.
Later that night, the bar is empty and it is revealed to the audience that Pike knows Kirk, as well as his parents, and berates him for having their talents but squandering them in petty crime in heartland America. It is here that he reveals some tantalising details about Kirk’s parents’ shrouded past;
“Your father was captain of a starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives including your mother’s and yours. I dare you to do better.”
He tells Kirk where and when the recruitment shuttle is leaving. Kirk is petulant, but still takes the time to dive past the construction site of the Enterprise out in the desert. The next day, Kirk arrives for the shuttle, tossing his keys to a nearby worker (aka. Seltzer from Scrubs!) and remarking to Pike that he’ll be a captain in three years. The scene ends.
Abrams narrates again at the beginning that between the two scenes, Kirk gets into trouble with Starfleet and ends up not in line when the ship duty roster is handed out. Instead he befriends Bones McCoy, who incidentally does an excellent homage to the doctor of the tv series (“Dammit, Jim!”), and who uses the loophole which allows doctors with patients in their care to be brought onto their ship. Thus the potentially tingling scene where James Kirk first boards the Enterprise is sat on by the manner on which he is brought onboard: injected with a serum, his hands become swollen up to comic proportions.
On the bridge, we see Pike is the captain, Spock (Zachary Quinto, aka. Sylar from Heroes) his first mate, with Lieutenant Sulu (John Cho, Harold and Kumar) and Navigation Officer Chekov (ok, tingles now). Chekov is frustrated by the voice recognition software thanks to his heavily Russian accented speech (just in case his name didn’t give away enough about his background), but moves onto an announcement on the shipwide intercom: a lightning storm in space has been detected in the neutral zone and the Enterprise is going to respond to a Vulcan distress call in the area.
Hearing this in sick bay, Jim immediately leaps up and runs for the bridge, yelling “We’re flying into a trap!”. Kirk bumps into Uhura yet again but cannot explain his distress as his tongue has just swollen also. In frustration he continues making for the bridge, in response to which Pike tries to have him dragged back off again and Spock is instantly hostile towards him. Despite Spock’s objections, Kirk manages to explain that such a lightning storm occurred years before on the day of his birth, and that it was a Romulan attack that caused it. Pike and Spock relent and the shields are activated. When the ship re-materialises, it is amongst the wreckage of the other ships sent to help, and the Enterprise is attacked.
The third scene is much more measured and less frantic, for after a spat with Spock which sees Kirk marooned on an unhappy looking planet, it introduces the role of the brilliant engineer Montgomery Scott. It was therefore strange that they chose to have the scene introduced by the man playing him – none other than Simon Pegg, who received a standing ovation. He was like a child on his birthday, having been a fan of the show for decades it was a dream come true to be asked to have such a large role in the film, having bagged the role because his Scottish wife coached him on an appropriate accent for it.
In the scene however it is the presence of Leonard Nimoy which got the hardcore fan base drooling, for he plays an older version of Spock returning from the future. Old Spock escorts Kirk through the tunnels of the planet until they encounter a man tinkering with a bizarre machine with a small alien aiding him. It seems the most gifted human engineer in the galaxy has been permanently demoted for dematerialising the Admiral’s dog. This is a man cheerfully spouting quantum mechanics like Wordsworth skipping through prose, all with Scottish overtones. I suppose not many Americans have heard of David Tennant, else they might also have noticed the similarities.
The key information in this scene is that the concept of beaming people onboard a ship which is travelling at warp speed is regarded as practically impossible, or like shooting a bullet at another bullet. This is circumvented by Nimoy’s Spock bestowing upon Scotty the formula future Scotty wrote to discover it. This ouroborous paradox is not really explained in the scene and might have a few science fiction fans biting chunks out of their Phillip K Dick novels, since the film seems to steamroll over this particular crack. This gift is enough to convince Scotty to sign up as Chief Engineer onboard the Enterprise.
Before leaving Kirk and Scotty to return to the ship, Old Spock sagely tells Jim that, in order to take control of the Enterprise, he must reveal that Spock (young, not old, and who is apparently now in command of the Enterprise, God I’m confused) is emotionally compromised. He does not reveal how, but it is assumed that it has a great deal to do with Spock’s ancestry, particularly his human half, which was of frequent reference back in the sixties. In a scene to bring a tear to a fan’s eye, Spock beams away with a Vulcan salute:
“Live long, and prosper.”
Confusingly, the final scene actually occurs before the previous, rendering the chronological order of the events as ‘Clip 1, Clip 2, Clip 4, Clip 3’. Returning to the incident above the planet Vulcan, the Romulans are indeed nefariously plotting evil deeds, specifically to drill into Vulcan’s core and then drop a bomb into it. Swines.
Whatever happens to Pike is not made clear in the scene, however the transition of power is as Kirk hands command over to Spock, and Kirk to first officer to replace him. With transporters blocked, the plan is to have Pike pilot a shuttle out of which Kirk, Sulu and Olsen will drop from orbit and land on the drilling platform and shut it down, in order to save the planet. Evidently Pike doesn’t fancy his chances since he has reshuffled power until his return, and speaking of bad chances, do not panic that Olsen has not been mentioned before – it is not mentioned who he is in the scene. He wears a red shirt though. And he’s English.
In a gloriously panoramic scene which must have had George Lucas spitting his coffee into his beard, the three drop to the red surface of the planet below. Kirk and Sulu activate their parachutes, yet Olsen, intent on getting closer, ends up being sucked into the drilling laser and vaporized, along with the explosives. Didn’t see that one coming. After landing, Kirk and Sulu enter combat with two Romulan guards, with Sulu performing some daredevil moves with a steel Katana, a long cry away from George Takei. After kicking one attacker over the edge and disintegrating the other, Kirk compromises with his lack of explosives by emptying a Romulan rifle into the platform circuitry. The drill stops, leading the Romulan in charge on his ship to order the bomb to be launched regardless.
Onboard the Enterprise, Chekov announces the bomb will create a black hole in Vulcan’s core, destroying it. Spock orders an evacuation of the planet before tearing off to the transporter room to rescue his parents. Almost as if he’s emotionally compromised. Back on the drilling platform, things are not going so well. Sulu is blown off and Kirk must leap after him, and the tech onboard the ship cannot get a lock on the pair for teleporting as they are moving too fast. In true narrative fashion, Chekov manages this feat metres before Kirk and Sulu are pulped on the planet’s surface. That’s the end of the footage.
You may read this in anticipation but mere words cannot do this film justice. I don’t feel less qualified to write this article due to my complete ignorance of Star Trek canon, indeed I feel more useful as a result as I can safely say that a layman will be impressed by this film simply because I was. The epic musical score, the panoramic scenes and of course that sense of adventure as told from a plucky young twenty-something who manages to elevate himself from his desert roots to the status of a hero, all these things smack of an entirely different space saga. However, this film seems to beat Star Wars, at least in some ways (I frantically backpedal, please don’t lynch me) due to three important properties. First of all is the humour present in the footage shown: the comic relief in action scenes, the sly nods to old Star Trek jokes and indeed Scottie all by himself are all just examples of what Abrams has done much better than Lucas – injecting much less forced comedic presence into a film in order to keep the fans interested.
Secondly we have the element of believability. Whereas the worlds depicted in Star Wars seem as fantastic and unlikely as an episode of Dr Who written by Russell T Davies, Star Trek 11 makes the presence of future technology and alien races seem a perfectly normal, everyday affair yet without appearing in any way banal or humdrum. An excellent example of this is the bar mentioned in the first scene, and I would be willing to bet money that this is the first scenes where the universe that these characters live in is really revealed to the audience in the final cut.
Finally, and most importantly, Abrams has assembled a stellar cast. It is impossible to overstate this; the acting performances from all parties in the film are dynamite. The characters feel genuine, the dynamics and chemistry between them seems fluid and natural and the dialogue appears to have throwaway line, but not one inch of it is redundant. If the scriptwriters (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) had had a hand in penning Star Wars, Harrison Ford would have had no cause for complaint. The short version of this review is: go see this film when it comes out. Obviously you won’t have Simon Pegg and JJ Abrams present at your screening but you can’t have everything. On that note I would like to add special thanks to Beatwax who made it possible for a lowly student to attend the special event, and the editorial duo Oli and James on the film section of Impact for allowing said lowly student to be me. It is the most bizarre Armistice Day I have ever spent, and I sure as hell hope that the minute’s silence before the screening which the hosts instigated by tapping forks on champagne glasses was in memorium, not to raise excitement for the forthcoming footage, although it managed that too anyway. I would say that I have boldly gone where no student has gone before, but that would be a lie. A cheesy lie.