This article originally appeared on Playmagazine.com
It is harder to like something than it is to dislike it. Liking something requires vulnerability, honesty, acceptance. To dislike something, all one needs be is dismissive and closed. Teenage boys demonstrate this readily; the perplexity of endearment is generally not worth the effort. The weaknesses associated with attachment are too great a risk. To put it another way, 15-year-old boys have a much shorter list of what's awesome, compared to what's "gay."
Whenever I leave a movie, I puzzle over it a bit before I allow myself to feel something about it. Knowing that I have high criteria for praise doesn't give me an excuse to be judgemental. As I watch more films, the more I know what I desire from them -- and as a result, the more specific my convictions become. And with a narrow set of ideals comes a broader pool of disappointments.
But it's easier to be disappointed than it is to embrace.
So, when I left Star Trek disappointed, carrying a bland apathy out of the theater, I sat down and thought about it for a day before I came to my full conclusion. Was the film disappointing because it's easier to shrug something off than it is to let something in? Was I looking for depth in the movie that I brought with me into the theater? Is Star Trek detachment just a casual way to remain uninvolved -- indifference for the sake of what's hip?
Here's what I've decided. J.J. Abams' Star Trek features some great casting, charm, but a boring plot. It's at its best when the action is limited to the banter between characters, and at its worst when the Romulan enemy is monologuing in the bowels of his ship.
Now, I love Star Trek: The Next Generation, and was even a brief fan of the recent Enterprise, but it is Wrath of Khan which defines Star Trek for me. It's not just a great Trek movie, but a rather awesome movie overall. Khan places character and motive before action, but gives us plenty of all three. Khan shows us what Star Trek could be, much like the triumph of The Empire Strikes Back fuels the entire Star Wars universe. This new Star Trek movie knows that Khan is the best of Trek, but instead of incorporating the lessons of Khan, it is content to reference them with a nudge and a grin.
Most of this cribbing is a wink to the series' fans. It's a touch on the shoulder, telling us, "Don't worry, you're in good hands. We get it." And I'll admit, I got goosebumps when Kirk took on the Kobayashi Maru while eating an apple -- no doubt a reference to a scene in Wrath of Khan where Kirk recalls the event with fruit in hand. For my friend Josh, the apple represents one of the defining moments for Kirk's character; it's both confident and human, casual and full of charm.
But most of these original-series-references are not as well positioned in this Abrams' Star Trek universe. To an audience ignorant of the original Trek, these moments appear out-of-place, as weird, kitschy clunkers in a adventure that owes more to Bay's Armageddon than Meyer's Khan. This is because in the end, Abrams' Trek movie is a machine, an engine that drives from set-piece to set-piece, relentlessly searching for the quickest path to big dollars. It's admirable that Abrams' and co. managed to inject any life into this movie, which a fellow Fusion employee described as "not a film, but a blockbuster." Why does there have to be a difference? For every inch that we tip the scale towards character, do we lose a foot of ticket line?
To put it another way, how many of us wouldn't pay fourteen more dollars to see an additional half-hour of Ledger's Joker, just talking?
I believe that a blockbuster film can exist without forty-five minutes dedicated to computer animation. We don't need an hour of cartoons in our summer films. Jaws, the original blockbuster, had something like ten minutes of actual action. I think this Trek would have been made stronger, if it had featured less shark. This is particularly pointed since I believe Abrams' company name, Bad Robot, is a reference to Spielberg's E.T., and a long-forgotten quote I can't quite remember about how special effects can only go so far.
When Star Trek is on the bridge, it's great. Abrams' close-ups reveal some subtle and poignant moments for both Spock (Zachary Qunito) and Kirk (Chris Pine). Pine, particularly, had a tough task ahead of him, as Shatner's performance of Kirk is inseparable from the character. What a relief, it was, to know that these iconic crew members were in capable hands. Even tertiary characters, lampooned on the Internet for their broader, comic performances, were extraordinary; the confidence of the ensemble demonstrated by the way they fell into their seats as if they simply belonged in them. I look forward to a future when these heroes are given another shot, unhampered by an origin story, and untethered to a weak, spreadsheet-style plot.