I come to this a little belatedly, I know; and what I have to say riffs in part off reviews I’ve read (the estimable Abigail Nussbaum has a selection of interesting links). And—OK, the film is kind-of fun. The time passed. It's kinetic, apparently fashioned according to the current blockbuster logic: 'imagine a 13 year old boy at your shoulder at all times; if, for any reason, that boy goes "boooring" at any character, sequence or shot--cut it out!' Certainly the special effects are visually very nice. It is full of lovely little details. But actually, it’s more than full of details: it is nothing but details. Its contempt for the larger architectonic requirements of filmmaking and storytelling amounts to a slap in the fangirl/fanboy face.
There are two parts to my dislike of this movie, and I'll start at the level of most obvious: [item] that the plot holes are more than holes. Red matter has been injected into the script, leaving vast distorting black holes of unlogic, anticontinuity, nonsense and bollocks everywhere.
Here's the plot: the Romulan villain, Nero, in charge of a vast spaceship shaped like Don King’s hair, is dragged through a black hole back in time. (Elderly Spock is also dragged through, although, for reasons unexplained, he arrives back in time 25 years later). Nero pops out and chances upon a fully armed Federation battleship. Now: the Romulan craft is a commercial ship, for the extraction and portage of raw materials -- hence its enormous size. This is as if to say the Exxon Valdez slipped back in time and chanced upon the HMS Ark Royal. Who do you think might win if two such vessels fell to fighting?
Anyway Nero blames Spock for the destruction of his whole world, and has his mind set on vengeance (which is to say: on ‘VENgeance!’), so he immediately wastes the Federation ship, and Kirk’s father, and then completely vanishes for 25 years. Whither goeth he? Not to pursue his VENgeance!, certainly, or we’d hear about it. Somehow he manages to hide a vast, futuristic Edward Scissorhands Hairstyle In Space from all comers. Then he returns 25 years later because he knows (how?) that the spacetime anomaly is about to open again. (Presumably it hasn’t been open the whole time, like a barn door, or surely somebody would have gotten around to investigating it) Through pops Spock with the Red Goo that destroys worlds. Good! Now Nero can destroy Spock's world, and make him watch as he does so, just to learn him. Does Nero make Spock watch from the bridge of the Romulan spacecraft? No: he deposits him, unguarded, on a planet adjacent to Vulcan.* Judging by how big Vulcan is in the sky of this ice world it must be about as far away as Earth is from our own moon—although it is entirely uninhabited by Vulcans, and is regarded as a fantastically remote and faraway place on which to dump unwanted Star Fleet officers by the Federation.
*[I like to imagine the following exchange, after the event -- NERO: how did you feel as you watched your world being destroyed? buahaha! ELDER SPOCK: the who did the what now? NERO: wait ... didn't you see the destruction? E.S.: I've been inside my cave. All I've seen is the, eh, inside of my cave. To be honest, this isn't a place where you want to be wandering around outside too much, especially not with your attention fixed upwards --there's enormous ravening red beasts under the snow, you know, will eat you quick as mustard. NERO: You were supposed to be watching! My revenge depends upon you actually watching! E.S: Well excu-use me. Would it have killed you to say something beforehand?]
The next stage in Nero’s plan is to dangle a big laser-platform at the end of a very long chain into the atmosphere of Vulcan, in order to dig a hole right down to the core and deposit therein a small phial of the Magic Red Goo. Stop for a moment: it’s worth dwelling on this, because this Terror Weapon, Shatterer of Worlds is the main menace around which the plot of the film orients itself. It's dangled on a long chain. Why? Well, in order to provide the filmmaker with a Very High-up Platform on which to stage swordfights and fistfights, adding the spice that our hero might fall off the edge to his certain death to the conventional thrills of punching and slicing. Similarly, Nero vanishes mysteriously for twenty-five years only to allow Kirk enough time to grow up. No other reason. Nice of him, really.
But wait: let's think about this chain, from which the laser platform depends. Is it superstrong? By no means: at the end of the movie Spock, flying a spaceship no bigger than a shuttle, cuts it neatly with a quick phaser blast. Now: Captain Pike, in charge of Starfleet’s hideously beweaponed flagship, comes upon this Weapon of Terror in mid-blast. What does he do? (Never mind that the Vulcans haven’t destroyed it with their own planetary defences. The Vulcan science council can manufacture Planet Blasting Red Goo, but have nothing in their cupboard that could chop through an anchor chain).
Now admittedly, Pike stumbles into the middle of a battle, because Star Fleet doesn’t have long range sensors; and their ability to broadcast communications breaks down entirely if somebody fires a Big Laser; and their ships lack the sorts of warning systems that would prevent them from coming out of warp into the middle of a debris field (something that must result in a lot of collateral damage to the fleet, you'd think). So Pike’s caught on the hop. But nevertheless—could he not direct one single phaser blast to cut that cable? One photon torpedo? Could he not send out a shuttle to shoot it? Could he not—if these other options were denied him—direct a shuttle on autopilot to fly into and smash into the cable? No, his plan is better: send three members of his crew skydiving down on the platform to wrestle mano-a-mano with the Romulans guarding it.
There’s a much bigger, much more damaging problem here, though. Plot holes are one thing; but this is something far more serious. It is that this movie cannot, no matter how much it strains and heaves, think systematically. The individual is the entire horizon of its universe. Now, when you’re 15 (say), and particularly when you’re 15 and male, your own hormone-saturated individuality—its ego, its randiness, its stroppiness—can look like a whole universe unto itself. But it's not. Society (community) is the necessary context of individuality.
What was so great about Trek—and particularly TNG and DS9 (less so Voyager and Enterprise)—is that it got this. What’s cool about TNG is not Picard, or Riker, or Worf: it’s the representation, on primetime TV, of a whole and properly functioning organization. Properly functioning in the sense that: it works, it is efficient and adaptive and coherent without being too rigidly heirarchical or oppressive. It wasn’t just a number of individuals going through the motions of relating to one another, but a network in which individuals had their place. It’s a model rather than an actual society (of course it is: the representational logics of the medium dictate that). But it is a model with surprising quantities of nuance and believability.
This is why Deadwood (which is more than just swearin' Al Swearengen: it’s the representation of a whole believably interconnected and functioning town) and The Wire (a whole, and rather larger, town) are so sublime, and why those two titles are better than the third member of the Holy Trinity of Great Contemporary Telly, The Sopranos: which did become, increasingly, too much 'Tony Soprano (plus support)', especially in its later series.
Now, the representation of TNG’s Enterprise was coloured Utopian, of course: and of course it can’t duck the accusation of nerdiness (as Nick Mamatas wittily if lunkishly points out in his review). Nerdiness, clearly, is The Worst Thing In The World. If there's one thing we learned from George W. Bush's presidency, it's that it's much better to have the allegedly reformed, onetime drunk hellrake with no knowledge of the details but a strong gut-sense that he can make the right decision in charge, than the policy-wonk guy with the high IQ and the good grasp of the inherent complexity of national and international relations. Jesus. Imagine if we had one of those in the White House.
Nevertheless, the representation of TNG’s Enterprise was a believable and rounded piece of collective realization. The latest Trek? Not so much. Not, indeed, at all.
Trek09 is a text so absolutely incapable of representing a collective—a functioning group, a society—that it strays into rank idiocy. It is teenage wish-fulfilment bang-zap-frot fantasy all the way through. But (and this, I’d say, is what people celebrating the Star Warsification of the Trek franchise in this film, are missing) precisely what made Trek so notable in the first place was its creation a communitarian world. Not an ensemble cast all vying for screen time; a knit-together group of people. The Star Wars universe is an open-ended, malleable space for individual adventure. The Trek universe is about having a place. It is, really, about belonging.
So Trek09 grandly misses the point. My problem was not that Kirk, in this film, is a tool at the start and a tool at the end. He is, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that Star Fleet is so toolish: so completely, dysfunctionally unbelievable as an organisation. Kirk is a cadet and an arsehole, who is under suspension. Nevertheless, Pike promotes him to First Officer on the strength of (a) I admired your father and (b) I liked the way you burst into the bridge and yelled at me that we needed to raise shields and ready phasers. When Spock takes charge and Kirk argues with him Spock ejects him from the ship (because the Enterprise lacks a brig? Because the brig isn't fitted out with a huge scarlet hairless icebeast? Who knows). When Kirk gets back on board, he goads Spock into attacking him and then seizes the captain’s chair. This is presented as a necessary and saving action, but it all speaks to an organization in its death throes. Hiring Some Guy You Met Along the Way as chief engineer (in effect: ‘you’re real smart about engines and shit … you do the job’) is part and parcel of this dysfunction. The Enterprise, as a group of individuals functioning together to crew a space ship, is—in this film, and for the first time in the Trek franchise—Not Fit For Purpose. It's a wholly unprofessional bunch of people squabbling and vying. It's dysfunctional. And I've now used 'dysfunctional' three times in this one paragraph. Which is stylistically clumsy, but at least stresses the main feature of Star Fleet, as an organisation, as presented in this film. Dysfunctional.
The opening sequence—the best portion—doesn’t suffer from this. The evacuation of the USS Kelvin looks like a coordinated, effective group performing a difficult task. People follow orders even though they’re not happy about it, because the orders are in the best interests of everybody. This isn’t the world of Star Fleet 25 years later, which is all contempt and testosterone, staff yelling and throwing punches at one another; senior officers have sex with their subordinates; those in charge making random seat-of-pant decisions about staffing, strategy and everything else, or else abandoning their posts to rush off and rescue their mum and dad. Rather than, you know, doing their duty. All very much unGood.
The larger function of this myopia is a complete inability to even begin to deal defensibly with the representation of genocide. The mass-murder of all the universe’s Romulans and almost all the cosmos’s Vulcans is not just here offensively stupid plot-pointing. Although it is that. It is something that the film cannot comprehend on any level except the personal. What is the murder of an entire people? What it really boils down to is, like, Spock losing his mother. It is really, the film is saying, just an individual tragedy. That’s so enormously and profoundly mendacious it’s breathtaking. It is summed up, for me, in Old Spock’s volte face about meeting Young Spock. First of all he refuses to do so, even though it would be a very useful and helpful thing to do, and even though the fate of entire planets hang in the balance, for reasons to do with the sanctity of the time lines, and the potential for disaster. Later he happily chats with his younger self, and reveals that the actual reason he didn’t pop up earlier is that he didn’t want to get in the way of Young Spock’s bonding with Kirk. Vital that their friendship be cemented, you see.
Imagine a cosmos in which genocide really mattered less than whether you and your best friend were getting on swell. That’s the cosmos of Trek09.