Saturday, May 9, 2009

Abram's Star Trek

I saw J. J. Abram's Star Trek and thought it was a fun thrill ride. It's not without it's flaws, but by the standards of summer blockbusters it's a roaring success. However, by the standards of the science fiction genre in which it is situated it has some serious shortcomings.

As a melodrama, the film holds up well. The characters are all engaging, the actors deliver solid performances, and the film's narrative pace never misses a beat. There are also well played comic moments that help lighten the film. The only real melodramatic shortcoming is the antagonist, Nero. What could have been a poignant character in the mold of Khan is instead a sketchily drawn galactic maniac embarked on a misguided campaign of revenge. What made Khan such an intriguing figure is that he was avenging actual wrongs. Khan, it could be argued, had justice on his side. What made him morally ambiguous was that he brutally killed so many innocent people in the course of his vendetta. By contrast, Abram's Nero is a wrong-headed lunatic who is punishing people that did their best to help save his homeworld. His actions are manifestly unjust which makes him a completely unsympathetic character. What's worse is that he's two dimensional. We get no insight into his character. He has none of the memorable lines that made Khan such a vivid villain. It's the biggest waste of a baddie since Darth Maul.

When viewed as science fiction the film fares rather less well. I'm not talking about nitpicks, like phasers that are beams when fired by the ship but not when fired from a pistol, or Kirk, Sulu and a Redshirt skydiving from orbit instead of becoming squirming satellites. I'm talking about an ignorance of basic scientific facts. Star Trek has never put a premium on scientific accuracy, but one thing it has always avoided is the blunder of confusing a solar system with a galaxy. That's the kind of embarrassing mistake only comic book writers or the old pulp penman of the last century would make. It's like confusing an island for a planet. Abram's Star Trek makes that mistake. We're expected to believe that a supernova, an exploding star, threatens the entire galaxy. A galaxy made up of billions and billions of stars. It's utterly preposterous. It's like a hand grenade being a danger to the entire planet. But it gets worse. We're supposed to accept that Spock, who has been marooned on the planet Delta Vega, can look up at the sky and watch with the naked eye as his native Vulcan comes to an untimely end. To realize just how ridiculous that is keep in mind that Venus is the largest planet close to the Earth and it appears as nothing but a bright light in the night sky. Couldn't they at least have given Spock a telescope? I know we live in a scientifically illiterate society but is that really expecting too much? The result is to reduce Star Trek to the level of a Gojira film: fun to watch but hard to take seriously.

And it is fun to watch. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the film. It's just that the scientific gaffs it makes are so outrageous and unnecessary that they stand out like a sore thumb. Which is a shame because it lives down to Star Trek's reputation for bogus science which has inspired such parodies as Voltaire's song "The U.S.S. Make Shit Up." It reduces the film to being a good action movie rather than a convincing science fiction yarn.

Update: added a link to an article about supernovas.


Robert Saint John said...

Hey, watch it with the "Gojira", buddy. That first one has much better science than this did. ;)

Yeah, I'm totally with you on the scientific accuracy. I wrote somewhere else that it's a real pet peeve of mine when writers conflate solar system/galaxy/universe. Grrr! Sometimes with Trek you can explain things away. But the ability of the original supernova to defy the laws of physics entirely is almost, but not quite, as bad as SP seeing Vulcan implode. And the worst part? They could have just said it was a moon rather than a "Class M Planet". They could have not said "Delta Vega" which only confuses things. And they could have not put Scotty and his miracle transporter right next door.

Still, it's like my horrible health-challenged cat Puddy. She's a mess and expensive, but damn me, I love her.

Jerry Cornelius said...

I hear you. The whole moon thing would have been a better solution, but not the best. A black hole that can swallow an M-Class planet in a matter of minutes would devour the moon too, but at least they could have hand-waved that away by saying it had spun off into space, or something. IMO, they should have put Spock on a different planet orbiting Vulcan's sun and just given him a super-science viewscreen. That would have accomplished the same purpose and sparred me a lot of groaning. Because they didn't have to make these blunders. They were very avoidable. And that's my only real complaint.

Obviously I still like it just like I enjoy anime that are even more silly and unrealistic. The important thing is that it tells a good story. That's really all you can ask for.