9 May 2009

Review: Star Trek

Posted by Ryan

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Last night, I and my thirty closest friends (much of the Cornell astronomy department) visited the movie theater to watch the new Star Trek movie. The overall verdict: it was good! But of course, as huge nerds and astronomers, after the movie we spent a good twenty minutes standing in the halls of the theater blocking traffic and vigorously discussing all aspects of the movie.

In general I liked it a lot. It was really a lot of fun, and the new cast were great.

This movie does not “feel” like a Star Trek movie. If anything, it reminded me most of the new Star Wars movies. Except that it was good. The comic relief in Star Trek was well done, and mostly centered around the young Kirk. Thankfully, only some of the comedy is physical. Mostly it is witty banter and Kirk’s infectious personality that carries the laughter, and that’s the way it should be. Contrast this with the asinine slapstick that C3PO and R2D2 (and Jar-Jar) became in the new Star Wars.

But again, being similar to the new Star Wars movies is not necessarily a bad thing. The action scenes were really awesome. Plenty of space battles and laser fights and chase scenes to keep your attention. Unfortunately, the action comes so thick and fast that there isn’t much time for anything else. At its heart, this movie is an action movie.

The movie felt a lot more like Star Wars than Star Trek. Here, Kirk escapes from his crashed shuttle on Hoth. I mean... on an ice planet in the Vulcan system.

The movie felt a lot more like Star Wars than Star Trek. Here, Kirk escapes from his crashed shuttle on Hoth. I mean... on an ice planet in the Vulcan system.

In fact, one of my biggest problems with it is that it was just an action movie. Part of the appeal of the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises is the universe they are set in. They feel like part of something bigger than the immediate events of the movie. That was less true for this one. I didn’t get much of a sense of the universe outside the events shown onscreen. In fact, this is one place where the new Star Wars movies were better: despite all their flaws, those movies show the political maneuverings as the Empire expands its power and takes control of hundreds of systems across the galaxy. This new Star Trek was a lot more narrow, for better or for worse.

There will obviously be sequels to this movie, and I hope that they chill out just enough to strike a balance between the old Trek and this newest version. The old ones were often dull because they spent too much time debating galactic diplomacy. This new one is thrilling and exciting, but shallow because it doesn’t spend enough time on “slow” scenes like that. I think there’s a happy medium that the sequels should aim for to be great but also carry a little more weight.

Now, on to some specific complaints and spoilers! Don’t read any farther if you don’t want SPOILERS!

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Ok, so the premise of the movie is that in the future, old Spock is trying to prevent a supernova from destroying the galaxy by inducing a black hole to form in it. He fails to do so before Romulus is destroyed. The bad guy is a Romulan bent on revenge, but Spock’s black hole sends them both back in time, where the bad guy captures Spock and goes around trying to destroy the Federation planets with the black hole device.

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Kirk parachutes onto the giant drilling device that is (somehow) blasting a path to the planet's core.

First of all, the scientific problems: a supernova would not destroy the galaxy. A supernova is the explosion of a star. A galaxy is hundreds of billions of stars. That’s like saying that if one of the cells in your body died, so would you. The difference in scale is so great that the larger entity doesn’t even notice.

Second, the idea of stopping a supernova with a black hole is ridiculous. Why? Because supernovae are how black holes form! In fact, they are the only way that we know of to form black holes! So if a supernova naturally produces a black hole, causing a black hole to form within the supernova would do nothing.

Third, if Romulus is going to be blown apart by a supernova, then that means its star is blowing up. So if Spock had succeeded and stopped the supernova, Romulus would still be a dead world, cooling to frozen darkness as it orbited the black hole where its star used to be. A death by ice rather than fire. So if the bad guy had only known a little astronomy, he might be sad, but not vengeful. It’s hard to take revenge on the universe.

This guy is upset that his planet was destroyed by a supernova that Spock was supposed to prevent. Can you tell he's the bad guy? If not, wait till you see his ship.

This guy is upset that his planet was destroyed by a supernova that Spock was supposed to prevent. Can you tell he's the bad guy? If not, wait till you see his ship.

Speaking of black holes, they seem to have a very selective effect in this movie. First Spock and the Romulans are sucked into one and end up traveling through time. But apparently when a planet falls into a black hole it is destroyed. And then at the thrilling climax, the Romulan ship is blasted into the black hole and is torn apart, and the Enterprise only narrowly escapes, in true Star Trek fashion, by detonating its warp core and riding the shockwave out. Now, call me crazy, but if you are in a ship that can travel many times faster than light, wouldn’t you want to keep doing that, rather than hope that an explosion expanding much slower than lightspeed will propel you out? Oh well, I guess Scotty does know more about warp drives than I do.

One more thing: why do they have to drill to the core of the planet to kill it with a black hole? Seems to me that if you start the black hole anywhere on the planet, it will do the trick. But then, they know more about the mysterious black-hole-inducing “Red Matter” than I do.

I could nitpick some other science, but at some point you have to accept that this is a sci-fi action flick, not a documentary. If you want even more science-nitpicking fun, head on over to Phil Plait’s review at Bad Astronomy. So instead I’ll move on to nitpicking other things!

Time travel? Did they really have to resort to time travel? Ok, this is Star Trek so the answer is yes. But it is disappointing to me that they chose the time travel route rather than have something interesting happen in “the present” in the movie. I can see why they did it though. By waving their hands and talking about time travel paradoxes, they can say that the timeline has essentially been reset, and can now go on to make as many Trek sequels as they want, and not worry about altering the canon. A shrewd choice.

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The USS Kelvin meets its fate in a spectacular battle early in the movie.

Now, about those action scenes. I read a good number of blogs about writing, and have read multiple writing books, and often the advice given to writers trying to make a compelling story is that they should put their characters in a difficult situation, and then make it worse. This movie was a textbook example of that strategy. It is extremely effective, but they did it so much in this Trek that it actually got ridiculous.

Take the opening scene. An evil, evil looking spacecraft emerges from a black hole and begins firing on a Federation ship. They are outgunned. Ok, so we have our situation. The bad guy demands to speak to the captain in person but the transporters are offline due to damage. The captain flies over on a shuttle, is killed, and the bad guys attack again. Ok, it’s getting worse! Now the first officer is the captian! They need to evacuate the ship, so they are going to leave it on autopilot and take the shuttles. But oh noes! The new captain’s wife is, at that very moment going into labor! The stakes are raised: he needs to save his crew while worrying about his wife and child! But Oh noes! We find out that the autopilot is damaged! Nobody will escape unless someone is on the bridge, shooting down the missiles aimed with deadly intent at the escaping shuttles! He must make the ultimate sacrifice to save his crew and his wife and newborn son.

Ok, see what I mean? It’s a gripping scene, but scenes like this just keep happening, through the whole movie. And I found myself chuckling and shaking my head for some of them. They are textbook examples of how to keep the audience’s attention, but they strained my suspension of disbelief. Poor Kirk. I mean, the guy gets dumped on an ice planet, does he have to get chased by a CGI monster, which is in turn chased by a bigger and scarier CGI monster, only to be rescues by a time-travelling old-Spock with a torch? Does he have to have various allergic reactions to medication he took to sneak his way onboard the ship while trying to inform the captain of a deadly trap all while arguing with the guy who wanted him banned from the ship in the first place? It just got to be a bit much to swallow, exciting though it was.

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Kirk surveys the Enterprise construction site as he considers applying to Starfleet.

I’ll end on a positive note because despite my complaints, this is a really enjoyable movie. It’s also beautiful. The scenes of the Enterprise under construction, towering over the Iowa cornfields were breathtaking, as were the space battles, and the destruction of Vulcan, and pretty much everything. I even liked the shiny, futuristic-looking bridge.

So, the new Star Trek:

It’s an eye-popping, frenetic, exciting and action-packed movie. The characters are likeable, the bad guys are bad, the space battles are freakin’ sweet, and through it all there is also a great sense of humor.

This is not your daddy’s Star Trek, but I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.