Well, Maul, you asked for it. This will be much longer than my already-too-long ramblings on the "2001" thread. I apologize in advance.
I'm in the really weird position here of agreeing wholeheartedly with both Hansen AND Brian on this one. I think "Star Trek" is a flashy, superficial work that's possibly one of the all-time great examples of what TV Tropes calls "Fridge Logic" — the experience of stopping to think about it afterward when you're getting something out of the fridge, only to realize "Wait a minute, that makes no sense" — while simultaneously paying off everything it sets up. It's a terrible movie that happens to be perfect. And I loved it.
I'm with more or less everything Emfayder said, though to different degrees. The whole supernova/black hole/red matter thing? That's a magic bean. I give that a pass. Star Trek has always walked the line between science fiction and science fantasy, and last year's movie installment comes down firmly on the fantasy side, and that's okay.
What I'm getting at here is that the premise of the movie doesn't bother me. The premise is fine, and a lot stronger than some other Star Trek movies (whales in space, for starters).
What I'm talking about is the … well, screw it. Let's start at the beginning.
The first reel or two — the whole Kelvin sequence — is really good filmmaking. The evacuation/birth/sacrifice bit is well done, unapologetically melodramatic and all the better for it.
The first time we meet Little Jimmy Kirk is when he steals his stepfather's (uncle's? I forget) car and takes it for a joyride that ends with his going over a cliff and being snotty to a cop who may have been an android or who may have just been wearing the world's most uncomfortable motorcycle helmet. This is meant to show that little Jimmy is troubled and rebellious. This is fine; as a story beat it's okay. Except it ends with his dumping a classic car off a cliff into a quarry. A cool scene, to be sure, but that's kind of the nuclear option of rebellious youth, no? That's the nuclear-holocaust-followed-by-widespread-cannibalism option of rebellious youth. What's it supposed to tell us about little Jim Kirk? That he's angry? That he's foolhardy? That he's a bad driver? Was his intention to drive the car off a cliff when he jacked it, or did it just start out as a teenage joyride that went out of control? There's no indication in the film of an "oops" moment from Kirk, so it comes across like he had a plan and he carried it out and fuck you, stepdad (or mom's brother or whatever). Which is pretty damn harsh for a kid.
Were we supposed to come away with the impression that Kirk's stepdad/uncle/whatever abused him? Like physically? Because that's the level the character's motivation would need to be at, I think, to justify premediatively stealing his stepdad/uncle's car and driving it off a cliff. Or maybe it was a suicide attempt, and at the last minute Kirk changed his mind? No, too dark.
Anyway, moving on, because we're only on the second major scene in the movie.
Young Spock's arc works for me, to be honest. His daddy married a human woman, and kids are mean. Vulcans are brutal, barbaric people who only stay civilized by sheer force of self-restraint, so his whole arc makes sense to me. I will speak no more of it, because I've got no major complaints.
Flash-forward to the "present" day: Kirk is getting drunk in what the establishing shot thoughtfully tells us is a total middle-of-nowhere bar. A middle-of-nowhere bar that happens to be populated by a dozen first-year Starfleet cadets — plebes. In uniform. Who are fifteen hundred miles from their campus. With a captain. Was it a field trip? Was he their chaperone? There's a shipyard nearby — which is surprising but fair enough; you don't need any particular geography to build starships, and wide-open spaces meant the land was probably cheap. Were they there to see how starships are built? I never went to a military academy, but I knew people who did, and I recall no plebe-year field trips to the graving docks at Newport News, but what do I know.
So for absolutely no reason we have a herd of cadets and a decorated officer hanging out in a dive bar in Iowa. Well. Not for absolutely no reason. The reason is so they can meet Jim Kirk. We have three meet-cutes in the span of ten minutes: Uhura, "cupcake" (who exists solely to enable a brick joke) and Pike. Pike delivers the best line in the movie and one of the best lines in film in recent years: "Your father was captain of a starship for twelve minutes. He saved 800 lives. I dare you to do better." That's a damn good line, right there, and Bruce Greenwood delivers it remarkably well, so when I saw the movie in the theater I didn't care that the setting of the scene made no sense. The scene existed to get Pike in front of Kirk and to deliver that line, which is great right up to the point where you start thinking about it.
The Kobayashi Maru sequence, I thought, introduced a nice twist. In "Wrath of Khan" we learn that Kirk cheated on the test and got a "commendation for original thinking." In "Star Trek" that's changed to being brought up on disciplinary charges. More plausible by far than picturing him getting a tousle of the hair and an "Oh, you clever scamp."
But then the story breaks again. Because he's suspended, Kirk doesn't get assigned to the flotilla of ships that are all apparently desperately under-crewed. McCoy fakes an illness to smuggle him on board (plausibility stretches) with absolutely no consequences (and the plausibility snaps neatly in two). Aboard the Enterprise, McCoy spends the first indeterminate-chunk-of-time-reasonably-assumed-to-be-hours-at-least nursing Kirk … didn't he have actual job responsibilities? He's just a cadet himself but he's part of a ship's chain of command — a midshipman at least; presumably they were all sworn in as temporary ensigns during that assembly in the hangar we see the tail end of where the assignments are handed out — but he never appears to report to anyone or do anything except herd Kirk. Why? Because it's funny. "You got numb tongue? I can fix that." It's funny as hell, so we go with it, despite the fact that McCoy should have been (a) busy and (b) disciplined and possibly even charged for smuggling an unauthorized person aboard ship.
Talking of the ship … are there no actual officers on Earth when the Vulcan distress call comes in? We've got Pike who'd be an entirely plausible ship's captain were it not for the fact that he was apparently off drinking in a bar with cadets for some reason just three years earlier. If he's an instructor, what's he doing in command of a ship of the line? Ships already have captains, even if they're just on shakedown prior to mounting the broom. Is Spock supposed to be the XO? He was running the bridge simulator just days earlier. Okay, there's a nice nod there to "Wrath of Khan" with Spock commanding a ship full of cadets on a training cruise, but in that context the Enterprise was an older ship, out of date, and had been specifically assigned to training duty. The "Star Trek" Enterprise is, as Pike says, "brand new." Why doesn't she already have a crew?? McCoy, Kirk and Uhura are middies (except Kirk's not even in the chain of command because he, like Dante, wasn't even supposed to be there that day). Spock is an instructor. Sulu is a replacement for a sick helmsman (which was a nice touch; at least they mentioned it) and Chekov is a seventeen-year-old kid. There are hundreds of other people on the Enterprise — we see them all over the place — but the ones who get dialogue are all either total newbies or teachers … or Pike, but again, we have no idea what his day job is.
So the Enterprise makes it to Vulcan just moments late because Sulu forgot to release the parking brake — a bit I loved, by the way. I howled in the theater at Sulu's deadpan, don't-even-look-down bit of business with the controls. Funny, and plot-necessary, because by the time they get there the other six (or whatever it was) ships in the flotilla are a debris field. Which means the Romulans destroyed six Starfleet ships in seconds. They have some "make flotilla go away" button on that bridge of theirs, and they pressed it hard. Which makes its absence from the rest of the film more than a little conspicuous.
Nero's halting the hostilities because he recognizes Spock's ship works for story purposes; as we learn later, Nero's already taken the other Spock someplace where he can watch. Nero's dark, man. He's Scott-Tenorman-must-die dark. "Here's some delicious chili while you wait, Spock. And here's Radiohead to laugh at your tears." Seriously.
The big action sequence is big and actiony, and both technically well done and sensible. In a time when the trend is toward totally over-the-top incomprehensible set pieces, the four-man fist fight on the drilling rig was a model of restraint. The stakes were high on two levels, Chekov gets a "yay!" moment followed by a reversal when he loses Spock's mom, the whole thing just generally works. The captain is a prisoner, and with him lost the Enterprise under Spock's command follows orders and high-tails it out to rendezvous with the rest of the fleet, which had previously been established to be down at the shops buying some milk. Or whatever they were doing.
But now we return to the problem of the Enterprise being criminally understaffed. Spock is now in command, but he apparently has nobody to support him. No department heads, no division officers, apparently no billets at all. This is partly justified — the chief engineer and CMO were both killed in action. But at the very least there's got to be a navigation officer somewhere aboard, or if not an actual navigator (we have computers for that now?) at least someone for the helmsman to report to. There's got to be a weapons officer in there somewhere as well, what with all the, y'know, weapons aboard. Maybe not those exact job titles, since chain of command has evolved drastically over the centuries and could be presumed to evolve further in the future, but there should at least have been people with those job responsibilities, and they should have been part of an established chain of command. Later in the film, when Spock has an outburst and relieves himself of duty — which dialogue for some reason described as "resigning his commission," which is really very different — there's a moment on the bridge where McCoy declares that they have no captain and no first officer to replace him. He doesn't say they have no engineer, but he might as well have, because he's next in line, and they don't. But you have a navigator! You have a weapons officer! You have a whole chain of command with a precisely defined order of succession! Because, y'know, it's a dangerous job, and commanding officers are expected to die or be rendered unfit for duty. They thought of that in advance!
But no, apparently all the department heads and division officers had lungworms, and the brand-new, not-even-out-of-shakedowns-yet flagship of the fleet was chucked off with a crew of teenagers and clock-punchers. Which is exactly the sort of thing that would never happen in any universe where the laws of, like, gravity are in effect.
But again, all these convolutions in the story exist solely to put Kirk in the chair in the middle of the bridge. Everything that happens, apart from a number of really awesome character beats, is driven by the force of the plot. And said plot hinges on the entire administrative structure of Starfleet taking stupid pills when they got up that morning.
Which brings us to the end of the movie where Kirk, in recognition of his breaking about a hundred laws starting with stowing away aboard a starship and culminating with disobeying the standing, lawful orders of a superior officer in a time of war, gets to skip five rungs on the ladder and is promoted straight to captain. Right out of the Academy.
They could have at least thrown in a clumsy line of dialogue mentioning the fact that, hey, we lost six ships and about five thousand people out there, including a ton of officers, and did you notice we couldn't even muster up division officers for the flagship, so we're really short-staffed right now. Kirk's the only one who filled out the little-known, seldom-used "Please promote me five grades in one go" form, so what the hell, we're going for it.
But that in and of itself would have been a problem … because they promote Kirk to replace Pike, who gets promoted to rear admiral. (Or just "admiral," in dialogue, which knowing how this Starfleet operates probably means Grand Admiral of the Fleet and Also Emperor of All the Russias or some shit.) If they promote Kirk up the ladder like stupid because they're short on commanding officers, why do they promote their one surviving commanding officer from the whole mess to a desk job? It makes no sense!
Except when you remember that the whole movie exists to put certain characters into certain roles, and if that means we have to ignore not just the laws of nature (this is science fantasy, after all) but basic logic as well, so be it.
And really, there was no other way. Yes, I could pull a Dorkman (with all due respect) and come up with my own story to replace this one, but truthfully? I'm not convinced it would have been any better. If we want to see Kirk when he's at the Academy and when he assumes command of the Enterprise, then we either have to ditch plausibility or make that movie take place over a span of about ten years. Because that's how long it would take for the greatest captain ever to go from being a middie to commanding his own ship of the line. Once we throw that out, every other twist and convolution seems like small cheese.
Now that I've said all that (and to anybody who's still reading, hi), let me reiterate: I love "Star Trek!" It's a blast! The performances are, without exception, rock solid, and occasionally outstanding. I was highly skeptical that an actor who'd never done a feature film before could carry the movie as Spock, but he pulled it off admirably. He didn't have Nimoy's gravitas, but for crying out loud, who could have? Chris Pine was funny and arrogant and obnoxious and charismatic, which is what the script called for. Simon Pegg nailed Scotty's accent, which is a feat in and of itself. And so on. The actors all turned in top-shelf performances. The visual effects were flawless — I might have made some different choices had I been in charge, but that's not the same as saying they were flawed.
But more importantly, the movie pays off what it sets up. The biggest promise of the film is that by the end, we'll see these characters in the roles they played in the TV show, and we got there. With some twists, of course — Spock and Uhura had some chemistry in the TV show, but now they're a full-on item. Nero's character is defined by a desire for revenge, and he acts accordingly; he changes whole battle plans for ridiculously petty reasons because he's got motivation. He's not as great as Khan — "I've done far worse than kill you. I've hurt you. And I wish to go on hurting you." — but he's everything a Star Trek villain needed to be, and just enough more to keep him interesting. The movie does what it promises, and as such, I think it's at least in the running for being called a perfect movie.
Unless you, y'know, think about it. Then it makes no goddamn sense at all.
Wow. That was really long. Sorry, folks.