Not that long ago, on TV sets that are now, sadly, obsolete, the fictional U.S.S. Enterprise began its voyaging, boldly splitting infinitives to go where no show had gone before. And then after three years it stopped going anywhere, having already managed to beat into cliches sci-fi concepts that were in their infancy prior to its advent...
...but somehow, it has kept on going. And going. And going. And going...
...which, if its newest movie iteration keeps producing reviews as delicious as this one (fainting couch warning--A Vulgar Word or Two!) may not be an altogether bad thing:
Hence the demeanor of the new film. It begins peacefully enough, with a Federation starship, the U.S.S. Kelvin, being dragged into an apocalyptic ambush by a tattooed Romulan maniac in a pitch-black battle cruiser, who slaughters the human captain and blows the Kelvin to kingdom come, even as the howling wife of the second-in-command gives birth inside an escape pod. As I say, a quiet start. In the midst of this, the doting parents find time, over the airwaves, to have one of those “No, darling, what would you like to call the baby?” conversations that bring so much joy to interstellar couples everywhere. Their first thought is Tiberius, which, given that the Romulan captain is named Nero (Eric Bana), suggests a delightful rerun of first-century imperial Rome, complete with a new Caligula cavorting in zero gravity. In the end, though, they play it safe and go for James. Cut to his childhood, in which he trashes a red Corvette (nice work, Jim, getting hold of fossil fuel in the twenty-third century), and thence to his early adulthood, which finds him picking fights, eying girls, and gazing at a ship under construction on the plains of Iowa: the U.S.S. Enterprise.If you're so inclined, treat yourself to a reading of the whole thing; all but the most ardent Trekkies will find something or other to chuckle about. I am not a Trekkie at all, having failed to appreciate the characters in any of their various Roddenberry or post-Roddenberry re-imaginings, and so I doubt I'll see this movie unless a couple of years from now my husband adds it to a Netflix queue in the dead of winter when we've all got colds or something and are thus in the mood to appreciate this sort of enduringly mindless entertainment in all its regurgitated glory.
Here, in other words, is a long-range backstory—a device that, in the Hollywood of recent times, has grown from an option to a fetish. I lost patience with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” once we learned of Willy Wonka’s primal trauma (his father was a dentist, and forbade him candies, so guess how he reversed that deprivation?), and, likewise, with “Batman Begins,” from the moment that mini-Bruce tumbled into a well full of bats. What’s wrong with “Batman Is” ? In all narratives, there is a beauty to the merely given, as the narrator does us the honor of trusting that we will take it for granted. Conversely, there is something offensive in the implication that we might resent that pact, and, like plaintive children, demand to have everything explained. Shakespeare could have kicked off with a flashback in which the infant Hamlet is seen wailing with indecision as to which of Gertrude’s breasts he should latch onto, but would it really have helped us to grasp the dithering prince? Or, to update the question: I know it’s not great when your dad dies a total hero and leaves you orphaned at the same time, but did James T. Kirk have to grow up such a cocky son of a gun? [...]
While our man has been trying and failing to grow up, Captain Nero has been waiting among the stars. Now he pulls the same stunt he did with the Kelvin, luring friendly craft into the maw of his ship, which looks like a dozen Philippe Starck lemon squeezers clumped together and dipped in squid ink. The Enterprise finds herself amid the drifting debris of her sister ships, torn apart by Nero, and, with revenge beckoning, Abrams gets his chance to unpack the tools of the “Star Trek” trade, starting with some brightly polished phasers. Not being a Trekkie, I didn’t particularly mind how he refashioned the gizmos, but it was still surprising to learn that, when beaming down to planets and up to the ship, the crew members no longer vanish with the old granular shiver but, instead, whip around and around, aided by cartoonish whirling strokes, as if planning to reconstitute themselves as fruit smoothies at the other end. They even get to communicate, as they did in the nineteen-sixties, via these marvellous little phones that you actually hold up to your ear! Isn’t the future great?
It has to be said: enough, already. Enough with Star Trek version eleven (counting by feature films, that is) and Star Wars version who-knows and Battlestar Galactica: the gender-equal version and all the other remakes of remakes of remakes. Like our nation's misguided space shuttle program, space fiction is stuck in a time warp, such that few new story lines or plots or characters or shows or movies ever emerge from the twin black holes of Roddenberry and Lucas (with a faint pull by some dark matter called Spielberg, which has faded to almost nothing over the last few decades). We need new stories, new heroes, new vast worlds to explore and discover--and we need to pull the batteries out of the endless Energizer bunny of stale and rehashed science fiction.
Now that would be to boldly go where no man has gone in the past thirty years, give or take. If you'll pardon the split infinitive.