Well, here’s the thing that I try to explain to people. As a life-long Star Trek fan, when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out, one of the revelatory things for me – as a twelve-year-old who watched the show for almost a decade, who’d poured all over the blueprints, read all the novels; I lived and breathed in my imagination the Star Trek universe – when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out and I saw the design of the new Enterprise, which you could tell was bad-ass, it was souped up, but it all made sense. When you looked at it, you were all like, “Oh, okay, that’s an extrapolation of the design, it looks cooler. Faster. More powerful. And very, very sexy…”
But when you saw the interior – this is what blew my mind the most – when you saw the interior of the refit Enterprise, with the blue-and-red impulse dome, and the impulse engines you knew so well, and how they related to the rest of the Engineering section, how the intermix chamber came down from that impulse dome, went into the Engineering deck that was below the impulse engines, and how you saw that same intermix chamber snake back through the length of the secondary hull to where it went into the different warp nacelle struts… when you saw that, you realized that the entire internal makeup, the internal design of the Enterprise had been incredibly well thought out. You looked and that and just thought, “Oh my god!” One could never understand the relationship between the warp drive and the impulse engines in The Original Series, because the Engineering set in The Original Series was located behind the impulse engines. So…how did that work with the warp drive? It never made sense to me; you never really got it. But with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, you finally saw how everything related, and the Star Trek universe was extrapolated upon in such a gorgeous way across the board – from Starfleet Headquarters to the Epsilon IX station to the Klingon battle cruisers; That first glimpse inside of the [Klingon] bridge, with the moving tactical displays, I nearly lost my mind. We’d never seen that before, other than the brief glimpse behind Subcommander Tal in “The Enterprise Incident.” But we finally saw this with The Motion Picture. For me, as a Star Trek fan, the imagination and the thought that was on display in that movie – of the Star Trek universe itself – was wondrous.
One of the things about the Abrams Star Trek that irked me to no end is how they just haphazardly put into that movie whatever they particularly wanted. Like, J.J. Abrams wanted the image of a young James Kirk driving up on the ground, seeing the Starfleet shipyards as the Enterprise was being built, and then seeing his future. He wanted that image, and you know what? As a director myself, I get that. I think that’s great, J.J. – however, the actual design of the Starship Enterprise, from its very inception back into the Sixties, came from the very real scientific idea a ship the size of the Enterprise COULD ONLY BE BUILT IN ORBIT, because of its sheer size. That’s a very scientific, real world concept based on the laws of physics. Components would be built on Earth, then assembled in orbit. You would not build a starship that looked like the Enterprise, with that configuration, with small struts holding up massive warp nacelles, if you had to build it on the ground and figure out a way to put it in orbit. You wouldn’t do it! The energy expenditure it would take to lift up something like a starship from the surface of the Earth and put it in orbit, into space, you couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t make sense, even if you had the technology to do it, because the ship would not be configured that way – so when they put the Enterprise on the Earth simply for that “classic” image, to me, what it said was the filmmakers were throwing out 45 years of all of the imaginative Star Trek design work for one single image. In the theater, I felt I was seeing someone say to me personally, “Fuck all that. I want an image of this starship on Earth so somebody can ride up on a motorcycle and see it and look at his future.”
I’m sorry, but the Starship Enterprise was simply not built on a planet. It just wasn’t. One of the constraints of the Star Trek universe is the Enterprise was built in space. That’s the design of that ship. It just was! Now, you can sit there and go, “Well, I didn’t want it to be that way.” But that’s always been the design of that ship; it’s as much as Spock having pointed ears. By putting it on the planet Earth… I was just like, okay, the thought behind the design work – it was just people saying, “Well, the practicality of all this, we’re going to throw it out the window.” My thinking would be…the screenwriters and Mr. Abrams should’ve figured out a really interesting 23rd CENTURY way to show that same image of Kirk seeing the ship for the first time. Riding up on a motorcycle and looking off into the future is just not very interesting.
To me, that same thinking permeated the rest of the film. They used narrative shortcuts and previously established cinematic imagery to convey information. So, why, exactly, is James Kirk a troubled young man in the J.J. Abrams movie? We never see a scene with the young James Kirk having something that happens to him directly that turns him into a troubled young man – sure, we’re given this shorthand scene where he steals a car, drives off a cliff, and that, inexplicably to me, the audience goes “Oh, he’s a rebel.” Well, is he? We don’t know; why is he a rebel? His father’s not around because he sacrificed his life so Kirk could live. That shouldn’t make you troubled. Then you have an obligatory scene inside a bar where the townies get into a fight with the Starfleet Academy boys. That is a generic scene from a hundred other movies. “But let’s put it in a Star Trek movie where it will be in the 23rd century!” There was nothing in that scene that was clever or had a 23rd Century twist; it was a bar fight scene that we’ve seen in movies back to the dawn of cinema. It is not a great Star Trek scene; it is not an interesting variation on the bar fight scene; it turns Starfleet Academy members, or young cadets, into ogres and oafs… “You’re talkin’ to my girl? Well, let’s get into a fight!” I mean, we’ve seen that scene in a hundred other movies; it is the most uncreative, shorthand bullshit storytelling method ever.
Throughout that entire movie… I will say this, to give them credit; I did enjoy the young Spock stuff on Vulcan, I thought that was great. The rest of the storytelling, to me, was – while the filmmaking was fine, there was some brilliant filmmaking on display; the acting was great, I love the characters and I thought the casting was impeccable – but to me, the storytelling was just generic and subpar. It did not create a believable ‘reality’ to me. The universe of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie is not ‘real’ the way the original Star Trek and The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine and Voyager – and even Enterprise – were ‘real’. You cannot give a third-year cadet on academic probation the captaincy of a starship. In what universe would you ever do that? He’s had one mission – admittedly, he saved the Earth; of course, Vulcan was destroyed – I mean, what does he know about first contact missions? What does he know about interacting with an entire starship crew – I mean, the original Star Trek, when you met Captain Kirk, you got through various episode back stories he’d served for years and years before he became captain.
I understand what they were doing, and the movie made a lot of money, but to me, it did not create a believable universe – the way Star Wars created a believable universe, the way Alien created a believable universe – that new Star Trek movie was generic pablum that appealed to the masses. But, to be fair, that was exactly what it was designed to do. The greatest thing about it – I will say this – it made a lot of money, it brought the franchise back from the dead, and now new Star Trek is viable and lucrative; people are going back and rediscovering the original show, which is really the most important thing. I just wish it were a lot more intelligent.
Robert Meyer Burnett speaks about J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek (x)