The first final frontier: “Star Trek”

May 17, 2009

star_trek_movie_poster_imaxNow this is a summer movie.

 After the self-serious, leaden, insert-gun-in-mouth grimness of Wolverine, we now have a blockbuster that understands the importance of being light, airy, and fun. And inexplicably, that movie is a Star Trek film. Well, I guess if we can elect a black President, we can make a summer blockbuster out of Star Trek—a franchise which seemed to have hacked up its death rattle sometime around the early 2000s.

 Rebooting Star Trek is a trickier proposition than what the James Bond franchise tried with Casino Royale. After all, change has been the hallmark of the 007 series as much as its constants (babes, guns, cars, class)—indeed much of the fun of that franchise is seeing the way those constants are reinterpreted for new actors and formulas. The Star Trek franchise, on the other hand, treats consistency as if it were the lifeblood of the series itself. Fans are perfectly content to overlook a 60 year-old Nichelle Nichols being treated as a sex-kitten, but get the timeline of the Romulan War wrong, and you’re burned in effigy.

 J.J. Abrams had no small task handed to him with this movie, and I can’t say I was completely convinced he was up to it. I’ve never been terribly impressed with Lost or Alias, and his sole feature film foray, Mission Impossible III, was an underwhelming rehash of Alias’s tropes (i.e. “I can’t tell my sweetie I’m a spy! Boo-hoo-hoo”) . And yet, he brings a sure touch and no small amount of narrative dexterity to the storytelling. He’s smart enough play off of the audience’s familiarity with these characters before propelling them into a new and accessible adventure. In short, this is a movie for people who know who Captain Kirk is, but don’t care what a dilithium crystal is.

 Abrams takes us back to the origins of these characters, but does so in a way that clever sets this up as an alternative to the established Trek universe, and not a redo. So the die-hard Trekkers can still have their Dominion War and Borg, and Scott Bakula, and the non-fans can just enjoy this as a one-off action-adventure space opera. He does this by inventing a time-traveling bad guy named Nero (Eric Bana looking like a cross between a crank dealer and a Keebler elf) who has come back in time to kill Mr. Spock (Zachery Quinto) and changes the future.

 But first the movie gets some backstory out of the way. We follow the lives of young Kirk as he grows from rebellious kid to being talked into joining Starfleet by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood at his paternal best), whose life was saved by Kirk’s father in the battle that kicks off the movie. We also see Spock’s early life on Vulcan where he is picked on for his half-human heritage. Eventually they both end up in Starfleet where Kirk meets a young-ish ‘Bones’ McCoy and begins his life-long affinity for plowing green women, while Spock rises quickly and implacably through the ranks.

 After this first third, Nero starts causing trouble and the movie moves into outer space. Everyone ends up on the USS Enterprise, rushing into the fray under Captain Pike. Obviously, things don’t go exactly as planned and soon enough the Enterprise is left without a captain, and Kirk and Spock must rise to challenge of command. It’s to the credit of screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman that the movie has a fairly lean, spare story in which to stuff nice character moments and introductions.

 The casting is uniformly excellent and meshes well with the screenplay, allowing every character have some face time. As Kirk, Chris Pine doesn’t imitate Shatner so much as tap into his inner Shatner (which, I have to believe, exists in all of us). Zachery Quinto has the trickier task of conveying Spock’s emotionally-reserved warmth. He’s not always successful, but for someone tasked with much of the movie’s heavy lifting, he carries it off admirably (and work-sister-in-law will be pleased to know he doesn’t eat anyone’s brain). Curiously enough, the third character in the troika is not Bones (an animated Karl Urban), but Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, who serves as the movie’s heart while injecting a necessary note of skepticism at Kirk’s bull-in-a-China-shop actions (and who, with her lean frame and top-ponytail, looks like sexy, sexy giraffe).

 The rest of cast pops up in exaggerated, but pleasing cameos. John Cho gets a bravura action sequence as an ass-kicking Sulu. Anton Yelchin mispronounces his Ws and Vs with gusto as Chekov. And as Scotty, Simon Pegg so thoroughly steals his every scene; you get the feeling that Abrams had to hold him back lest he walk off with the picture.

 The re-imagining of the Trek universe is also handled well. Abrams has created a far less static, far more kinetic work environment for these actors (remember this is a franchise that spent the better part of 40 years showing a bunch of guys in a room looking at a big-screen TV). He also uses more dynamic camera work for the exterior scenes and outer space shots, employing snap-zooms and POV shots (pioneered, it should be noted, by the also-reimagined Battlestar Galactica). That said, I could have lived without about half of his lens-flares (how anyone can work on the bridge of the Enterprise without major eye-strain, I sure don’t know), and his bobbing camera during a couple of the fight scenes, which added nothing to the immediacy of the action, but only served as a distraction.

 The re-imagined Enterprise could have gone through a few more drafts, too. But that’s just my opinion.

 There’s plenty to quibble about in Star Trek. The villain and his scheme are ultimately underwhelming (presenting a threat not because of their guile but because of their superior technology). And I have serious questions about the policy on ship commissions in Starfleet (apparently, once the captain’s gone, it’s like calling “shotgun”). But why be a spoilsport? The movie served up some solid, disposable—but not stupid–summertime entertainment. What more, really, can you ask for (aside from giving the lingerie-clad green chick more screentime?)

One comment

  1. Yeah, I liked the fact that it took itself seriously, but not too seriously. Andf I totally agree with your comment about Simon Pegg. I just hope they don’t muck it up and try to do a sequel to the new-old-reimagined Star Trek.

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