Wednesday, May 13, 2009
In Theaters: Star Trek (2009)
Rebooting moribund franchises has become the new “in” thing, and I suppose I really can’t complain when the results are this good. Nobody doubted that the STAR TREK franchise needed a good kick in the pants, and J. J. Abrams was, as predicted, the one to do it. The un-subtitled reboot is a fun, fast-moving space opera built on strong characters and a commitment to capturing the energy of the original series while sloughing off the accumulated burden of 40+ years of continuity. It has to do a lot of work just to tell the tale of how a young James T. Kirk became a starship captain and met up with Spock, McCoy, Uhura and company, and in the process it sometimes skips over plot points, but it holds together very well nonetheless.
James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) grows up in the shadow of his father, who died in a battle between the Federation starship Kelvin and a mysterious spiky craft that appeared out of a mysterious anomaly (see, it’s not that different from regular Star Trek after all!) He’s reckless and troubled and gets into a lot of fights, but is encouraged to join Starfleet by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), and after a cunning trick involving an Academy simulation program, ends up serving under Captain Pike on board the newly christened U.S.S. Enterprise, when it and several other ships are dispatched to respond to an emergency signal from the planet Vulcan. The mysterious ship has returned, captained by the vengeful Nero (Eric Bana), who witnessed the destruction of his homeworld in the future and blames the Federation- and specifically the half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto)- for the calamity. Pike is captured in the battle, leaving Spock in command, but Kirk thinks he knows what has to be done, leading to a conflict between the two over how to stop the madman.
One of the more interesting decisions that the filmmakers made here was not only to reboot STAR TREK, but to explicitly reconcile the new TREK universe with the continuity that every fan knows by heart (even though none of it makes any sense.) The future calamity that destroys Nero’s homeworld of Romulus also creates the time vortex that draws his own ship into the past, and his arrival and destruction of Kirk’s dad’s ship messes around with the course of history. Thus the entire movie takes place in an alternate timeline, thus explaining any discrepancies and allowing the filmmakers to make some pretty dramatic changes. It’s arguable how much this is actually necessary, since it does add an extra layer of complication to the story, but it’s a nice gesture and it allows for a welcome torch-passing cameo by a familiar face.
I was surprised at just how good the cast was for this movie. Chris Pine may look like one of a hundred CW players, but he manages to play Kirk as a sly, sort of self-satisfied bastard who’s too damn charming for any of the above to be a problem. Zachary Quinto plays Spock’s visible repression well, while Karl Urban nails Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy from his very first line. Zoe Saldana carries Uhura well through a plotline which makes more use of her character than the entire original series, but it’s Simon Pegg’s Scotty who nearly steals the show, interpreting the engineer as a tech geek boy genius who can’t help but think several steps ahead of everyone else, as long as he doesn’t have to think outside his field of expertise.
As one expects, this is mostly a movie about Kirk, and Spock to a lesser extent. But it seems that for every “bridge” character, the script is calculated to give them something awesome to do that’s not necessarily confined to the station they have. Uhura is great at picking up subspace transmissions, and is the only woman in the universe who is completely immune to Kirk’s charm. Sulu (John Cho) can drive the ship and also swordfight, while Chekov (Anton Yelchin) has trouble with his V’s but is good at beaming people out of difficult situations. McCoy uses his medical knowledge to guarantee Kirk a place on the Enterprise. The characters aren’t defined entirely by their jobs, and the film similarly ignores the chain of command whenever it’s convenient- there are field promotions flying everywhere from scene one, and it’s a good way of puncturing the formal pomposity that had undermined the franchise for so long.
The plot does have a few problems, mostly hinging on unlikely coincidences and VERY chance meetings. Also, a common movie cliché pops up not once but twice, and both times it’s justified by the plot but without spoiling too much, once is acceptable, twice is a Disney movie. I love the shiny and unspoiled visual style, but the lens flare gets so excessive at times the film really shouldn’t be viewed by the seizure-prone. (I understand even Abrams has said they went a little too far, but by the time they figured it out it was too late.) And though this isn’t actually a flaw, it’s interesting how the engineering areas of the ship now look like the kind of factory they used to shoot low-budget sci-fi movies in.
It’s hard for me to make up my mind just how much I enjoyed this movie; because of the relentless speed and unpretentiousness of the film, some bits don’t stick strongly in the memory, but I still have an overall great impression. As some have noted, the movie lacks any major intellectual themes and is short on gosh-wow concepts like the Genesis device in WRATH OF KHAN, but if the film shortchanges the “visionary” side of the franchise it doesn’t betray it. It’s still a bright and colorful universe full of neat aliens and gorgeous looking spaceships and people boldly going places- they haven’t removed the underlying optimism of the franchise, just focused on the action elements. Maybe the next voyage will give us a touch more sense of wonder, but really I can’t complain. Too much has been done right here for any flaws to linger. STAR TREK is what a summer blockbuster should be: spectacular, exciting, and generally upbeat. I had my doubts, but it works brilliantly, and I think I’ll see it again.
Based on “Star Trek” created by Gene Roddenberry
Screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman
Directed by J. J. Abrams