"...Abrams has succeeded in-rescuing Star Trek from self-imposed cultural irrelevance."

Abrams Blows Out the Cobwebs

(051509) There is a sequence in the new Star Trek in which one character attempts to unseat another’s command by arguing that the leader is too emotionally compromised by the situation to be of any effective use. He could have been speaking directly to me. Yes, I am one of those Star Trek fans — I own all the series and movies, have bookcases of Trek novels, boxes of toys and, I admit it, even attend the conventions. So viewing a new Star Trek movie is hardly a passive experience for me. Try as I might to keep my impartial critic hat in place, it is, to borrow a word, a futile gesture. I am perfectly willing to admit that most (but certainly not all) of my hang-ups with the film probably radiate from the fact that I am an unapologetic geek. Unless you live in the weeds like me, obsessing over minutiae that others never even notice, Star Trek is going to be a jaw-dropping experience. The rest of us will just have to get over ourselves.

Star Trek actually has more in common with Starship Troopers than any of the franchise installments that have gone before it — young, beautiful recruits who come out on the other side of their training green and eager who are then thrust into battle well before they are ready yet conduct themselves with courage and aplomb. When an aged Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is unable to prevent a supernova from destroying the planet Romulus, he is held responsible by a Romulan miner named Nero (Eric Bana). Nero enacts revenge by traveling back in time to destroy Spock’s home planet of Vulcan and all other planets aligned with it, including Earth. Only the U.S.S. Enterprise, captained by Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), and a crew compliment of Starfleet academy cadets in training, stand in Nero’s way. When Pike is taken hostage, the cadets, led by James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), have to not only survive but overcome a vastly superior foe.

Director J.J. Abrams has done something nobody thought possible. He has transformed a franchise on which life-support systems had begun to fail. The last several Trek films were disappointments and the most recent television series, Enterprise, was cancelled, ending a nearly two-decade run of back-to-back Star Trek series. Abrams had his work cut out for him — rally long-time fans and simultaneously lure new blood — and he has succeeded in spectacular fashion, rescuing Star Trek from self-imposed cultural irrelevance.

The truth is, Abrams didn’t make the movie for people like me. At least not primarily. This is a film designed for those people who have never had an interest in Star Trek before. Abrams followed the path of director Nicholas Meyer in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, taking the job despite not being particularly interested in or knowledgeable about the series. The lack of religious reverence for the Star Trek canon is what allowed both directors to take the risks necessary to step outside the established box of conventionality. Abrams may be new to Trek, but he knows how to create a convincing universe, populate it with compelling characters and place them in a gripping narrative. As a result, this epic and moving film radiates an energy and dynamism the franchise hasn’t had since it first began. After years of stale storytelling, Star Trek is thrilling and sexy again.

However, the story moves at such a quick clip that there's not nearly enough time to unspool a proper narrative. We are never given a suitable understanding for the reason behind the Romulan attack on the Federation. We completely lack a tangible reason behind Nero’s one-dimensional motivation for revenge.

Contrivances — the sort to drive minutiae hunters around the bend — abound, from oh-so-convenient encounters, to the proximity of various planets to each other, to the usual spiel about the Enterprise being the only ship in the quadrant, to the lack of senior officers aboard ship, to preposterous battlefield promotions (skipping, by my count, five or six ranks and more than twice as many years experience). Abrams and team obviously wanted to make sure that the origins story was completely concluded with this initial outing, even if that meant straining credulity to the absolute breaking point and beyond. Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have also made Star Trek funnier than it has been before. Humor and Star Trek has never been a smooth mixture. Here, it blends nicely.

The filmmakers get away with their preposterous gamble because they fall back on their characters each time. The energy of the film, lit by the genuine chemistry of the cast, keeps the film in motion in a way that will appease all but the most ardent fans. These cannot have been easy shoes to fill. This cast is not simply taking over roles inhabited by the same actors for decades, they are characters playing characters; they are imitating cultural icons. Yet Abrams has found just the right chemistry necessary to create a cohesive family unit.

Chris Pine is absolutely terrific as the young Jim Kirk, primarily because he understands that he is not playing William Shatner, but rather Kirk himself. Portraying Shatner playing Kirk would have been a parody of Saturday Night Live proportions. And while Pine borrows the occasional Shatner mannerism, he has made the role his own — a brash, swaggering bravado made up of equal parts heroism, hubris and humor that is sure to set him on the road to stardom as an actor.

Heroes star Zachary Quinto is a solid Spock. Quinto never tries to imitate Nimoy or capture the quirky humor and innocent condescension of the original character. Instead, he is a disdainful creature prone to emotional outbursts, a sort of know-it-all who probably got himself stuffed into a Starfleet Academy locker or two.

Aussie Karl Urban comes the closest to imitation as Dr. McCoy. Though completely different in physicality than the late DeForest Kelley, Urban’s “Bones” is terrific, just the right mix of stubbornness, aptitude, aphorisms and paranoid technophobia.

Zoe Saldana, as Uhura, makes perhaps the most surprising impression, reinventing a largely thankless and recessed role in the television series into a woman of strength, grace and poise. Her romantic entanglement with one of the other main characters may raise some fans’ hackles, despite the fact that such feelings were evidenced in the original series.

The remaining supporting cast is pretty much there for comic relief. Simon Pegg as Scotty is funny but under-utilized, Anton Yelchin as Chekov delivers his lines through an accent as thick as borscht, and John Cho as Sulu is given a saber rattling scene and really not much else.. The always sterling Bruce Greenwood lends a real sense of regal gravitas to the role of the original Enterprise captain, Christopher Pike, and a visibly aged Leonard Nimoy pushes all sorts of stirring emotional buttons in an extended cameo.

The film’s villain, the Romulan miner Nero, is far from the operatic scoundrel we’ve come to expect in Star Trek. In fact, Eric Bana plays him almost too…human. He is abnormally casual even after obliterating planets or entire battlefleets. He gives no apocalyptic monologues or, it must be said, spends much time on the screen at all. His motivations are at best vague and, at worst, ill conceived. As such, he is more device than character, an organic plot mover. The crew will face nemesis’ far scarier than he, but he has the distinction of being their first.

Star Trek is just plain fun, crafted with genuine affection but not slavish devotion. Much has been made of this film’s supposed thumbing of its nose at Trek canon when, in fact, the screenwriters came up with an idea as simple as it is ingenious, to paint themselves out of a corner and into as many future episodes as they desire. Using the Back to the Future/Terminator model, the film uses time travel as an excuse to create what is, more or less, an alternate timeline. From here on out canon is irrelevant. Many assume that the changes to the characters will not be received well by fans. And yet I thought the characters’ back stories were remarkably philosophically consistent if not beholden to established history.

Numerous homage's to the original show, both large and small, abound. For those complaining about how this reboot has been made sexier, how is Kirk sleeping with a green Orion slave girl at Starfleet Academy any different than what Shatner’s Kirk would have done? Kirk is brash, arrogant and cocky. He leaps before he looks. This is exactly the Kirk I pictured, alternate universe or no. Like many of the alterations, this one fits right in with the original series. The stories may have been tweaked, but the characters are still the same. While some purists will balk, the change is just the thing needed to jumpstart the ailing franchise in a way that guarantees its creative future.

This new Star Trek looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Cinematographer Daniel Mindel’s camera moves at a frenetic pace, yet never so much that we’re disoriented. It is in constant motion, deliberately plagued by frequent (and overused) lens flares. The editing is tight and the script miraculously fast. Industrial Light + Magic’s special effects are astonishingly good, trading wide, sweeping establishing shots for claustrophobic, detail-oriented views of the action, as if the cameras were bolted to the hull of the starship rather than floating out in space at a safe distance.

Scott Chambliss’ production design is a mixed bag. Star Trek milks its $150 million dollar budget (four times more than has ever been spent on any of the previous films). Comparisons of the slick new bridge to a Mac store are completely reasonable, though pale in consequence to the cluttered, busy bowels of the ship which are on screen every bit as much. Both functional and futuristic, the industrialized engineering decks resemble the engine room of the Titanic with enormous gears and modern gasworks, plumbless spaces overrun with crisscrossing pipes. I can see the look they were trying to go for and can appreciate the desire to make the working spaces feel more realistic, but the lower decks were never remotely recognizable. We never get the sense that the spaces are anything but colossal rooms with pipes and valves instead of the thrumming, 24th century heart of the great ship.

Michael Giacchino’s score is as different from the soaring strings of Horner or Goldsmith as can be. It is a beautiful, very original score, comprised of a majestic central theme, an almost Coplandesque frontier quality when focused on the humans, eerie percussion when highlighting the Romulans and a distinctly Chinese influence when centering on the Vulcans. And Giacchino does a marvelous job of incorporating Alexander Courage’s original television score, complete with choir, something no other composer has dared do.

Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s future was one of peace and progress, and the original television series was lit by a hope and optimism that challenged the prevailing Cold War pessimism of the day. This new film is mostly apolitical, shrugging off broader political concerns for visceral, commercial appeal. And yet, in a way, the film still models Roddenberry’s vision in deed, if not word. Though a post-9/11 film, Star Trek is buoyantly optimistic and unapologetically bright-minded, imagining a world charged by optimism where Pike can say that Starfleet is a “peacekeeping and humanitarian armada” without any trace of irony. Surely this multi-cultural world coming together for a unified purpose is not just Roddenberry’s hope for the future, but ours as well. Like its youthful, energetic and sexy cast, this Star Trek outing is physical not cerebral. While the lack of deeper themes, moral shadings and political allegory in favor of more sensory thrills is regrettable, if Star Trek does not reach for the philosophical stars as its cinematic brethren were want to do, we can hope that that too will come in due course.

The odd-number curse is shattered. Easily one of the best films of the summer, Abrams’ movie brings back something Star Trek has been lacking for a very long time — an exhilarating sense of wonder and awe. No doubt about it, to watch Star Trek is to experience an event rather than just a film, and will easily capture the imaginations of an entirely new generation of fans neglected by what’s come before. And it is to these future torchbearers that the film is meant to appeal, not so much to ancient and stagnant fans like myself. If longtime fans are willing to let themselves be swept away, Star Trek is more than capable of doing so. One can nit-pick endlessly and still be euphorically transported away. The danger is in being too close to a thing that you can no longer see its contours. What good is tilting at minutiae when you completely miss the bigger, grander picture — that Abrams has pulled off something simply extraordinary.

Star Trek feels like a bold and virtuoso first step into new and uncharted territory. But it is only an opening act. Undoubtedly there are even better acts to come — The Dark Knight to Batman Begins perhaps. The already greenlit sequel should disperse with the initial self-conscious need to prove itself, the limited character ranges, the generic and sometimes frivolous story, and instead embrace a more philosophical subtext, character development and exploratory mission. If the inevitable next film can sync dynamic ideas with the already established dynamic style, the Trek franchise will thrive another several decades. Perhaps, just as other films have been eclipsed by their sequels, this reboot too could ride a wave of creative and mythological synergism, balancing reverence and renewal, and move beyond immature first blushes.

J.J Abrams has taken the house that we have all lived in for the last 43 and blown it up. But miraculously, the pieces have all fallen back together into something quite wonderful. The best compliment that I can pay is, Abrams has left Star Trek in a better state than he found it.

Directed by:    J.J. Abrams
Written by:    Screenplay by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci. Based on the tv series “Star Trek” by Gene Roddenberry
Starring:    Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, John Cho
Released:    05/07/09
Length:    127 minutes
Rating:    PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence and brief sexual content

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