Strap in. This may take a little while.
If you’d asked me last year if I was excited at the idea of yet another attempt to turn this 40 year old property into a viable commercial franchise, I would have said no. I felt like “Trek” had run its course, and it was time to let it die with whatever tattered dignity it could still muster after “Enterprise” and “Star Trek: Nemesis,” which is to say, not much.
“Trek” is dead. That’s what I felt last year. I felt like it was an inevitable truth that people just needed to accept.
I’ve never been a complete fan of “Star Trek.” I’m more of a grazer. I like what I like, and I disregard the rest completely. For me, I still say that “The Original Series,” the Gene Roddenberry 1960’s version, is the best. That’s what I like. I like the archetypes of Kirk, Bones, and Spock, and the way that dynamic allows the writers so much room to explore ideas. I like the on-the-nose allegorical SF writing of the era, the Rod Serling-like way they explored the issues of the day. And above all else, I like the optimism of Roddenberry’s original vision, the idea that once Earth’s problems are fixed, we can move outward, exploring in the purest sense of the word. That vision of the future is unusual, especially since the ’70s, when SF went completely dystopian and never really recovered.
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On the feature front, I liked the ambition of 1979’s first theatrical attempt at bringing the series to the bigscreen, but I fully understand why Harlan Ellison dubbed it “Star Trek: The Motionless Picture.” It’s far more “2001” than “Star Wars,” and the end result is awkwardly paced, focuses too much attention on characters that don’t matter, and offers up a potentially great character in the form of V’ger that never really gelled. Still… I admire the approach, and there are things in it to love.
It was with “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” that the series snapped into focus, and I love that film as a movie, removed from “Star Trek” altogether. It’s a wicked adventure film and a great, driven revenge film as well. I thought the next two sequels both offered up their own pleasures as well, but with “Star Trek V,” I thought it broke down completely, and in my opinion, it never recovered. Every film, from that point to now, is hobbled in one way or another, and even the best of them feels like more of the same. There was nothing to keep the casual fan engaged, and as far as all the “Next Generation” stuff, I can respect what it does well without liking it. It’s fine… it’s just not for me. And then “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” and “Enterprise” all felt like more and more daunting continuity piling up with no way in.
And my history with JJ Abrams and with screenwriters Kurtzman and Orci didn’t exactly turn this into a sure thing. I like Abrams, and I think I like more of his work than I dislike, but I find myself still wrestling with mixed feelings about his attempted “Superman” reboot, and as much as I wonder what would have happened if it had been made, some of the reinventions of the basic trappings of the Superman mythology were so profound that I just couldn’t wrap my head around them. Now here he is, reinventing “Star Trek” from the perspective of someone who preferred “Star Wars” to “Trek” growing up. And with screenwriters whose work is, I feel, often studio-friendly, which means “ready to greenlight.” And what makes a studio greenlight a movie is often not the same thing that would result in an audience enjoying a movie. It is tough for any writer to balance both demands, especially on giant-budget movies. That doesn’t mean I think they’re bad writers, per se… just that the films they write have tended to be product more than what I would call personal visions. And a lot of product is incomprehensible not because of the writers involved but because of the demands from promotional partners and the marketing department and movie stars and executives trying to justify their jobs. So many people put so many crazy demands on a blockbuster script that it’s a wonder any of them ever make a lick of sense.
I liked what I saw when Paramount held its special preview of footage from the film last fall, and I was encouraged by the casting, which seemed to me to be paying off in some genuine chemistry. Still, I’ve seen enough of those preview events to know that it’s possible to pull the five best sequences from an otherwise mediocre movie, and I approached the first of my two screenings (so far) of “Star Trek” with caution. The fact that I’ve seen it twice now should give you some indication of how I reacted.
I find it sad that the people who are going to be the most curmudgeonly and pissy about JJ Abrams’ “Star Trek” are the Trekkies/Trekkers/Trekaholics/whatever the hell they call themselves now, the faithful who are so invested in their personal definitions of “Trek” that they miss the amazing magic trick that Abrams just pulled off. “Star Trek,” even at its most popular, was always more of a cult thing than a mainstream thing. The original series struggled with ratings while it was on the air, no network was willing to air “The Next Generation,” and even Paramount treated the film series more like TV movies than big-budget theatrical affairs. Here, finally, the property is being given all the support any fan could ever ask, and it seems like the hardcores have decided that they won’t support it because it’s not the “Trek” they know and love.
But… it is. And it’s new. And somehow, that combination of earnest homage and carefully-constructed reboot turns out to be the exact right way to not just bring “Star Trek” back to life, but to also extend that life to an audience that’s never been truly interested before. It’s neither fully sequel nor completely reboot, and so Abrams and his creative team have done something I’ve never really seen someone try before, and certainly something that no one’s ever accomplished with this enormous confidence and skill. It’s just plain fun, it’s crafted with a genuine affection for the iconography of prior “Trek” but not with the sort of slavish devotion that crippled Singer’s “Superman Returns,” and I think it gives Paramount permission to go anywhere they want when they bring this cast back for the now-inevitable sequel.
The film begins with an event that I don’t think I ever needed to see, but that turns out to be a pivotal moment in this new iteration of “Trek,” the birth of James Tiberius Kirk. And in this film, that birth is not what we may have been told it was, thanks to the arrival through a temporal singularity of a bizarre Romulan mining ship. As soon as it emerges into space from this black hole/electrical storm, the mining ship attacks the USS Kelvin, a Starfleet ship. In the midst of the ensuing chaos, George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) steps up and, for less than half an hour, serves as captain as he supervises the evacuation and escape of as much of the crew as possible. He stays behind and sacrifices himself so that they can live. Among the evacuees are his wife (Jennifer Morrison), who is in labor. And onboard a medical shuttle, explosions all around, she gives birth to a son. George lives just long enough to help name the boy, and then steers the Kelvin into the Romulan ship in one last desperate act. All of that before the title appears onscreen. It’s a gorgeous opening, emotional and grand and thrilling, and the staging of it gives Kirk’s birth a huge resonance that I didn’t expect.
Next up, we meet a young Spock (played to stone-faced hilarity by Jacob Kogan, a tremendously talented young actor whose film “Joshua” deserves to be rediscovered) on Vulcan, where he is wrestling with his human and Vulcan natures. Based on some of the early trailers and some of the publicity images I’ve seen, there was evidently a “birth of Spock” sequence in the film originally, but I don’t think you need it. It’s more interesting to cut to him at school age as he is actively engaged in figuring out who or what he is. This is where Spock begins to define himself, and it’s well-handled here. And that cutting, from Kirk’s birth to Spock as an adolescent to young Kirk rebelling to our introduction of Zachary Quinto in the role… it serves to establish that these two seemingly opposite people are the poles by which the series will set its compass, and the film absolutely fulfills that promise. That’s just the first of the things it does right, but it’s so essential that if this one element hadn’t worked, nothing else would have mattered.
I’ve been talking with friends in the days since seeing the film, and the one complaint I hear is that many people seem to wish this weren’t a prequel or, as one friends keeps calling it, a “get the band together” movie. And I can understand the urge to just dive in, full-swing, and see a new adventure film. But in this case, I think they made the right choice. As much as long-time fans take it as a given that Kirk and Spock are life-long friends, it’s one thing to be told that and it’s another thing to take a new audience back to the events where Kirk, Spock, and McCoy first became the united front they’ve always been on the show. Sure, audiences in the ’60s weren’t shown the beginning, either, but at this point, with such a daunting backlog of material, you have to give a new audience something, some definitive jumping-on point, and here, we get a story that isn’t “just” an origin story, but is instead showing us what happens when the butterfly’s wings reach hurricane force, when one incident snowballs into a universe that looks like the “Trek” we know, but where rules are totally different.
Because the film is so focused on introducing the major players of the series, the bad guy and the threat in the film are less immediately iconic than someone like Khan or V’ger, but the truth is that the film series has basically ripped off one or the other throughout the whole series so far. This is a revenge film, but Nero (Eric Bana) is no Khan. He’s not a florid, operatic villain, twirling his moustache as he cackles into a viewscreen. He’s not someone of monumental importance to the universe. He’s just a miner who lost everything and who wants to make sure other people hurt like he does. I’m not even 100% sure why he blames Spock for the destruction of his planet. Doesn’t matter, though. He believes Spock to be guilty, and so he comes after him. Everyone else who gets hurt, everything else that gets changed… it’s all just collateral damage. And Nero doesn’t care in the slightest. I like the casual nature of his few exchanges with the crew of the Enterprise. He doesn’t monologue at them. He’s blunt to the point of rude, and then he attacks. No wasted time. In the end, Nero is a device more than he’s a character, and I’m okay with that. This is not meant to introduce the villain of the series or to set up Nero as the ultimate threat that the Enterprise will ever face. He’s simply the first challenge they face together, and so what’s most important is the crew and their reactions, and that stuff is all absolutely dead-on perfect.
So let’s talk about that crew. First, I’m calling it right now: Chris Pine is a movie star. You don’t walk into an iconic role like this, give a performance that positively pisses confidence, and not walk away from it a movie star. He looks absolutely nothing like William Shatner. There’s nothing about him that overtly reminds me of a young Shatner. But so what? He’s not playing William Shatner. He’s playing James T. Kirk, and that’s what he gets right. Pine is tremendously charismatic from the moment he appears in the film, but there’s still room to grow. He may believe in himself, but his journey here is proving to others that the swagger’s not just an act, and by the time he drops into the captain’s chair at the end of the film, I absolutely buy it. I can see him as someone who a crew would follow into battle. And, more importantly, he strikes me as someone who would get them through that battle intact.
Zachary Quinto’s got a harder tightrope to walk, because Leonard Nimoy is actually in the film playing the Spock from the future. It’s hard enough assuming a role that has been played so definitively by one actor in the past, but to actually have to play scenes opposite that person, both of you playing the same character at two different ages? That would be terrifying, and yet, Quinto steps up. He plays a far less in-control version of Spock, but he brings a real perception to the way he negotiates the two halves of Spock’s identity. It’s changed my mind about him as a performer. I’ve always felt like his work on “Heroes” was so uneven (no thanks to the writing) that it was impossible to get a read on him as an actor. But now, I’m impressed, and it’s not just that he does a good Spock… it’s also the interplay between him and Pine. They’ve got real chemistry, and I like that it’s something that evolves over the course of the film.
Karl Urban’s gotten a lot of the buzz from the film in early reviews, and I can see why people are responding to his performance. He and Anton Yelchin are the two cast members who take the most direct cues from the original cast. Even Quinto manages to etch a new characterization of Spock while still resembling him physically. With Urban, though, it’s basically like someone stuck DeForest Kelley in a time machine and we got the 40 year old version playing scenes opposite this all-new cast. He has obviously modeled his physical and vocal performance on what Kelley did, and in his case, it works. I don’t think he had to do it that way, but he makes it seem incredibly appealing. Same with Yelchin, who I was worried about. I was afraid he was going to play it too broad and that it would all be a joke about an accent. But he plays the youngest member of the Enterprise crew, and he brings a whiz-kid zeal to his brief appearance. John Cho plays Sulu, and again… he doesn’t have a ton of screen time, but he makes sure that he registers in each of his moments as a smart, eager, occasionally frustrated helmsman. I think they must have cut a few moments of his based on a reaction of Scotty’s late in the film when Sulu pulls off a tricky move near Saturn, but that’s okay. Every time I could see that something had been cut from the film, I can see why they cut it. In the case of more Sulu comedy, it may have set up the punchline a little better, but it’s not required. There’s too many other things going on, and they’re more important than a joke about Sulu’s abilities.
Zoe Saldana is one of three actors having a huuuuuuuge genre year, since she’s featured in both this and James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Her co-star there, of course, is Sam Worthington, who is also a star in “Terminator: Salvation,” where he spends much of the film protecting a young Kyle Reese, played by, yes, Anton Yelchin. That’s two big SF movies each, and I’m curious to see how they’re all viewed by the end of the year. Saldana makes a huge impression as Uhura, and if there’s anyone who has pretty much reinvented a character from the ground up, it’s her. She is much more involved than Uhura ever was in the TV series or the films, and she’s involved in a romantic relationship that redefines a key dynamic with the crew. I’m sure there are Trek fans who will burst a blood vessel at the idea of Uhura and Spock having a relationship, but as it’s established here, I buy it. She’s a woman of reason, defining herself by her accomplishments and her wits, and she’s drawn to Spock precisely because she knows he won’t offer a difficult emotional relationship. And based on the conversations Spock has with his father Sarek (Ben Cross), I can believe that this Spock might allow himself to express affection and even love openly with a human.
Finally, there’s Simon Pegg, and although there are many funny moments in the film, and the entire cast gets in on it at one point or another, Pegg is the comic relief here, and he just crushes it from the moment he shows up. I think his take on Scotty is fantastic, a guy who loves the challenge of being asked to do something impossible. He has the most improbable of all the introductions in the film, but even when the script stretches credulity, the energy of the film and the way the cast all clicks together keeps it moving, keeps it fun, and those plot holes or those coincidences just don’t seem to matter.
There are three collaborators who I want to single out here, technicians whose artistry really push this to a place where no “Trek” has gone before. First, there’s Daniel Mindel, whose cinematography is exceptional. It’s got great energy, but more than that, he gives the film a rich, sharp palette that suggests the pop flavor of the ’60s show but with a very modern aesthetic. And, yes, I did listen to a guy pontificate loudly to his date that the film wasn’t “cheesy” enough as I walked from the screening to my car, but that POV… that somehow the look of this film negates the look of the earlier films or even the TV shows… is just one of those batshit crazy fan ideas that you have to tune out. I think Mindel’s work is great, and production designer Scott Chambliss has pulled off a very tricky assignment here. I don’t envy anyone who tries to redesign the ship’s bridge or the exterior of the Enterprise, because they’re going to get torn apart by someone, no matter what. To my eye, he’s created something functional and futuristic in equal measure, and my only complaint is the use of actual industrial settings for the engine room sets. They don’t look like engine rooms, and it seemed to me to be a shortcut solution rather than a design choice. The third person I need to mention is the great Michael Giacchino. Having seen the film twice, I can state with absolute certainty now that Giacchino has continued his streak as one of the most original and exciting composers in film music today. It’s subtle, but there are some big beautiful themes at play here, and the second time through, they got firmly rooted in my head. It’s been a while since there’s been a big giant heroic score like this that I actually found myself thinking about separate from the film, but this one has moments of grand and sweeping beauty. Giacchino has a real knack for finding the right balance between nostalgia and necessity as he scores films like this or “Speed Racer” or the upcoming “Land Of The Lost,” and I find myself impressed by him anew each time out.
And by the way, “Trek” fans… a question. You know how you’ve been freaking out about the fact that they build the Enterprise on Earth in this film instead of wherever they built it in the series?
What makes you think that’s the Enterprise?
It’s never called that in the film. When the Enterprise does show up, it has nothing to do with that scene. And there’s no reference to “Hey, remember when we built this ship on Earth? In Iowa?” I think the point of that scene in the film is to show that Kirk does dream of leaving Earth, not that he’s tied to the Enterprise since before it was born. This is a perfect case of why it’s preposterous to rail about things you see in trailers. I may not like a particular trailer for whatever reason, but you won’t catch me still stepping through every frame looking for continuity gripes. It’s a trailer. Something may work completely different in a finished film, and that moment of Kirk looking wistfully at a ship as it’s being built is a great example of that.
If you judge this without seeing it and you count yourself as a “real” fan of “Star Trek,” then shame on you. And if you skip this because you just plain hate “Star Trek” in the pass, you’re missing out. By the time someone finally gives the famous “These are the voyages…” monologue in the film’s final moments, this “Trek” has emerged as a new mission worth taking, a spirited, energetic new beginning to a series long assumed dead.
JJ Abrams… you have the helm.
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