Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

The new STAR TREK is STAR TREK for the Xbox Generation. Sleek, rapidly paced, and appealingly acted by a young cast of CW-friendly faces, Paramount’s attempt to revitalize its 43-year-old franchise is also as emotionally void as the black holes artificially generated by the film’s villain.

That said, STAR TREK is rousing fun, for the most part. Sets, costumes, and ship designs are spot-on. Most importantly, the filmmakers demonstrate a respect for those who came before them. Instead of taking the easy way out with better-than-thou potshots at green space babes and security guards in red shirts, STAR TREK works in these cultural quirks in a natural manner that accepts them as part of it, not below it.

What has traditionally set previous STAR TREK films and TV series apart from most other science fiction is its willingness to be about something. Even the tremendously disappointing STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER delves into mankind’s continuous search for a higher being and the way in which we are defined, not just by our good experiences, but by our traumas as well.

In contrast, TV director J.J. Abrams (FELICITY) and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman—a duo that specializes in emotionally unfulfilling multiplex fare, including two Michael Bay blockbusters about toy robots—have created a dramatically empty space opera that manages to rise above their meager ambitions, thanks to a very sharp cast, a strong Michael Giacchino score (that desperately cries out for a memorable theme), and a positive outlook on Earth’s future 300 years.

I only wish we could have seen more of that future, but Abrams is ill-suited to the material. His decision to shoot STAR TREK in an anamorphic 2.35:1 ratio makes no sense, considering half his shots are either in extreme close-up or with the camera jumping around like a Vietnam combat photographer. At one point, he tries to punctuate a key moment in young Spock’s career by moving in for a close-up, but it means nothing, since the scene is mostly comprised of close-ups. Abrams, whose TV series LOST and ALIAS have provided him with a certain hipster cachet, may have some skills as a screenwriter and/or producer (even though his thankfully aborted SUPERMAN script is notoriously awful), but he’s seriously lacking as a film director. It would be interesting to know what a master craftsman like Martin Campbell—who successfully revived the Zorro and James Bond characters—or even Nicholas Meyer—who directed the two best STAR TREK films—would have done with this cast.

For more than twenty years, Paramount has flirted with the concept of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock’s early days as cadets at Starfleet Academy. Having apparently running out of viable ideas for the future of STAR TREK, the studio looks to the past—all the way back to the very birth of James Tiberius Kirk, who pops out of his mother at the same time his father George Kirk is sacrificing his life to save the evacuating crew of his ship, the U.S.S. Kelvin.

As Jim grows into a cocky delinquent played by Chris Pine (SMOKIN’ ACES), Spock (Zachary Quinto, Sylar on NBC’s HEROES) struggles with his unique half-Vulcan/half-human heritage, which ultimately causes him to eschew his expected acceptance into the Vulcan Science Academy for a career in Starfleet. There, we ultimately meet the rest of the household names—cantankerous physician McCoy (Kiwi Karl Urban channeling the beloved DeForest Kelley), provocative communications expert Uhura (Zoe Saldana), instantly likable engineer Scott (Simon Pegg), fresh-faced Russian Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and fencing enthusiast Sulu (John Cho).

All find themselves about the U.S.S. Enterprise under calamitous circumstances. A rogue Romulan named Nero (HULK’s Eric Bana) has transported himself and his pirate crew back in time to kill the younger Spock, whom Nero blames for the destruction of his homeworld, Romulus. After Nero takes the Enterprise’s captain, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood in the film’s strongest performance), hostage, it’s up to the inexperienced Kirk, Spock, and the rest to save the Earth from annihilation.

With ten minutes or so chopped from its 126 minutes and a steadier hand behind the camera, STAR TREK would have likely been a terrific film. As it stands, it’s still a good one, mixing rousing space adventure with smart character-based humor. Where Abrams succeeds the most is his casting. It’s difficult to imagine any contemporary performer replacing the iconic William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, et al., but without exception, the new STAR TREK cast fits in very nicely. For instance, it’s not impossible to imagine Pine growing into the swaggering Shatner, and Quinto manages to inhabit Spock’s shell quite comfortably, although Orci and Kurtzman’s script provides little of dramatic substance for the actors to sink their teeth into.

It’s quite a lazy screenplay, which is most obvious in its treatment of “old” Spock, played wonderfully, of course, by Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy’s entire appearance is, simply, a transparent deux es machina built on a tremendously silly coincidence (which I won’t spoil).

However, I’d rather have Nimoy in the film this way, than to not have had him at all. Not only is it just great to see him again as Spock, but his scenes with Pine remind us what it is we love about STAR TREK in the first place. It isn’t phaser battles or world-eating villains or cool spaceships. It’s the characters, who have become as much of a family to us as they are to themselves.

1 comment:

Booksteve said...

Was going to write a review of this today on my blog as I saw it last night but I believe you pretty much said what I was going to say.