Thursday, May 14, 2009

Star Trek

It's true - I've wanted something like this for something like fifteen years. There's likely no way to prove it, unless Google has archived message board archives from the early nineties from Portland, Maine area BBSes on whatever pre-dated newsgroups. Please don't go look for them - I was a teenager typing on a 64K Atari 800XL with a 1200-baud modem. My argument at the time was that it would have been a crying shame if Hamlet had died with Richard Burbage, but apparently the franchise had to go dormant before Paramount would consider giving it the fresh coat of paint.

I have to admit, I was kind of surprised to show up at the comic shop on Wednesday and find that the other folks there who had seen it over the weekend were disappointed, especially after hearing how stoked my brother and his girlfriend had been (they saw it at a regular cineplex after missing the train to the furniture store). The easy response is that this is to be expected and maybe a good thing - if the mainstream audience digs it, it doesn't matter what a bunch of bitter nerds think. The Picnic's clientele isn't all bitter nerds, though, and I'll readily admit - their complaints about the script were things I would normally rip into and then get pissed when someone told me to just turn my brain off and enjoy the ride.

Why does Star Trek get a pass from me on this in a way that, say, Transformers 2 likely won't? Beats me. I'm not a blind fanboy on the subject of Star Trek - I bailed on both Voyager and Enterprise, although the latter lured me back when it started openly pandering to long-time fans - but this really is the first time Star Trek has felt right in years, if not decades.

Star Trek

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 May 2009 at Jordan's Furniture Reading (The IMAX Experience)

Back in high school or college, talking with fellow fans, I tossed out the idea that a fun thing for Paramount to do for Star Trek's upcoming thirtieth anniversary would be to make a new movie, set during the original five-year mission, with new people playing the familiar characters but modern production values. While it made for a fun fantasy casting game (I think I wanted Keifer Sutherland to play Kirk), most claimed that it shouldn't be any more than that, because The Original Series was untouchable. So, if any of you are reading this, 15-odd years later, it is a great pleasure to say I told you so.

Happily, the pleasure comes less from personal validation than the fact that I got to watch the 2009 edition of Star Trek in a packed theater with a giant screen and a bunch of people who seemed to be having nearly as much fun as I was. Like others have done with Batman Begins and Casino Royale before them, the makers of Star Trek have gone back to the beginning to tell a first chapter which had never appeared on film, jettisoned all the bits that made for easy parody, and refocused on the things that made these worlds appealing in the first place. And as good as those other two movies are, the process is especially revelatory for Star Trek: Batman and James Bond have either had various soft resets or been kept in a sort of enforced stasis, but Star Trek had not only allowed forty years (or three times as much, depending how you want to reckon these things) of restrictive details to accumulate, but it achieved a crushing level of solemnity that was not in the original playbook. Even leaving aside how the sequel series converted ideals into dogma, there is, in retrospect, something very wrong about how the features made a show about boldly going forward into meditations on aging, death, and obsolescence.

To hell with that, say director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. They open with the moments leading to James T. Kirk's birth as a Romulan mining ship emerges from a strange anomaly with its captain, Nero (Eric Bana), demanding to speak to "Ambassador Spock". The U.S.S. Kelvin and its first officer, George Kirk, hold Nero back at great cost. We're then treated to scenes of Kirk's son James and the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock as children and young adults, following their paths to Starfleet Academy, where Kirk makes friends with the recently-divorced, space-phobic Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban). Word of a crisis on Spock's home planet forces Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Commander Spock to crew the just-completed starship Enterprise with junior officers and cadets, including Kirk, McCoy, Helmsman Sulu (John Cho), 17-year-old whiz kid Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and xenolinguist Uhura (Zoe Saldana). When they get there, they discover that Nero is back, and the stakes are higher than they could have imagined.

They're also higher than the fans could have imagined, because it's at this point that the movie announces loud and clear that the familiar future history of Star Trek is no longer set in stone. This will greatly annoy a certain variety of fan, but it gets the franchise back to where it started in the sixties, when Gene Roddenberry and his crew were making it up as they went along and could do anything that crossed their minds. Abrams and crew restore that sense of seeming recklessness, and it's a good match to their main character.

Chris Pine nails that part of Kirk, too. His Kirk isn't the same as William Shatner's - he's still young and headstrong, overestimating himself, a cocky son of a gun not yet matured into the sly fellow we know. What comes across is that, whether he's being cunning, foolhardy, a horndog or a fighter, Kirk is decisive, but can afford to be because he's got the brains and charisma to back it up. Zachary Quinto's Spock is the same way, although there tends to be more overt self-examination to him. He does the expected thing of holding his emotions in check, as the Vulcans prize logic above all, but he also gets Spock's dry sarcasm right (others playing Vulcans in the franchise have had a hard time stopping short of smug).

The rest of the cast does a similarly good job of recreating the characters without doing simple impersonations. Karl Urban's McCoy is the closest to his predecessor visually, although he turns the crotchetiness down: For all Urban's McCoy complains, he's also excited about his fresh start and the potential for adventure. Yelchin and Saldana perhaps make characters who mainly warmed seats in the sixties more memorable this time around, although John Cho has a hard time emerging from the background. Simon Pegg provides a late energy boost as Scotty, and Bruce Greenwood a nice mentor figure as Pike. Unfortunately, Eric Bana is sort of all over the map as Nero; it's not just that much of his backstory has been off-loaded into a comic book tie-in, but Bana sometimes doesn't seem sure whether he wants Nero fierce or laid-back, a working-class guy goaded into supervillainy by circumstance.

Original series star Leonard Nimoy is here, too, as an aged Spock, lending a little more legitimacy to an idea that, at times, met with a lot of resistance. It's clear that, as much as they are attempting to create something new and modern, the filmmakers are being careful not to mess with the formula too much, not just to avoid alienating the built-in audience, but because it has worked for forty-plus years. They load the movie up with easter eggs that fans will enjoy, and keep things moving along at a brisk enough pace that some of the holes in the script won't be noticed until after the closing credits. I won't lie - there are more than a few moments when one has to wonder if that's really what someone as intelligent as the characters are supposed to be would do. Hopefully they'll do better next time, because I suspect that my fellow fans and I might not be quite so forgiving.

I am inclined to be forgiving this time, though, because this is the first bit of Star Trek filmed in my lifetime that feels like the original. It's fast-paced, sexy, funny, and takes place in a galaxy filled with danger, but also excitement and adventure. The various incarnations of Star Trek have been a number of good things (and some bad things), but it's been a while since they've felt this wide-open and unpredictable.

Also at HBS, along with seven other reviews.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I agree with you almost exactly concerning the casting. Definitely thought Nero was very uneven, which surprised me since Eric Bana is usually so great. Quinto, Pegg, and Urban really shined. I was refreshed that Pine's portrayal of Kirk was not merely a rehash of Shatner's work. I was definitely happy with the reboot, although there were a few minor problems.