Saturday, November 20, 2010

It Might Not Be The Star Trek We Know, But Star Trek Is A Surprisingly Good Film!

The Good: Great acting, Cool story, Decent effects, Good character development
The Bad: Casting/Age issues
The Basics: When Star Trek reboots, an angry Romulan returns to the past on a mission of vengeance to make Spock and Vulcan suffer for the Federation's future ambivalence to the Empire!

For those who do not follow my many reviews, I am a huge fan of Star Trek, the franchise. The franchise lost me with Enterprise and I had spent the year and a half prior to its release dreading the theatrical release of the film Star Trek. I decried it at conventions to anyone who would listen in advance of its theatrical release, citing little known facts - mostly bugged by the absence of Gary Mitchell, Kirk's best friend and the first officer on the Enterprise before Spock took the post - and later by clips that showed Zachary Quinto as Spock strangling Kirk on the bridge of the Enterprise, a real mistake given the genius casting of Quinto as a young Spock. The reboot looked like a huge mistake and it reminded me of the rumors of Kirk and Spock at the Academy films that would have recast the Star Trek cast in the late '80's and early '90's, a proposed series of films fans rose up against and Gene Roddenberry despised the idea of. So, it might seem odd that I would get so excited about a screening of Star Trek I managed to get into and that I would drive a hundred fifty miles to attend said screening.

And this morning, I am proud to say: "I was wrong." Star Trek is amazing. The film flat-out impressed, despite a few serious flaws - mostly to do with casting. The story is surprisingly tight, the effects are generally amazing (they are big and occur at speeds which the eye has trouble keeping up with on the big screen), the character arcs are interesting and the movie is fun! In fact, even with the flaws that are left in Star Trek, this is easily one of the best cinematic endeavors in the Star Trek franchise and had it not been Star Trek, it would have been an even better science fiction work.

A singularity appears in space near where the Federation starship U.S.S. Kelvin is patrolling. Out of the singularity comes a massive Romulan starship, which destroys the Kelvin, though its first officer rescues most of the crew in an act of sacrifice after the captain is captured. One of the people successfully evacuated from the ship is Winona Kirk, who has just given birth to a boy named James. James Kirk grows up fatherless, a drifter in Iowa with a long rap sheet and a penchant for finding trouble. As Kirk grows up pushing the legal limits, on the planet Vulcan, a half-Vulcan boy named Spock is tormented by his classmates until he reaches an age that he is able to decide to join StarFleet as opposed to the Vulcan Science Academy. When Kirk gets into a bar fight in Iowa, while flirting with a StarFleet cadet named Uhura, he is pulled aside by Captain Christopher Pike who challenges him to join StarFleet.

Twenty-five years after the destruction of the Kelvin, Nero, the Romulan commander of the massive ship, resurfaces with his ship to capture another ship exiting the singularity. Shortly thereafter, Vulcan is attacked and StarFleet mobilizes its cadets into early service to save the Federation world. On academic probation for reprogramming the Kobayashi Maru scenario, Dr. McCoy sneaks cadet Kirk onto the Enterprise as Captain Pike and Spock lead the ship to try to save Vulcan. Recognizing the nature of the attack, Kirk attempts to prevent the Enterprise and the StarFleet squadron's destruction and when Pike is captured and Vulcan is destroyed, Spock exiles Kirk to a frozen planet with little hope of survival.

What makes Star Trek so wonderful is that Nero, the villain of the film, is only a peripheral character. This is not a movie about Nero, it is a film about Kirk and Spock and an alternate reality where they meet under very different circumstances from the "reality" of the original Star Trek. And herein lies my sole gripe with the film.

Star Trek is a remarkably sensible reboot, only the film gets the characters wrong as far as casting. Allow me to explain. Nero's appearance in our reality alters one major event: the destruction of the Kelvin. Outside that, before the incursion, there are no fundamental differences in the regular Star Trek universe and this new alternate universe created by the incursion. As a result, things like the Enterprise looking completely different can be explained only through the destruction of the Kelvin or peripheral events surrounding that (i.e. the guy who would later design the Enterprise was aboard the Kelvin and killed, so someone else designed it). What does not track are the character differences and, most importantly, the age differences. In its efforts to include all of the major characters, director J.J. Abrams and his writing partners Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman fudge a few important details; for example, Kirk is over ten years older than Chekov in the original Star Trek, here he is only eight years older (Nero says he has waited twenty-five years, making Kirk twenty-five, at a time when Chekov on the bridge mentions being seventeen). Between this and the utter gutting of Sarek, Spock's father who is vastly more accepting and emotionally connected in this incarnation, the details simply do not work out for the die hard fans. And yes, because Kirk met Mitchell at the Academy, his absence in the film will bug the three fans left who care that much.

Also problematic for those who love the optimistic vision of Star Trek in that it spells the end to capitalism in the form of an eager socialism where people work for the betterment of humanity are the product placements. Back in the day, Gene Roddenberry effectively fought to keep cigarettes out of Star Trek and promote the idea that peace, love, harmony and the betterment of humanity (along with handy things like food replicators) would put an end to overbearing capitalism. Still, Nokia and Budwiser get their product placements and there is something truly disturbing about that. On the flip side, the writers of the film make positive dated references to current events as well, most notably the subtle visual implication that Nero is waterboarding a hostage (which is far less subtle when one know what they are looking for!).

But beyond the nitpickers, Star Trek is impressive, amazing science fiction fun. The character interactions and differences are fun to watch and the appearances of each major character from the series is welcome. The film includes wonderful one-liners - my partner especially enjoyed Kirk mentioning his sexual activities are not limited exclusively to farm animals - and impressive action scenes. There are red shirts who bite the dust, there is the appearance of Leonard Nimoy as Spock from "our" universe and the villain is interesting enough to keep our attention. But more than that, Star Trek is about a young man rising to the challenge of simply being great and it is about the struggle within people during tough times.

As a result, there are some pretty wonderful character moments. The writers of Star Trek wisely resurrected a concept insinuated early on in the first episodes of the series that was never followed up on; a relationship between Uhura and Spock. In Star Trek, Spock and Uhura have real chemistry and Spock's emotional outburst on the bridge is an important character and plot point that comes to make sense. In fact, the character that doesn't make sense is Sarek, but the others work, especially the delinquent James T. Kirk. Kirk is adventurous, clever and resourceful in a way that makes him a perfectly realized character early on in the movie.

As well, Star Trek makes the viewer mourn the original series, as Gene Roddenberry intended it. I refer to the first pilot of Star Trek, "The Cage" (click here for that review!). While the cinematic endeavors of the starships Enterprise are arguably different (click here for my review of those!), Roddenberry's original vision had Captain Pike, a moody captain in charge of the Enterprise and he did not test market so well. In Star Trek, Captain Christopher Pike is well-realized and interesting to watch. In this incarnation, one finds themselves wishing to see more of his adventures.

Similarly, for those who are looking for the next Khan quality villain, Star Trek is likely to disappoint. Nero is hardly featured and his reasons within the context of the film are explained only enough to make him make sense. Still, he makes perfect sense; he is out to make the galaxy a Romulan territory by wiping out all the Empire's enemies before they become enough of a threat to contain the Romulans in their paltry territory. For a greater sense of who Nero is, though, viewers will want to prepare for the film with the graphic novel Star Trek: Countdown (click here for that review!). Readers of that will only be miffed about the failure of Spock Prime in the film to mention he worked intimately with Nero, though the book is detailed enough in its setup to include things like Nero learning about James T. Kirk.

Star Trek is a decent action adventure film in its own right as Kirk and Spock struggle to understand one another and thwart a villain who is technologically advanced to a point that even attempting to stop him is ridiculous. This, too, is a detail the writers and director got very right; the idea that any ship from Star Trek (the original series) would even slow down a ship as advanced as Nero's is more or less a joke. Still, as movie viewers, it is hard not to enjoy the conceit of the Enterprise blazing with phasers and enduring multiple blasts and mines from the enemy ship.

Finally, the acting in Star Trek is impressive. While Simon Pegg and Karl Urban may have been poorly cast as far as ages in relation to their characters (McCoy is supposed to be six years older than Kirk and Scotty is supposed to be eleven years older and the actors hardly seem older than Kirk, especially after Urban cleans up), they nail the type and character once they are there. Chris Pine is inspired as the young James T. Kirk and I return to my assertion that Zachary Quinto is genius casting for Spock. Quinto is able to pull off most effectively the non-emotional aspects of Spock and make a well-realized character. Quinto's facial expressions connote far more than his words and he takes the mantle from Nimoy with impressive grace.

But the one who steals the show is Zoe Saldana as Uhura (who finally gets a first name in this film!). Saldana is sassy, forthright and she takes a character who was too-often relegated to the background and runs with her. Saldana portrays Uhura as educated, fun and powerful in realistic ways. It is a pleasure to watch her work.

Fans of the original Star Trek will enjoy a few very subtle gags, though, most notably the presence of a Tribble when Scotty first appears in the movie! (For those looking, when Scotty is first introduced, listen closely and you'll hear a Tribble purring and if you check out the right side of the screen, you'll see a cage with a Tribble or two in it!)

So, for all of the naysayers and for those who do not know Star Trek, this was THE science fiction film to watch last summer. It is funny, action-packed and well-conceived, despite a few problems that cannot be written off due to temporal anomalies. Fans of the franchise will enjoy the catchphrases and those who have never seen Trek will enjoy the way it all comes together independent of the in-jokes. It is a well-put together film and worth seeing on the big screen.

For other time-travel or alternate universe movies, please visit my reviews of:
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time
Donnie Darko


For other Star Trek reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2009, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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