Movie Review: Star Trek (2009)

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A bit of history first:

During the summer before Third Grade, I discovered Star Trek: The Animated Series at my local library.  This 1970s cartoon was my first real exposure to science fiction.  Though poorly animated and badly scripted, it opened my eyes wide (and held them open with toothpicks) with youthful awe.  Rabid for more science fiction, I asked my parents to rent Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  While my seven-year-old reaction to this dullest of Trek films was fairly standard (I wondered when they would actually fire some phasers, which NEVER happened!), I do recall staring dumbstruck during the reveal of the Enterprise.  I was officially a Trekker at age seven.  During the remainder of the summer, I watched every successive Star Trek film as my parents re-discovered a series that they watched frequently in their youth.  In November, 1994, I saw my first Star Trek movie in the theater: Star Trek: Generations.  I relished every moment of spectacle, and a few tears came to my eye as James Tiberius Kirk passed away uttering “It was…fun.”

I continued to follow the series for years until Star Trek: Nemesis came out in 2002 and nailed the coffin shut on Trek.  I saw no redemption for Trek in sight from such plunging depths.  Little did I know what J.J. Abrams was brewing…

There have been two times (and only two) that Star Trek has made my eyes misty.  The first was the afore-mentioned death of Captain Kirk.  The second was the BIRTH of Captain Kirk in Abrams’s BRILLIANT new movie simply entitled Star Trek.  The sequence could have been cheesy, tongue-in-cheek and predictable.  However, it turns out to be one of the most heart-wrenching, moving and beautiful moments Trek’s yet produced.  From this first prologue, it is clear Trek has FINALLY been updated on a grand scale with modern special effects, tightly-paced directing and a script that is genuinely engaging.  It’s a refreshing take.

The script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman truly shines.  While the core beliefs of Trek (optimism, human achievement, exploring the great unknown) have been maintained to a fiercely loyal degree, a nifty time travel subplot effectively creates a new universe that is open to infinite possibilities.  In short, longtime fans of Trek have been respected and provided with a connection between the old.  At the same time, the casual moviegoer is given a stand-alone summer blockbuster that is mass amounts of fun.

I must admit though…when I had first heard they were recasting the TOS-era crew I was a bit overprotective.  How could director J.J. Abrams be presumptuous enough to re-imagine such a clearly defined and beloved crew of pop culture gods?  How could any actor be foolish enough to even WANT to attempt to fill the shoes of actors who had portrayed these characters for decades?

As I was to find out, my concerns were entirely unfounded.  Chekov, Sulu, Scotty, Uhura, Bones, Spock and even Kirk were all portrayed brilliantly.  In some respects, I even appreciate little character nuances brought through by this new cast more than the original actors’ interpretations.

For example, Anton Yelchin’s take on Russian “whiz kid” Pavel Chekov is vastly different from Walter Koenig.  Rather than being reduced to a simple navigator/gunner, Yelchin’s Chekov is an eccentric science nerd and math geek who has a nervous enthusiasm for nearly everything.  His brain is clearly miles ahead of every other member of the crew – even Spock’s.  His accent isn’t half bad either (I’ve been trained to speak English with a Russian accent myself), and yes he does say “wessels” instead of “vessels” at least once.

John Cho as Sulu had a tough job.  While his voice is a medium baritone, it’s nowhere near as resonant or distinctive as George Takei’s.  Therefore, he had to reveal his interpretation of calm, collected Sulu differently.  Cho’s Sulu is stoic and quietly confident, never doubting his abilities even if he makes a mistake.  He demonstrates a strength and presence as an actor that’s easy to miss but difficult to forget.  It’s a subtle performance, but very appropriate.

When I heard Simon Pegg was cast as Scotty, I exclaimed with geektastic glee.  I don’t think there’s anybody else who could have followed James Doohan as this overly enthusiastic miracle worker.  If you have followed Pegg’s work, you pretty much know what to expect.  His wide-eyed glee in every seen is clearly the realization of a childhood dream (and his Scottish brogue is pretty good, too).  Pegg, who may be one of the greatest geeks alive, is now a crew member of the Enterprise.  Good for him!

If any character is fleshed out more than in past iterations in this new Trek, it’s Zoey Saldana’s Uhura.  No longer confined to constantly sitting at the communications chair, Uhura is a linguistic genius with a killer sex appeal, rapier wit, heart of gold and drive to be the best at what she does.  Saldana is so undeniably wonderful in this role, oozing charisma, charm, brilliance and compassion in equal parts.  Uhura is elevated from supporting female to outright leading lady.  I loved Saldana’s performance and I cannot WAIT to see the places she’ll go.

From the moment Karl Urban appears as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, something otherworldly occurs.  You’re not sure whether DeForest Kelley is back from the dead until you notice the voice is slightly huskier, the eyes are brown rather than blue and the shoulders are a little broader.  Undeniably, though, it’s Bones pure and simple.  Urban has so effectively eschewed his usual brawny screen persona that he succeeds utterly in portraying the cynical, neurotic, phobic, home-grown, common sense-filled doctor.  He doesn’t impersonate DeForest Kelley; he simply channels his essence.  Urban reportedly campaigned for the role of Bones and has said he’s been an avid Trek fan since childhood.  Like Pegg, he’s fulfilling a dream come true and it shows in every frame.

Kurtzman and Orci’s treatment of Spock is quite inventive, as there are in fact two very different versions of the character throughout the film.  First of course, is fan favorite Zachary Quinto creating a young Spock who still struggles with the duality inherent in his heritage.  Quinto brings an intensity that broods beneath his calm exterior, something that struck me as particularly appropriate for a Spock who is still taming the beast within.  Still, he is incapable of understanding humor or the subtleties of human emotion.  Rather, when Spock feels it is to an extreme degree of a particularly strong emotion such as rage.  Quinto captures this struggle uncannily, but also succeeds at masking it with a cool, collected self-control.  Quinto clearly takes the part with the meticulous seriousness of a trained actor.  He is phenomenal.  I’ll leave the second of the film’s treatments of Spock for you audience members to discover for yourselves.

And now we come to (say this like Khan)…James T. Kirk

Kirk’s always been my favorite of the captains, mainly because of his brashness and his heart.  As a kid I didn’t understand his womanizer aspect.  As time passed I saw Kirk as that man’s man he truly is.  I’ve seen Trekkers wary of Chris Pine’s interpretation because he cited Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Indiana Jones as influences on his take on Kirk.  But what is Captain Kirk if not the first Han Solo or the first Malcolm Reynolds?  He’s always been a rebel and a man of action – one who works hard, parties hard, and lives life to the fullest.  Pine is able to channel the physical confidence (and chair lean), wry smile, cocksure arrogance, cheeky wink and surprising insight that make Kirk who he is without reverting to an impression of Shatner.  He makes Kirk his own…one that is instantly familiar and fresh.  Understanding the crucial good-humor inherent in the role, Pine’s comic timing and amiability shine throughout his performance (he also understands the comic merits of eating an apple, but I digress).  I was thoroughly satisfied with his performance and cannot wait to see where his career will take him.

There are also several worthy supporting actors in Star Trek.  First and foremost is Bruce Greenwood.  Greenwood’s Captain Christopher Pike is grounded, experienced and instantly respected.  The man radiates authority and inspiration.  While Eric Bana’s Captain Nero is in no way as strong a villain as Khan, this Aussie actor created a believable, imposing and engaging foil with legitimate motivation.  His physical presence alone is scary as hell, towering above his crew members.  Ben Cross’s Sarek is a slightly dryer interpretation of Spock’s father than we’ve seen from Mark Leonard in the past.  Cross is less otherworldly and more down-to-Earth (well, Vulcan) but does a wonderful job revealing aspects of his relationship to Spock that haven’t been seen in Trek.  Winona Ryder is almost unrecognizable as Spock’s mother Amanda, who channels such benevolent maternal love into her performance it’s really quite a revelation.  I don’t think Ryder’s ever been this emotionally honest in a film before.  Also worth mentioning are Chris Helmsworth and Jennifer Morrison as Jim Kirk’s parents George and Winona.  Their short opening scene is so gut-wrenchingly genuine that without it, the film would lack an urgent sense of emotional gravitas.

Production values are first-rate.  Superb use of sound, exquisite CGI and model work, grand and impressive sets, props, makeup and spectacular cinematography meld to create a futuristic world as dynamic as Star Wars.  Starships feel massive; engines whirr when enclosed but are silent in space.  Sets are jam packed with visual information.  For the first time, Vulcan truly feels like an otherworldly civilization.  Props and costumes are extraordinary updated versions of the past (the new phasers are AWESOME).  Makeup on creatures is subtle and beautifully done.  Cinematography incorporates frequent use of hand-held cameras, awe-inspiring stellar panning around starships, wonderful lense flares and two appropriate slow-motion shots.  The frenetic cutting establishes tension and relief when needed.  Michael Giacchino’s score is in constant motion, and propels the film forward.  I am actually planning on writing a review specifically about the score.

J.J. Abrams’ apt directing is responsible for creating this thrilling re-imagining of Star Trek with such vigor, humor and panache.  In interviews, Abrams has been quoted as stating he initially wasn’t a Star Trek fan.  The journey he took over the course of filming made him love Trek in the end.  It’s incredibly obvious how much he cares about this optimistic vision of the future.  The pre-Abrams Trek had become dull and tired, its color palette steeped in grays and browns and blacks.  Trek was cold.  I remember the reaction of a Trekker friend of mine after seeing the new trailer: it looked too sexy, action-packed and mainstream.  I had an opposite reaction.  The original series of Star Trek was, above all, a way to appeal to the mainstream audience.  Morality issues were addressed, but they were masked with sex (seriously look at the old Trek female costumes), action (the effects for that show were excellent for their time) and populist appeal.  Costumes were vibrant arrays of primary color; sets were cheesy but fresh and impressive.  Somehow, this vibrancy and exuberance dwindled over time, muting into drab dullness and stagnation.  Abrams boldly changed this back.  Such a switch in aesthetics has mirrored Star Trek’s return to optimism, adventure and hope.  He adeptly guided his actors to channel what came before, but with a brand new spin.  His Trek is not about struggling against an evil organization or overlord (a la Star Wars), it’s about a crew finding themselves in the midst of adversity, overcoming their insecurities and EMBRACING their own humanity to become victorious.  It’s also giant gobs of pure, unfiltered fun.

Let’s push my gushing aside for one paragraph.  The singular element of old Trek missing from Abrams’s film is a degree of moral philosophy.  Past Trek films and series always presented their characters with certain degrees of grey decisions or dilemmas, which added a cerebral element.  While I am actually glad they left any intense philosophical debate from this film in favor of appealing to the masses (it’s still a damn smart movie), I sincerely hope that any sequels (and there will be sequels) will tap into morality play.  Perhaps Star Trek can be viewed as a Batman Begins.  It has laid the foundations for what is yet to come.  Now, the sandbox is filled and ready for play.

Overall, Abrams has reminded me why I was gripped by Trek in the first place.  J.J. has succeeded in his goal: Star Trek maintains the essence of its past, but its mainstream appeal will certainly carry it where no Trek movies have gone before.  Though not 100% flawless, Star Trek is easily a 9/10 in my book.  Necca out.

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