Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, Eric Bana
Rating: 4 stars (out of five)
Star Trek is two hours of breathless awesome.
Director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman took a very quirky, more-than-slightly ridiculous old show that has a rabid fan base and a main character who is a staple of comedy club impressionists everywhere, a show that wore its soaring New Frontier heart on its velour sleeve and can only seem sillier as we (the cultural We) become more cynical and mundane. Seriously, to do adoring justice to that source material while still creating a frenetic special-effects film that will appeal to the Iron Man/Dark Knight/Transformers/James Bond crowd of modern thrill junkies is a pretty good description of a thankless and impossible task. What the fans would call a Kobayashi Maru scenario, a no-win situation.
This movie is chock full of win.
The show tells us how the “five year mission” that was already underway when the NBC series began in 1966 began. It’s the origin of James T. Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest. There’s barely a hint of those origins in the original show or the movies that followed, but they’ve been fleshed out to varying degrees in a good thirty years’ worth of novels and comics, the sort of thing that divides the hardcore over what’s “canon” and what isn’t. The challenge, then, is to give the fans, the casual and the dedicated, something they recognize as Star Trek, while updating it and making it fresh and exciting and, for the love of god, accessible to a new audience. Every change you make to better serve the modern audience is one that the old guard will bitch and moan and twittergripe over ad nauseum. Kobayashi Maru. So what the filmmakers do here is come up with a story that allows them free range to recombine the essential Trek DNA in a way that does not invalidate the “later” stories so many viewers will have spent half their lives memorizing. It is audacious and new, borderline blasphemous and utterly reverential.
All right, let’s accept, for the sake of me avoiding spoilers, that they’ve got this “new” story that still incorporates damn near every familiar rhythm of the old show. Still—Bill Shatner’s James T. Kirk was a 40-year tour de force of overacting or high, neo-Shakespearean comedy (individual mileage will vary); the cool Vulcan Spock is utterly iconic; and the eight percent of scenery that Shatner left unchewed was generally gnawed to a sticky pulp by DeForest Kelley’s Dr. McCoy.
Abrams’ cast is just unbelievably well-chosen. Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban play Spock and McCoy, respectively, as pitch-perfect impressions of, or perhaps homages to, the original actors. But Chris Pine’s Jim Kirk is a deeper and less blatant take on the source material. You could do Kirk as, you know, the Shatner impression … with ALL. The. Cadences and … QUIRKS … ofShatner’s. PerFORmance. Or you could look at what the original James Kirk was all about: He was the last pulp hero. He always got the girl, but then gently let her down—he’s married to his ship, and already following the next star. He stood by his friends above all, and explored the universe with reckless enthusiasm. The women? A metaphor. Kirk didn’t love green-painted babes—Kirk loved life. Jim Kirk was the man you failed to grow up to be, the fire that guttered out while you were punching a time clock, brother. Chris Pine incorporates, like, 10 or 15 percent of Shatner’s performance, and all of his spirit.
These are the reasons this film soars (also: miniskirts! Over-the-top science-babble plot points! Miniskirts!). The film has drawbacks, though. The bad guy is kinda sucky: Someone tattooed the crap out of Eric Bana’s face and told him to be shouty in every scene. That’s weak. And in opposition, there appears to be no defenses for the planets shown in this film except a handful of Starfleet ships. Hell, there’s not even air traffic. It’s like someone didn’t want to have to think that stuff out. Instead, they just keep the shiny things movin’. There’s more super-frenetic-Summer-of-2008-action-blur, but I guess that’s what The Kids like these days.
Problematic: The reconfigured Trekverse here puts a personal tragedy into Kirk’s past, and a global tragedy into Spock’s present, that are simply … accepted. The film’s crazy sci-fi logic is such that our heroes could try to right these wrongs, but they don’t, because apparently this grimmer and grittier story stuff, this jolt of joltiness, is the way we roll in the new century. Alternately, one or two lines of dialogue (“The funny thing about this phony-baloney science theory is that it won’t allow you to do this one glaringly obvious thing that would fix it all.” “Oh. Bummer. Hey, lookit the green girl!”) would’ve removed the possibilities of which I speak just fine. Instead, it’s like no one thought of it, and that’s kinda … sloppy? Disappointing.
Last drawback, the kind of thing you only think about afterward: The best of Star Trek was about more than the characters, more than the amazingly satisfying triad of Kirk/Spock/McCoy. It was the personification of hope, of Kennedy’s moonbound New Frontier. It was about the world around us, about exploring through cheesy sci-fi metaphor the zeitgeist of its era. This film is very focused on the characters, to the exclusion of that wider, more idealistic stuff. It’s the perfect way to make the movie accessible, and to make sure that all the bases are covered in introducing the entire cast with as much attention as possible. But they’d just better remember the bigger picture in the next one.
And they’d better release it goddamned soon.
# # #
The end. Bonus, after this picture: Total, heartlessly spoilery discussion of this crap. If you ain’t seen it yet, come back after you do.
Really. I’m gonna ruin a bunch of little stuff now, right after this picture.
All right, now.
So the Romulans pop into space at the exact time and place JTK is being born, kill his dad, and change his life in a giant way that doesn’t stop him from becoming exactly the man we want him to be. Fine. So this is a different Kirk than we knew via Shatner, and once he starts interacting with everyone else, he changes their destinies, too. So why is Scotty being punished on some backwater ice moon? And why on god’s green Earth is Spock fucking Uhura before either of them are significantly influenced by New Kirk and the Romulan Ripple, if you will?
Seriously, Old Spock arrives in a time traveling spaceship, right? What if they’d not rammed it into the bad guy and instead used it to do some time travel to set things right, so at least the entire goddamned planet Vulcan doesn’t wink out of existence? Easy explanation: The story logic is that time travel doesn’t change your universe, it just creates a parallel timeline. So we have Original Trek, New Trek (with Less Vulcan!), and meddling further would just create New New Trek (with all the original Vulcan!) but not changed the universe at hand, where six billion “green-blooded hobgoblins” died screaming. Or calmly saying, “Fascinating.” But, you get me.
This film shoveled in so many Old Trek references, Easter eggs in every scene, from Christopher Pike to the Kobayashi Maru to “I have been, and always will be, your friend,” to finding a way to get Kirk in bed with a green (non-slave, hello new century!) girl … yet there’s not a tribble or a Klingon in sight, nor a young bald Picard boy or whatever. Well-played, Abrams & Co. … Well-played.
The scene where Nimoy sends New Kirk to convince New Spock, but says, “You can’t take the easy road and tell him about me,” that screams of pointless plot mechanics, because we need it to be Not That Easy … yet at the same time, it’s so in character. Spock, the logical one, foregoing the expedient route because he believes in the friendship, the blood brotherhood of the two men … that’s kinda beautiful, man.
Uhura finally gets something to do! It turns out to be getting undressed, and macking on Mr. Spock, but it’s better than “hailing frequencies open.” Total applause for the efforts to make her more interesting, and hopefully more integral in the sequel(s).
How funny is it that Leonard Nimoy, the one guy who was most reluctant to get into Trek movie harness, down to only signing on for Wrath of Khan because they promised to kill Spock, is the last man standing, the only cast member to reprise his part in the new film — hell, to exist in the universe of the new film? Really goddamned funny, I’ll tell you that. I’ll bet Shatner’s laughing the kind of laugh that spits up blood.
Christ. I even liked the score, the way the stabby fight-scene music recalled the over-the-top bombast of the series while still being its own animal, and as unobtrusive as this stuff can be expected to be. That’s what this whole movie is, a near-perfect tightrope walk, an amazing mix of gusto and elegant balance.
But enough about me. What did you think?