Monday, May 11, 2009
All Shook Up: Star Trek
It’s a shame that the first feature film of the Star Trek franchise embellished the name of the TV series that inspired its creation. Thirty years removed from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we finally have a film worthy of that title. J.J. Abrams’ origin story-meets-Twilight Zone episode – simply called Star Trek – is by far the most action-packed adventure in the franchise’s history, turbulent enough to make a hit of Dramamine recommended if not required. With its rapid cuts, rampant lens flares and rambunctious dolly shots (trust me, it’s possible), Abrams’ film is as tranquil as an 8-year-old on a sugar high. Whereas the original Star Trek films had a habit of throwing the crew of the Enterprise around the bridge, Abrams’ Star Trek seems intent to rock audiences from their seats.
It works; presuming, of course, that the intent is to make the beloved but oh-so-dated series seem modern again. Abrams’ Star Trek is fashionable to a fault, utilizing every accessory from the 21st Century blockbuster wardrobe. Camera gymnastics? Check. CGI spectacles created not out of dramatic necessity but because the technology exists? Check. Overly choreographed hand-to-hand combat scenes that are balletic instead of gripping? Check. Excessive face-planting close-ups that make it seem as if the director has something against collarbones? Check, again. Against a landscape of Terminator Salvation, Transformers and G.I. Joe, Star Trek blends in like a hippie at Woodstock, which is why I suspect that the effects-dominated flick will age about as well as bellbottoms or that 1979 feature film debut, now often derisively referred to as The Motionless Picture.
But that’s all concern for another decade, or at least another day. For the moment, bemoaning the digitally-dependent boilerplate of the modern blockbuster is as pointless as complaining about how Twitter is ruining the English language. Abrams’ Star Trek is precisely the film it aims to be: a creature of the times. And while the trend away from Gene Roddenberry’s humanistic focus toward George Lucas’ faster-and-more-intense brand of entertainment is surely an effort to attract a newer (younger and less nerdy) audience, the remarkable thing about Star Trek is that it puts equal effort into satisfying its Trekkie faithful. Abrams’ film, from a screenplay by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, is littered with references to films and TV episodes past. And lest there be any doubt about the reverence that this series-regenerator holds for its source material, Kurtzman and Orci actually bend time (or something like that) to ensure that the franchise’s most iconic character has a chance to pass the torch.
What we have then is not your daddy’s Star Trek. At least, not solely. But if Dad can adjust to the fact that Abrams provides about four different views of the bridge per second, whereas the TV series used about that many camera angles for its entire three-year run, he’s bound to get more out of the experience than a Star Trek newbie. It was guaranteed that there would be a new Kirk, Spock and Bones in this picture, and that the series’ catchphrases would be spread about like Easter eggs, but few could have imagined that the new cast would capture the iconic characters’ spirit so convincingly that the signature dialogue would feel like a natural byproduct of the drama. From top to bottom, the new crew is tremendous: Chris Pine nails Kirk’s swagger. Zachary Quinto brings an inner torment to Spock untapped since the TV series. Karl Urban as Bones has the same emphatic delivery as DeForest Kelley. Zoe Saldana makes Uhura something close to a full character, rather than just a full-figured gal. Anton Yelchin finds the perfect blend of buffoonery and dependability as Chekov. John Cho is a familiarly determined Sulu. And a scene-stealing Simon Pegg adroitly captures Scotty’s boisterous spirit, if not quite his cranky attitude.
(Spoiler warning.) Veteran Star Trek fans get all that, plus several scenes with the still wonderful Leonard Nimoy as, yep, Spock. Confused? So am I. It has something to do with a black hole and time travel. Nimoy’s Spock clarifies the mindfuck in a mind-meld with Pine’s Kirk, but it was all Vulcan to me. I’d try to explain it now, but I’m afraid I’d end up sounding like Quentin Tarantino. (So there’s this Romulan ship, alright? And the captain’s all pissed off because Spock fucked up and allowed Romulus to be destroyed, okay? So this Romulan dude takes his ship shaped like a fucking medieval torture device, travels through time and waits 25 years for Spock to join him on the other side, so he can get medieval on his ass, alright? And on the other side of that black hole there’s this alternate universe, okay?) Truth is, unless you’re planning to attend Comic-Con next year, the details don’t matter. The bottom line is this: Abrams’ characters are entirely new versions of the same characters you know and love. Thus they aren’t beholden to past exploits of the Enterprise. So you should expect a sequel, certainly, but you shouldn’t expect to see Khan again.
That last part stings just a bit because there’s something lacking in Eric Bana’s Nero that had me longing for Ricardo Montalban, Christopher Plummer and even Christopher Lloyd (Great Scott!). Star Trek episodes (and I’m including films here) tend to be as inviting as their character dramas, and yet they are as memorable as their villains. A less J.K. Rowling-ish, more Shakespearean bad guy could have tipped this film from very-good popcorn fun to something close to great. Still, considering all the expectations heaped upon it, Abrams’ film is a tremendous achievement that’s almost guaranteed to please everyone, even if it doesn’t please everyone all the time. Personally, my fondness for the original crew is unshakeable, but Pine, Quinto and the rest have made exploring the final frontier seem like a bold adventure again. The Shatner and Nimoy cast defined Star Trek, no question, but they never perfected it. To expect Abrams’ film to be flawless would be illogical.