Friday, May 15, 2009

STAR TREK - Reviewed! A Vulcan Death Blog Written by Baram Prime


- While Wolverine started off the Summer '09 movie season with a whimper, STAR TREK shifts things into warp drive. What JJ Abrams and co. have done with this franchise relaunch is in many ways remarkable - they've taken the core concepts and iconography of the original series and simultaneously paid homage to what's come before while reinventing the brand for a new generation. The new Star Trek is exactly what it needed to be: a legitimate blockbuster adventure movie that is a slick and fun dose of pop culture sci-fi. While it may not be up for an Oscar anytime soon, it is a great example of blockbuster, franchise filmmaking done right.

In many ways, I probably fall into the key demo that this movie was aiming to please -a guy open to liking Star Trek but in need of a fresh reason to really invest in this universe. I never 100% got the appeal of the original Star Trek series. I liked the concept and some of the characters, but to me the old series felt like a relic of the 60's - a campy throwback that lacked the darkness or intelligence or complexity of The Next Generation. I was just barely old enough to begin to appreciate TNG during its original run, but I've caught a lot of the classic episodes in reruns and on DVD (I love all the Borg stuff), and enjoyed the last couple of TNG movies (love First Contact). Patrick Stewart is easily one of my favorite actors, and someone who can elevate the material he works with. Stewart is essentially an instant dose of gravitas, and I worried that the new Trek might suffer without an actor of his caliber in one of the lead roles.

Luckily for Abrams, his new cast steps up to the plate and delivers. Again, I don't think that Chris Pine or Zachary Quinto is going to be up for an Oscar anytime soon, but the cast is a happy medium between the more generic CW-style stars and legit thespians. I mean, when you've got guys like Karl Urban and Simon Pegg in supporting roles, kicking ass and entertaining as Bones and Scotty respectively, you know that you're in pretty good hands. Still, with Shatner and Nimoy, you had two actors who were instantly iconic, and I don't know if anyone in this cast is quite at that level. But, luckily, Nimoy is on-hand as Spock Prime to infuse the movie with a bit of that old-school presence.

Nimoy's presence is both a blessing and a curse. Personally, I love that the movie addresses the series' past continuity and ties into what's come before. The time-travel plot is an elegant solution to avoid a complete reboot. In essence, the movie explains that this new version of the OG Enterprise crew exists in an alternate timeline than the original Kirk and Spock, after some time-travel shenanigans caused a divergence from the original's history. The movie doesn't dwell too much on the particulars of time-travel, but hey, if you subscribe to the theory that every alternate timeline exists as its own separate reality in an infinite multiverse (as seen on JJ Abrams' FRINGE), then you can take comfort in the fact that the reality in which the original Kirk and Spock, as well as Picard, Janeway, and the rest, had their adventures still exists parallel to this new timeline. (And interestingly, since the timeline divergence takes place post-"Enterprise," I guess we can assume that Scott Bakula and his crew's adventures remain intact in both the old and new timelines? See - nobody messes with Backula!). ANYWAYS, as I was saying, the whole time-travel thing works fairly well and, mainly, it allows the great Leonard Nimoy (arguably the best thing about the original series), to reprise his iconic role as Spock (now "Spock Prime"). Seeing Nimoy don the pointy ears and bowl-cut once again is great, and it's cool to think that young kids who see this movie will get a glimpse of the older series and have their curiosity piqued. BUT ... you have to wonder, who will inherit Spock Prime's elder-statesman mantle in future installments? By this I mean, the new cast has no single character who brings that same kind of gravitas to the table. So if an 80 year old Nimoy has to carry the load in this one, who is going to do it in a Part 2 or 3?

Again though, the new cast is really quite good. Pine is fun as Kirk, Zachary Quinto pretty much nails it as the younger Spock, and everyone else from Urban, to Pegg, to Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike, is excellent. A bit baby-faced? Sure. But the cast excels at the movie's rapid-fire banter, swashbuckling action and adventure, and there is a good sense of comraderie / tension between the principles.

What I really liked though was how the movie gave us insightful glances into Kirk and Spock's past, but at the same time didn't dwell *too* much on their origins. I loved the glimpse of Kirk as a kid driving around a futuristic midwest, stopped by a robo-cop in an early display of youthful rebellion. I loved seeing a pint-sized Spock on Vulcan, teased mercilessly (yet unnervingly logically) by his peers for being half-human. What these scenes helped to do was to establish Kirk and Spock as being not just generic characters, but icons. Abrams and co deftly play off of the fact that we know that these characters are / will become legends. So even if the new actors are not yet as iconic and larger than life as their predecessors, the characters that they play are given that built-in mythic quality. Abrams has a lot of fun with all of the fan-favorite aspects of Star Trek lore. From Bones' "dammit, Jim", to Spock's Vulcan death-grip, to Nimoy's repetition of his "I shall always be ... your friend" speech from Wrath of Khan, to the mission statement to boldly go where no one has gone before ... all of the little moments that you'd want to see included are here. Kirk even gets down n' dirty with a strikingly green alien lady-friend, in a fun homage to the original series. So even as old-school fans will enjoy the references to classic Star Trek lore, new fans will instantly be clued in to all these moments as being somehow important and iconic. Abrams and co are not slaves to the mythology, but they do pay loving tribute to it.

To that end, I also enjoyed how Abrams, well, spruces things up. Visually, he gives his Star Trek a glossy, shiny sheen that fits the franchise's utopian, optimistic brand of futurism. Plus, he imbues the movie with a sense of imagination that has typically been the hallmark of that *other* franchise with "Star" in its title. We get all kinds of cool creatures in the movie, from odd-looking aliens aboard the Enterprise to fearsome snow-beasts on remote planets. We get sprawling Starfleet bases on earth and ominous, intricate chambers on Vulcan. Aside from the badass Borg designs in First contact, rarely has Trek looked this slick. In addition, the score is stirring and epic - a great compliment to Jerry Goldsmith's classic soundtrack.

With so much going on, it was inevitable that parts of the film would feel slightly rushed. The biggest rush-job involves the main villain, a time-travelling Romulan with an axe to grind named Nero. Nero seems to have a lot of potential as a badguy, and Eric Bana plays him as mean and imposing. But we don't get a true sense of his motivations other than a somewhat standard-issue revenge scheme. In the original Trek timeline, it appears that Nero's planet of Romulus was blown to smithereens, and Nero blames Spock for the tragedy. So after travelling back to the past, Nero intends to blow up rival planet Vulcan to spite his hated pointy-eared nemesis, who also ends up in the past. The plan is a bit convoluted and never quite makes sense, but hey, it ultimately serves the needs of the script. By the same token, Abrams and co. obviously wanted to end the movie with Kirk as Captain and the crew of the Enterprise locked and loaded for further installments. Problem is, within a very short time-span, Kirk goes from a nobody to a Captain in what feels like a pretty compacted timeline. Again, it all feels a bit rushed, and there are times when it's clear that the movie is intent on simply getting us from Point A to Point B, without a whole lot of consideration for how we get there. Suffice it to say, when it comes to some aspects of the movie, the viewer is asked to make a few leaps of logic and to fill in a lot of gaps (some of which I hear are filled-in in the prequel comic book series ...?).

In the end though, the structure that the script serves turns out to be fairly brilliant. Even if there are some bumps in the road to get to that ultimate end-point, the magic of this movie is that, without negating the history of the franchise, we end up with a Star Trek that is polished up, refurbished, and reborn for a new generation. The iconography of Kirk, Spock, and the spirit of the original series is restored to its former glory, and yet at the same time it's a movie that accomplishes all of this in a way that is completely accessible for newbies. In many ways, this IS your father's Star Trek, but kids watching this one will never suspect it. From the moment the film kicks off with its spectacularly exciting opening, new and old fans alike will be hooked.

Most importantly, the movie got me excited about Star Trek. It made me want to revisit the old series and speculate about what a Part 2 might have in store. This movie, if nothing else, took Spock and Kirk back from the geek ghetto, and restored their status as pop-culture icons for the masses. The franchise is healthy once again, and I think it will, indeed, live long and prosper.

My Grade: A-

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