STAR TREK – movie review parts 1 & 2

Published May 8, 2009

The wait is over.

After months of obsessive anticipation, weeks of poring over internet minutiae, days of reading early reviews, and hours of clock watching, I just got back from seeing the new Star Trek movie at a brand spanking new IMAX theater. Did it live up to my waaaaaay over-the-top expectations? It did.

But let’s back up for a second here.
Star Trek poster
As a child of the 1970s, one who grew up watching Star Trek in syndication, and who (like many others) considered Captain James T. Kirk my boyhood hero, I guess you could call me a Trekkie. (Not a Trekker … no self-respecting Trek fan would ever call themselves this. Puh-tooey on that, I say.) While I never went so far as to wear costumes, put on phony ears, or learn to speak Klingon, I did very much obsess over the very human dilemmas faced by Kirk, Spock and McCoy — I also became rather well-read on the very personal histories of the men who portrayed them (especially William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy). I considered them friends.

SHATNER AND NIMOY AS SPOCK AND KIRK
Nimoy and Shatner as Spock and Kirk
While the original series was canceled after three seasons in 1969, syndication and devoted fans would see this little show spawn 10 feature films and 5 more television incarnations (including a mid-70s animated series) over the ensuing 40 years. However, after the last film (2002’s Nemesis) tanked, and the last series (Enterprise) was shut down in 2005, Paramount seemingly had milked its cash cow dry.

Enter J.J. Abrams, creator of such television fare as Felicity, Alias, Lost and Fringe, who made his directorial debut with 2006’s way-underrated Mission: Impossible III. In a seeming effort to update only those TV series featuring Leonard Nimoy (yes, the erstwhile Vulcan appeared for two seasons on Mission: Impossible), Abrams has rebooted the Trek franchise by going back to the beginning … the very beginning. Many fans balked and chafed at the director’s constant insistence in the press that he was never a big fan of Star Trek. To those purists who were bothered by this, I have two words: Nicholas Meyer. The Wrath of Khan director (and ghost writer) was also not well versed in Trek lore, but he gave us arguably the best film in the series, by simply embracing the Horatio Hornblower of it all, and thinking outside of the box.

Does Abrams bring the same fresh perspective to this aging series? Oh yes. Does he actually succeed in another mission: impossible — making this film accessible to both Trekkies and the completely uninitiated? And how. Does he stay true to the original series canon? Yes and no. But I digress … let’s get to the (mostly spoiler-free) review.

ERIC BANA AS NERO
Bana as Nero
When a very angry Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) in a very intimidating spaceship (the Narada) is born from a black hole in the year 2233, he encounters the USS Kelvin, a Federation starship from Earth. When Nero captures and kills its captain, First Officer George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) takes command. For the next 12 minutes, Kirk saves hundreds of lives, including that of his very pregnant wife (Jennifer Morrison). Moments before Kirk sacrifices his life to save those escaping on shuttlecrafts, he hears over the speakers the cries of his newborn son, whom he names Jim — aka James Tiberius Kirk.

Trek-philes will immediately know that something is awry here. Jim Kirk’s father did not die in this manner — in fact, he encouraged the lad to go to Starfleet. Learned moviegoers (especially fans of Terminator and Back to the Future) will immediately guess that we are in an alternate reality here. History has been changed. But has it been changed for good? Or will the old switcheroo be employed at the end? I’m not telling.

CHRIS PINE AS CADET KIRK
Pine as Kirk
In this alternate timeline, Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) grows up to be a 23rd century rebel without a cause — a brawling, womanizing, James Deanian troublemaker. At least until Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood in a very affecting performance) charges him with living up to his father’s heroic legacy by enlisting in Starfleet. Young Kirk is not unlike Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting — a brilliant-but-troubled boy in dire need of some fatherly guidance (made more ironic since Damon was rumored early on to be up for this iconic role). Greenwood’s moral gravitas does the trick.

Across the galaxy on the planet Vulcan, the half-human, half-Vulcan student Spock (Zachary Quinto) is experiencing the worst kind of racial discrimination. Labeled a half-breed by his peers and superiors, Spock turns down a prestigious position in the Vulcan High Command and instead heads to Earth to become part of Starfleet. (His final “Live long and prosper” to the Vulcan council might as well include a middle finger.) This decision comes as a loving bow to his human mother, Amanda Grayson (a touching-but-underutilized Winona Ryder).

WINONA RYDER AND BEN CROSS AS AMANDA AND SAREK
Ryder and Cross as Amanda and Sarek
When Kirk and Spock first meet it is anything but “cute” — they initially despise each other — especially when Kirk reprograms the Spock-designed Kobayashi Maru test (the first of many nods to The Wrath of Khan) so that the no-win scenario is winnable.  Kirk doesn’t like to lose (his apple-munching in this scene is another nod to Khan).  When the Romulan spaceship that destroyed the Kelvin reappears near Vulcan, Captain Pike and his new cadets board the new flagship Enterprise and warp off to the rescue.
Kirk eyes his future
This film succeeds brilliantly at showing us how the Enterprise crew first got together. Yet unlike other “origin stories” (especially the recent slew of rather, dark, brooding, and nihilistic ones), this one still embraces the bright and shining, optimistically-multicultural vision that series creator Gene Roddenberry birthed almost a half century ago. But what it does even better, is use this alternate timeline aspect to create tremendous suspense. Usually in origin stories, the tension is nonexistent simply because we know everything will turn out all right. But with one simple explosion of a seemingly canon-dependent planet, all bets are off. How Abrams and his writers, Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Mission: Impossible III, Transformers) are able to thoroughly embrace canon and destroy it at the same time, is utterly brilliant. They have given this series the biggest dose of cinematic Viagra imaginable. They have made Star Trek exciting, suspenseful, and sexy in a way it hasn’t been in decades.

As for the rest of the gallant crew, they are all here, and they are all instantly recognizable.

KARL URBAN AS McCOY
Urban as McCoy
Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard McCoy, comes the closest of the entire cast to capturing what his predecessor (the late DeForest Kelley) had done. Yes he is young, but he’s as irascible, cantankerous and un-PC as you want him to be … especially when he growls at Spock, “Are you out of your Vulcan mind?” We even learn how the recently divorced doctor earned his famous nickname: he lost everything to his ex-wife except his “bones.”

ZOE SALDANA AS UHURA
Saldana as Uhura
Zoe Saldana (who played a Star Trek-obsessed INS inspector in Steven Spielberg‘s The Terminal) plays the painfully-pretty Nyota Uhura, ably taking the reins from Nichelle Nichols. Abrams and the writers give this Uhura far more to do than say “hailing frequencies open” — they also give her a secret on-ship romance with a most unexpected person.

Simon Pegg as Montgomery Scott NAILS this part, and brings an easy humor to the proceedings — though I wish he had shown up earlier than he did. Also, note to the writers: in the coming sequel, get rid of Scotty’s pet, sidekick, Ewok-wannabe … whatever the hell that thing was.

John Cho (Harold and Kumar) and Anton Yelchin (Stephen King‘s Hearts in Atlantis) both do fine work as Hikaru Sulu and Pavel Chekov, though they are not given much character development. Despite some other critic’s annoyance at Chekov’s Russian accent, I thought it was spot on — even better than Walter Koenig’s somewhat cartoonish swapping of Vs and Ws. Sulu is given a chance at showing off his fencing skills (first seen in the Original Series episode The Naked Time), during one of the films most tense and exciting sequences.

QUINTO AS SPOCK
Quinto as Spock
Zachary Quinto’s Spock, while not having the profundo voice of Nimoy, nor the wry humor, does an admirable job stepping into the very big shoes of his legendary predecessor. He is not as in-control of his emotions as the elder Spock, which, given the early setting, is only logical. I can’t imagine anyone else doing a better job.

If I had any trouble with the cast, it was Chris Pine as James Kirk. (For a good while, I thought that Chris Hemsworth, who played George Kirk, would have made a better James Tiberius.) By the end of the film, Pine had won me over, but for a long time I felt he was a bit too smug and pleased with himself. Not that Shatner’s Kirk was a shining example of humility, but his cockiness was always balanced by a noble heart and dramatic flair. Pine in no way mimics the oft-imitated Shatner (a wise choice), but he certainly knows how to posture himself in that command chair. Perhaps my disappointment is simply due to my childhood idolization of Shatner‘s Kirk.
The bridge
Eric Bana’s Nero is a serviceable villain — and while the Aussie actor does a great job of seething and brooding, he’s no Khan. Also, his motivation is rather confusing (alas, I cannot elaborate without major spoilers).

As for the special effects and production design, every penny of this film’s $150 million budget is onscreen — indeed, no incarnation of Star Trek has ever been given this kind of big-budget polish. The score by Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) is operatically rousing — I was even humming it on the way home. Much like Casino Royale waited till the last minute to use the Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme, letting Daniel Craig earn those iconic bars, the use of Alexander Courage’s classic Trek theme is also not heard until the end credits (be sure to stick around for some very cool visuals). By then, this cast had most assuredly earned the musical sign-off, and its entire operatic movement is played out numerous times. I hope the sequel uses this theme throughout, in addition to Courage’s incidental Star Trek music (one theme of which was greatly parodied in Jim Carrey’s The Cable Guy).

LEONARD NIMOY AS SPOCK
Old Spock
You may have heard that Leonard Nimoy makes a cameo in this film as the original Spock. Nimoy does indeed appear, but his role is much more than a walk on. While his appearance was a bit too coincidental as scripted (to put it mildly), seeing this man in this role for the first time in nearly two decades sent chills up my spine and tears down my cheeks. If a baton needed to be passed, this film does a far better job of it than 1994’s Star Trek: Generations, with its horribly-executed and completely pointless death of James Kirk. Months before this film came out, I wrote at length of the reason why William Shatner could and should have been resurrected for this film. While my reasoning was sound, Bill does not appear in this film. Given this story, I don’t see how he could have been, but … many threads are left hanging open, and Abrams and the writers have since stated that they might work both Nimoy and Shatner into the sequel.

And speaking of the sequel, this film plays out like the first act of a much better story. While the trademark morality plays of the original series are replaced here by bombast and a breakneck pace (one of this film’s few naysayers called it a “big, dumb action movie”), the stage (er, bridge) is set for an even better film. Hopefully one with a little more cerebral content.
The New Crew
Some have posited over the years that the only good Trek films were the even-numbered ones, and further opined that this film breaks said curse. To that I say: I never bought the argument in the first place. I loved the entire (unintentional) trilogy of II, III, and IV. However, if there were a curse, this film would have shattered it.

So … while a few things bugged me about this reboot (coincidences bordering on deus ex machina, too-quickly-executed promotions, questionable science, plot holes) most of my quibbles were overwhelmed by the fact that this is one damned exciting, emotion-stirring, extremely entertaining film.

My advice? Boldly go.

GRADE: B+

STAR TREK — movie review part II
New Enterprise
Okay, I just got back from my second viewing of the new Star Trek, and I thought I would amend my article. During the first few days after posting my first review, I went back in and changed my initial grade of B+ to an A-, then back to B+ again. Why did I do this? Because I was greatly torn between everything that was RIGHT about the film, and some hard-to-overlook problems. Many of those problems may have stemmed from the fact that this film began principal photography during 2008’s writer’s strike, and polishing the (90% perfect) script could not not be done. Some minor polish would have helped.

WARNING — MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

The most glaring of these include:

Nero’s motivation for destroying all the planets of the United Federation — especially Vulcan and Earth — because he was pissed at Spock for failing to save Romulus, is pretty weak. Spock didn’t do anything vindictive — he was trying to save Romulus. If the black hole created in its aftermath cast Nero and The Narada back in time, why not go back to Romulus, and spend the next century or so trying to avert said disaster? To simply scapegoat Spock for the whole thing and payback tit for tat isn’t logical.

When young Kirk and Old Spock meet in the cave on Delta Vega, I broke out in goosebumps. Loved the scene, loved having Nimoy back. But talk about an astronomical coincidence! Spock’s referential question, “How did you find me?” (which isn’t answered) is one of these plot holes that could have been given a reasonable explanation with a little of that aforementioned script polish.

Kirk’s journey from cadet to First Officer to Captain was pretty damned quick. On my first viewing, I thought it was waaay too quick. However, after going back for a second look … Kirk did save the Enterprise. And Earth. (Two things he will do repeatedly throughout his career … even in this alternate timeline.) Starfleet’s early promotion of Kirk to Captain felt easier to swallow the second time around. In fact, when Kirk took the chair at the film’s climax, and the rest of the crew were all in place, I don’t think I’ve ever been so primed for a sequel.

Other than that, any reservations I might have had regarding this movie have strictly to do with my obsession with the Original Series cast, and expectations that had grown unreasonable after so many years and so much hype. For those from similar backgrounds who had like misgivings, a second viewing helps immensely. (Especially on IMAX.)

As for the future, Abrams and the writers have said more than once recently that they are trying to figure out a way to involve both Nimoy and Shatner in the sequel. Keeping Old Spock in is a no-brainer — the plot did not send him back to the future, and he is now the only one who remembers the original history. Old Spock is, in essence, the Keeper of the Timeline. To charge Old Spock (or Spock Prime as he is listed in the credits) with making sure that this alternate reality stays as close as possible to what we consider canon, has some pretty cool possibilities. That Old Kirk could be involved would be even cooler. But how?

I’ve thought about this, and (as I don’t ever want to see that Nexus ribbon again) I’m wondering if Old Kirk (Old New-Timeline Kirk) would remember his meeting in the Delta Vega cave with Spock, and in his old age (assuming he never bites it ala Generations in the new timeline), decides to go back and help his friend. But again … how? Other than finding someone else who can do time-travel computations like Spock and figure out a way to slingshot around the sun again (as in The Voyage Home), I think the only alternative would be to have Old Kirk go and revisit The Guardian of Forever from the series’ best episode The City on the Edge of Forever. In fact, I kind of like this idea. Paramount should send Abrams and the writers to Harlan Ellison’s house, with a big fat check, to kiss his surly ass. Harlan has been very vocal (to put it mildly) about his shafting by Paramount in regards to dividends due him, but as I think he’s just asking for a little respect and some back pay, this could be resolved.

So … them’s my thoughts, and I’m stickin’ to ‘em. What say you? Sound off below.

Oh, by the way, my new grade for this movie after viewing number 2, is … still fluctuating between B+ and A-. Gotta leave room for what is bound to be a better sequel.

But make no mistake: I love this movie!