Saturday, May 9, 2009

Star Trek:Young Kirk / Spock Kick Romulan Bootie

(in 70 mm)

As I write this, it's quite apparent that the new Star Trek Movie is a hit with both critics and audiences alike, receiving a startling 96% on the tomatometer and a two-to-one positive sentiment result on blog sentiment analysis tool newssift. Not to mention my informal analysis of the Twitter stream, which has yet to show a negative comment.

First, I must confess to being a Trekkie (yes, I've seen every original Star Trek episodes at least four times or more - starting as a kid, when they were originally broadcast - as well as the movies and series spinoffs), so I perhaps am not the most unbiased reviewer. Yet I'm certainly someone who awaited this movie, and the bold, origin story reinvention, with high anticipation, and so writing this review is perhaps one of the most difficult I've had to consider.

Perhaps that's too much anticipation for one movie, and no doubt I will see it again soon to re-assess my opinion. But though this new Star Trek is audacious and visually stunning, and refreshingly re-captures the zest and kitch of the original series, I did not find it quite the superlative that others have claimed, and maybe not even the best Star Trek movie (Nemesis had more menace; Khan a more ruthless and original enemy; and First Contact still takes the prize as the most fun, S&M inflection of the Star Trek universe yet).

That's not to say it isn't good - it is - and it's not to say I don't think the "reinvention" idea works - it does. It's just that the story these characters are given is a bit of a re-hash of past TV ideas and movies (the ship and world-destroying animus from Nemesis, with a special effect added from Fantastic Four; the slugs from Khanh; the Romulan-loving Spock from the "Deep Space Nine" series, and all the idiotic time traveling ideas from "Enterprise.") Yes, all Star Trek movies reference the Star Trek oeuvre, but there's just not enough new added to this soup to make the story interesting.

On the other hand.

The movie takes a risk resurrecting the original characters in younger form, and this gambit certainly does pay off. Not only are Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto - dare I say it - better actors in the Kirk / Spock roles than Shatner and Nimoy, we also get fun younger versions of Sulu, Checkov, Uhura, and McCoy. And Simon Pegg is certainly scene-stealing with his ebullient interpretation of Scotty.

But the two principals, the Kirk and Spock here, are really the best we've ever seen of these characters. Pine backs up Kirk's bravado with an emotional energy and sympathetic sincereity that Shatner, after so many re-interpretations of it, had thoroughly drained out. Quinto is especially astute in giving us a Spock who really is a half-breed - a seething cauldron of emotion barely kept in check by mental discipline and a universe-sized desire to fit in. These kids chew the scenery and deliver the snappy dialogue with the kind of fun-loving bravado that Brannon Braga and other mystics of the Star Trek legacy so slowly and assiduosly excised from the franchise over four long decades. THANK GOD we now have a Star Trek freed of the painful PC platitudes of Counselor Troy, the cloying sentimentality of Data and the tiresomely explained references to Gilbert and Sullivan. Such strained political correctness really did stifle the other movies and drive away audiences, and perhaps a "reboot" was necessary to finally strip all that painful stuff away.

Additionally, Paramount has brought in a director in J.J. Abrams who is not enthralled with Star Trek pageantry (yes, there's some, but it's brief) and who has more in kin with Roddenberry's damsels & swashbuckling attitude towards space adventure than with the creeping corporateness evidenced by later interpretations of the series. Yes, this Star Trek is sexy and fun, and people who haven't seen the original series may be surprised by that. But I think Roddenberry would applaud Abrams as a fellow spirit, and the direction of the new Star Trek gets us back to the core excitement of space, which is something the series has desperately needed for a long, long time. The movie perhaps most takes off when a mouthy Kirk is dumped by a well-irritated Spock on an ice planet while Spock takes off to do his duty. Lifting a page from Lucas here, Abrams gives us a few fearsome snarling beasts and a warren of an outpost that looks like an abandoned high-school locker room, and inhabited by an equally loquacious young Scotty. It's a fun few scenes and for a moment, I felt I was back in the original series discovering a new episode we'd never seen before.

But I do have two problems with the movie. The first, as I mentioned, is the plot, which to me just didn't seem original. I've seen this revenge story before (and it feels like the writers just finished watching Fantastic Four: Silver Surfer before sitting down to dream up the big effects for this story), so even with the wonderful additions of extreme adventure sky diving, great Enterprise sets, and amazing special effects, it left me with a bit of a "so what." I suppose if this were your first Star Trek movie - or maybe your first sci-fi - that might not be a problem. Still, this film takes liberties with parallel time lines and destruction of worlds that just feel unnecessary. I know the minds at Paramount wanted to strip away our expectations of what might and could happen by sending us off into a parallel history, where they are now free to do things without concerning themselves too religiously with the text of forty years of storytelling. But it feels, to me, like a cheat: the first rule of good science fiction is, no one cares what happens in the "parallel" timeline, people want to know what happens in the real one. I kept wanting to get back to the Star Trek universe I know, and because we're so clearly meant to never return there, it feels false to me to also ask that we bring what we know of that universe into our love of the characters. My preference would be to have either one or the other: either totally break with the history we know, and introduce brand new characters - or resurrect the originals, but let them keep the history we love about them. Paramount obviously wanted both, and I'm not so sure I'm ready to jettison everything I know about a lifetime of watching Kirk and Spock in order to follow these two NEW versions of them who are free now to invent a totally new history of their lives.

There's also the - as Spock might say - extremely high improbability of how Kirk goes from F-student probationary stow-away, to captain of the fleet's flagship, all in one fell swoop. And why Spock would volunteer for a reduction in rank to follow him. But then, as has been made apparent, this movie is not meant to trek in your father's logic.

The second problem I have has to do with the labor of the "Reboot," which is the idea of an origin story. How did Kirk get to be Kirk (or a parallel Kirk, I suppose), Spock parallel Spock, and so on. Clearly, the "reboot" itself has become a genre in Hollywood, with Bond, Batman, X-Men, Hulk, and now Star Trek all partaking. The problem with this reboot is that it is all mostly the labor of the set-up, and doesn't get to the good part until the very last seconds. In other words, this reboot is all about positioning the characters to take their chairs on the Enterprise. We'll have to wait till the second movie to see what they do in those chairs.

No doubt, with the success Star Trek is having, Paramount will green light Star Trek Two with this ensemble, and this new cast of characters will be able to finally go somewhere interesting - and quite boldly - introducing a whole new generation to the pleasures and thrills of exploring space with a rowdy ensemble of cocky and talented youngsters. I think the one thing this movie does well is set us up for where the series is going next. We have great actors in great roles, and a wonderful director at the helm. Now, we just need an interesting story for them to explore.

No doubt, I will be lining up for that movie on opening night as well, once again hopeful that the next outing, we'll finally have a Star Trek experience like no other.

UPDATE: May 19th, 2nd viewing in 70mm

Well, after receiving many urgings from friends and colleagues that this was really a much better movie than I gave it credit for - and of course, it is Star Trek - I saw it again in 70 mm.

What I noticed: the special effects really are excellent (70 mm is the real test, as poor effects don't hold up well. But this movie has a look that's crucial to the excitement the film has generated). For the end credits, Abrams decide to do a zoom into various planets - I think this particular sequence really summarizes the zippy mood of this film: at once a ode to the eye-popping wonder of 60's sci-fi combined with the visual poetry that today's CGI wizards are able to create. As I said before, this film really captures the slightly campy/sexy/adventurous mood of the original series better than any other incarnation, and these sequences exemplify that.

Also, the humor really holds up - better than anything that passes for humor in the Berman / Braga universe. Simon Pegg turns Scotty into a truly inspired comic character, and McCoy chasing Kirk around the Enterprise with a hypo is a wonderfully comic nod to the tendency of the McCoy of the original series to want to inject everything in sight.

In fact, there are really quite a few nice inside nods to what's come before - whether it's a reference to teleporting Archer's "prized Beagle," McCoy's eagerness with a hypo, Kirk being kicked out of his chair (remember all the times Kirk kicked others out of that chair?) or Chris Pine's near perfect Shatnerism as he takes the bridge in the final scene, Abrams gives us Trekkie's many inside tweaks and subtle send-ups that are really both irreverent and quite fun.

On the other hand, upon second viewing, the implausibility of the plot stands out even more. Why doesn't Nero try to save his home world when he easily could? If the drill is so vulnerable to a few torpedo shots, why not take it out earlier? How can Spock plausibly "see" Vulcan from a nearby planet? And why go to the elaborate time-travel ruse with Kirk when Spock could just beam on board with him and solve everything?

I know, I know - I'm getting too hung up in the logic, not seeing the full emotion of the film, or the wonderful exploration of man's emotional/logical duality. But I like the emotion...and the promised duality - so is it too much to ask that the logic hold up as well?

In the end, this film has hit a home run with both fans and non-fans, and deservedly so. After seeing it a second time, I do believe that most people will find the lapses in logic excusable (and perhaps less noticeable than I do). There really is no excuse not to see the film, so I've upgraded my recommendation.

Even so, I still expect the sequel to be better. This film has to do so much work to set itself apart from its predecessors - blowing up a major planet, twisting the timeline, and dredging up an uninspired villain - that I think it still suffers from all that strain. Next time, we will be blissfully free to finally go where no Star Trek has gone before.


  1. i can hardly think of anything that I don't love about this new Star Trek... it's funny, well edited, well acted and doesn't drag at all (unlike the older Star Treks)

  2. I'm confused about how it is that Old Spock, who is from the future, can meet Young Spock & have a conversation? How can the future and past come together like that? isn't that a breach of the space/time continuum? This was the only thing that bothered me about the movie. Other than that, it was great.

  3. any thoughts on the change to the Romulan characters visual traits and addition of the "tribalesque" markings so prominant?

  4. I assumed the tribalesque markings of these Romulans had to do with their being miners, working-class Romulans. I allow the visual makeup changes as we see such changes routinely in Star-Trek updates.