Sunday, December 6, 2009

Star Trek

Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood
Running Time: 127 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

Of all the crazy ideas to come along in recent years for remakes, sequels, prequels, reboots and re-imaginings the one that always seemed to make the most sense was Star Trek. As someone relatively unfamiliar with the franchise, even I could tell it's been on life support for a while now, if the plug hadn't been pulled already. Boasting one of the worst reputations for what's generally thought of as a pop culture institution, it's been dismissed for decades as a poor man's Star Wars and its fans have been mocked as geeks and cult members. For years, just telling someone you're a fan was an open invitation for eye-rolling and giggles. If there ever there was a franchise in desperate need for a complete overhaul, it was this.

Answering the call was Lost creator J.J. Abrams and the plan was to make Star Trek "cool," for the first time. To make a movie that would placate the diehards, but also be equally accessible to non-fans like me, who have never watched a single incarnation of the show or any of the feature films. In that respect, he kind of succeeds, to an extent. But why did I feel like I was still missing something? You don't have to be a die-hard fan to appreciate what's going on in the picture but it sure would help. For everyone else, there's enough excitement thrown in that they don't feel completely left out. While I can't go as far as to call it a Michael Bay movie in space, it disappointingly comes very close to being just that, with a messy, over-complicated story and a silly villain. Long suffering fans of the crippled franchise can finally rejoice at being given a reboot of passable quality, but the end result amounts to only slightly more than any other random Hollywood action spectacle.

The plot (of which you'll probably need an instruction manual to follow) centers around the emergence of the brilliant but rebellious Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) who's reluctant to carry on the legacy of his late father (Chris Hemsworth). Through an opening flashback we find out he was killed while temporarily commandeering the U.S.S. Kelvin when it fell under attack by a tattooed, time traveling Romulan named Nero (an unrecognizable Eric Bana). Now, 25 years later, Kirk is recruited into Starfleet Academy by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and called to step aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise under the command of First Officer Spock (Heroes' Zachary Quinto). Joining them is Doctor Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), Communications Officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Navigators Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin). They'll all have to band together to defeat the vengeful Nero, who's returned from the past to finish what he started.

The only thing that sets this film apart, and what likely tricked the majority of moviegoers into thinking they were watching something of genuine substance, is that from a technical standpoint it's a definite step-up from your regular blockbuster fare. The computer generated effects are more impressive than we're used to and the action moves at breakneck speed, which I've heard is in stark contrast to the original, more methodically paced Star Trek films of the past. It's easy to be fooled into thinking this is some kind of gigantic achievement, if not for the fact that the screenplay (which in a cruel irony was scripted by Transformers: ROTF co-writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman) doesn't have a brain in its head. It wouldn't be accurate to call this a time travel movie because while that element is presented the actual IDEA of it is never really explored in a meaningful way.

Supposedly, time travel has always been a key ingredient in the franchise's mythology throughout the years, but it's scary to entertain the possibility that it could have ever been executed as clumsily as here. It just isn't engaging, feels like recycled material and unless you're a longtime fan you won't have any stake in wanting the characters to succeed. Granted, much of that has to do with the film featuring one of the most laughable villains I've seen in a summer blockbuster in years. Tattooed like Mike Tyson, a scenery chomping Eric Bana turns this into even more of a joke than it needs to be. Tyson himself probably would have made a more believable villain. Some action-oriented movies don't need a strong story or multi-layered characterizations to work, but Star Trek really does and while I wasn't expecting some kind of cerebral think piece, I at least thought more effort would be put into the story than this. What does work well is the rivalry between Kirk and Spock, which we slowly start to see develop into a relationship of begrudging mutual respect. Again though, this is much more likely to play better for those with previous knowledge of the characters' history together. As one of the uninitiated, I couldn't help but feel that Abrams was condescendingly asking me to care because they're "Kirk" and "Spock" and, you know, they're supposed to be a big deal. Even though elaborate, reasonably well presented backstories are cooked up for both early on, it's still somewhat difficult to shake that feeling.

Similarly, your perception of the performances (aside from Bana's which is dreadful by any standard) mostly hinges on your familiarity, or lack thereof, of the original actors who inhabited the roles. With little to go on, I can only say the biggest surprise was Chris Pine as Kirk, who I really expected to be bland going into this. But he makes Kirk the perfect anti-hero, cocky enough to slightly piss you off, yet still likable and competent enough to root for. Regardless of what William Shatner (who was controversially left out of the film) did or didn't do before him, Pine makes this part his own for this movie, and considering the entire story revolves around him, that goes a long way. I found Spock to be a mostly passive, wooden character which from my understanding is how he's always been presented but it doesn't do Zachary Quinto any favors. He's a real stiff throughout much of this, even if his resemblance to the young Leonard Nimoy is frightening.

Fans will have to correct me if I'm wrong but it sure seemed as if Karl Urban gave the most faithful interpretation as McCoy, capturing in appearance and mannerisms what DeForest Kelley originated on the series. Zoe Saldana was obviously cast as Uhura not only for the physical resemblance, but in an obvious attempt to present a "sexier" Star Trek, which is fine since she also does a nice job with the role despite being given little to work with. A romance with her and another major character seems thrown in for shock value even though someone in the studio didn't get the memo that it isn't all that shocking. Unless the Enterprise plans on stopping at White Castle, the casting of John Cho (assuming the Sulu role George Takei made famous) is distracting while Anton Yelchin's laughable attempt at a Russian accent as Chekov seems to be added as comic relief, but I couldn't be sure. On the other hand, Simon Pegg's engineer, "Scotty" is definitely intended for comic relief, which proves to be a problem since he isn't very funny. Appearing briefly are a latex-aged Winona Ryder (as Spock's mother) and, rather pointlessly, Tyler Perry as the head of Starfleet Academy. Ads and promotional materials have wisely kept it on the down low, but Nimoy's function in the picture (as "future" Spock) is significantly larger and more important than you'd expect. It's far from just a cameo. As for his performance, it's fine. I guess. His work is just another element of the film that can't be appreciated out of context for non-fans, no matter how thrilling it is for everyone else.

Earlier this year, the somewhat messy Watchmen (which seems worse the further removed I am from it) was accused of being too slavishly devoted to the source material, but at least that took a stand and committed to it. Those who never the graphic novel wouldn't feel lost and previous knowledge of the characters wasn't integral to your enjoyment of the picture, even if the decision hurt the adaptation in other ways. Despite my unfamiliarity with the series, I harbored no prejudices toward this project and went in as open-minded as could possibly be. In fact, it's been a while since I was so looking forward to a movie I generally had little interest in (if that makes any sense). My anticipation was only bolstered by rumors that Abrams would be freeing the franchise from previous "continuity constraints" in an effort to entice newbies like myself. But he didn't completely free himself from those constraints. Instead, he walked on eggshells with the story out of fear of upsetting the hardcore fans and dumbed down everything else. The result is a movie that weirdly exists in the middle, accomplishing neither goal to its fullest. And by wanting to have his cake and it eat it too, J.J. Abrams end up not so boldly taking Star Trek where many other action movies have gone before.


The Film Connoisseur said...

This was one of the best surprises of last summer for me. I loved the action, the special fx, and I also enjoyed how the new actors were kind of like channeling the old characters.

They almost didnt really give them their own twists. They simply played the characters exactly the way the old actors played them.

But I know what you mean about the story, I didnt like certain things about the film, like that whole sequence with the monster in the snow, which I didnt even think was really necessary for the film or the story. It was simply thrown in there to make things more exciting.

Im not a hardcore trekkie or anything, but I've enjoyed the movies across the years, and I even religiously watched The Next Generation tv show. So coming from a fan of the films, I gotta tell ya this one was a step up, at least production and fx wise. And not to mention the aliens finally look good in a Star Trek film.

Hey Jeremy, you ever given a chance to the old Trek films? I recommend you start with part II and move on from there, the first is a bit boring at times. But the whole series is very entertaining from part II onward all the way till part VI with the final "old school" Star Trek.

jeremythecritic said...

From what I heard about the previous Star Trek films I could see where this would be viewed as a definite step up (especially from a technical standpoint). Unfortunately, since I'm not familiar with them at all I had to look at this on its own terms and the story issues stuck out for me more than they would have otherwise.

This was actually a close call for me and I'd be open to giving it another look. It kept me entertained despite the problems I had with it. I kept telling myself I'd watch some of the old films for a while now but just didn't get around to it. I'm still willing to do that.

And from the very little I've seen of the original actors who played the roles, it did seem like the new actors mostly did a good job.

jeremythecritic said...

I should add that I guess my major problem with it was there was little in it for me as a non-fan other than the action.

The Film Connoisseur said...

You know Jeremy, I see what your saying, but if you were a Trekkie, trust me, you would be wetting your pants with this movie.

The reason for it being that we get to see a side of the characters that we had never seen before. We get to see them training, and going to the academy and going through all these things that we had only heard about in previous films.

Trekkies always hear about the academy, and all those years they spent training in it, but we had never seen it. We always heard the Kobiyashi Maru training excercise, but I had never seen it, basically, we get to see these guys grow up, become men and women in service of the federation.

You might see it as just "another origina story", but in reality, its something Trekkies had been dying to see in a big way, and finally we get to see all of it, and done with such great production values and excellent effects and direction.

Trust me Jeremy, Wrath of Kahn wont dissapoint ya! The old Trek films always had some sort of message to them, part II was a revenge movie all the way, Part III is the search for Spock, but it also has to do with Kirk dealing with his sons death, Part IV has an environmentalist message, part V talks about religion and God, part VI is about War and Peace, they always had something to say.

This new one is mainly about getting to know where they all came from which is the big draw for trekkie fans, and new people who had never been exposed to these characters get to meet them for the first time as well, so its good on both counts.

Let me know what you think of the old ones if you ever get to see them!