08 May 2009

Movie review: Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek (2009)
Dircted by J. J. Abrams. Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Ben Cross, Winona Ryder.

My relationship to the Star Trek franchise is chronicled here. Now let’s get on to this movie.

In Star Trek ‘09 you get to see Spock beat the living crap out of Kirk. Me likes. Me likes a lot.

Now on to the rest of the review.

So there’s this Romulan guy named Nero (played by some tattoos with the backdrop of Eric Bana) who is very angry because somebody accidentally blew up his planet. Thanks to a singularity, he goes back in time to wipe out the United Federation of Planets one planet at a time using a “black hole gun” borrowed from Godzilla vs. Megaguirus so he can make everybody feel as rotten as he does. However, a certain someone else has also flown through the singularity to save the past through a manipulation that will create the famous crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise as we know it so they can confront the menace of Nero and his Really Big Drill Thingy.

I have to tell you right now, I’m having a blast writing this review. This is so much geek joy. I love that I’m having fun writing about a new “Star Trek” product. Cool. Neat-o. Warp Factor 10.

You might guess by now that I like this film. In fact, I’m liking it more and more with each passing hour since leaving the theater. When the movie concluded and the credits started to pop up over a pleasing new rendition of Alexander Courage’s famous TV theme, I felt happy and satisfied, although I didn’t think the film was “great” or “classic”—certainly no threat to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But I keep getting happier thinking about the film; I’m glad it’s out there, that I enjoyed it, and that it did most things correctly when it could have easily done everything wrong. It’s a fine movie, fine science fiction, and fine “Trek.” Some hardcore fans won’t care for it—can’t please everybody—but most fans will enjoy it, and I wager that most non-fans will love it.

As an adventure story, Star Trek is surprisingly slim. There’s technobabble and a boring villain, and frequently I had trouble determining exactly what the heroes were trying to achieve, since director Abrams glibly jumps through the exposition. Some scenes appear with jarring illogic (snicker), like Kirk marooned on an ice planet and running from one of the monsters that failed the audition for the Abrams-produced Cloverfield. Too much of the plot depends on outrageous coincidence and it keeps threatening to jump into huge logic (tee-hee) holes. For example, because of a scene that ended up getting sliced out after the test screenings, it appears that Nero wandered around doing nothing for twenty-five years after his arrival in the past. A good amount of the energy put into the screenplay consists in re-writing Star Trek’s early history without destroying the later continuity. This is the only place where I think the movie might alienate non-fans, since they have no interest in continuity anyway. When a character has to pointedly talk about the creation of an alternate universe, it’s aimed strictly at the fans to reassure them that the old history is not going away; everyone else watching the film will wonder why it’s even getting brought up.

But none of these script and story problems matter much because the movie rockets ahead so fast and embraces the characters. The hell with the plot, hardly matters: it gets us to those awesome crew members of U.S.S. Enterprise, and they’re the reason we showed up in the first place.

And Abrams has gotten together a great crew, with performances that range from fresh interpretations to freakishly close re-creations. Chris Pine as James Tiberius Kirk is one of the interpretive performances. I adore William Shatner, but his portrayal of Kirk has turned into such easy stand-up routine fodder during the last thirty years and his stylistic acting would make no sense in this new setting. Pine’s (and Abrams’s, I assume) choice to play “Kirk” instead of “Shatner” is the smart one. The character I saw on screen is James T. Kirk, with the same swagger and confidence and “go to Hell” attitude that I love about him. Right on, Pine!

The flip side of Pine’s Kirk is Quinto’s Spock. The young actor moves more toward copying the mannerisms of the actor who preceded him in the part… necessary, because that actor is also playing the part in the film. (So I guess he doesn’t strictly “precede” him.) When Spock meets Spock, they better damn well match up or nobody will buy it. And they do match. Quinto has the role packaged and nicely tied up. This is young Spock—I believe it. And of all the cast he looks the most like his original. The make-up helps, of course.

As good as Pine and Quinto are, two other performances nearly rip the film away from them. First is Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy. I’m biased a touch because McCoy is absolutely my favorite character in the history of Trek, and having him back, no matter who is playing him, makes me feel great. But Urban is—wow. I mean, wow. I really mean “wow.” And I hate the word “wow” and I’m using it over and over again anyway. Because Karl Urban as McCoy is just—wow.

The other scene-stealing performance is from some old guy named Leonard Nimoy. He is and ever will be my friend. Live long and… oh, you know the drill.

The poorest performance? Bana, honestly, and it’s not completely his fault because the script sketches Nero as a dull villain with a hackneyed revenge motive, basically a quickie version of Khan. Star Trek has boasted a number of memorable villains during its history (Khan, the Borg Queen, Q, Gul Dukat, Kang, a probe asking a humpback whale for a date), but it has never needed them strictly to survive the way the James Bond franchise does, so Bana as some bald angry guy with the Guitar Hero logo stamped on his face doesn’t hurt the film too much.

On the side of the crew, it doesn’t seem fair to criticize John Cho harshly for an uninteresting Sulu, because Sulu is the least interesting of the original Enterprise crew. At least the script grabs the only really intriguing thing about the character—he likes fencing—and uses it. Simon Pegg hits his Scotty a bit broadly, but I still enjoyed having him around. And where’s Anton Yelchin’s dopey Davy Jones haircut? A silly Russian accent needs a bad haircut.

This is the most stylized of the Star Trek films since Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with a busy and twirling camera. Sometimes it’s distracting watching the image swoop all over the bright white iMac bridge of the Enterprise, but the film has tons of energy and feels far more modern and up to date than the stodgy last two “Next Generation” films.

But one stylistic aspect that I think Abrams mishandles is the treatment of the Enterprise herself. He doesn’t fetishize it enough. Perhaps he wanted to avoid the prolonged ogling the ship got in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but he’s gone off the other direction so that the ship doesn’t have the powerful romanticism I associate with it. McCoy’s and Kirk’s first view of the ship in space, which should be one of the major moments in the movie, comes across a tad underwhelming. And the music doesn’t sell the ship either—not the way a certain Mr. Goldsmith did back in 1979.

In fact, the score is the only thing toward which I will make a bold, flat-out objection, and that is: it’s bad. This surprises me because I’ve loved so many other scores from Michael Giacchino, and considering that he did the killer retro-‘60s score for The Incredibles, I anticipated something amazing from him in Trek-world. He does have two serious disadvantages in approaching a Star Trek film, neither his fault: his first name isn’t “Jerry” and his last name isn’t “Goldsmith.” But even given this handicap (and James Horner managed to overcome it), why did he turn in a completely unmemorable roll of wallpaper for a score? I have no trouble with the music mostly ignoring the famous Alexander Courage “Theme from Star Trek” until the end, but Giacchino has nothing remotely intriguing to replace it. The music sounds like any other modern action score, and for a Star Trek film I can’t accept that. Abrams should have used a singularity to travel into some alternate universe, locate a still living alternate Jerry Goldsmith, and bring him to our universe to score the film. I wonder how an “evil” Jerry Goldsmith would score the movie.

Star Trek ‘09 enlivens the franchise after a long and dreary period, and it may turn a whole new generation of folks into Trekkers. At the very least, it will entertain just about everybody who watches it.

A final observation: At one point, Kirk smacks his head into a low beam aboard a ship. This might be a reference to the worst moment in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I hope it is. That would be beautiful.

Okay, New Trek, get out there and prosper and live long and all that stuff.
Update: Some new views based on watching the DVD.