Friday, May 8, 2009

Star Trek Review

Last night I went to see an 8PM showing of Star Trek in the Boston Common Lowes Theater. I have to say that J.J. Abrams knows how to target an audience and make a summer movie. Star Trek is not, by any means, a perfect film, but it certainly is one of the better Trek films. To avoid spoilers, let me just say that this is the story of Kirk and Spock and how they first met. That's a loaded statement, but it adequately sums up the core of the film.

The casting is spot-on. Pine is a new kind of Kirk, but not one that's difficult to accept as a close parallel to Shatner's. Quinto is a perfect Spock. I've heard some reviewers say that he's "too Sylar," but I think that's more a matter of their preconceptions of the actor than anything else. One thing to remember about Spock is that he was an emotional powder keg. Like it or not, it Spock spent much of the TV series letting spill the emotions he claimed not to have, and so it's with that view of Spock that you have to walk into this film. His emotions drive him, while his cool logical facade is just that.

Winona Ryder as Amanda Grayson is an interesting choice that I would not have predicted would work out well, but she turns out to be an excellent selection. The only casting that I wasn't fond of was Simon Pegg as Scotty. I think Simon Pegg is a wonderful comedic actor, but I was not entirely thrilled with Scotty being turned into a parody of his former character. It's a small thing, and happens far enough into the movie that it's not too distracting, but it does merit mentioning.

The film is rather deliberate about aiming for summer blockbuster status. It has an almost poetic rhythm that you can measure out: action, action, action, comic relief, action, action, character drama, comic relief. That pattern repeats over and over again throughout the film, and like a poem or song that's trying to keep the meter in the face of a difficult turn of phrase, sometimes the film tries too hard to keep this rhythm. There are scenes which have no real place in the film except to keep the action beat. This certainly keeps up the audience's adrenaline, but upon reflection, it makes for a less coherent story.

To sum up, before I get to the spoilers, Star Trek is a good Trek film and a good summer action film. It has great special effects, and is very tightly written for the most part, but it suffers from a deliberate effort to capture a new audience who don't particularly care about these characters and will come, instead, for things blowing up and people getting shot with phasers.

Spoilers Below!

As has been known in the fan world for some time, this is a Star Trek Franchise reboot. With James Bond or Batman, you just start telling a new story and the audience will follow along, but there are over 25 seasons of Star Trek television and 10 movies to consider when trying to keep up with Star Trek's continuity. Simply starting over would be very difficult on the audience, but continuing to tell stories in that universe is a nearly insurmountable task for writers. Either they need to spend more time learning about Star Trek than learning their trade (think about what kind of writer that gets you) or they need to use stunts like the one Voyager employed to move the action outside of the continuity... at which point you are left wondering why you bothered to call it Star Trek.

Along comes J.J. Abrams. His insight was simple: Star Trek has time travel. It's a deeply ingrained part of the mythos, so why not use it. In the first few minutes of the story, Kirk's father is killed on the day of his birth. This sets the time line on edge and allows for an angrier and more troubled Kirk. It also sets in motion the events that will lead to turmoil for Spock. This is all well and good, and as is openly stated in the film (in case you didn't get it on your own), this means that all bets are off and the characters and events we knew are gone forever (except for Spock whose older self from the previous timeline is now permanently present in this new Trek universe).

Anyway, the idea is simple. The execution is somewhat tortured. Essentially everything that Abrams wanted to accomplish for the franchise is accomplished in the first 10 minutes. Everything else is a "getting to know you" story, and sadly that leaves the villain in a rather uninteresting spot. In one sense that's OK because as villains go, pissed off miners (not to be confused with Kirk as a pissed off minor early in the film), aren't very interesting villains anyway. He's also in a ship which appears in no way to be Romulan, and yet we're supposed to accept that it's a Romulan ship. Sure, it's a mining ship, and that means it would look different from their military ships, but there's simply no rationale for this hybrid between a Babylon 5 Vorlon vessel and a Lovecraftian chrysanthemum. But I digress...

The Kirk/Spock relationship is well played. I could accept nearly all of their interactions, but Kirk alone is a problem. He's too angry, and frankly that doesn't play well, here. He simply would never be given a shot at being an officer until he learned to calm down and lead. Leadership is, in fact, something Kirk has to learn on the fly in this movie, and that feels wrong. Worse, he's given a ship to captain at the end of the film. Sure, he just saved Earth, but he's simply not ready to take on the administrative and personal leadership role of being captain of an important ship in the Federation's fleet. Of course it was going to happen, and there's really no way around it, but it still felt wrong.

Bones plays almost no role in the movie. He's there to get Kirk onto Enterprise and then crack wise about Spock's green blood. Now granted, that was most of his role in the series, but the movies typically treated him a bit better. It's sad because I liked the actor that played him, and I would have liked to see more of him as a character in the movie instead of a vending machines for racial insults.

So I may sound like I didn't enjoy the film, but let me be clear: I'm being critical because I actually liked it, and my prediction about Abrams was correct: his problem is that he can't execute on an idea after a certain point (e.g. second season of any TV series he's done) and a movie offers him the perfect opportunity to do what he does best and get out before it stops being interesting. Hopefully he'll do only one more film or simply hand over the reigns now. He's set up a new generation of trekkers and that's an accomplishment, but if Star Trek movies become another one of his long teases, I and many others will become disenfranchised as quickly as we were brought back into the fold.

In terms of other films, I'd place this one directly adjacent Star Trek IV, which I consider to be the second best of the series. It was no Wrath of Khan, but it was a solidly good Star Trek film and a very enjoyable summer blockbuster.

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