Friday, May 08, 2009

Review: Star Trek (XI)

"Star Trek" the franchise is 43 years old. If it was experiencing a midlife crisis for the past seven quiet years after Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) it has now emerged with a flashy new vehicle and facelift to restore an impression of vigorous youth. The flashy new vehicle in question is driven by JJ Abrams, the television wunderkind behind Lost, and the youthful sheen comes from new actors all of whom, save John Cho (as Lieutenant Sulu), are younger than the actors who originated the same characters were in 1966.


Since Star Trek is so long in the tooth, we bring a lot of personal history into the theater with us. For my part, I grew up with it in heavy rotation. My entire family and several of my friends loved it. I did not. Unless the Lieutenants, Uhura and Sulu, were prominently featured in an episode I despaired that I couldn't watch something else. Maybe it's hard for anyone under, hmmm 28 (?), to contemplate but it's true: in the 70s and for most of the 80s there were not 100s of channels, DVRs, plentiful home computers, internet television ... there really wasn't a way to not watch what everyone else wanted to watch. Unless you went without TV... GOD FORBID! So I grew up resenting Star Trek and I bailed as soon as I could. I've only seen a few episodes of Next Generation, never seen an episode of Voyager or Deep Space Nine. My knowledge of ends 'round about the mid to late 80s... and if the new film makes any reference to movies Star TrekVI-X, I wouldn't know. I can only assume it does. One could even title the new movie Star Trek XI: Deep Space Punchine because it's very interested in poking fun at its own history.

Which is not to say that Star Trek (2009) is an winking self parody. It finds the right balance between action, drama and comedy. Since we didn't need another Star Trek movie, we should be very grateful that this one isn't heavy with portent. So many gazillion dollar spectacles are. It has fun with the concept of this particular universe rebooting, quite literally at that, given the time warp plotting.

The rebooting happens by way of a prologue in which the evil Romulan Nero (an unrecognizable Eric Bana) emerges in the past (our future) from the future (even more futurey!) and kills Captain Tiberius Kirk, Kirk's father. Nero seems miffed at which Stardate he's returned to and we find out a little later that he was a bit earlier than expected. Sound confusing? That's time travel for you! See he wasn't out to kill Kirk's father (like some Terminator on a Sarah Connor mission) but to wreak elaborate revenge on Admiral Spock (Zachary Quinto). This murderous kickoff is dramatic, action packed and if it's a touch over the top (Kirk Jr's birth has to be shoehorned in to up the dramatic ante) it's still an effective opener.

Cut to: Key shorthand bits from Spock and Kirk's childhoods (a bit extraneous given our familiarity with the characters) and then we're on to several scenes which reintroduce us to the half dozen characters we presumably know and love detailing how they came to know each other and join Starfleet. This is a lot for a movie to juggle before it's even approached it's major plot conflict but Abrams and his screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman keep the pacing zippy and the introductions wisely spaced out and interwoven with the larger narrative of Kirk and Spock's journey towards the bridge of the Enterprise.

For instance, Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is slipped into our first true chance to study Chris Pine's Kirk but we don't get Scotty (Simon Pegg) for a good long while. There are too many origin stories in genre fare (as if audiences hate using their imagination for back story) but this time it doesn't feel like a burden, partially because it's broadly sketched but also because the actors are encouraged to have fun with these familiar and, let's face it, limited personae. Star Trek is often clever and though some jokes are obvious or purely nostalgia based ("Dammit Jim I'm a doctor not a..."), the movie doesn't stop to admire any of this fancy storytelling footwork. It's too busy leaping and running through the scenes.

The production design is also wisely calibrated. This world is light and airy, immediately setting it apart from all the heavy handed and darkly hued genre fare we've been seeing for several years. It's shiny and modern enough to feel jangly and fresh but bright and colorful enough to feel a bit retro. Again, they've achieved a crucial balance.

But back to the storytelling. By the time the Enterprise crew is in pursuit and then direct combat with Nero the movie has clearly formed its identity as an action film first, a nostalgic dramedy second. The pacing in the second half is a bit more questionable with two action sequences (an alien monster chase and a comic piece with an endangered Scotty) that could have been discarded without a single effect to the narrative -- which probably means they should have been. The one "break" from the action, the entrance of old Spock (Leonard Nimoy), is that rare "exposition" scene that doesn't overstay its welcome and also fuses the action plot with the character journey in a particularly pleasing way. More action films should make sure these two elements work in tandem.


There are a few hints that they were really read to rethink the franchise -- I loved the early (red herring) suggestion that the USS Enterprise would have a different heirarchy of power -- but the movie mostly works as revival rather than as a reimagining. I'm not sure how much staying power the new Star Trek installment will have (though it will definitely power future installments making the question moot) but it's a breezy and entertaining two hour blockbuster. And remember, I don't even really like "Star Trek." Buy lots of popcorn. B+
*

26 comments:

Nate Tyson said...

This just makes me want to hop in my car right now and speed over to the theater.

NATHANIEL R said...

does that mean i've finally become a proper blurb whore?

Cristhian said...

No mention of Winona Ryder? :-(

NATHANIEL R said...

it's a cameo

Carl said...

Just saw it, and I have to say I am truly underwhelmed. Take this as a perspective offered by someone who grew up with and adored the original series (apply grain of salt or fistfuls of rock salt, depending on tastes) but I felt the story and character development were both weak. Maybe the critical hype had artificially raised my expectations...tough to say.

After two dissapointments in a row, and with "Angels and Demons" on deck, I think I have to agree with the folks who are saying 'bring on December and "Avatar", already'.

Nate Tyson said...

Nope, just a testament to my faith in your tastes. I was already pumped about the movie, and your review pushed it over the top. You're not one to follow critical group think, so I know the buzz is genuine.

Great, now I sound like a total suck-up.

Wayne B. said...

Oy, took a lot to NOT READ this review, trying to avoid any spoilers/expectations for this one. I really want to see it based on the trailers; haven't been exposed to Star Trek that much in my life so this movie will be an introduction to these characters. Is it satisfying for people who have no previous knowledge about the show?

Nate Tyson said...

Wayne:

I haven't seen the movie, but almost every review has made it a point to say that no prior knowledge is necessary to enjoy the film.

Wayne B. said...

Nate Tyson - OH SWEET! Now I'm REALLY excited. Thanks for the info.

NATHANIEL R said...

Carl... well maybe it's more for people who don't love Star Trek, like me? I don't think it's deep or 'great' in any particular way but it is a fun easily enjoyable summer movie. My take at least.

Jim T said...

I really want to see this film. Yesterday if possible. Maybe it is...

I can skip Terminator, Transformers, Public Enemies (alright, maybe not this one) but not Star Trek (though i know nothing about the story).

PS: Nate, how did you not mention Julie & Julia trailer?

PS2: Swinton got excellent reviews for her performance in Julia.

PS3: I think everytime I write PS it's like advertising PlayStation. Weird :p.

Bernardo said...

Judging from the review I was expecting a B-.

Was quite surprised to see the B+...

I really need to watch this movie...

moviefreak said...

Nathanial, you stole my thunder. I couldn't have said it better. I'm by far a huge Star Trek fan. I enjoyed the series but I'm by far not a expert ( Trekkie )
Is it going too far out on a limb saying that I truly think this will be the top earner for 2009 ?
I think as pure filmmaking goes, it doesn't get much better. Technically it's impressive. The editing is precise but not Tony Scott choppy ( which I'm tired of )so the pacing is just great, but not too fast. The cinematography is top notch too. The chemistry with the cast and the acting seems very genuine and not awkward, and as smooth as melted butter. And the visuals ? Some of the best I have witnessed. I will say one thing here that I told one of my serious movie going friends, and that is don't go into Star Trek with your serious crticial hat on as if you were going to critique There Will Be Blood or Michael Clayton. Go in looking to be entertained. Just sit back enjoy and have fun.
Oh...Oscars ? I say for sure nominations in Sound Mixing, Sound Editing and Art Direction. Possibles for Editing, Cinematography, Makeup and Original Score.
Good times to be had for all. Sit back and enjoy the ride and take your critical hat off for once.

18 Year Old Blogger said...

I have never seen a Star Trek episode or watched any of its movies but I have to say that this movie is fantastic.

I really wasn't expecting to like this but the writing, directing, and acting were all brilliant. Pine and Quinto also made a great team.

Rob said...

I thoroughly enjoyed it. I like Star Trek. I like JJ Abrams. But I actually thought it was better than anticipated.

Just wanted to add something to your review. It's NOT "Tiberius" Kirk that gets killed in the Beginning... His name was George Kirk. ;)

adelutza said...

Well, I read quite a few reviews of Star Trek after I saw the movie and they all praised it. I can't say I didn't like it because I really enjoyed the cinematography and the special effects and I really think that this is an important ingredient of every movie, specific to the medium. But the story...really, even now after all the reviews, I didn't quite get it who came back in time who went forward in time, and more importantly why. But I guess it doesn't really matter, does it?

NATHANIEL R said...

moviefreak... i'm glad we both enjoyed but i never advise taking off the critical hat. It's a myth that being a critical person prevents you from loving entertainment. I'm a very critical person but sometimes I think films I give like a "B" I love more than people who say I'm too harsh on them ;)

rob, thanks. i am not a trekkie and I was bound to screw a name up here or there. I shall correct.

Emily said...

Carl, you and I are usually in agreement on sci-fi/fantasy books and movies, but I have to disagree with you this time out. I loved Star Trek and thought its relatively light storyline and character development was perfectly in line with the characters' youth and inexperience. It wasn't perfect, of course, but it did a whole lot better job of integrating battle sequences with a meaningful overall plotline than Hugh Jackman's unfortunate outing last week. (I long for a movie where Jackman's talent isn't completely wasted...)

I'll definitely be looking forward to seeing more of these actors in future Star Trek movies...especially if they can hang on to this director!

Coffee Nomad said...

I absolutely loved all the characters except for the new Spock -- i liked the original stoic version more than the new condescending version

lylee said...

Really liked it! though I have issues with time travel storylines, and this one's no exception. Not exactly a Trekkie, more of a Next Generation gal, but I always did love the Kirk-Spock dynamic and enjoyed the twist on it here.

Also...unrecognizable or no, Eric Bana is still kinda hot under all the tattoos and baldness. Or maybe that's just me.

NATHANIEL R said...

it's not just you.

Ian said...

This was wonderful. Much more than it deserved to be. Can't wait for the next film. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are an explosive duo! "Star Trek" forever!

Kurtis O said...

My take:
http://yourmoviebuddyreviews.blogspot.com/2009/05/star-trek.html

Notluke said...

Here's another non-fan who almost unexpectedly loved this movie. (*Almost*, because come on, there must have been some good signs to convince me to suddenly go and see a ST film in the cinema for the first time in my life.) I seriously doubt any film in the Summer Movie category, and very few in general, will I enjoy more this year.

Also: in a film full of actors I adore (Pegg, Greenwood,...), quite unexpectedly Karl Urban (McCoy) turned out to be the best in show. Also also: if Giacchino doesn't get a second nomination for this I'll be very very sad.

PS. Since you are not into Lost, you are forgiven for not mentioning this, but it must be said that according to the writers themselves, Damon Lindelof, while credited as Producer only, helped a lot with the script. Which considering his track record (Lost) and theirs (Transformers) may explain why it's so good.

Declan said...

I wonder what some of the diehard Trekkies thought of this film, not these fairweather non-fans (no offense guys!) In some ways, this film wasn't made for them, but that might go a long way to squash my reluctance to see this opening weekend (and part of the reason why I didn't). I loved the "Star Trek" films growing up, but now I've become one of those "wait for the DVD" people. I'm being told all over that this is one you don't want to miss seeing in the theaters. Dilemma!

Past Expiry said...

Speaking of Star Trek, here's a cartoon about Spock and Twitter…
http://pastexpiry.blogspot.com/2009/08/cartoon-star-trek-meets-twitter.html
Past Expiry Cartoon *LINK*