Saturday, May 16, 2009

Movie Review: "Star Trek" (minimal spoilers version)

Big Tent(pole) Revival

I wonder if JJ Abrams, like Dr. Frankenstein over the lightning-charged, re-animated body of his creation, screamed triumphantly, "It lives! IT LIVES!" when "Star Trek" finally premiered last week. He should have, because it does. IT DOES. Abrams has taken the moribund Star Trek franchise, hauled out a Constitution-class-sized defibrillator, and yelled "Clear!" loudly enough to be heard on every planet in the Federation. With Abrams' jolt of fresh energy, Trek is back, bigger and bolder than ever. Furthermore, arriving at the vanguard of the 2009 summer movie season, it sends us speeding into full summer fun mode at maximum warp and shrieking with glee.

The Cinema-Mad Sibling, La Parisienne, Il Barista, and Alessandra have all endorsed this flick (see the Sibling's writings on the subject here and here), and in my first reaction after seeing it, I seconded their enthusiasm. In fact, I just went to see the flick again with some friends earlier today.

Before I start the review, I should probably say this: the time-traveling aspect of the plot creates plenty of headaches and logic bombs, and it's by no means perfect, but it does do something crucial. It frees Abrams and his team from the crushing, suffocating constraints of 40 years of established Trek canon. Honestly, there was probably no other feasible way to do a prequel and not paint oneself into a corner. I suppose he could have tried to do some ret-conning, but he would always be limited by the canon. Establishing an alternate timeline/reality is the only way to open up big new possibilities. So, I'm not going to bash Abrams for using the plot device. I'll gladly conspire with him on this count if it means I get an awesome new vision of Trek -- and, aside from a few missteps, Abrams delivers.


Remember this priceless Onion satire? It's true. This Trek is bold, brash, fresh, colorful, and adventurous. It is, in a nutshell, FUN -- and fun that's accessible to everyone. It helps to have some familiarity with the franchise, but Trek by now is such a pop culture icon that this isn't a problem. In stark contrast to the last Trek film (2002's poorly-performing "Star Trek: Nemesis"), you don't have to be a dedicated fan in order to understand -- much less enjoy -- the film.

The opening sequence alone is a breathlessly action-packed few minutes that both sets up the background of the film overall and takes you on an emotional roller coaster. There is almost too much going on to take it all in -- and that's your first hint that the entire movie is one big thrill ride in space. It throws you unceremoniously right into the middle of the action -- and there is a lot of action.

Without giving too much away, I'll say that the flick has almost continuously breakneck pacing -- this thing MOVES in nimble bursts of energy that defies the overworked ponderousness of the
franchise's worst moments. Abrams basically plows through the story with the confident aplomb of Patton charging through France. The sets are bright and crisp, the special effects lavish and eye-popping without becoming self-parodying, the sense of immediacy energizing without being oppressive. Landscapes and cityscapes are suitably epic (though I hadn't realized that Vulcan looks like endless iterations of the Vasquez Rocks.) The film is beautiful to see, and the visual polish readily draws you into the story unfolding within it. The action is everywhere. Look for one particularly awesome sequence that makes even the transporter thrilling. Really.

Even so, no matter how pretty a flick is or how many things go BOOM in it, the core of any story is the characters, and "Star Trek" manages to walk the tightrope, both preserving the essence of its iconic officers and reimagining them (and freeing the actors to make each character his/her own). I can't think of any better way to discuss the excellent overall casting than to go down the duty roster:

James T. Kirk (Chris Pine):
In a preview of this flick, I said that the movie would sink or swim based on the performance of Pine's Kirk and the other cast members -- and Pine delivers. A relative unknown (I had seen him once before -- in the smallish 2008 film "Bottle Shock"), Pine captures the essence of the young Kirk -- brash, reckless, headstrong, troubled, wild, overconfident -- but he does it while also making him not only charismatic, but likeable. (La Parisienne specifically referred to her surprise that she liked Pine's Kirk, whereas she never really liked Shatner's version of the skirt-chasing loose cannon.) If Pine was ever nervous about inheriting the iconic role, he never lets it show. Kudos to him for bringing fresh vigor, passion, and even some humor to the role -- and even more kudos for not attempting to mimic The. William. Shatner. School. Of. Abrupt. Dialogue. There is, though, one single, scintillating moment at the very end of the film when Pine does an homage to the Shatner Kirk; blink and you'll miss that one line.

Spock (Zachary Quinto):
First off, Quinto looks uncannily like Spock. But where Nimoy's Spock carried himself (mostly) with a cold, almost Zen-like inscrutable detachment (well, OK, pon farr notwithstanding), Quinto's Spock is a coiled spring ready to pop. Under the calm exterior and even voice seethes an entire ocean of unresolved emotions in conflict. Some critics have not liked this new, raw Spock wrestling with his half-human, half-Vulcan nature and the discrimination it prompts (hasn't anyone on Vulcan figured out that racial discrimination is...err...illogical?). I like it. I like it a LOT, and I'll tell you why. It makes him far more interesting. Exhibit A: the scene of Spock's acceptance to the Vulcan Science Academy. Now if my flawed human memory serves, at some point the Vulcan sage Surak instituted the devotion to logic because -- up to that moment -- Vulcans were a wildly emotional lot given to unbridled violence. Quinto's Spock reminds us that emotions are part not only of human but also of Vulcan nature -- and that part of living in any world is the ability to deal with those emotions. Note: this film focuses on the relationship between Kirk and Spock, so the other characters are not quite as central, though everyone has good screen time and characterization, given time constraints.

Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban):
Honestly, Kiwi actor Urban is busy cementing his place in sci fi/fantasy fandom, and he had really done it even before this flick. Does he look familiar? He should. He was Eomer, cousin of Eowyn, hard-charging leader of the Rohirrim in the "Lord of the Rings" films. Here he is a pitch-perfect Bones, down to the sarcasm, the fear of space travel, and the devotion to his friend Kirk. It's great to see the "country doctor" back in space. Out of all the cast, Urban's the only one who adopts the mannerisms of his predecessor (for him, the late DeForest Kelley) -- and somehow pulls this off.

Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana):
Smart, sassy, confident, and a high achiever, this Uhura has far more opportunities to be involved than Nichelle "Hailing Frequencies Open, Sir" Nichols had. You go, girl. Aside from being eye candy for the guys and something more than "just friends" with Spock, Saldana's Uhura brings a welcome, fiery crackle of independent personality -- and proves she's more than a match for even Kirk, as she swiftly deflates his ego not once but twice.

Hikaru Sulu (John Cho):
Cho has come a long way from the lowbrow silliness of the "Harold and Kumar" flicks -- somewhere along the line, he turned into an action hero. You'll never hear the word "fencing" in quite the same way again. At the same time, Cho infuses his Sulu character with a touch of humor and some real grit. I'll look forward to more Sulu in future films, but this was a great introduction. Plus, in terms of Asian-American Star Trek heroic eye candy for the ladies, this Sulu completely runs circles around Voyager's Ensign Kim (Garrett Wang). (OK, end of girl talk.) Oh, and Asian-American ethnicity chaos: Chinese-American Garrett Wang played the Korean Harry Kim, while Korean-American John Cho plays the Japanese-American Hikaru Sulu ("San Francisco -- I was born there," hm?). Hey, but why should Paramount care? All Asians look alike anyway, right? Kidding! Sort of. Going on! (As for Cho? Hotter than kimchi, baby.)

Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin):
Russian-born Yelchin plays Chekov, and he's having a great time hamming it up with Chekov's hilariously impenetrable accent (look for a priceless scene in which not even the starship computer can figure out what he's saying). This Chekov's a young, curly-haired geeky live wire, and he's got potential. And he shows off some new geek-skills too. "NUCLEAR WESSELS, KEPTIN!" Sorry -- I couldn't help myself.

Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (Simon Pegg):
This isn't the same Scott as you may recall from the heyday of the lovable James Doohan, since comedic Englishman Simon Pegg often seems to play himself in his films (e.g., "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz," "Mission Impossible 3"). The goofy Pegg's Scott does not appear until well into the movie, but he is reliably chipper, cheerful, and wafflingly charming, with more potential than actual screentime.

The U.S.S. Enterprise:
Of course the ship is a character! And she is gorgeous. The first time I saw the ship, I just stared. She's a technophiliac's fantasy. Besides, she appeals to baser instincts too -- Look! Shiny metal objects!

The Scene-Stealer Award:
In almost every movie, there is a supporting character who steals the scene from the central figures. When I heard Simon Pegg was on the cast, I thought he would be it. He's great, no doubt, but I'm going to give the nod to Canadian character actor Bruce Greenwood for his turn as Captain Pike. He's calmly magnetic in his portrayal as a starship captain who at heart seems to be a throwback to the great heroes of the past -- confident and inspiring confidence, courageous, steady, the sort of leader men would follow to the end, commanding his scenes with a quiet, self-assured masculinity that doesn't need to shout and pose. Classy!

The movie is full of great stuff, but there are also a few wobbles.

THE BAD (minor spoilers)

I raved about how visually arresting the film is -- and it is -- but it could have been better without all the lens flares. These things seemed to be everywhere, and the long strands of wispy light are distracting in their number. I'm willing to accept a few lens flares, but hundreds?

Product placement. There is one egregious instance of product placement, and it's glaringly obvious. I won't give it away, but believe me, you'll know it instantly when it appears -- and it distracts from the scene. What's next? Covering the Enterprise in ads as if it were a NASCAR race car?

Speaking of distraction, the casting of Winona Ryder in a certain role was jarring. Whenever she's on screen, she seems out of place. Besides, her own fame/infamy makes the actress here the focus, not her character or the story. The old-lady makeup isn't convincing either, though it's nowhere as bad as Carla Gugino's in "Watchmen." As for her wardrobe, it was weirdly unflattering. What crazy fetishist designed the bodice of her gown? It's ludicrous -- and it looks really painful. Good grief, her corset shoves her upper body around until she looks as though she's going to choke on her own bosoms.

Starfleet Regulation 619. That's all I'm going to say. Its demands seem to be a mess waiting to happen. Then again, it might be the next Prime Directive -- i.e., a rule that everybody professes to value highly but that everybody ignores whenever it gets in the way. Kind of like how some politicians ignore the US Constitution. (Oops! Did I say that out loud?)

Scotty's little alien friend/pet. Why does it look like the love child of The Thing and an Ewok? Why is it even in the film? The "standard required cute character" is a feature of Disney cartoons, not Trek films.

Speaking of Ewoks, one bit of the movie seems to suffer from "Star Wars"-envy. Watch it and tell me if you didn't think of the ice planet Hoth from "The Empire Strikes Back" and the gigantic monster fish from "Star Wars Episode I: the Phantom Menace." While we're on the subject of odd creatures, Abrams' faux Hoth is inhabited by a bizarre-looking red -- um -- thing that looks like an escapee from "Spore" now hopped up on Alien Growth Hormone and a bad attitude.

Another thing. Abrams, send a memo out to every writer and then to every architect, construction worker, and builder. One word: Handrails. There was simply too many instances of people dangling from ledges, hanging on for dear life... people falling off ledges... people throwing themselves off ledges to go after people who had fallen from ledges... Once with a ledge is exciting and riveting. More than once is just carelessness. This is Star Trek, for goodness sake. There are a million different ways to imperil people. Find a cure for Ledge Endangerment Syndrome, stat!

I have two really big complaints. One: the plot depends far too much on coincidence on Delta Vega. That's all I'm going to say, but not even my willingess to suspend disbelief would let me buy this. One character even expressed the same incredulity with a single word there.

Two: the villain. Aussie actor Eric Bana plays the villain of the piece, a former Romulan mine worker turned genocidal maniac named Nero. All right, first of all: NERO? I know that the Romulans are more or less patterned on ancient Rome, but... NERO? As for the character itself, I found him lacking. Bana tries his best -- as Bana always tries his best -- but some undefinable spark seemed to be missing. His entire performance seems to depend on scowling and glowering. He did himself no favors by starting his threats to the Enterprise with a flat "Hello." Maybe Jerry Maguire had us all at "hello," but Nero's got no such charisma. As for his motivations, they seem clear enough, but his methods and plans make no sense. His attempt to explain himself, to drum up some sympathy from his sob story falls flat. One more thought: his ship looks like a giant metal artichoke, making me wonder if its engines ran on melted butter.


Go see this flick, flaws and all, because it does far more things right than it does wrong. It accomplishes the most important with aplomb: it brings the fun and magic back to the Trek universe.

A detailed critique of the actual plot (containing spoilers) will be posted later this weekend.

Mad Minerva gives this film a grade of A. (Only the second US film to receive this grade since I started grading movies like I grade papers.)

RottenTomatoes gives "Star Trek" a "fresh" rating of 95%. (Compare with 93% for my beloved "Iron Man" and 94% for the much-praised "The Dark Knight.")

"Star Trek" runs 127 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action, violence, and brief sensuality.


lumpy said...

Fun movie.

The time travel aspect also allows for the new look of everything - they aren't stuck trying to make everything look like the original series. (Yeah, small issue, but I think about these things.) Loved the transporter effects, BTW.

Chekov is just a great character. But, I am always bothered by his accent being so much harder to understand than the accents of Romulans, Vulcans, green women, and other assorted aliens.

Also, 'red matter': Yes, plausible name, but where's my beloved technobabble?

I think the main characters have all been re-invented well, and I really enjoyed all the shout-outs to the old series. You just knew the red-shirt was going to die and Kirk was going to bed with a green woman, for example, and the iconic phrases each of the characters used once, and only once. Funny stuff.

I wonder what's next.

Objectiveman said...

I can't wait to see the movie after reading your very entertaining and extensive review. About spocks vulcans being illogical, even as a kid I though emotions were logical. I thought how could one not laugh at a good joke or get angry at injustice. His pinching of the nerve to render a man unconscious was very popular with the kids. About people falling off ledges, another thing like this one was people falling off their chairs in original series. I always rolled my eyes at that one and wondered why they didn't get seat belts (before I had heard or seen any seatbelts-early 80's). Your "choke on her own bosoms" was hilarious.

Mad Minerva said...

Many thanks for the feedback , gentlemen! Live long and prosper! ;-)

Unknown said...

There is, though, one single, scintillating moment at the very end of the film when Pine does an homage to the Shatner Kirk; blink and you'll miss that one line.

Okay, I saw this movie twice, but I'm not a big Trekker/Trekkie. What was the homage?

Mad Minerva said...

It was the way Pine cocks his head and barks out "Bones!" in pure Shatner intonation style.