Star Trek (2009)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/07/09 14:37:35

"Beam me up, Scotty, there's no intelligent story down here."
3 stars (Just Average)

Paramount has been trying to make a “Star Trek” prequel for some two decades now, the adventures of a young Kirk and Spock allowing them to retain familiar characters while dumping the aging stars in favor of box office-friendly fresh faces. But even with the failures of “Star Trek V,” however, the franchise was going too strong to reset it at the time; five more movies and three more TV shows were still on the way. It wasn’t until the (underrated) film “Star Trek: Nemesis” underperformed at the box office and the TV series “Star Trek: Enterprise” got cancelled that the studio finally found their opening.

But this new prequel/reboot - simply called “Star Trek,” because “Star Trek: The College Years” would just be silly - takes its mission of “to boldly modernize everything” a little too far, with the occasional embarrassing result. This is a “Trek” story that gives us cheap product placement (who knew Nokia and Budweiser are still going strong in the 23rd century? and that Nokia is still using that awful ringtone?), Beastie Boys music on the soundtrack (“Sabotage” plays under a key early sequence; later, some modern-to-us, classical-to-them hip-hop jams play at a local bar), and overlong shots of “retro” transportation (look, folks, these sci-fi future guys still love motorcycles and awesome cars!).

It’s all as wrong-headed as director J.J. Abrams’ insistence on shaky-cam close-ups and Jason Bourne fast cuts. In these moments, you can smell the studio interference; the film sometimes plays like the end result of a very bad meeting between clueless executives: “OK, make sure the whole thing looks hip and modern, or else the kids won’t like it. By the way, Nokia paid us plenty to shove their branding in there, and my son says kids these days love them their hip-hop music, and man, I’d love to see a vintage convertible! Oh, and Tyler Perry called. He wants in, too.”

Yes, really. While celebrity cameos in “Star Trek” projects are nothing new - Christian Slater somehow talked his way into a “Star Trek VI” appearance back when that meant something - the casting of Tyler Perry as a Starfleet bigwig is a real groaner. (At least Madea doesn’t show up.)

The flipside of this appeal-to-the-non-fan ethic is even more problematic. The screenplay, by regular Abrams collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, also goes overboard in pandering to the lifelong Trekkies. Kirk (now young enough to be played by Chris Pine) beds a green-skinned hottie, a shout-out to the classic TV series; winky reciting of fan-favorite catchphrases runs rampant; entire scenes are written to stir up memories of the most beloved of “Trek” projects, “Star Trek II.”

Ah, yes, “The Wrath of Khan,” the movie so many other “Trek” movies want to be. “Khan” is quoted repeatedly, both verbally and visually (one tiny alien is designed to resemble those nasty ear slugs Khan liked so much), and an entire plotline is shoehorned in to show fans how Kirk mastered the legendary “Kobayashi Maru” test. It’s not really needed, as it slows down the entire film just so we can watch Kirk be comically flippant, yet all the while you can hear fans bouncing in excitement in their seats. Most problematically, though, it that this new film reruns many of the themes that “Khan” offered up - avoidance of the no-win scenario as a character flaw; a reluctance to admit a fear of failure - yet doesn’t handle them nearly as well, leaving the film with faint echoes of a better story.

Indeed, this new “Star Trek” finds “story” as its biggest flaw. Perhaps burdened with the task of reintroducing familiar characters while making them fresh but without putting off old fans yet without putting off non-fans, too, the writers decided to use the flimsiest of plots available as a clothesline on which to hang big action sequences and sly franchise references. It’s a story that, despite involving the complete destruction of two planets and the death of billions, has no interesting villain and no tension-producing goal; a finale involving a race to save Earth from annihilation is strangely and quickly abandoned so the bad guy can just chase the heroes around a space ship for a couple minutes. There’s no weight here, no tension, no big payoff. Our villain, a renegade Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana, whose performance goes for quirky comedy instead of threatening evil, thus making Nero a completely uninteresting - and ultimately unthreatening - antagonist), aims to destroy the Federation planet by planet, yet he’s suddenly distracted so he can, I dunno, punch Spock (Zachary Quinto) or something. Heck, even the flimsy villains of “Star Trek V” and “Star Trek: Insurrection” at least had some sort of sticktoitiveness.

There is plenty of ingenuity in the small moments, however, especially in the clever (albeit totally cheating) manner in which the film sets itself up for a whole new franchise without stepping on decades of continuity. Meanwhile, the cast is almost entirely impressive, the script allowing each star in this ensemble (which also includes Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, and Bruce Greenwood) a moment or three to shine, and Abrams brings a snappy pace to the lighter moments and a whip-smart edge to the action scenes. The tone here is undeniably Abrams, fast and loose and eager to entertain. The moments that work do so well enough to make the movie enough of a fun time, if only in a moment-by-moment manner.

There’s enough that goes right here that there’s plenty of hope for the inevitable sequel, assuming Paramount can dump the Nokia ringtones and the writers can find a more effective plot. But unlike the grand ambitions of earlier relaunch, 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and 1987’s pilot for “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” this “Star Trek” has no desire at all to open up to new, oversized concepts or intelligent sci-fi specluations; this film would rather go for the quick thrill than the deep thought. It’s a sort of limited vision that goes against what the franchise does best. Is this where the future of “Trek” lies, in exciting action scenes and fun comic relief supporting underwhelming stories and stale ideas? Does this new franchise now opt to boldly go where everyone has gone before?

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