by Mel Valentin
"Star Trek," the much-anticipated (and for some, much dreaded), big-budget (as in $150 million, not counting P&A) reboot/prequel to the venerable franchise that began forty-three years ago on NBC with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelly in the lead roles, has, after debuting everywhere outside the United States over the last month (with the notable exception of the surprise premiere April 7th at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas), finally arrives in multiplexes. Directed by J.J. Abrams ("Fringe," "Lost," "Mission: Impossible III," "Alias," "Felicity") from a screenplay written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman ("Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen," "Transformers," "Mission: Impossible III"), "Star Trek" is (almost) everything "Star Trek" fans and non-fans were hoping for when Paramount announced J.J. Abrams would produce and direct the reboot/prequel more than two years ago.The James T. (“T” for “Tiberius”) Kirk (Chris Pine) we meet in the reboot/prequel has turned into a rebellious, anti-authoritarian young man in his twenties, prone to hitting on Starfleet cadets and picking fights he can’t win in Iowa bars. The timely intervention of Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), the new captain of the still unfinished U.S.S. Enterprise, leads Kirk to join Starfleet Academy in San Francisco. On the shuttle to Starfleet Academy, Kirk meets Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) a curmudgeonly doctor with an apt fear of space travel. In a nod to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (a film Orci and Kurtzman consider the “gold standard” among Star Trek films), Kirk solves the “unwinnable” Kobyashi Maru scenario, but his “out-of-the-quadrant” thinking leads conflict with Spock (Zachary Quinto) and a disciplinary hearing. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), a specialist in xeno-linguistics, won’t give Kirk the time of day (or night).
"Trekkies of the world rejoice!"
Kirk and Spock are rivals, not the friends became the center of the original series and the subsequent film series isn’t in evidence, but they’re also outsiders: Spock because he's half-human and half-Vulcan and Kirk due to his rebellious, anti-authoritarian conduct. The Spock we meet in the reboot/prequel isn't the cool, calculating logic machine Leonard Nimoy originated in the Star Trek: The Original Series and developed in the six sequels and The Next Generation appearances that followed several years later. This Spock struggles to keep his emotions in check, but still prefers to live his life as an emotionally controlled Vulcan (often failing). Kirk is the classic rebellious 20-something, over-eager to prove himself physically (and often losing) while living superficially.
A distress signal from Vulcan, Spock’s home planet, puts Spock and Kirk’s rivalry on hold. McCoy sneaks the academically suspended Kirk onboard the Enterprise via a semi-clever ruse (the better to give Pine and Urban the chance to engage in slapstick humor). Hikaru Sulu (John Cho), the helmsman, and Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin), a 17 year-old genius, are already onboard the Enterprise when Kirk arrives. The Enterprise has a chief engineer, but his name’s not Montgomery “Scotty” Scott. It’s Olsen (Greg Ellis). Scotty (Simon Pegg), the (future) chief engineer of the Enterprise doesn’t join the crew until almost 90 minutes into the film. Kirk “rescues” Scotty from a remote Starfleet outpost on Delta Vega, a planet in the Vulcan star system. Together, the crew of the Enterprise confronts the Narada, a tentacled, squid-like starship equipped with 24th-century weaponry captained by a vengeful, time-traveling Romulan, Nero (Eric Bana).
From the get go, Abrams expressed his desire to make Star Trek accessible to non-fans uninterested in Star Trek’s convoluted continuity or complicated character histories. In that much, Abrams has succeeded, combining a lean, efficient, tightly paced storyline with a kinetic visual style (heavy on camera movement and lens flares) that jumps effortlessly from Kirk’s birth to Kirk taking a joyride as a preteen, a young Spock encountering difficulties on Vulcan, to Kirk and Spock as young men, where the story in Star Trek appropriately takes off. The other crewmembers are introduced via (mostly) believable coincidences, with Chekov and Scotty suffering from, for Chekov, an over-broad, comic characterization, for Scotty, a highly implausible introduction late in the film. Paradoxically, Uhura gets more screen time than anyone else in the supporting cast, but is relegated into a romantic interest or supportive partner.
Concerns, partly fueled by Abrams’ statements in interviews, about turning Star Trek into Star Wars or adding Star Wars-inspired dogfights are, on balance, misguided. The starships in Star Trek still move like submarines or battle cruisers than Star Wars’ sleek space fighters. The space battles between the Federation and the Narada offer enough spectacle for three or four Star Trek films, but only rarely overwhelm the human element which Abrams establishes from the first pre-credits sequences and carries through to the final lines of dialogue. With only a few pauses for obligatory exposition scenes (e.g., to explain the underdeveloped Nero’s semi-muddled motivation), Star Trek follows a throughline from one conflict to another. Where Star Trek runs into a major speed bump, though, is the reliance on a time travel plot device to reboot Star Trek and give Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman the opportunity to mix-and-match elements from the Star Trek canon.
Time travel has been used, over-used and abused in the every iteration of the Star Trek franchise, beginning with the original series (e.g., Tomorrow is Yesterday, Assignment: Earth, City on the Edge of Forever and continuing through the last series, Enterprise (the first season hinged on a so-called “Time War” between factions from two different futures), and twice in the theatrical films, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (with the original cast) and Star Trek VIII: First Contact (with the Next Generation cast) to save or preserve the future. In the new Star Trek, time travel creates an entirely different timeline and with it, one where the characters follow divergent paths toward the same “destinies” (i.e., serving on the Enterprise together). Here, time travel is just a means to an end, but if the new status quo for the Star Trek universe means a newly reinvigorated franchise, then so be it.
Unfortunately, the action-first, story second approach, while necessary for a summer blockbuster, leaves most of the secondary characters with one or two “spotlight” scenes or as comic relief (Chekov and Scotty especially, occasionally unfunny, especially Scotty’s unnecessary sidekick). Composer Michael Giacchino (Lost, Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible III, The Incredibles) certainly has his fans, including Abrams of course, but his Star Trek score lacks the subtlety, range, or dynamism of Jerry Goldsmith or James Horner’s earlier contributions to the Star Trek franchise. Giacchino’s score only occasionally overwhelms the expensive visuals Abrams puts on screen. The production design mismatches an over-bright, overlit, iPod-inspired bridge (already dubbed the “iBridge”) with a functional engineering room over-crammed with pipes, tubes, metal gangways, and staircases.On balance, however, "Star Trek’s" problems are minor ones. Abrams accomplishes what seemed impossible just three or four years ago: bridging the chasm between "Star Trek" fans and the non-fans who make up the majority of moviegoers. With the reimagined origin story completed, the familiar crew assembled with their essences intact, Abrams’ "Star Trek" is poised for a healthy run of (commercially successful) sequels, to boldly go where "Star Trek" (hopefully) hasn’t gone before.
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originally posted: 05/07/09 19:56:16