Tuesday, May 05, 2009

"Star Trek" Review

JJ Abrams' new "Star Trek" film succeeds by negating all the films, TV shows, novels and other outlets for compulsive fan obsession that have come before.  That's not really a knock on old "Star Trek," necessarily, but it is something of an acknowledgment.  The way, it seems, to make a really kickass "Star Trek" film is to stop trying to make a "Star Trek" film and just make a science-fiction adventure with phasers and Vulcans.

Abrams, co-producer Damon Lindelof and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman clearly have no interest in exploring the high-minded, contemplative, ponderous tone of classic "Trek."  Likewise, patently refuse to wade through the years and years of backstory, exposition and technical explanations that would make it difficult for new writers to invent any fresh, original narratives.  So what we have here is a painstaking, delicate bit of cinematic surgery...All of the fun, pop culture aspects of "Star Trek" with none (and I mean NONE) of the features that distinguish it from any other science fiction franchise.

Here's how they do it...Time Travel!  I know, I know, you're shocked...The creators of "Lost" are trying to escape a tricky narrative dead-end by artfully employing a gimmicky time travel device?  NO WAY!  But it's true.  The set-up...A portal through time has opened, allowing the evil Romulan captain Nero (Eric Bana) to travel into history, to the time when Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of the Enterprise crew were still trainees.  Stuck in the past, and filled with rage at an encounter with the Federation he had in his own time, Nero starts creating all kinds of trouble for the Federation.  When he abducts Commander Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who was captaining the Enterprise, he puts Spock and Kirk in command for the very first time. 

Fans of "Back to the Future II," of course, will realize that, because Nero has gone back in time and is screwing with past events, he has created an alternate future.  So Abrams, Lindelof and Paramount can, from here on out, pretty do whatever they want.  All those old stories with the original cast happened in a now-forgotten second reality that was erased the moment Nero and Co. were sent back in time.  Very crafty...

Hardcore fans may be offended by this attempt at what comic book readers call "retconning," the altering of established facts in a fictional universe to allow for new and different narratives.  I don't mind it so much.  Abrams' "Star Trek" is a very well-made, exciting summer popcorn film, and that's enough for me.  I was more entertained by "Star Trek" than any film in the series since "The Wrath of Khan."  It's fun.  You get the amusing banter between likable and familiar characters, phasers, catchphrases, Romulans, cool effects and photon torpedoes.  It's like a "Star Trek" film designed exactly for people who were vaguely familiar with the shows through cultural osmosis, or because they've watched a few of the movies on TBS while playing hooky from work.

The young actors are well cast, and generally resemble their Original Series counterparts, but only Quinto as Spock and Pine as Kirk seem to have really internalized the performances of their predecessors.  Pine has Shatner's vibe down so immaculately, on the other hand, I half expected him to get me an awesome deal on a hotel in San Francisco.  It's actually kind of amazing how seamlessly he incorporates classic Shatner-isms without resorting to the hacky "pause after every five words" routine immortalized in countless bad impressions.  John Cho, on the other hand, plays Sulu solely by being Asian and occasionally by steering the ship.  Simon Pegg has a few funny scenes in the film but makes absolutely no effort to "play" a character named "Scotty."  He just does his usual routine with a Scottish accent.

Aesthetically, everything's where it should be.  The inside of the Enterprise looks brighter and crisper than it ever has before (it is, after all, a brand new ship this time around), but it's not over-designed or made to look self-consciously "futuristic."  Abrams has also improved significantly as a director since "Mission: Impossible 3."  That film's big set pieces were choppy and flat.  "Trek" has at least 3 really large-scale, epic and memorable action sequences, including a very fast-paced, compelling opening battle and a pretty incredible sky diving scene that works in everyone's favorite "Star Trek" trope - the doomed red-shirted ensign.  It's just all reinvented to be snarky instead of sincere, and visceral instead of philosophical.

I've never been a huge Trek fan precisely because I find it a bit austere and over-serious.  Take Gene Roddenberry's basic aim - of creating a science-fiction series that grappled with weighty, metaphysical and socio-political themes - combine it with with syndicated TV-level acting and low production values, and you have a recipe for camp.  But still, I don't know if that means you just throw it all away..."Wrath of Khan" managed to be both Star Trekky and fun at the same time.

I'm reminded of "Quantum of Solace," an above-average James Bond film that nevertheless dispenses with nearly everything that makes James Bond James Bond.  Yes, there are tuxedos and martinis and a few gadgets, but at what point do you stop even making a James Bond film and just start doing a Bourne adventure with a British guy?  Abrams takes this question and explodes it - what if you took "Star Trek," invalidated everything that ever happened in it's universe, made all the characters significantly younger and forgot all about the show's major themes?  Would it still be "Star Trek"?  Well, what if you had a guy say he was "givin' her all she's got!," threw in some of the spaceships and occasionally played a riff on the theme song?  And if you have to change SO MUCH just to make it watchable, maybe it's time to leave "Star Trek" to the devotees and just start fresh?

Posted via email from LonHarris.com

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