Monday, May 11, 2009

A Frank Review of "Star Trek" (2009)

The Short Version? Ultimate All-Star Trek
What Is It? Action Comedy.
Who Is In It? PYTs.
Should I See It? Yes.

Like most children of my generation, I was a Star Wars fan. I saw every movie on the big screen, followed the silly television spin-offs, owned scads of action figures, and just really wanted to have a lightsaber duel whenever the opportunity presented itself. My enthusiasm led me to the wealth of rip-offs, and I'm still proud to say my mother wasted good money on the theatrical run of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century before it went straight to television a few months after release. It therefore stands to reason then that I would naturally gravitate toward the considerably less kid-friendly Star Trek.

While I may have gone to sleep on Star Wars after the heroes rescued the Princess and escaped the Death Star (not fully understanding why they had bothered, beyond that's what you did for pretty ladies,) I was unconscious in my seat at Star Trek: The Motion Picture not long after the Enterprise left port. In fact, I have yet to stay awake for the running time of that film after multiple attempts, one within the last five years. I don't recall if I saw Khan at the cinema, and never followed the syndicated reruns of the original series very closely. It wasn't until The Search For Spock that my brain had developed sufficiently to begin appreciating what the franchise had to offer... Which isn't to say it's all been wine and roses since, as I've hated every Trek pilot episode except The Cage at first blush, and only warmed to a couple of the television series thereafter (TNG and DS9, if you're curious.) All of this is to say that I'm not exactly a devout Trekkie, and I recognize that there was nowhere to go but up after the last Trek movies and series failed to generate the interest of even the faithful.

As with Star Wars, Trek has sought new life and new marketability through prequels casting pretty young things in familiar roles. However, Wars and Trek have officially swapped identities in this pursuit. Star Wars became overly enamored with its own dense continuity, suffocating on minutiae and drained of all life through stiff acting and general pomposity. Worse, Wars tried to forget its fantasy roots and focus more on hard science and politics, little realizing it lacked the structural integrity and intellect to in any way work under those terms. Star Trek has in turn shed quite a few I.Q. points and heaps of baggage to become a pretty, fast paced action vehicle. Once again, I'm reminded of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, never really science fiction nor fantasy so much as a tongue-in-cheek lark allowing sexy people to be athletic in tight uniforms, and if Star Trek's new trajectory is similar, I can live with that.

The new Star Trek is at its best when it follows its predecessors less dogmatically than intuitively, and this is most true in the casting of Chris Pine as Jim Kirk. No one could ever compare to the sublime badness of William Shatner in the role, so Pine is wise enough to steer his performance as far from Shat's territory as possible. Pine instead embodies everything you would expect from a character like Kirk; the swagger, the physicality, the sex appeal; but takes it off the page instead of taking cues from another actor. In a more perfect world, Pine would have his own character and ship to avoid comparisons, but as it is his portrayal of Kirk transforms him into a James Bond, where you can now imagine a variety of actors all offering their own debatable takes on a more malleable character than existed before.

On the other end of the spectrum is Karl Urban as "Bones," who turns in an affectionate DeForest Kelly impersonation. Urban is the comfort food for Trekkies not entirely comfortable with all the changes wrought by this chapter in the saga, but he's also the most artificial and plainly out of place component in the venture. "Bones" figures heavily into the early going as expected, but it seems like as the movie's confidence in itself increases, the torch is passed to the less faithfully interpreted crew members. Unless this take on Bones is reconsidered, I expect the dynamic will continue to shift away from the once central character in future installments.

Falling somewhere in the middle is Zachary Quinto as Spock, who lacks the trademark voice and bearing of Leonard Nimoy. The scripted take on Spock is an intense departure from what has come before, but Quinto seems so intent on downplaying everything and offering a mild variation on Nimoy that he waters the effort down. Instead of taking an unusually conflicted and adversarial role amongst the crew, Spock comes off more like overbearing middle management. For me, Quinto was the most disappointingly off the mark, especially and ironically during a couple of emotional moments requiring him to emote toward a mark on the floor. It's so silly it gives me hope Quinto might some day be unintentionally bad enough to hold a candle to the Shat.

A true Trek geek might take exception to Christopher Pike going from a contemporary of Kirk to a father figure, but Bruce Greenwood is so inspiring in a modest amount of screen time, its easy to dismiss the issue. Uhura plays a more important role in this one picture than pretty much the entirety of the decades Nichelle Nichols played her, so its a good thing Zoe Saldana gives the character presence enough to more than hold her own. There's nothing wrong with John Cho's performance, but he's still just Harold with a ridiculous sword, while George Takei remains Sulu. Simon Pegg on the other hand so overwhelms any resistance to his being the new Scotty that I could see him taking Bones' place in the new Trek trinity. Pegg comes in under highly dubious story circumstances with an Ewok in tow, and just goes balls out from there to the point you forgive it all to have him on screen. Anton Yelchin is a cute Chekov, but a bit too forced as comic relief, so hopefully they'll pull back the accent next time out. Eric Bana doesn't have much to do as the main villain Nero, aside from looking terrible compared to Ricardo Montalban's Khan. There's nothing on the page to work with.

In the WTF cameo department is Tyler Perry as a Admiral Richard Barnett, but I didn't even notice that he wasn't a typical Trek bit player until it was pointed out to me, so there's no hint of Christian Slater there. A lot of attention was paid to early casting reports of Winona Ryder as Spock's mom, which in hindsight fairly reeks of stunt casting, since what little she's given to do could have been handled by anyone. Ben Cross is far more potent as Sarek, a fine replacement for the late Mark Lenard. Faran Tahir makes a strong impression with his brief screen time as Captain Robau. Rachel Nichols looks really good in green body paint.

The script is no gem, and it is not logical. There is time travel, the really not good kind. Your best bet is to recognize that this is all an alternate reality in a multiverse that co-exists with all previous Trek-- a little Valhalla for one original series character. We're treated to stock origin material featuring Kirk and Spock as kids right out of the Goonies for maximum audience identification. Nero is a terrible, boring villain whose entire role is a pastiche of Khan moments without embellishment. The hard science isn't-- soft and limp and plain dumb more often than not. Things happen because an action beat is called for or a reintroduced character needs a spotlight moment. Because of the lack of emotional and intellectual weight, the movie is forgiven a lot of its irreverence due to its irrelevance. This is Trek Lite, a popcorn movie with lots of CGI and gags, but after so much bad Trek proper, being entertaining alone is good enough. J.J. Abrams' direction is mostly solid, though he sometimes throws the camera around to make sure no one calls him out for static television staging. Awful Tony Scott fight scenes creep in, cut so that you can only just follow the action, an awkward fit with the smoother look overall. The cast and direction works more often than not though, shaking off the clunkier script elements, and earning good will toward the future.


wiec? said...

i was never a huge Star Trek fan growing up. i always thought the costumes they wore on Next Generation looked like they worked at Burger King and the franchise as a whole looked boring and static.

but i made a drunken promise to a Trek fan friend of mine to check this one out and give it a chance. he said a lot of the same stuff you did and so i tend to think this will be a lot less painful than the Star Wars prequels.

Diabolu Frank said...

Trek has never been as smart as it thought it was, and usually worked best when driven more by personality than plot. I liked TNG at times, but all but one of their movies was dreck. Gene Roddenberry's dictate that the later Trek series be largely without conflict really sapped their drama and betrayed a lack of understanding of human nature. The new movie ignores Roddenberry in that regarding, hewing more to the goofy, violent original series and pizazz.


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