Friday, May 22, 2009

Boldly Reviewing

Star Trek (2009)

I am not one of those who cry out THEY CAN’T DO THAT the moment they hear something they love, a film or TV show, attempts to do something different. It all depends on HOW they do it. The James Bond film franchise has not only survived for over 40 years but thrived by recasting the lead role several times and by changing the tone of the series, bringing it back to seriousness when it strays too far into comedy. The Batman films have had four actors over 20 years portraying the Dark Knight. The Bat-films started with Tim Burton’s quirkiness, followed by Joel Schumacher’s cartoonishness, and now we currently have Christopher Nolan’s dead-serious realistic take. For decades Lawrence Olivier was seen as THE Shakespearean actor for stage and screen, but then a young man named Kenneth Branagh came along with a passion and dedication, and arguably a talent, nearly equal to Olivier’s. Now 43 years after it debuted on television, the original Star Trek series is remade for the big screen.

Why did we have to wait so long?

Like the first films of recent superhero movie series, this Star Trek film is an “origin story” showing who these people are and how they came to be together. It centers on Kirk and Spock, but the rest of the Enterprise crew, especially McCoy and Uhura, is also given their due. The plot is simple enough on the surface: Captain Pike, commander of the new flagship U.S.S. Enterprise, is tasked with leading a small armada of ships crewed by young officers and cadets to answer a distress call from planet Vulcan. Unknown to them Vulcan is really under attack by a renegade Romulan named Nero, who wants to destroy the planets that make up the Federation, starting with Vulcan, then the Earth.

In addition to an origin story, it is also a classic heroic quest film, following a young James T. Kirk from aimless brash Iowa farm boy to focused brash Starfleet cadet, then on to his adventures on and off the Enterprise. (There have been some criticisms that this Star Trek tale rips off the original Star Wars - what with the farm boy, old mentors and monsters along the way - but they both were simply following the classic heroic quest “template.”) The story also focuses on a young Spock, showing his great difficulties growing up as literally a child of two worlds (in a touching scene that must have been inspired by the Star Trek Animated episode “Yesteryear” written by D.C. Fontana, we see a 9 or 10 year old Spock being bullied by Vulcan boys, tormented and harassed for having a human mother).

They really hit the nail on the head with the cast. The moment they announced Zachary Quinto, the villain Sylar from TV’s Heroes, was playing Spock they had me. He doesn’t simply parrot Leonard Nimoy’s performance, but makes it his own. Karl Urban does inspired work as Dr. McCoy (he makes me miss the late DeForest Kelley, the original “Bones,” something fierce). Zoe Saldana as Uhura is given more to do in this one film than Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura in the three years of TOS and six feature films. Saldana is beautiful and her Uhura comes across as smart, more than capable, and spunky. John Cho of Harold and Kumar fame shows promise as Helmsman Sulu and he handles a pivotal action scene quite nicely. Simon Pegg’s Scotty is the movie’s comedy relief, sort of Shaun of the Engine Room. Anton Yelchin is the very young Chekov (now a physics or math whiz kid). He also brings the funny in an honest way. The always reliable Bruce Greenwood shines in his few scenes as Capt. Pike. The weak link though is Chris Pine as Kirk. Pine’s voice grated on me: it was far too high-pitched, making him come across as whiney. I didn’t buy him as someone who could command a huge vessel with so many lives at stake, especially since director J.J. Abrams has apparently DOUBLED the size of the Enterprise and her crew. Matt Damon in the Jason Bourne movies was able to generate an air of authority, intelligence, competence and conviction – often without speaking - which is something Kirk needs and Pine was not able to do. That’s why Hollywood coined the term “leading man” – some people walk into a room and you know they are in charge. Unless Pine does some serious fine tuning, he will always stick out as a sore thumb in future Star Trek films.

The visual effects of six of the previous Star Trek films were handled by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, but as good as they were, they never matched ILM’s work on the Star Wars series. I always thought they used ILM’s “B Team,” leaving the “A Team” on Lucas or Spielberg projects. Well, the “A Team” definitely worked on this Star Trek. Holy cow! The CGI Enterprise and Kelvin starships looked and “felt” real, even though they were only pixels in a computer. I just hope they continue to do the Star Trek films, especially if they "boldly go where no man, etc."

I think the biggest problem with this movie is that the filmmakers felt they had to throw a bone to the rabid, hardcore fans, specifically those people that worship the Star Trek “canon.” Simply put, canon is everything that has come before - it’s continuity from not only the original Star Trek series and movies featuring Kirk and company, but also includes the sequel and spin off series The Next Generation (plus its feature films), Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. That is over 700 hours of Star Trek back story to file and get straight! They do it with a time travel story that segues into an alternate reality story.

I would have preferred they simply start from square one by telling the story of how these characters met without this film’s convoluted time travel and alternate reality angles. They could be true to the original characterizations, the universe and themes of Star Trek, but without having to be a slave to every little detail that came before it. For example, it’s important to the character that Spock grows up having difficulty balancing his human and Vulcan halves – this was established in such TOS episodes as “Journey to Babel” and is carried over to the new movie. But I don’t give a shit if they show Vulcan with or without moons - in Star Trek: The Motion Picture they depicted Vulcan with at least two large moons in orbit, which contradicted Spock’s line in one early episode that “Vulcan has no moons” and a lot of canon fans went bananas. Too many fans are so infatuated with such details, minutia really, that they forget the best parts of this franchise: the wonderful characters and the types of stories that only Star Trek can tell.

I’ve seen this film twice now, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. It’s fun, it’s touching at times; it has great characters that are true to the originals, and thrilling action and effects. The music is rousing.

It’s the original Star Trek. And it’s back.

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