“Live long and prosper” is the least that one could say about the Star Trek franchise. Over four decades have passed since the first incarnation of Gene Roddenberry’s brainchild. The original series, known for it’s cheese and moral pomp, ran a mere three seasons, but nonetheless inspired eleven movies, five television series, countless books, toys, videogames and, above all, generations of space enthusaists and geeks. Daunting, then, is the task of re-introducing the classic characters onto the big screen. Thankfully, director and television impresario J.J. Abrams rises to the occasion to make Star Trek (it’s actually the first film to bear that name alone) not only a welcome addition, but an inspired thrill-ride which really kicks summer 2009 into gear.
Unlike some other 2009 blockbuster, screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have crafted a legitimate origin story for the franchise. The film opens with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock as children on their respective planets showing a distinct promise of greatness. Over the years, the Star Trek galaxy has become so vast that the characters within it seem to have shrunk in stature, considered more to be model citizens of the Federation than anything more. By focusing on the early years of these two shipmates, Mr. Abrams is emphasizing that Kirk, Spock and their cohorts are not the norm; they are extraordinary; they are superheroes.
Any remake (rehash or reboot, whichever you prefer) suffers from comparison to its forebears, but Mr. Abrams and friends have found the perfect plot to circumvent continued scrutiny, opening up poetic leeway for the assumed sequels to come. The plot is simple yet elegant, laid out in a perfect linear manner. As I said before, this is a true origin story, and all of the hero story beats hit on every mark. The added fun here is that our two main characters, Spock and Kirk, antiphonally fill the shoes of student and teacher for each other. This push and pull of one hero against another is not only fascinating, it’s great fun to watch.
Chris Pine slips nicely into the captain’s chair as James T. Kirk, the role that made William Shatner a household name. Ditching the Shat’s signature pentameter, Mr. Pine retains the attitude of the original of the character without delving into impersonation. Confident, skilled, smug and dead sexy, this is the Kirk we have all known for so long but in a more youthful body. Similarly, Zachary Quinto dons the pointy ears of Mr. Spock, but imbues the character with his own brand of emotional sophistication. He feels a little more relatable than Leonard Nimoy was in the same role, I want to say more human. This is a wonderful progression for Spock and I can’t wait to see where Mr. Quinto takes this.
The other performances are what some would call impersonation, but what I would call skilled homage. My personal favorite is Karl Urban as Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Mr. Urban pulls off a perfect young DeForest Kelley, who played the role originally; he offers up that recognizable gruffness while introducing his own bright-eyed views of space travel. The same goes for British funnyman Simon Pegg as Montgomery Scott, or Scotty. While his resemblance to a young James Doohan is not as noticeable, he does reprise the signature wit and charm of the Scotch engineer.
Also, Bruce Greenwood broods as the aging Captiain Christopher Pike and Anton Yelchin provides some xenophobic laughs as Pavel Chekov. The only egregious misstep is the role of Lieutenant Uhura, in which Zoë Saldana does her best to hold her own as the lone woman on the bridge but can’t quite rise above her designation as eye-candy. It is unfortunate that a series so dedicated to a unified Earth still relies on things like Chekov’s pronounciation of the letter “V” or Uhura’s sex appeal to keep people grounded. Ms. Saldana is certainly the loser here, because while we get to see Chekov’s technical acumen and heart of gold on display, all we really see of Uhura is her thighs.
Visually we are offered inspired eyefuls from the first frame to the last. The special effects are a wonder and the action scenes are enthralling, particularly a duel featuring Mr. Sulu coming out of his intellectual shell. The cinematography itself is fine, but I wonder about the extensive use of lens flair throughout. On one level, it enhances many shots by adding an extra layer of information to the frame. Still, it seems to take away more than it adds and serves no emotional purpose as it did in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. Director of photography Dan Mindel may not pull in any awards for this film, but he sure as hell can make an action scene come together with incredible flair (no pun intended). I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Giacchino’s appropriately bombastic score, which elevates so many key moments of the film, including the opening title, to the kind of heart-pounding experience that makes you want to jump out of your seat and cheer.
J.J. Abrams is known for his compelling mystery work (you can read what he thinks on the subject here and listen to his thoughts here). In the past decade he has captivated a nation with his multiple twisted television series, but this is only his second feature as director. How appropriate then, that one of our most prolific television writers helm a cinematic adaptation of one of our most beloved skeins. Infamously approaching the project as a non-Trekkie, Mr. Abrams cut through the fandom and lore in an effort to find the human (and Vulcan…you know what I mean) story at the core. This year’s Star Trek holds its own not only against the rest of the franchise but against all other competitions. I find it hard to believe that you have more fun at any other movie this summer, but it’s only mid-May. Here’s to a great start to summer 2009.