– Summary –
Director : JJ Abrams
Cast : Christopher Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Winona Ryder, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, W Morgan Sheppard.
Year Of Release : 2009
Length : 120 Minutes
Synopsis: A gung-ho young Starfleet cadet, James Kirk, clashes with his senior officer, the Vulcan Spock, as they fight to save the galaxy from the vengeful plans of a disenfranchised Romulan who seeks retribution for the destruction of his planet in the distant future.
Review : Superb action film with snippets of Star Trek thrown in, this is a wonderfully entertaining film for everybody: you don’t need to understand or appreciate Trek (although long-time fans will appreciate some subtle tip-of-the-hat easter eggs held within) to have a blast with this film. Trek the way it should be.
When word came down the pike that uber-director JJ Abrams (Mission: Impossible III, producer of Cloverfield) was going to take on the enormously popular (yet strangely uncool) Star Trek franchise, you could have heard the collective gasp from the Trekkies around the world in anticipation. Not since Daniel Craig was cast as James Bond has one group of fans had such a fervent and hyped change in their favorite film saga, be it for good or ill. It would be prudent to point out at this stage that the vast majority of the hype was predominantly positive, with only a few minor voices raising their disapproval at the mooted changes and ideas coming on board.
In the years since the very first Star Trek film, way back in the late 70’s (and reviewed on this website here) right up until the most recent release of Star Trek: Nemesis, which detailed the last cinematic voyage of Captain Picard and the crew from ST: The Next Generation, the franchise has, to be honest, sufferred a little from inadequate scripting and storytelling prowess, ranging at times from brilliant to cheesy puffery, little more than a shadow of the idea that Gene Roddenberry launched onto our screens in the 60’s, with Kirk & Co. Methinks that JJ Abrams realized that the best Trek was Original Series Trek, and decided to go that route and revisit the characters that launched the franchise in the first place.
Personally, I never got into the Original Series of Trek, which I have to admit makes me a little less than qualified to review this new take on the old characters given that comparisons between the two, for me, will be limited to what I’ve gleaned from internet scouring and general knowledge. I loved Next Generation, appreciated the ideas behind Deep Space Nine (the second spin-off series which debuted just after Next Generation had begun) and even enjoyed Voyager, although by now things were getting a little stale. I think I only ever watched about four episodes of the most recent TV incarnation, Enterprise, which did little to inspire me. Therefore, yet another Star Trek film wasn’t exactly going to rock my world, I figured, given the ending of Nemesis had pretty much concluded the Next Generation’s adventures which began with a whimper in the film Star Trek: Generations. However, upon learning that Abrams was involved, and with his eye for action, wit and some brilliant dialogue, I thought that things might just turn out okay. Still, I’d never really embraced the Original Series stuff as much as I had the more recent material. The films were okay on their own, but I was dead keen to find out how Abrams was going to resurrect the franchise with his intended prequel… remake… reboot…. hmmm.
With that in mind, here’s what I think of Abrams take on Kirk, Spock et al.
This film rocks. Seriously, it’s going to go down as one of the best Trek film ever, perhaps even THE best Trek film ever. Everything about this film, from the dialogue to the special effects, are of a caliber the franchise has long since been avoiding due to the sleepy, somewhat ancient, characters the storytellers have had to play with. No elderly Patrick Stewart here, or even an ancient Bill Shatner. There is an appearance by original Spock Leonard Nimoy, which is worked into the story without becoming conciliatory or shoehorned by fan expectation, so older fans will have something to smile about. However, the best thing about this Trek film is that it’s essentially a reboot, while remaining within original Trek continuity…. something that on the surface appears a little confusing but really, isn’t.
Star Trek begins with the arrival through a space singularity of Nero (Eric Bana), a Romulan bent on destroying the man known as Spock. He encounters a StarFleet ship carrying the parents of James Kirk, and Kirk’s father, George, saves the lives of hundreds of crew by flying the ship on a collision course with the enormous Romulan mining vessel. Years later, we see a younger Kirk (Christopher Pine) in Iowa, US, a renegade and arrogant young man with an authority complex and an adrenaline addiction. He’s a womanizing, sarcastic wanker, for all intents and purposes, although his elders seem to regard him as a fallen genius. On the distant planet of Vulcan, a young boy named Spock is rigorously bullied and vilified for having a Vulcan father and human mother, an example of species interbreeding that has caused him no end of emotional distress. Spock (Zachary Quinto, from TV’s Heroes) demonstrates an aptitude for excellence, although when the time comes for his acceptance into the illustrious Vulcan Academy, he refuses, instead deciding to join Starfleet.
As the film progresses, we meet a variety of fellow Stafleet Academy cadets, all of whom we know will go on to become part of the Enterprise crew in the way we have come to love, however, the charm of the film is in the “how” they get to that point. Kirk and Spock encounter each other and immediately detest their counterparts: Spock is annoyed at how Kirk changed the rules of a computer simulation designed to teach cadets about facing death, and Kirk finds Spock’s logical behavior and rigid conformity stifling and annoying.
Also along for the ride is a young Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who refuses to tell Kirk her first name. This is an ongoing joke throughout the film, and a good one at that. Dr Leonard “Bones” McCoy is also introduced, played by Lord Of The Rings star Karl Urban, and of all the characterizations of the old characters by new cast members, this is the one that works the best. Urban channels DeForrest Kelly in a way that’s both eerily brilliant and uniquely new, his performance and dry humor a perfect foil for Pine’s more antaginostic Kirk. We also meet a young Scotty, played with toothy relish by Simon Pegg, hamming brilliantly for the camera. Chekov and Sulu are also there, the latter played by John Cho, more reknowned for bringing the word “MILF” into popular culture in American Pie, and as one half of Harold and Kumar. Cho is an excellent choice for Sulu, and he does a bang up job, although not quite of the same caliber as George Takei’s indelible portrayal for decades. Even a markedly lengthy “cameo” from original Trek alumnus Leonard Nimoy is worked in well to the story, occurring naturally without seeming trite or cliched.
The ancillary characters are all given some depth due to Abrams ability to get good actors into even the smallest roles: Winona Ryder appears as Spock’s mother in what is a largely ineffectual role, and House MD actress Jennifer Morrison makes a cameo as Kirk’s mother in the film’s opening sequence. Ben Cross has a fairly stiff time as Spock’s father, Sarek, who was initially played by a more Vulcanish Mark Lenard in the original serials. Even original Enterprise Captain, Christopher Pike, played here by Bruce Greenwood (Thirteen Days, National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets, I Robot, The World’s Fastest Indian) gets a fair run at a decent characterization due to the ability of Abrams to draw a good performance from decent actors.
The main leads, Pine and Quinto as Kirk and Spock, get the lions share of material to work with, and both actors deliver well. Quinto is perfect as Spock, he was almost born to play the role, and many fans of the series were enthusiastic about him taking over from Nimoy’s ubiquitous portrayal of the famous Vulcan. Chris Pine is great as Kirk, a refreshing alternate to Shatner’s now cliched (and, I might add, rather hackneyed) version. His ability to convey a convincing arrogant personality is wonderful to behold in the assured, calm Starfleet universe, like a nuclear explosion on a calm ocean: the ripples of his actions threaten to overpower almost everything that gets in his way. Where Chris Pine came from is beyond me, giving a performance beyond his years and exposure as Kirk, and if this film doesn’t catapult him into the Hollywood A-list, then I don’t know what will. It’s a true breakout performance.
The script and story are almost secondary to the characters and the action, yet Abrams ensures we enjoy it almost as much. The dialogue is dynamic, humorous and completely fat-free, and almost so monologue-free as to be the most un-Trek-like film ever made. There are a few themes and ideas in the film that are amazingly refreshing for Trek that they almost slip by. In particular, the Vulcan version of racism is a surprise, in the way Spock is treated due to his non-pure background. This story is played out through the film, however, the blatant and almost violent racist attitude by senior Vulcan luminaries in one of the movie’s opening scenes is staggeringly un-Vulcan. It’s a shock, that a race so intelligent and enlightened can still be so bigoted in the way they treat those different from themselves. Whether Abrams intended this, or simply added it as a kind of dramatic spike in the film, it works beautifully. There are other, more subtle hints to other Trek minutia, that fans will enjoy and appreciate, but don’t get in the way of the story for non-fans.
But where the film really takes off is the action: and as with most Abrams films there’s plenty of that. Star Trek begins with a frenzy of explosions, emotive consternation, and surround sound destruction as starships and photon torpedoes are traded across the screen. Abrams’ sense of scale, dynamic action and tension are unmatched, with his ability to create a kinetic, explosive sense of timing and effortless movement within the film, a kind of roller-coaster ride with spaceships, transporters and phasers set to kill. There’s such an ease to the action, such a great visual dynamic to the widescreen scope of the film that really enhances, rather than detracts, from the usually staid and flat action we’ve come to expect from previous Trek outings. And Abrams isn’t afraid to shake things up either, and generally not always for the best. With this film, the franchise is given a new lease on life by not simply rebooting the Trek concept, but re-tooling it with a little time-travel becoming the catalyst for a diverging Trek universe. One of the films key moments, the destruction of a favorite Trek planetary body, makes the audience aware that not everything is safe and secure in this world, and by the end of the movie you understand that a new history can now be rewritten as the filmmakers desire, without having to adhere to half a century of Trek canon, which, as many have stated before, can be quite cumbersome to get around when developing new stories.
I feel I must mention something about Star Trek before I get too carried away with hyperbole and extravagance: this film is not the Trek you’re used to, or have come to hate. The female demographic who blanch at Trek generally, despising it as boring sci-fi, will be amazed at just how un-Trek the film manages to be. As mentioned above, the film is first and foremost an action film, with snippets of Trek thrown in for good measure. You don’t have to enjoy or appreciate (or even understand) Trek, to sit back and enjoy this film. So do yourself a favor, go see this film immediately.
As far as Trek films go, this tops the heap. For genuine thrills, action and emotion, this Trek is a far cry from the slow-paced adventures of yore with Kirk and Co, and even make the Next Generation crowd look positively ancient. This is dynamic, fast paced storytelling, a breath of fresh air in the Trekiverse, and a film that many have probably been waiting for a very long time. Astonishingly brave, taking these once derivative and exhausted characters into fresh, new territory, Abrams has revitalized yet another franchise with his amazing storytelling ability, and for that, he is to be applauded. And to be able to do it with a film that doesn’t rely on extensive Trek history or knowledge, and make a film that’s enjoyable to such a broad audience, is an astonishing feat. For me, this is one of the top films of the year, both as fun entertainment, and as a genuinely enjoyable film all round.