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Saturday, May 02, 2009

GEEK ALERT!!! EARLY STAR TREK REVIEW (with kinda/sorta spoilers)

Vaulties-

I've arrived in the UK and am currently sitting in Jewish Warrior Princess' living room, and while checking my emails I received the following report from Glenn "the Jew" Greenberg, an old friend, Marvel Comics colleague, and hardcore original series STAR TREK goon:

This may well be the most challenging movie review I've ever written, because I have so much to say about this movie, but I can't go into details because I don't want to spoil it for people who haven't seen it yet (which, as of this writing, means just about EVERYBODY).

I'll say right off the bat: I give STAR TREK a thumbs-up, but with a few reservations.

I totally get what J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are trying to do here, and I support it. Without giving too much away, they're trying to restart the Star Trek franchise by going back and focusing on the iconic, beloved, original characters who put Star Trek on the cultural map in the first place. And they want to do it without being locked in to what was established so definitively in the 79 episodes of The Original Series (TOS), six movies, and even in the spin-off TV shows The Next Generation (TNG), Deep Space Nine (DS9), Voyager (VOY), and Enterprise (ENT).

It makes sense to go back to the original crew. With the TNG crew played out after 2002's execrable STAR TREK: NEMESIS and none of the other spin-off shows warranting a promotion to the big screen, Abrams and company really had only two choices: create an entirely new crew and concept and risk audience apathy, or go back to the familiar but put a whole new coat of paint on it. Let's face it: it was not that difficult a choice to make. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov are still the best-known characters of the franchise. It's been many years since anything significant has been done with them on screen. And it would be very difficult to pass up the chance to tackle these classic characters and put a fresh new spin on them and the universe they inhabit.

In taking this approach, Abrams and company did neither a total reboot, a la the Sci-Fi Channel's recently completed Battlestar Galactica TV series, nor a proper prequel that ties in directly and adheres faithfully to the established continuity. It's a little of both-the filmmakers try to have it both ways. And for the most part, they succeed.

They manage to show respect and to incorporate everything that came before, but they also manage to make a break from the past and take things in a new direction-one in which the futures of these characters are not set in stone. Yes, we saw Kirk promoted to Admiral and reunited with his entire crew aboard the Enterprise in STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. Yes, we saw Spock die in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN and be resurrected in STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK. And we saw Kirk die in STAR TREK GENERATIONS.

But none of that applies anymore. The fates of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest are now unwritten. Anything can happen to them. Some can die, or leave Starfleet in a huff, or lose a limb. This adds a tremendous amount of suspense and drama to the proceedings, because you CAN'T rely on prior knowledge-what you know from the TV series and the movies is no longer applicable.

So this movie is not really a prequel in that it doesn't set the stage for TOS. It simply CAN'T. You won't be able to walk out of this movie and then sit down and start watching the original TV series and the original-cast movies and have it feel like a seamless fit.

And that doesn't bother me, really. Why bother going back to Kirk and his crew and making new movies about them if we already know exactly how their lives are going to play out over time?

What I DO have a quibble about-and this is the kind of thing that could ONLY come from a longtime Star Trek fan who's very familiar with the material-is the WAY in which Abrams and his team get to where they want to go.

Again, without giving TOO much away, this movie treads on some of the same ground that we saw in TOS episodes like “City on the Edge of Forever” and “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” as well as the classic TNG episode “Yesterday's Enterprise” and even the movie FIRST CONTACT, which featured the TNG crew. Yet in those previous stories, the challenge for the Enterprise crew was to try to undo the damage and set things right again. In this film, however, it's accepted that what's done is done, and that a new reality now exists as a result-a new reality in which we will now move forward. Instead of trying to undo the damage inflicted by the villain, Captain Nero (played by Eric Bana), the challenge for our heroes is to stop Nero from causing any FURTHER damage.

That's fine-but why wasn't that the case in any of the previous stories? What makes this new history-changing incident different from, say, when Dr. McCoy changed the past in “City on the Edge of Forever,” or when the Enterprise-C was thrust forward in time and suddenly appeared in the era of the Enterprise-D in “Yesterday's Enterprise”? Why in those cases was it imperative to restore things to the way they were, but here, an alternate timeline is created to exist alongside the original one?

Like I said-I get what Abrams and Co. are trying to do, and I endorse it. I'm just pointing out a discrepancy between how this subject matter was handled consistently in Star Trek in the past, and how it's handled now in the new film.

But I'm confident that unless you're a longtime Star Trek fan, you won't think twice about this. You'll just accept what the film tells you and move on-and that's probably for the best.

The good news for longtime fans is that this movie doesn't negate or wipe out what has come before. Abrams and Co. make it fairly clear that the original timeline is still in place, still intact, and if you want to revisit it, just pop in your DVDs of TOS, TNG, DS9, etc. It's all still there. We even get a new detail about Kirk's personal backstory as it exists in the original timeline.

But if you want to follow the NEW adventures, you'd better go in with an open mind. Because Abrams and Co. don't pull their punches. They are not afraid to upset the apple cart and depict sweeping, drastic, and, quite frankly, shocking events that bring significant changes to the Star Trek universe as a whole. That alone sets this movie apart from just about anything that's been done with Star Trek since writer/director Nicholas Meyer last worked on the franchise in 1991. Let me put it this way: even this longtime viewer-who has written Star Trek professionally on numerous occasions-found his jaw hanging open at one point while watching the movie.

I must admit to a lack of enthusiasm about the look of the new Starship Enterprise. It lacks the grace and beauty of the TOS version-and especially the revamped version of the ship as seen in the first six movies, which remains my all-time favorite spaceship design. And the interiors of the new Enterprise did not particularly impress me either. The bridge is too BUSY. There are too many people working on it, and too many duty stations and consoles. The previous versions of the bridge were much simpler, much easier to comprehend, and it was easier to figure out where everything was and where everyone was stationed. With the new bridge, aside from the captain's chair and the helm/navigation console, I get no real sense of where the science and communications stations are.

Also, the new engine room is, shall we say, quite a departure from what we've seen in the past. Not a deal-breaker for me, but I certainly didn't love it.

The musical score is effective enough, but not particularly memorable. It's tough to follow in the footsteps of composers such as Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner, whose remarkable work on the original series of films (especially the first two) remain with me to this day.

With all that out of the way, I'll get to the FUN stuff.

First of all, the first third of the movie is damn near PERFECT. I leaned over to my friend several times during this section and we whispered to each other, “So far, so good!” The opening scene, which essentially acts as a teaser, is one of the most gripping and powerful sequences in Star Trek history-no exaggeration.

Screenwriters Orci and Kurtzman definitely did their homework and what was a very pleasant surprise to me was how much stuff they actually kept, in terms of the details about the characters' lives. For example, McCoy's personal backstory, developed for TOS back in the 1960s but never dealt with onscreen, is finally addressed-and very effectively, I might add. We also learn a couple of new things about Uhura-one that won't be too shocking to anyone who's read the novels published by Simon and Schuster over the last 25 years-and one that's going to blow a LOT of people's minds.

As for the cast-by and large, they're terrific.

Chris Pine shows us a somewhat different James Kirk from what we're used to, which is only natural given the nature of the film, but by the end, you can see him settling in to being the Kirk we know and love. Pine also carries himself well during the action and fight scenes, and he's good at portraying a rough- around-the-edges Kirk who's developing his notorious magic with the ladies. He is also good during the more comedic moments. And during his scenes with Leonard Nimoy as the elderly Spock, he more than holds his own. What I WOULD like to see in future films is Kirk portrayed as a bit more intelligent, more thoughtful, more cultured, and more strategic than he's shown here. We get to see plenty of Kirk as a rough-and-tumble man of action in this movie, but there's a lot more to him than that.

As the young Spock, Zachary Quinto doesn't quite capture the essence of Nimoy-I found his delivery to be a bit on the robotic side on occasion, and even arrogant at times. It's not a bad performance by any means, just a different interpretation of the character. In the future, though, I would like to see Quinto try to incorporate more of the wisdom, the dignified demeanor, and the gentle wit that Nimoy brought to Spock.

Karl Urban is WONDERFUL as Leonard McCoy, from start to finish. He captures the spirit of the late great DeForest Kelly marvelously. The irascible nature, the sarcasm, the irreverence, the nervous raise of his eyebrow-it's all there. One thing is certain: Urban MUST have a bigger, more central role in future films.

My prediction is that the breakout character in this movie will be Zoe Saldana's Uhura. She's absolutely gorgeous-you can't take your eyes off of her. She carries herself extremely well, projects an air of confidence and ability, has a lovely speaking voice, and has good chemistry with both Pine and Quinto. It's a really strong performance, and I think she's given more to do and more of a characterization than Nichelle Nichols was given in all six original movies combined-and maybe even the TV series, as well.

Anton Yelchin is very endearing as Chekov and has a great scene where he really shines. He's a bit more childlike and eager than Walter Koenig was in the role-but it works, because this is a younger Chekov.

As Sulu, John Cho gets less of a chance to make a strong impression but has a few very nice moments and gets to take part in one of the film's most thrilling sequences.

Simon Pegg's Scotty is more playful, manic, and mischievous than James Doohan's. He's played mostly for comic relief here. My main criticism with regard to Scotty is that he falls into his familiar place just a little too quickly and easily, given the circumstances surrounding his arrival aboard the Enterprise. The establishment of his relationship with Kirk-right down to Kirk calling him “Scotty”-came off, at least to me, as just a wee bit rushed.

Bruce Greenwood is very effective and likable as Captain Christopher Pike. His performance is more or less consistent with Jeffrey Hunter's, and I wouldn't mind at all if he returned in a future film. His relationship with Kirk, as portrayed in this film, shows lots of potential for further exploration.

Eric Bana's obsessed Captain Nero does not rank among the best-developed or most compelling antagonists we've ever seen in Star Trek. He's certainly no Khan, who without a doubt remains the most memorable and dramatic villain ever faced by an Enterprise crew. But I wouldn't place Nero among the utterly forgettable and inadequate bad guys from the last couple of Next Generation movies, either. He's okay. Nothing more, nothing less.

As for Leonard Nimoy… it almost would have been enough just to see him back on the screen as Spock after 18 years. But to see him play such an important role-one that doesn't give him a lot of screen time but is nonetheless absolutely essential to the story (unlike Shatner's return as Kirk in the ill-conceived mess STAR TREK GENERATIONS)-makes it all the more special and essential. It's clear that Nimoy had a good time playing Spock again. There's a warmth, a sense of comfort, and a level of gravitas in his performance that I don't think we've really seen since STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. Nimoy's Spock (referred to in the end credits as “Spock Prime”) is shown the utmost respect and treated with dignity-again, unlike Kirk in GENERATIONS. And there are two moments-one between Nimoy and Pine and one between Nimoy and another cast member-that are really quite touching.

Overall, I found STAR TREK to be a high-octane, fast-paced, exciting, funny, and even poignant adventure. It does what it set out to do, which is make Star Trek accessible to a new audience and forge a new direction without being constrained by the franchise's history-while respecting and acknowledging everything that came before

As the movie ended, I commented to my friend, “It's Star Trek filtered through a Star Wars mentality.” A movie reviewer sitting in front of me overheard that and got all excited and turned to me and said, “Exactly! That's EXACTLY what it is!” So if you see that line in a movie review, you'll know where it came from!

I'll be interested in seeing where Abrams and his team take the series from here, assuming they get the chance to move forward. It's clear that they understand Star Trek well enough. They just mustn't lose sight of the fact that at its best, Star Trek has something to say. Action, spectacle, and special effects are all well and good, but for it to be good Star Trek, there must always be a human factor, a moral, and people of diverse backgrounds working together to solve the seemingly unsolvable.

There are some rough spots here, to be sure, but I think Star Trek has gotten the shot in the arm that it's needed for quite some time.

I say, bring on the sequel-and don't stop taking chances!

1 comment:

Joe said...

Glenn,

An awesome review. I was psyched to see this regardless of critical review, but it is good to know that the film franchise may in fact be revitalized, while maintaining warm nods to the previous work, rather than being shackled.

Hey, is this an even or an odd Star Trek? :)