May 06, 2009

Star Trek

One Trek Hill

Grade: B +

Director: J.J. Abrams

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, and Simon Pegg

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours, 6 minutes

I’ll give this to J.J. Abrams: I never thought I would hear the Beastie Boys in a Star Trek movie. Yet, as a pre-pubescent James T. Kirk improbably barrels down an Iowa byway behind the wheel of a vintage C2 Corvette convertible, cheating both death and the pursuing police, the unbridled strains of “Sabotage” just seem to fit, no matter the stardate.

With its Gen-Y tableau and whiz-bang F/X, this isn’t your father’s Star Trek. And, although it is set during the formative years of the crew of the Starship Enterprise, it is not strictly a prequel. Rather, it is an alternate timeline, visited by a Romulan marauder from the future named Nero (Eric Bana), who’s looking to exact revenge on the Federation and one particular native of Vulcan for failing to save Nero’s planet from destruction.

Still, the homage Abrams employs is more dedicated to the original Trek television series rather than the Trek films and The Next Generation series that Abrams felt “disconnected” from. There are the familiar chuckles about the accent of Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and the irascibility of Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban), along with such inside-Trekdom allusions as the fencing skills of Sulu (John Cho) and Kirk’s bedding of a green-skinned Orion cadet. Introducing a romantic dalliance between Spock and a young Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) shrewdly illuminates her flirtations with him during a few early episodes of the original series. And, among the superlative casting, choosing Simon Pegg as a brash, uproarious Montgomery “Scotty” Scott proves particularly brilliant.

But, for screenwriters and longtime Abrams collaborators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the story of Star Trek was always about Kirk and Spock. The early, uneasy years of their relationship are the backbone of this film as the ambitious, combative Kirk (Chris Pine, pitch-perfect) clashes with the cerebral, no-nonsense Spock (Zachary Quinto, ditto). Young Kirk’s goal is to occupy the captain’s chair, while Spock’s priority is keeping Kirk out of it, and even off the Enterprise altogether. The original Trek TV series launched during the Cold War and served up allegory for two conflicting approaches of American foreign policy: Kirk’s aggressive moralism versus Spock’s logical pragmatism. It is a dichotomy that has come full circle in our post-Sept. 11 world, although I would stop short of analogizing Kirk and Spock with George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Still, it’s fascinating that the ultimate resolution of their clash of ideologies and governing styles—and with it the crux of Star Trek’s storyline—lies in not just peaceful coexistence, but the necessity of Kirk’s accession to leader with Spock remaining the faithful, intelligent advisor.

The irony, however, is that despite Abrams’ faithful interpretation of the Trek universe, his film sizzles most when not mired in its iconography. The elaboration of Kirk’s and Spock’s boyhood roots is intriguing, including Winona Ryder as Spock’s mom (a role once played by Jane Wyatt). And, wider roles for Uhura and Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) further this film’s goal of amplifying the Trek mythos.

But, the film’s most prominent cameo, 78-year-old Leonard Nimoy as an elder Spock, elicits both nostalgic glee and a whiff of musty air. Abrams walks a tightrope in trying to craft a fresh action movie that also appeals to Star Trek purists. The time-jumping (and hole-filled) plot, together with Nimoy’s appearance, go a long way toward accomplishing the latter while also allowing Abrams the leeway to deviate from the Trek canon, in this film as well as its inevitable sequels.

However, all symbolism aside, the Kirk/ Spock rapport has already been explored at considerable length during the first six Star Trek movies. More of the same is, well, more of the same. When Nimoy’s Spock introduces himself to the younger Kirk by reprising the declaration that “I have been and always shall be your friend,” it only made me want to watch The Wrath of Khan again.

The distinguishing feature is that Abrams, a clever and skilled filmmaker, understands how to make a rock-’em sock-’em piece of entertainment that can stand alone without its iconic underpinning. The action sequences are dazzling and fly toward the audience at warp speed, bolstered by a superb cast and the always-reliable Michael Giacchino’s exhilarating score. In short, Abrams boldly goes where no Trek movie has gone before, at least not since 1982. Set your phasers on “fun,” along with “impressed” and “relieved.”

Neil Morris

No comments: