Thursday, May 14, 2009

Essay Review: "Star Trek" (****)

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Eric Bana, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Leonard Nimoy, Winona Ryder, Ben Cross, Jacob Kogan, Jimmy Bennett, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Spencer Daniels, Rachel Nichols, Tyler Perry, Clifton Collins Jr., Deep Roy.
2009--127 minutes

Rated PG-13 (sci-fi violence, sexual content)

Color me neither a Trekkie nor a Trekker. It isn't that I never liked the late Gene Roddenberry's magnum sci-fi opus. I'm just more of a "Star Wars" guy. Grew up as one and that may never change. "Star Trek," however, has been just as famous as George Lucas' monumental addition to the sci-fi genre, an entity that graced the television screen for 13 years as "Star Trek" (from 1966 to 1979, with a nearly-unwatched animated series running from '73 to '75), "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (from 1987 to 1994, and in my experience the best series in the group), "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" (from 1993 to 1999), "Star Trek: Voyager" (from 1995 to 2001, of which I've never watched one episode), the excellent "Star Trek: Enterprise" (from 2001 to 2005), and the failed "Star Trek: New Voyages" that ran for six episodes in 2004. The saga has also spun six movies out of the original Kirk/Spock years--1979's "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," 1982's "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan" (a brilliant film and the only one I've seen of the pre-Picard years), 1984's "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock," 1986's "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," 1989's infamously bad "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," and 1991's "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country." Then Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard was introduced. Him I'm more familiar with, as I came to love the 1987 series that starred Stewart (I watched it faithfully when I was younger). There were four movies that spun out of this branch of the saga--1994's "Star Trek: Generations," 1996's "Star Trek: First Contact" (the best of the Picard films), 1998's underrated "Star Trek: Insurrection," and 2002's craptastic "Star Trek: Nemesis." After the latter film bombed with critics and audiences, with a disappointing box-office intake to boot, it was rightfully believed that "Star Trek" was a dead entity.

Forgive the length of that first paragraph for the sheer amount of television and film versions that a decidedly cheesy '60s series spawned, but visionary producer J.J. Abrams's reboot, simply titled "Star Trek" and based off the original series starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, answers the question I've always had: why is this series famous? The characters of the original show are of the two-dimensional type and sometimes quite hard to relate to, the special effects are of the sort that you laugh at now because they are see-through by today standards (though certainly not by the standards of 1966), and the sci-fi tale it tells is as generic as they come, even in those days. Thoughts ran rampant in my head in 2006 when I learned that they would be revamping the saga; thoughts like, "After the failures of the previous two movies and 1998's awe-inspiringly bad 'Lost in Space,' another adaptation of a '60s TV show, why in the world would they try this?"

Well, come three years later, J.J. Abrams, that genius producer of TV shows like "Lost" and "Fringe" and the 2008 monster-movie-from-a-video-camera masterwork "Cloverfield," as well as reboot director of 2006's action-packed "Mission: Impossible III," has trumped our expectations and made the definitive "Star Trek" experience that could equal the influence that "Star Wars" had in 1977. This is an astonishing gem of a motion picture, mixing fun with pathos to great effect. Visual effects run rampant--as they should--and the achievement is nothing less than a landmark in the medium, much like 2005's "King Kong" and 2007's "Transformers" were, except that they are more defined and more seamless than what those films had to offer in the F/X field. "Star Trek" far surpasses the latter film and just about equals the first in terms of entertainment value, with unbearably exciting action sequences that further the story and enhance the characters. If this is to spawn remakes of a few of the older films as rumored, I welcome it with open arms. Abrams has created a new American masterpiece that works as science fiction and as a rousing blast of popcorn-munching, Coca Cola-guzzling summer movie extravagance.

The film opens with a bang as George Kirk captains the Federation starship Enterprise into an ensuing battle with a Romulan mining ship. He doesn't make it out alive, valiantly dying in a suicide mission/rescue attempt that leaves the opposing ship crippled, but not before his wife births a son, whom they name James. Fast forward twenty or so years. James Kirk is an unhappy guy who is recognized as George's son by Christopher Pike, the current Enterprise captain. Reluctantly, James joins the space academy which Pike is the principal of, along with "Bones" McCoy and Uhura. Meanwhile on the planet Vulcan, Spock dismisses an opportunity to be on council and joins the Federation instead. When Kirk and Spock meet on a mission to disconnect a drill that is endangering the planet Vulcan, things are not good between them, due to a natural rivalry between the races. But their rivalry will have to wait, as a villain from both their pasts threatens to end the lives of those closest to them.

You know that feeling you got when you first watched "Star Wars" or "Indiana Jones," the feeling that the movie you're seeing will define the way you look at movies in the future? The former did that for me at the age of four, when I regarded it with a sort of awe. The sheer spectacle of Lucas' first film absolutely amazed me, and every time I see it, the film reinforces why I love movies (even the prequels have that effect on me, if at a slightly smaller level). "Indiana Jones" did that for me the following year, when it was released on a special edition video that Dad immediately bought. Both franchises have been incredibly dear to me as both a critic and as a lover of film.

Shock of all shocks, "Star Trek" does the same thing, which is a big surprise after my history with the franchise (or substantial lack thereof). The movie just works, much in the same way that "King Kong" did in 2005 and just as well. The film is pure entertainment for 127 glorious minutes, but there are themes at work here, characters that are surprisingly three-dimensional, and a script that never talks down to the audience and consistently surprises with revelatory plot turns (especially a big shocker around 3/4 of the way into it). Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are the go-to guys to make intelligent action films, as proven by their oeuvre, which has included "The Island," "Mission: Impossible III," and "Transformers." Having written another of this summer's biggest flicks, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," it's evident that Orci and Kurtzman have complete ownage of tentpole event films. They have a huge future ahead of them (as long as they don't pull another "The Legend of Zorro"). Their writing here, however, is far above anything they've done before. Much like siblings Christopher and Jonathan Nolan beat the odds last year with "The Dark Knight," Orci and Kurtzman have done something that they never quite did before: they never lose sight of the bigger picture and never miss a step in their labyrinthine plotting.

The film rides on the casting, and it is perfect. Chris Pine has never had a role to call his own, except for his apparently breathtaking performance as a Neo-Nazi in "Smokin' Aces," a film I did not see (nor do I especially want to). The film that brought him to light was 2006's godawful Lindsay Lohan-starrer "Just My Luck," where he played a dimwitted, unlikable character put through awkwardly staged bouts of bad luck. Here he nothing less than comes into his own, bringing humanity and humor to what would otherwise be a stock action-hero role. Zachary Quinto, on the other hand, in a role destined to remind one of Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan in "Watchmen," endows the character of Spock with the Vulcan lack of emotion, yet his character is the most heartfelt. The reason Quinto works so well as Sylar on TV's "Heroes" is that his facial expressions are an array of pure evil anyway it turns. The same can be said about Spock's ultimate warmth and vulnerability, despite having the appearance of a hardened war veteran.

Coming up with the best performances in the film are a revelatory Karl Urban as "Bones" McCoy and Eric Bana, pure evil after a string of nice-guy roles as villainous Nero. Urban is known as Eomer from the "Lord of the Rings" films and Kirill from "The Bourne Supremacy." This being his first role as a pleasant person, it must be stated that Urban is the incredibly strong here. His voice inflections are almost creepily close to the original's DeForest Kelley, his line readings on target, and I don't know this for certain, but was Kirill/Eomer actually making jokes work? Bana, so awful in the disastrous "Hulk" from a few years back, has made his comeback role as far as summer films go. Nero is the best villain for anything since Joker in "The Dark Knight" (not that that's saying much), and he comes across as having a twisted humanity and a reason--not an excuse--for wanting peace, especially considering his views. The guy is wicked smart and incredibly coldhearted, and unexpectedly enough, Bana makes that aspect work wonders.

Smaller performances also make big impressions, including Simon Pegg, reminding us why he's one of the funniest actors in the business as Scotty, Zoe Saldana, emanating goodness of heart as Uhura, John Cho and Anton Yelchin, as faithful button-pushers Sulu and Chekhov, and Bruce Greenwood in his best performance thus far in his career as former captain Christopher Pike. Even smaller roles include Jacob Kogan and Jimmy Bennett, leaving strong impressions as younger versions of Spock and Kirk, while Winona Ryder and Ben Cross are incredible in their ever-so-brief roles as Spock's human mother and Vulcan father. Finally, former Spock himself Leonard Nimoy appears at the half-way point and lingers in memory beyond the amazing end credits; this is not just a gimmicky cameo but a real, heartfelt performance from a person who is synonymous with the original "Star Trek."

Technical aspects are sterling across the board, but the most noteworthy aspects are the visual effects, the musical score, and the cinematography. The effects work here, as I earlier noted, are nothing less than angelic in nature. For a film so dependent on effects, the filmmakers had to crank out the most impressive visuals they could for basically 98% of the time, and they don't let us down--ever. I would pick a memorable shot, but that's like a parent choosing a favorite child. Simply put, there is no one shot that rises above the rest (although the implosion of a planet is a masterpiece of a shot, both in its visuals and astonishing sound work). The film makes a new meaning for the term "Oscar-worthy visuals." The musical score of the original series and movies has been remastered to great effect by J.J. Abrams regular Michael Giacchino, and it's a hopeful shoo-in for Best Original Score at the 2010 Oscars. The cinematography by Daniel Mindel is amazing, in both the shots that are entirely made up of special effects and the more intimate shots of human interaction.

Movies like "Star Trek" are released once in a blue moon. Sure, there were "The Dark Knight" and "Watchmen" that took the time-worn superhero genre and shook things up to create deep, thoughtful, penetrating stories of dark characters and the skewed ideas of good and evil. "Star Trek" lives to entertain us, and it does that perfectly. But there's something deeper at work that what audiences are probably expecting. The advertisements are right; this isn't your father's "Star Trek." It's something much, much better. What "Star Trek" achieves is a completely altered definition of the term "summer tentpole," and like the "Star Wars" films did for yours truly, it may define another four-year-old's idea of what a movie is and push them to watch even more. It's simply that good, that influential, and that fun. That's right. "Star Trek" has turned from a childhood curiosity to a defining film in my movie-watching experience.

1 comment:

Actionman said...

EXCELLENT review, Joel. I should just link to yours instead of doing my own (I'm late with my official reaction).

Also -- do check out Smokin' Aces. It's so stylish and so awesome in a nasty, trashy way.