Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Clumpy Sort of Reviews: "Star Trek"

The new Star Trek film should have been pretty terrible. Certainly the film's trailer didn't win me over a few months ago by featuring a rebellious preteen Kirk driving a car over a cliff and getting arrested by some kind of floating stormtrooper space cop. I heckled the trailer with my roommates and prepared for a noisy, incoherent film with little respect for the source material (particularly that aspect of the source material most important to me - the characterization and entertaining interplay between the franchise's leads).

But Star Trek does not suck. In fact, it's the best, and certainly one of the most compelling new films that I've seen all year. (It's also the first new film that I've seen this year, but who's counting?) Director J. J. Abrams' last film, Cloverfield, was a visually snazzy, jittery flick with little resonance, but Star Trek's appeal lingers long after you leave the theater. I won't say that the movie is necessarily thought-provoking, per se (not that the others were), but it achieves the impossible: Star Trek remains true to the spirit of the original films while updating the style and narrative for new audiences.

One of the things that I found most impressive about the film is the way that it takes elements of Star Trek that we're more than tired of and makes them appealing again. For example, remember the hundredth time that you heard somebody say that shields were at 35%, sparks shot around the cabin and an officer went flying across the bridge? Get ready for that to be exciting again. The whole film swaggers forward with so much sleek celluloid energy and drive that you won't even be reaching for the light button on your watch or making sarcastic comments about the cinematography (there'd be nothing to say - it's uniformly compelling).

And man, is the casting good. Say what you will about the charisma of the original Star Trek cast (speaking more particularly of the later few of the original films), but they nearly always looked like exactly what they were: aging, campy character actors filling well-known roles. In contrast, the new actors take the best quirks and mannerisms of the original cast and ground them into more realistic roles. Who would have thought that Simon Pegg would be the spiritual successor to James Doohan/Scotty, or that Karl Urban could take the cranky cynicism that DeForest Kelley brought to Dr. McCoy and make him seem like an actual doctor? Uhura's great, Spock is turmoiled and flawed (and the symbolic passing of the torch provided by Leonard Nimoy frankly gives the film a huge share of its dignity) and the film's villain is actually played as something other than a cold, calculating alien captain for once. He's a good villain - powerful and deadly, yet emotionally unstable and prone to rash decisions.

Only Anton Yelchin's portrayal of Pavel Chekhov is close enough to approach parody, but I found the near-direct tribute to Walter Koenig charming (my roommate, who doesn't like IV and VI as much as I do, wanted to kill him for his accent). John Cho's portrayal of Sulu is quite different from George Takei's (and honestly not much varied from some of his previous roles), but strong in different ways. Not a single major character is neglected in the screenplay, yet everything's so organic that the action rarely feels forced. Even the sequence I mentioned earlier - the car-stealing young Kirk one - makes sense in the updated storyline.

Everything's there - the humor, the emotional hooks, the relationships between the characters and some of the best sci-fi action in recent memory. If the film has any weaknesses, it's that having to bring together so many characters so quickly leads to some ridiculous coincidences, at times even making the flick feel like a road trip movie ("Oh, hi, Scotty! Spock, what are you doing in that cave? Climb aboard, both of you!"). Oh, and one sequence with computer-generated monsters is completely clich├ęd and unnecessary. Notwithstanding those minor gripes (which really don't impact the film much at all), complaining about Star Trek would require a level of nitpickery I'm not sure that I'm capable of. The film makes no pretensions to be anything other than a solid, straightforward adventure flick, and unlike most films in this genre, it actually gets it right.

Not sure that I understood the ending, though.

EDIT (5/22): A few additional insights I've gained after stewing things over for a few days (spoilers will be pretty bad here):

- I really can't overstate how good Karl Urban in particular is as McCoy. The performances in this film are so organic in part because no single character steals the limelight in this film. Even the most minor of characters - Captain Pike, for example - are well-casted and have a great deal of moral authority. And somehow making this film without Leonard Nimoy on hand would have left it feeling slightly empty for me - he is Spock, after all, in my mind - so his inclusion in the movie is pretty special.

- The spaceships are really fun to watch. There's a primal appeal to the surreal feel of watching Nero's Romulan/Borg mash-up ship loom into view or the gleaming bridge of the Enterprise. Klingon ships really only show up during the Kobayashi Maru simulation bit - I'd be interested in seeing what they do with the Klingons in the next film (coming in 2011!).

- The alternate timeline allows them to have a lot of fun with the universe and take chances without succumbing to "prequel" syndrome. In a sense they're able to revisit old characters and settings, but with the understanding that things might not necessarily occur in the same way. I can't help but hope that the ballsy destruction of Vulcan [!!!] isn't the first major change to come. I have faith that this production team can pull off Khan again, for example, in some capacity, and that we can skip the fairly boring terraforming/Marcus family subplots that dragged down some of the earlier Trek flicks in my opinion. Every variation teased in the story (like Pike's alternate but similar fate or the Uhura/Spock dynamic) holds extra interest for people like me with a cursory understanding of the movies.

Much like last year's The Dark Knight, this movie's aura sticks with you for quite a while thereafter and leaves you feeling giddy and excited about the source material again. There's a lot of stuff to think about - masterfully-executed characters, situations and scenes that give the movie far more value than something that merely distracts you for a couple of hours. I can't imagine this movie failing to hold up under multiple showings or failing to please anybody other than orthodox Trekkies/Trekkers who've already made up their mind.

Related posts:
7-11 clerk attacked at bet'lethpoint (with smart-aleck analysis)
See Spock Run (My Webcomic)

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