Monday, February 7, 2011

Star Trek (2009)

As the eleventh Star Trek movie, the plainly titled Star Trek (2009) had a lot to live up to.  The Star Trek universe is a rich tapestry of science fiction, with more races, worlds and continuity from the television shows and previous films than any other major Hollywood franchise.  Even the James Bond series, which has many more movies, is not even close to the depth of Star Trek.  It's too bad so many Star Trek movies suck.  To reboot the franchise, television producer/creator J.J. Abrams was recruited to direct.  Abrams isn't a trekkie, so he was up for anything, as long as it looked cool and had Kirk and Spock in it.  If I was a trekkie, I would have gotten a little nervous after hearing that.

If you're not familiar with the Star Trek series, don't worry.  There's plenty to learn, but very few important people actually care if you know it.  So, here are the basics.  In the future, humans have gone into space and met other intelligent species.  These friendly planets have formed a union, called the Federation.  The Federation's version of the Army is the Starfleet Academy; Starfleet protects Federation planets and explores the universe peacefully, seeking knowledge.  Aside from Humans, the most important Federation species are the Vulcans, a race of pointy-eared (but otherwise human-looking), emotionless, logical killjoys.  The opposite of the Vulcans are the Romulans (not part of the Federation), who look pretty much like Vulcans, but are mean, devious, and emotional.  Technically, you don't even need to know that much, but it helps a little when some good guys and bad guys both have pointy ears.
Fans in Romulan costumes: Can you smell the sex in the air?

The movie begins not with a familiar cast of characters, but a blast from the past.  While investigating some sort of electrical space storm, a Federation ship, the Kelvin (what, was Celcius taken?), is attacked by a Romulan ship, the Narada.  After his first mate (Clifton Collins Jr.) convinces the Starfleet commander (Faran Tahir) to visit the Romulan ship, the Romulan captain, Nero (Eric Bana) kills the Starfleet man.  Or, in other words, mean alien kills gullible human.  Back on the Kelvin, George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) realizes how serious the situation is, and orders an evacuation of the ship, which includes his pregnant wife (Jennifer Morrison).  George knows that the Narada will pick off the evacuation shuttles without something to distract it, so he opts for a suicide mission and steers his ship into the Narada.  The rest of the crew survives, including little James Tiberius Kirk, who was born amidst all the trouble.  The Narada was never seen again.

Fast forward a couple decades, and James Kirk (Chris Pine) is now a headstrong cadet of the Starfleet Academy.  When he's not busy getting it on with green-skinned women, Kirk seems to fill his time by flirting/frustrating language specialist Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and doing his absolute best to royally irritate Starfleet's resident Vulcan, Spock (Zachary Quinto).  When a mysterious electrical space storm appears nearby the planet Vulcan, several Starfleet ships investigate; recognizing the electrical storm as being eerily similar to the one from his birthday, cadet Kirk convinces his ship's captain, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), to hold back a bit.  Smart boy.  The Narada appears and destroys all the ships it encounters, and appears intent on turning the planet Vulcan into a black hole.  What is the deal with the mysterious Narada?  Why is it attacking the Federation in such a strange manner?  How long until it changes its focus to a planet that actually matters, like Earth?  Did I say "turn the planet...into a black hole?"  How do you do that?  The answer to all those questions is "You'll see."

I wasn't sure how much I would enjoy Star Trek.  I've seen a couple of movies, mostly when I was younger, but the series has never captured my attention for long, aside from the excellent Wrath of Khan.  I'm not a big fan of J.J. Abrams' previous film work and was never a Lost fan, so the idea of rebooting the series with young, sexy actors seemed kind of like a creative last gasp to me.  In my defense, I'm not wrong.  The path the filmmakers took to do this, though, was interesting, entertaining, and surprisingly fun.

This Star Trek, unlike its predecessors, assumes you know only the basics about Star Trek, like the fact that it takes place in space.  Actually, this is a science fiction movie that assumes that you hate science fiction, and goes around that problem.  Gone are any highbrow parallels to modern society's excesses, or commentary on political ideas (for better or worse).  This isn't a movie where the plot is all that important; this is an action movie set in space, with all the explosions and punching that implies.  There's a few things for the core sci-fi fanatics out there, but this movie was made to entertain, pure and simple.

The key to this was the cast.  Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto were awesome as Kirk and Spock, respectively.  Since this movie is more or less centered around the two of them learning to work together, that is very important.  Pine comes across as brash, headstrong, and intelligent, someone just as likely to beat you in school as he is to get in a fight with you at a bar.  Quinto was surprisingly effective as the typically emotionless Spock, and his performance stands up against that of the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy (who has a small part in the film).  It's hard to play what is, essentially, a straight man to the rollicking man slut that is James Kirk and make it seem cool, but Quinto did it.  The rest of the supporting cast, while noteworthy, were basically bit parts.  Zoe Saldana probably had the meatiest supporting role, but her performance seemed a little forced; I just felt like her character wanted to end each line with "Man, I am a cool lady!" in an attempt to draw in more female viewers.  I have nothing against changing up the sausage fest that is your typical Star Trek movie, but I don't know if I Saldana has the acting chops to back that up.  Karl Urban assumed the mantle of Leonard "Bones" McCoy, doctor and second-guesser of Kirk and Spock; he was fine, but I thought he was imitating his predecessor too much.  Other recognizable actors filling established Star Trek roles include Simon Pegg (as Scottie), John Cho (Sulu), and Anton Yelchin (Chekov).  Pegg and Yelchin were kind of funny and cute, and Cho was inexplicably in a fight sequence where he didn't really do anything cool.  As for the bad guys, I can honestly say that I didn't recognize either Eric Bana or Clifton Collins Jr. in their makeup.  They weren't particularly stunning, but they were suitably evil.  There are more bit parts with name actors, like Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Winona Ryder, Rachel Nichols, Deep Roy, Victor Garber, and Tyler Perry, but the important thing amidst all these famous faces is that Kirk and Spock, played by two relatively unknown actors, were pretty great.
"If they're so awesome, how come they didn't inspire this fan art?" - William Shatner

That was the top-ranked Google image for the search terms "kirk and spock."  Fact.

J.J. Abrams direction was decent with the actors, but I was really impressed with how involved I was in the movie; when I saw Mission: Impossible III (also directed by Abrams), I was impressed with how frequently Tom Cruise has to sprint in his movies.  That's a nice step up for Abrams.  He's not a great storyteller, but he's smart enough to know that, if you speed by them, it is easy to ignore plot flaws.

When I was first watching this movie, a little question kept popping up in the back of my head: "How is this going to tie in with the rest of the movies?"  Yes, this movie is supposed to be a reboot, but it has all the same characters as the original series and they all act basically the same.  By making this into a "Star Trek: Year One," wasn't this movie effectively rebooting itself as the beginning of a prequel franchise?  As it turns out, none of that really mattered.  When it became apparent that time travel and alternate realities played a part in this movie, all my questions were answered with Leonard Nimoy smiling and saying, "Don't think about it.  You'll just end up with a nosebleed."  I usually don't have a problem with pseudo-science in sci-fi movies, but when it is actually the crux of the entire plot, I want it to make a little more sense.

That said, I still enjoyed this movie.  It was fun.  It broke the rule of every odd-numbered Star Trek being terrible.  And, most importantly, it brought back big-budget bombast to science fiction movies.  I think the last truly great sci-fi-action hybrid was the original Matrix, and this was a refreshing change from all the high-profile sci-fi flops in recent years.  And you know what?  I think the sequel to this movie should be pretty awesome, too.  I give this Star Trek reboot high praise, or as trekkies might say: to infinity and beyond!

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