STAR TREK (XI): And the Big Red Superball Shall Save Us All

Star Trek (2009) – Directed by J.J. Abrams – Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Bruce Greenwood, Ben Cross, Winona Ryder, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Eric Bana, and Leonard Nimoy.

After having watched all of the Star Trek movies (minus the Netflix-challenged Insurrection) leading up to the J.J. Abrams relaunch, I can certainly understand why long-term Star Trek fans might despise this movie.

I am not one of those people.

Abrams’ relaunch is the Star Trek movie I’ve been waiting my whole life to see, and while it is certainly not a perfect movie, it is a big, slick, fun, emotional rollercoaster ride of a sci-fi action thriller that opens with engines on full and doesn’t stop until the end credits roll. There are some holes in the plot, some missteps with characterization, but this is spectacularly good filmmaking.

Though flawed, STAR TREK is the single most enjoyable pure action movie since Die Hard. And yes, I’ve seen Drop Zone.

Having only a limited interaction with the franchise (you can read about that right here), I always found the Trek universe to be a bit cold and clinical. Maybe part of this was just me being a stupid kid and wanting to see more stuff done get blowed up, but I don’t consider that to be a bad thing if the explosions are built on and around emotions. (Nothing wrong with the occasional supercool visual, either.)

Abrams TREK is completely designed to stand on its on, forging ahead in an alternate timeline to “boldly go” and all that. There are plenty of nods to the cast and crew of The Original Series that even I could spot, but the look, the pacing, the style, and even the characters are crafted more to be contemporary and forward looking rather than traditional and building on the past.

Which, after all, isn’t a bad idea when relaunching a series that had been worn into the ground.

There’s a lot going on in TREK – far more than I want to get into in a couple thousand words – and while some narrative logic is lost to Abrams almost crippling need to keep throwing the movie forward (a move he probably would’ve pulled off in he had a compelling villain), TREK is eminently rewatchable. While the characters are mostly types instead of actual people, almost all of the actors (even that annoying Charlie Bartlett dickhead) give solid, enjoyable performances.

I should probably restate here my position that I don’t care much for comparing the movie to the source material as a means of passing judgment. It’s unavoidable, to a certain extent, but I’ve got the original stories and no new interpretation is ever going to take them away from me, so if some new whippersnapper of a filmmaker wants to radically change things, I’ll give it a look on its own merits. I’ve never really understood the animosity towards cinematic remakes, either; humanity has been doing and redoing plays for centuries, but somehow movies are sacrosanct? Why? Why does William Shatner’s James T. Kirk have to be the only interpretation of this character we ever get to see?

Honestly, I’d rather see Chris Pine do Pine-Kirk than see him attempt to redo Shatner-Kirk.

Movies are different animals than novels or comic books or television shows and if a new interpretation wants to change up what exists in that other format I’m more than willing to give it a shot.

For someone with little investment in the Trek franchise, I found Abrams movie to be a completely satisfying experience. Unlike previous movies, which often felt like longer-form television shows (especially the three-”episode” arc between Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home), TREK feels like a contemporary summer movie from start to finish with its hyper-focus on delivering thrills over character development. Abrams gives a brief nod to the childhoods of Kirk (Pine) and Spock (Quinto) but it’s done more to establish their types (Kirk the Rebellious Youth; Spock the Nerdy Loner) than it is to set up any kind of real movie-long character development.

The childhood scenes are fairly silly. In Kirk’s sequence, his pre-teen self has stolen his step-dad’s (or guardian’s) Corvette and gone for a joy ride through the lonely and dusty highways of Iowa as the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” cranks out over the car radio. It’s an odd set of audio and visuals designed to make Kirk look both like the bad boy and to give him an old-school masculinity. Abrams has cherry-picked the old school reference points – we’ve got a signature Vette from the most-classic of Vette eras (the 1950’s) and a signature song from the integration of rock and rap era (the 1990’s) – in order to craft his bad boy/future Captain. Both the Vette and the song make infinitely more sense for us than it would for someone a couple hundred years in the future – it’s not like there’s very many people in 2010 stealing their step-dad’s horse-and-buggy and cranking the medieval ballads of Tristan and Isolde.

Abrams sets this young rebel, with his ’57 Vette and ’92 rap/rock song against a futuristic cop on a sky-cycle, but Kirk wants to drive the car off a cliff as he jumps out of the car in slow-motion and The Man ain’t gonna stop James Tiberius Kirk.

For Spock’s half of the childhood portion of the film, we see him on Vulcan doing logical nerd stuff and then he gets picked on by some full-blooded Vulcans who want to pick on the small half-breed in order to get him to be emotional. So he gets emotional at hearing his mom called a whore and kicks the crap out of one of his tormentors. This leads to him having a “heart-to-logic” chat with his dad (Ben Cross), who’s all “I married your human mom because I was Ambassador to Earth and it was the logical thing to do; she was, after all, something of a celebrity, allowing me to receive a plethora of free press for Vulcan on TMZ, which is where Americans received all of their news on the important issues of the day. Our coupling name was ‘Winorek,’ and while not as popular as something called ‘Brangelina,’ we had a much higher Q rating than ‘Bennifer.’”

“I have no idea what you just said, father, but the entity known as Q has little to do with the hierarchy of culturally-driven human popularity.”

“Date a human, son. Emotions make them much better in the sack. It is a logical conclusion.”

“I fail to see what this conversation has to do with potatoes, father.”

“You will, my son. You will.”

The scenes establish them as more similar than dissimilar in their emotional make-ups. Kirk is the rebellious youth lacking in proper maternal supervision (his mom was off looking for Thor) and Spock is the rebellious youth lacking in maternal influence (his human half is suppressed). They start to diverge as Spock successfully turns to logic and academics, while Kirk turns to women and beer, but they each display a bit of what the other has in spades – Spock never quite loses his rebelliousness and Kirk isn’t fully capable of suppressing his intellect.

As actors in these specific roles, Chris Pine is much better suited to playing the hardheaded Kirk than Quinto is to playing the intellectual, aloof Spock. (This is not to say Pine is a better actor – I haven’t seen enough of them to make that decision – but that his talents are better suited to the role he’s being asked to play.) Pine has that corn-fed All-American look, and he’s able to pull off a stubborn confidence quite effectively, whether he’s getting shut down by Uhura at a bar or arguing with Captain Pike on the bridge of the Enterprise or insisting to Spock that their long-shot plan is going to work. Quinto, on the other hand, often seems uncomfortable as Spock, like he doesn’t fully have the character locked down. Maybe having Nimoy in the movie effected either his performance or the conception of the character but Spock, as a character, rarely pops in this movie. Maybe that’s what he’s supposed to be, but I was rarely moved by him.

Both Kirk and Spock have their Starfleet epiphanies depicted. In the bar scene, Kirk is hitting on Uhura when some Starfleet meat-head steps in to defend an honor she doesn’t want defended, and the Academy recruits kick the crap out of Kirk. (Kirk basically spends the entire movie getting his ass kicked, and then getting up, and then getting it kicked again.) The fight is broken up by the arrival of Captain Pike, who sits down to have a heart-to-heart with Kirk. Pike clearly has a bit of hero worship for Kirk’s dad (whom he studied for his dissertation) and challenges Kirk to step up to match his father’s legacy. “Your dad was captain of a starship for twelve minutes,” he tells the bloodied Kirk. “He saved 800 lives. I dare you to do better.”

The sequence of Kirk’s dad getting command of the Kelvin and sticking with the ship to the end as he orders the evacuation of his very pregnant wife is absolutely fantastic and more emotionally gut-wrenching to watch than anything in the preceding ten movies – with the possible exception of Nimoy-Spock’s death back in Wrath of Khan. It’s top flight filmmaking across the board and, flat-out, is one of the best singular sequences in the entire Trek movie franchise. Chris Hemsworth and Jennifer Morrison are wonderful as Kirk’s parents, and the death of Kirk’s dad contrasted with Kirk’s own birth is stunningly good.

Another highlight is Bruce Greenwood, who is, in many ways, the best part of this movie. (He’s certainly the best actor.) His Captain Pike is smart, experienced, and willing to think outside of the box. He’s all about giving people a chance to prove themselves without ever losing sight of the mission, which makes him the perfect captain for a starship whose primary mission is to explore but often runs up against.

Or, as it happens, the captain of a starship stuffed with inexperienced cadets. Funny how that works out sometimes.

Pike has enough intellectual confidence to stay focused and not get rattled but that also allows him to listen to the crazy, suspended cadet that comes barging onto the bridge with a harebrained story about a mysterious Romulan spaceship that killed his daddy. It will never happen, of course, but I’d pay cash money to watch a show or movie with Greenwood playing Pike.

Greenwood certainly isn’t an action hero, which makes him the perfect link between Shatner-Kirk and Picard and Pine-Kirk. As such, there’s not much room for him in the picture, but Greenwood makes the most of his brief screen time to get Kirk into Starfleet and then get him into the Captain’s chair.

Spock’s decision to join Starfleet comes when he’s brought before some Vulcan bigwigs to be told he’s been accepted into the Vuclan Science Academy despite his disadvantage. This gets Spock all pissy and it’s Quinto’s best scene in the entire movie; he asks the high-and-mighties if they could clarify what they meant with just the right amount of restrained anger in his voice, knowing full well they mean that he’s half-human but wanting them to say it so they know exactly why he’s turning down their science academy in order to go to Starfleet.

So Kirk and Spock go to Starfleet but they don’t interact until Kirk cheats in order to pass the Kobayashi Maru test that Spock designed to be impossible to defeat. It’s probably Pine’s best scene as he smugly goes through the test, unworried about the no-win scenario because he’s rigged the computer program to turn out in his favor. (Apparently, in scenes that were cut, this was the genesis of his interest in sleeping with She-Hulk – she works in computer programming. And the woman playing the green-skinned hussy also plays Scarlet in GI JOE: The RISE OF BILE INTO YOUR MOUTH. Which brings up an interesting question for actors – would you rather be unrecognizable in an epically good movie, or have your face plastered all over an absolute stink-bomb?) Kirk’s cheating gets Spock all uptight and bothered but before the trial can come to a conclusion Nero’s ship is all up in Vulcan’s business so everyone has to scatter to their starships and get on with the blowing up of things.

And the blowing up is impressive. The battle scenes are like nothing the Trek movies have ever attempted. When the Enterprise comes out of warp drive to find themselves in the middle of a battlefield littered with destroyed Federation ships, Abrams puts you right in the middle of it all, dodging debris, fighting the enemy, trying to survive. Finally, after ten movies, the Enterprise doesn’t just look cool, but is cool.

The final fight sequence between the Enterprise and the Whatever Nero’s Ship is Called is blisteringly awesome visual filmmaking.

Abrams does a fantastic job giving everyone something small but significant to do. Okay, so Uhura’s “something to do” is basically to stand there and look hot as dudes fight over her, but Zoe Saldana does it very well, and her one scene with Spock (who she’s romantically involved with) is pretty well done. Everyone gets a scene, something the early Star Trek films neglected. Sulu gets to jump out of a space ship and sword fight some time-lost Romulans. McCoy gets to drug Kirk to get him on board the Enterprise, and then try to make him better as Kirk runs around trying to test out his hypothesis. (It is a bit weird to give Urban the funny scenes since he’s not very funny.) Chekov gets to pull off a daring teleport maneuver. Scotty gets to, um, pull off a daring teleport maneuver.

All of the non-Kirk and non-Spock actors do a fine job of making their characters work despite their somewhat limited screen time, so kudos to the casting department.

Sort of.

Eric Bana’s Nero is a bit of a wet sock, spending most of his time sitting and moping, and the film never really capitalizes on the fact that Kirk is fighting the guy who killed his dad. For whatever reason – perhaps to show that he’s focused on the mission – Kirk never gets that scene where he tells Nero, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

There’s a whole wants-to-be-complicated-but-isn’t plot in the center of the film about how Nimoy-Spock has this big red ball of super energy that he’s going to use to save Romulus but doesn’t that results in him being imprisoned on Hoth, where Quinto-Spock just so happens to exile a dismissed Kirk. It’s the kind of coincidence that if you like what Abrams is doing, you’re just going to roll with it, and if you don’t like the movie, you’re going to roll your eyes.

I like the movie, and we get some cool Abrams Monsters and Leonard Nimoy and Simon Pegg out of it, so I’m not complaining.

All-in-all, STAR TREK is one big, slick, popcorn ride.

More, please.

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