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Death in the Shadow of New Life — Josh reviews J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek!

It’s been a long road.  After walking disgustedly out of the opening weekend screening of the catastrophically terrible Star Trek: Nemesis back in December, 2002, I knew that Trek was at a low point.  It seemed uncertain what, if any, future the franchise had after the release of that bomb and the subsequent cancellation of the last Trek TV show, Enterprise.  Then, about 3 years ago, word came that a new Trek film was in the works.  Gradually news began to leak out, some very exciting, some rather worrying, and I soaked up every tidbit with great anticipation, some nervousness, and extremely high hopes that one day Star Trek could be great again.  A few hours ago, I watched the result of J.J. Abrams and his team’s efforts: the simply-titled Star Trek.

Abrams and his brain-trust — consisting of Damon Lindeloff (one of the top minds behind Lost) and screen-writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman — dared to do what no man has done before: to re-cast the iconic roles of the Original Series characters.  As everyone knows by now, instead of creating new characters and situations and moving the Star Trek universe forward beyond the adventures of Picard-Sisko-Janeway-etc., they decided to go back and tell an Original Series story, with new actors playing younger versions of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and all the other familiar characters.  This was an incredibly risky move.  While similiar “how it all began” prequels such as Batman Begins and Casino Royale worked well, audiences had already become accustomed to seeing lots of different actors take on the roles of Batman and James Bond.  But could someone other than William Shatner play Kirk?  Could someone other than Leonard Nimoy play Spock?

Although sadly this film fails in some powerfully annoying ways (more on that in a few moments), I am happy to report that, in this respect — that is, in regards to the viability of rebooting and recasting Star Trek — the film succeeds magnificently.  Bravo to the choice of talented actors selected to be the new command team of the Enterprise — there is not a weak link in the bunch.  None of the actors resorts to mimicry, and yet they all, somehow, truly manage to embody their characters!

Let’s start with Chris Pine as James Tiberius Kirk.  He’s got the swagger, he’s got the arrogance, and yet he’s able to also convey a tremendous likability.  You can see that this is a man that others will follow.  The film doesn’t shy away from the “lady-killer” aspects of Kirk’s persona, but Pine never crosses the line into camp or, on the other hand, into boorishness.  Rather, there’s terrific fun to had watching, for example, Kirk get easily distracted from getting needed medical help from McCoy by the sight of a pretty lady walking by in the other direction.  Zachary Quinto, on the other hand, doesn’t shy away from making his Spock quite unlikable at the start of the film, but that works for the Spock character here.  This Spock is still young, still conflicted about his warring Vulcan/Human sides, and still trying to find a place for himself.  That makes for some compelling stuff, and Quinto plays that internal drama well.  (Much better than many of the overly-emotional Vulcans we had to suffer through on the last Trek TV series, Enterprise.)  Plus, there’s a moment late in the film when he gets to give the great “my only reply to your human emotionality is a silent raise of one pointed eyebrow,” and man does he nail that moment.

Most reviewers are singing the praise of Karl Urban (Eomer from The Lord of the Rings) as Leonard McCoy, and allow me, please, to join in the chorus.  Of all the actors cast, he was the biggest “huh?” — as his prior work didn’t lead me to think that he had any resemblance whatsoever to DeForest Kelley.  And yet, somehow, of all the actors, he is the one who is most magically able to channel his predecessor.  Urban IS Bones.  There’s just no question.  He is able to express all the grumpy technophobia wrapped up in an enormous, kind heart that DeForest Kelley was always able to portray.  And the man says “dammit, Jim!” like nobody’s business.  (But, SPOILER ALERT, we didn’t get a single “he’s dead, Jim!”  Maybe next time.)  From the trailers and all the other promotional materials, I was afraid that McCoy’s friendship with Kirk was going to be completely ignored by this film in favor of an emphasis on the Kirk-Spock dynamic.  While the trailers took that approach, I am happy to say the final film did not.  McCoy is an absolutely central character here, and his close friendship with Kirk drives much of the story.

Zoe Saldana is beautiful and brings tremendous intelligence to the role of Uhura.  (And praise be to the Great Bird of the Galaxy that we finally get her first name — long ago revealed in “unofficial” novels, etc. — said out loud on-screen!)  Smart move making her a linguistics expert in addition to just the Communications Officer who says “hailing frequencies open.”  That change makes Uhura much more central to the plot.  (Allow me to interject here and also compliment the film on the way it makes ALL the characters in the ensemble important to the plot, not just Kirk-Spock-McCoy.)  John Cho dives into the role of Hikaru Sulu with gusto, and, like Uhura, he too gets some great stuff to do in the flick — specifically, he’s involved in a critical and exciting action sequence about halfway through the film (snippets of which have been in all the trailers).  Then there’s Anton Yelchin as Pavel Chekov.  I feel the film makes a bit too much of a meal out of his over-wrought Russian accent, but that’s just a minor objection.  I keep calling these actors likable, and let me say it again here — Yelchin brings such heart and good humor to the role that a few accent-related groaners didn’t hurt his performance for me at all.  I also like that he, too, is given some moments in the movie to show his character’s expertise — specifically, at using the transporter.  Finally, rounding out the classic team is Simon Pegg as Scotty.  Pegg is positively gleeful in the role, and I wish we didn’t have to wait so long in the movie before his character enters the picture!  Great balance with the accent — it’s clearly Scotty, but, again, not just an exercise in accent-imitation.

My compliments about casting also extend to the rest of the supporting cast.  I have a lot of love for the character of Christopher Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter in the original Star Trek pilot over 40 years ago), and I was really happy to learn he’d be in the film.  Bruce Greenwood is absolutely spectacular in the role, and he has a lot of moments to shine.  One of my favorite scenes in the film is his “I dare you to do better” speech to Kirk (that was the centerpiece of the film’s advertising campaign), but he also has some great moments of gravitas and leadership on the Enterprise bridge.  Speaking of Starfleet Captains, Faran Tahir (one of the main villains in Iron Man) is terrific as the captain of the doomed U.S.S. Kelvin — I sort of wanted to watch a whole movie about that guy!  Eric Bana does solid work as the villainous Nero, although we really don’t get a lot of time to know his character (a real weakness of the film, I think).  His Romulan was surprisingly American-sounding to me, which was a little odd but not a major problem.  He certainly was a lot more gritty and “real,” to me, than a lot of past Trek movie villains.

After the casting, the other main aspect of J.J. Abrams’ Trek reinvention is, of course, the visual look of the film.  How can one honor the look and spirit of a made-on-the-cheap 40 year-old TV show and still provide exciting visual eye-candy for today’s viewers?  For the MOST part, I am happy to say that Abrams succeeds here as well as he did with the casting.  This is a beautiful film.  My goodness it is great to finally get to watch a Star Trek movie that doesn’t look like it was filmed on a shoe-string budget!  This is a magnificently epic film, one that is filled to the absolute brim with wonders that can’t possibly all be taken in and absorbed on a single viewing.  It’s also nice to watch a Trek film that really feels like it was helmed by a visionary director.  It’s really neat the to see the way Abrams approaches some familiar Trek staples (such as the fly-by of the Enterprise’s hull, or scenes around the Captain’s chair on the bridge, or a Vulcan mind-meld) from new and different ways.  This is not a director who just set up his camera in front of some pretty sets!  There’s a real vigor and intensity to the way the camera moves and the way scenes are staged that is a delight.

And the visual effects — holy cow.  The starships look magnificent, the space-battles are amazing, and all the different planetary environments seen in the film are beautifully realized.  Let me heap particular praise on the design of the planet Vulcan, which is extraordinarily faithful to the glimpses of Vulcan that we’ve seen before but realized on a scale way above prior efforts.  And if we’re talking about design, let me also single out the cockpit design of Spock’s little ship.  Did you notice that, when the triangular-shaped chair is straight in front of the circular cockpit window, it looks exactly like the famous Vulcan IDIC (“Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”) pendant from the original series?  Cool!

For those of you who have been reading this review and have been waiting for an enormous “BUT…” well, here it is.  All of the above is awesome and terrific.  The cast works spectacularly well, the visuals are gorgeous, and the film is directed with a skill and intensity that has been sorely lacking in Trek films since Nicholas Meyer was involved (he directed the two best Trek films, II and VI).  BUT.  The script is the weak link.

There are way too many instances when characters do things not because it is the, ahem, logical thing to do, but because that is what the plot dictates.  After Kirk questions Spock’s command decisions, Spock has him jettisoned from the Enterprise in an escape pod and marooned on an ice planet??  Say WHAT now??  That is just insanity.  Put the boy in the brig, for heavens sake!  This happens in the story because the writers needed some reason to separate Kirk from the rest of the Enterprise crew for a while, so he could meet up with old-Spock.  But the device they came up with, of Kirk getting thrown off the ship in the middle of a galactic crisis, is ludicrous.

I also got fed up, very quickly, with the way that all of our young cadet characters quickly found themselves placed in positions of authority.  The Enterprise is damaged and some of the medical staff is killed — so suddenly cadet McCoy is the Chief Medical Officer?  Aren’t there ANY other doctors on board?  Kirk gets back to the Enterprise with Scotty — who, at this point, has NEVER served aboard a starship — and in two seconds Scotty is in charge of Engineering?  Where’s the Chief Engineer?  Where are ANY of the other members of the starship’s engineering staff??  And don’t get me started on cadet Kirk getting named Captain of the Enterprise.  Come.  On.  I love how this film emphasizes the enormous size of a starship like the Enterprise, and the army of people it takes to man her.  It is not unreasonable to me that a ship like the Enterprise would have some low-level cadets on board.  But where is the ship’s middle-management??  OK, the Captain and some of the senior staff get taken out — but what about the scores of lieutenants and lieutenant commanders who must be on-board who’d be able to take charge before cadet Kirk and his buddies would get tapped?

The film is filled with plot holes like that.  After a distress call is received from Vulcan, it takes the Enterprise about 3 minutes to warp from Earth to Vulcan.  Then Nero decides to take his ship from Vulcan to Earth, and it seems to take him the entire second half of the movie to get there.  Kirk gets stranded on Delta Vega, which just HAPPENS to be the planet where old Spock has also been stranded.  And, of the ENTIRE PLANET, Kirk’s pod just HAPPENS to land right where Spock is.  And, at the old almost-abandoned Starfleet posting on that frozen rock, one of the only two officers stationed there just HAPPENS to be Montogomery Scott.

I could go on.  Just what the heck has Nero been doing during the TWENTY-FIVE years between his arrival in the past, in the film’s exciting prologue, and the beginning of his revenge-plot against Vulcan?  Delta Vega is close enough to Vulcan for Spock to be able to look up in the sky and see what Nero is doing, and yet Delta Vega itself is not at all affected by what happens?  Young Kirk gets into a bar fight in Iowa, and Captain Pike just happens to be there?  (As opposed to being, oh, I don’t know, either OUT IN SPACE or at least at Starfleet Command in SAN FRANCISCO.)  And just where is the rest of Starfleet while all of the main action of the movie is going on?  It was always a silly aspect of the Trek shows how the Enterprise consistently seemed to be “the only ship in the quadrant” whenever something bad was going down, and that silliness is found in spades in this film.  Is there not a single other starship assigned to defend Earth??  Sheesh!

Notice that, so far, I have not raised one single complaint about mangled continuity in this film.  It is clear right from the opening scenes of the film that we are dealing with an alternate reality — one changed dramatically by Nero’s arrival in the past.  This was a wise choice on the part of the film-makers, as it frees them to deviate from established canon whenever they please.  It’s not necessarily a violation of canon that we don’t see Kirk’s best-friend Gary Mitchell with him in the academy, because this is an altered timeline, so it really wouldn’t be fair of me to complain about Mitchell’s absence.  And I don’t miss Gary Mitchell!  I don’t demand his character’s inclusion in the story just because of a reference in a Trek episode from over 40 years ago!  But what I do demand of this film — of ANY film — is that it plays by its own rules, and that the story being told makes sense and doesn’t contradict itself.  As you can see from some of my above complaints, that is not the case here.

I will also take this opportunity to be critical of one other major aspect of J.J.’s Trek reboot, and that is the positively dreadful redesign of the Enterprise.  I whined about the new look of the Enterprise exterior when the first image was released, and unfortunately I didn’t like it any better seeing it in action in the movie.  I just think the new Enterprise looks awkward and ugly, and the Big E’s gorgeous silhouette is really lost.  I didn’t think much more highly of the new Enterprise’s interiors.  I think they veered way too far from the look of the classic Enterprise bridge with the overly-busy Apple-store looking new design.  Meanwhile, the Engineering sets were ridiculously low-tech, looking like those scenes all took place in some 1950′s factory and not the Engineering section of a futuristic starship.  And just what the heck was up with the Willy Wonka-esque pipes that Scotty gets stuck in, Augustus Gloop-style??  Weird.

One final complaint: I really enjoyed the talented Michael Giacchino’s score — but where was the iconic Trek theme???  With the exception of one teensy tiny moment very late in the film, I had to wait until the closing credits to hear ANY familiar Trek music, and that was a real disappointment.  I’m happy that Giacchino crafted a unique score of his own, but how about a hint of some of the great, familiar Trek themes the first time we lay eyes on the Enterprise, or the first time Kirk sits in the big chair?  Missed opportunities.

OK, time to bring this long rant to a close.  As you can see, I am conflicted.  On the one hand, it is INCREDIBLY EXCITING to see Star Trek brought back to the big screen in such a BIG, ENERGETIC way.  I am really taken with the new cast, and with the tone and direction of J.J.’s re-launch.  This movie is a visual over-load in all of the best ways, and even though I am a little luke-warm on the finished product, this is a film that I eagerly look forward to revisiting so that I can continue to soak it all in.  I just wish the story being told had been a little more carefully crafted.  I really do believe that a little more time and attention could have addressed a lot of my above complaints.  But, OK, deep breath.  Let’s take a moment to thank J.J. Abrams and his team for giving us the best Trek that we’ve seen on the big screen in a LONG time.  I am eager to see where they go with the (hopefully coming soon) next installment!  Dare I hope for the U.S.S. Enterprise to encounter… the S.S. Botany Bay??