Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek-- an Alternative (Re)View Part II of II

"Star Trek" didn't burst into the public consciousness when the show first aired in 1966. The show ended after a modest 3 year run due to low ratings but developed a cult following that spawned several series' spun off the original show and 11 feature films. The cast of the original show has had the most enduring following and over 25 years to develop the personalities of their characters and gel as a group.

 The new Star Trek has an unusual challenge. They have to take a cast and story that has evolved over a very long time on the small and big screen. They have to take the reins of a beloved saga and not only carry on a well established tradition, but they also have to make it accessible to a new generation that has been weaned on PG-13 action films that fit the "Transformers" mold. Additionally, the director, J.J. Abrams, only has two hours to present a story that introduces multiple characters, establishes their personalities and presents it in a action-packed way. Whew! That's a tall order.

"Star Trek" opens with a a big action sequence and doesn't let up for the duration of the film. --I don't want to offer any spoilers, so I will be as general as possible in breaking everything down-- Like other movies of the same type, such as "Fantastic Four" and "X-Men," "Star Trek" is basically a foundation film. It's main job is to introduce us to the characters, show us some personality quirks and set the stage for future installments. There is a pretty big cast here, all beloved characters with certain personality traits that many loyalists are going to feel are set in stone, and very little time to fuse the new faces with the well known quirks. Because of that the story focuses primarily on Kirk and Spock, giving us their personal histories, while only giving us the sketchiest outlines of the rest of the group.

 Right from the start we see how events unfold that set the stage for Kirk's impulsiveness and Spock's determination to mold himself into the quintessential Vulcan. Chris Pine has the biggest shoes to fill as a young James T. Kirk. He doesn't show up as Captain Kirk, but begins life as a reckless young man growing up in Iowa. Smart but not challenged he is encouraged to channel his energy into the Star Fleet Academy, and like everything else he does, he jumps in with both feet and his brain in neutral. Certain aspects of military life come naturally to Kirk, but he still spends most of his time breaking the rules. There is a fecklessness to Pine's portrayal of Kirk that will rub many the wrong way. I don't know if it's a mistake of casting or a problem with the script, but Pine's Kirk jumps from situation to situation in a way that makes him seem like a highly unlikely candidate to make it to the Captain's chair. He also spends far too much time getting beat up and seems less like a tough guy and more like a farm boy who's out of his league; like he's trying to be Han Solo but doesn't have the goods. The most egregious demonstration of the sometimes ham-handed handling of Kirk's character is the Kobayashi Maru sequence which sets up the relationship that develops between Kirk and Spock.

 Spock by comparison is handled very well by Zachary Quinto, known for his role as Sylar in the TV show "Heroes." Quinto does an admirable job of conveying the gravity with which Spock approaches every situation. He even manages to make a fairly absurd sequence (I need only say 'ice planet' and those who have seen the film will know what I'm talking about), one that is introduced as nothing more than a means to introduce certain characters into the film, somewhat credible.

 The rest of the cast isn't given as much screen time so they have little more than a line here or there to set their individual tones. Karl Urban is probably my favorite of the extended cast as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy. He's older than most of the crew, with the exception of Simon Pegg (Montgomery "Scotty" Scott) and he hits the right notes with his sardonic humor and asides toward Spock when he refers to him as green blooded hobgoblin. John Cho (Sulu) and Anton Yelchin (Chekov) also do well with their limited time on screen.  The most complaints I hear are directed at the casting of Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) but truly she suffers the most from a limited opportunity to develop the role. I will say, without adding any spoilers, that she is involved in a romance that is in no way credible, and that does detract from the character.

 This "Star Trek" is an unabashed action film. There is no time spent setting up the mission of the Enterprise which is a glaring omission. At the same time there is no benefit in making a genre film too preachy as has been a problem with "Star Trek" films in the past. Genre films fund the pocketbooks of the production companies. "The Dark Knight" is proof that no matter how good a comic book movie is, no matter how well developed, casted and produced, it is not going to get Academy Award recognition. Director Christopher Nolan has proven that depth can be found in any storyline and that it can be sold to wide audience, and perhaps that is why he was snubbed at award time. An award winning vehicle is not supposed to have so big an audience. This is not an excuse for the developmental gaps in Abrams' version of "Star Trek," but it does offer an explanation. And maybe I'm cynical but I can live with being pandered to in this case. Yes, I would have liked to see Kirk have more depth and I would have appreciated it if the underlying mission of the Star Fleet had been included-- it is rather essential to the story.

 But "Star Trek" managed to do something unexpected. It brought life back to a tired franchise; something Stephen Spielberg wishes he could have done with the dreadful "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." "Star Trek" also does a far better job that most movies of its kind. I like "X-Men" a great deal, but there are times when too much time is spent on developing the politics of the story vs. getting to the action. It's a delicate balance and not many movies do it well. Movies like "Iron Man" and "Batman Begins" have the luxury of only needing to focus on the background of one main character, so they're given the time to be given more depth than can be spared for an ensemble cast while still having plenty of action. Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, Bones and Scotty-- that's a lot of territory to cover and not each one is endowed with the characteristics we've come to expect. But there are moments in which we see a glimmer of what you hope to see when you go to a "Star Trek" movie. Spock's logic, Bones' cynicism or Kirk's impetuousness-- it's there and it's fun to revisit.

The Enterprise looks different but the uniforms recall old times. There are little bits of continuity that let long-time fans like myself relate to the new version. Logically I know there were gaps in the movie. Yes, Kirk was thrown off of an awful lot of cliffs. Yet the movie entertains. It hits all the right emotional chords. It brings back the feelings I had when I watched the original show. No, the new cast doesn't have the gravity of the previous one, but how could they? As far as I'm concerned, "Star Trek" does what it's supposed to do. It takes you away for a couple of hours and it brings a well-loved show to a new generation.

By the end of the movie I began to have faith that it could also bring a new appreciation the space opera and while most spin-offs aren't likely to rise to a high level of sophistication, if one "Blade Runner" or "Alien" came out of it, I would be satisfied. I also, surprisingly, began to believe that Chris Pine could pull off the role of Captain Kirk despite the slightly hyperactive performance. There next movie will have to have some real development put into it to make this attempt worthwhile, but I think there's a real chance it can, and will, be done. So, bottom line, put me in the category of someone who really liked this movie. I would go see it again tomorrow and feel it was money well spent.


ShadowFalcon said...

I thought Karl Urban was the closest to the tone of the original series - which surprised me. I wish there was more screen time for Scotty and the rest of the cast.

They have the whole alternative universe thing neatly under the belt - which can go along way to explain difference.
I could forgive the changes and liked it, husband hated it. Each to their own I guess.
Tis is a good start point for non-trek fans...

furiousBall said...

i watched it last night and enjoyed it, but i really wish the cheesy barfight scene was edited out of the film

Stewart Sternberg said...

I respect your take on it...I disagree entirely, as you can tell from my earlier review, but I disagree.

I have been running the film over in my mind..and then Shadow Falcon put it in perspective for me. She referenced the best Trek film.."First Contact". That film should have been a primer for managed to satisfy the "cool" factor that some people crave like an ADD kid seeking an energy drink, it had tense action and pacing, a wonderful villain (Queen Borg), and a tremendous character struggle as Picard sought to cope with his internal demons. It was everything this film wasn't.

Listening, Abrams? B-a-a-a-a-a-d R-o-b-o-t.

Abrams and Michael Bay and Joel Schumacher (the man who tried to ruin the Batman franchise)...have a lot to learn about how to work with a story and how to make characters organic.

SQT said...


I completely get why you don't like it. Like I said before, it's despite my better judgment that I was able to enjoy it. For some reason I'm able to put it in a context that makes it workable for me. I don't agree that it should have some 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (if that's where it's still sitting), that seems like a pure lack of critical reasoning to me.

Funny thing about First Contact-- I liked it at the time, but not nearly so much now. The Voyage Home and Khan will always be my favorites I think. Which might be why I'm willing to overlook so much here-- it goes back to the original cast.

Angie said...

I just found your blog today, and I love what you said in the "About me" section about not being a book snob.

Nick said...

Without giving anything away, I have to totally agree with you about the Uhura romance plot. It baffled me. There were other female characters from Classic Trek (Nurse Chapel, even Yeoman Rand) that would have been more believable for that storyline. Oh well.

Karen said...

Zachary Quinto was definitely the standout actor of the movie. I hope the sequel has a similar tone as The Dark Knight.

DesLily said...

HOORAAAAAY !!!!! Glad you enjoyed the movie.. and more than happy it's a success!

AndrewPrice said...

Nice review. I think you've done a good job between the two articles of highlighting the problems they faced in making this reboot.

But my problem is the total lack of courage from the film makers. Star Trek has such a huge audience that the film would almost be guaranteed to make it's money back just on the curiosity factor alone.

Because of that, they had the opportunity to really swing for the bleachers -- to try something truly original and trust that the fans who have carried the series this long would continue to carry it if the movie turned out to he thoughtful, innovative, interesting, and memorable.

Instead, they went for CGI effects and trite, well-worn plot points. In other words, they chickened out.

I would rather have seen them do something smaller in scope, but greater in depth. I think that would have served them better and set up a better potential for a much longer term franchise.

SQT said...

You know Andrew, I hadn't thought of it that way. I was looking the built-in limitations rather than the opportunities and that was rather short-sighted of me. You're right. They didn't go for it.

AndrewPrice said...

sqt, I understand why they didn't -- they went for the sure money. But me personally, I would have taken the risk.

By the way, thanks for the nice comments on our blog -- Lawhawk and I got invited to post there the other day and decided, why not.

P.S. I've always enjoyed your comments as well -- always interesting, always insightful, always thoughful, and always well reasoned. Keep up the good work. :-)

SQT said...

Thanks Andrew!

John Lunt said...

Good review. I personally enjoyed the movie a great deal. I'm not sure I agree with Andrew on this movie almost being guaranteed to make it's money back on the curiosity factor alone. I think the most any of the films made at the box office was 109 million.

This movie was the most expensive Trek ever made I believe at about 150 million.

If I remember correctly, it's said that you have to triple the amount you get back from all sources to cover the initial costs, the distributer costs, the marketing costs etc. So for this movie to break even it will have to pull in about $450 million from the box office and all other sources... so I can see why they didnt get too wild with it.

There are a number of issues with the movie, but it's over two hours long and I never looked at my watch once... and I thought it was over too soon.

I can't wait to see where they go from here.