Star Trek (2009)Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 05/07/09 21:00:00
If there’s one thing that’s been increasingly proven over the years is that the one thing you can do to reboot a dying franchise is to just wait a few years and then start from scratch. Four years between the transition from Pierce Brosnan to Daniel Craig and we ended up with one of the best Bond films in years, maybe decades when Casino Royale recreated the superspy as a brutal rookie who, literally, took no prisoners. It took eight years to undo the damage Joel Schumacher had done to Batman and then Christopher Nolan came along and created two of the best comic book-inspired films ever made. Also on life support for years (although don’t tell the fans that) is the beloved Star Trek franchise. Since the original crew hung it up in 1991 (at least as a team), the series has had to suffer through one mediocre Next Generation film after another. (First Contact came close but was hampered by the lackluster direction of crew member Jonathan Frakes.) It would have been six years almost to the day since the last Star Trek film hit theaters if J.J. Abrams’ film had made its original release date last December. What’s another five months though for the promise of delivering Trekkers something none of the other incarnations did – the beginnings of the final frontier. And for nearly its first hour, I felt I was witnessing Abrams hitting every beat just right – only to see him and his writers spend the final hour getting just about everything wrong.In a riveting prologue, a Romulan vessel attacks a Federation starship. As the Captain is taken aboard, a first officer with the surname of Kirk takes over and mounts a last-ditch effort for everyone to abandon ship including his pregnant wife. When it’s clear he must sacrifice himself to save everyone, he spends the final moments talking his wife through labor and coming up with a name for his son, whose initial cries he gets to hear before he dies. It’s a moment so wonderfully poignant and such a memorable birth for a legend that you’re liable to be choked up before the title card tells you what film you are watching. We catch up with a young Kirk (Chris Pine) through his reckless endeavors of stealing and destroying his stepfather’s car and picking bar fights with Federation cadets until he’s offered a chance by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Hop aboard the next shuttle to Cadet school and follow in the footsteps of the man who commanded a starship for “12 minutes and saved 600 lives.” How can a brash narcissist like James Tiberius Kirk resist the opportunity to take charge of one of those giant ships being built in the empty countryside of Iowa?
On his flight up he meets a toilsome doctor-in-training by the name of Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) while continuing to keep an eye on the woman known only as Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Kirk’s chief adversary though turns out to be the young Spock (Zachary Quinto) who has been struggling with the bubbling emotions buried within his half-Vulcan, half-human form thanks to daddy Sarek (Ben Cross) getting his pon farr on with a human female (Winona Ryder). Spock knows how he feels about this Kirk fella though, taking this human’s disbelief in the “no-win scenario” to task and having him put on probation in his final year at the Academy. That doesn’t last long though when the same Romulan vessel from 25 years ago led by the vengeful Nero (Eric Bana) has popped up on the radar again and is targeting entire planets with a deadly drill designed to create a black hole at their centers and suck them up entire. This is all just collateral damage though since what he’s really after is Spock. But what could he have done? He’s just a student. At least presently.
Thus begins the great decline from peppy reboot to a betrayal of the greatest order. Introducing time travel as an arch to bring us back into Star Trek’s past could have been a clever (albeit simplistic) conceit to connect us to the adventures eventually to come. Instead it complicates matters so unnecessarily that we instantly begin to lose focus on the natural binds of the relationships and waver through a revenge plotline that never has a chance of rivaling Wrath of Khan, but worse, never aspires to. Considering the motivation for Nero’s revenge is a Vulcan of limited emotional reach, any give and take is dependent on examining the nature of Nero’s anger compared to the complacency of an alien who may be sorry but has a funny way of showing it. The Spock in question is not Quinto’s wet-behind-the-pointy-ears youth but the original Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, whose presence is not just a gimmicky, congratulatory cameo but as an intricate player in the lives we’re supposed to be witnessing grow into the characters we’ve come to love, not meet them face-to-face.
Remember how disappointing it was when Kirk and Picard finally met in Star Trek: Generations and we’re never once given a chance to team up their commanding skills and settle the great debate over who was the better Captain? That was like Yoda finally unleashing his lightsaber though compared to how badly writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci blunder the multiple alternate realities of this Star Trek. Not to mention how sad it is that Nimoy stands front and center as the eye of the storm derailing the project. Nothing against Nimoy who still commands the honorable mysticism as Mr. Spock, but whose bright idea was it to have him narrate a truckload of flashback (or flashforward) exposition to bring the plot up to date? It’s not a moment of clarity, but an ultra-lazy screenwriting device that only serves to let down the audience in that things are more simplistic than complicated. This is already the result of the growing rivalry that led Young Spock to jettison Young Kirk onto a frozen wasteland of a planet (so we can be given a needless creature chase), but more importantly (and even more unforgivable) so Old Spock can tell Young Kirk that someday they will be the best of friends. If you have to tell these guys, you are now derailing one of the most enduring friendships of any lifetime and reducing it to a matter of predetermined destiny, a force of fate if you will. That isn’t genuine. It’s the equivalent of a teacher pushing a student to play with the unpopular kid on the playground.
The disgraces don’t end there however. For a moment that should be met with defining audience recognition, the manner in which Kirk takes his first seat in the Captain’s chair is tainted by the further Old Spock wisdom that he must disgrace the memory of his mother and provoke a reaction from the Young Spock thus forfeiting his overemotional claim to be the one in charge. This is almost as unforgivable as the forced friendship since the altered timeline appears to have done nothing to the memory of Old Spock, who while should be well-advanced in his emotional education now has a whole new set of Vulcan baggage that produces no doubt or logical response from the half-man inside him. So comes the baggage of introducing time travel into a story that never needed it, but further cements the fact that if one is to venture upon a reboot, you need to either acknowledge the previous history of the franchise or jettison it altogether. You can’t have it both ways as we’ve seen with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns and the recent X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Starting over with Kirk and Spock as rivals and watching them grow into a meaningful and prospering relationship could have worked over the course of a couple films. If we’re to accept this as a completely new vision though it’s thoroughly unwise to play off our knowledge of the previous films – especially when those are some of the film’s best moments. It’s fun to see the way Kirk cheats his way through the Kobayashi Maru test, the proverbial “no-win scenario” that would serve The Wrath of Khan as more than just a revenge picture or the best of the Star Trek films but one of the most lasting science fiction films of all time. The “no-win” doesn’t just have to refer to the line between life and death but also the nature of revenge and war which should be embodied in the issue-laden Nero who wants to take Spock to task for an error in judgment. The unrecognizable Bana does his best to mirror the rage under tons of Romulan makeup but the character itself is lackluster at best and never provides us with a villain worth sneering at or even understanding at its core. His people trusted Old Spock. Old Spock screwed up big time. They all travel back in time where Nero subjects Spock to a Khan-like banishment and then the Enterprise crew must mount one rescue effort after another. And believe me, if you want to know how uninspired the action scenes are (surprising after some solid sequences in Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III), you’ll get it by about the third time Kirk is hanging on by his hands for dear life.
It’s a real shame too since both Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto do terrific jobs in capturing the bravado and emotionally-stunted states of their classic personas. Quinto more in look alone, but Pine is a real discovery here avoiding the Shatner mannerisms but nailing the self-assured qualities of leadership that earned Kirk his place in Trek lore. Also doing great work in ultimately a too-limited role is Urban as McCoy. He’s a bit more mannered than Pine but there’s something uncanny in his appearance as a young DeForest Kelley and his cynical impatience that’s instantly endearing. John Cho does get in some combat as Sulu but is an afterthought after his big battle scene. Anton Yelchin, despite being a Leningrad native, so pours on the Russian accent as Chekov that you can see him phenetically sounding out every “W” in place of a “V” and its more unsettling than noticing than his character is now a curly dirty blonde instead of the short, pointy-sideburned Beatles-esque mane of Walter Koenig. And for those of you excited to see Simon Pegg channel James Doohan’s invaluable Scotty, get ready to voice your displeasure of having to wait until the 83-minute mark for him to make his appearance. Already hip deep in the errors in judgment by Kurtzman and Orci, not even Pegg’s presence can lift our spirits, particularly as he’s thrust into the same “you’re not smart enough to know this now” plot device that Scotty himself would eventually deliver in Star Trek IV. No, this is not a Star Trek film that is going to win over new fans.Trekkers likely won’t care about that though since any cult legion holds their precious close to their chest and don’t need anyone else to justify or share their love. But they should considering the lengths to which this prequel or reboot or whatever goes to alter the timeline dating back to the original episodes (where Chekov didn’t appear until the second season) and the infamous lost pilot (where Pike commanded the Enterprise.) I am coming into Star Trek as a fan and not one just choosing a side between this and Star Wars and I assure you that this is not a time-heals-all-wounds scenario. Dismiss the original Motion Picture all you want, but at least that adventure had a few ideas behind it and Robert Wise’s deliberate slow pace complemented them just as he did two decades earlier with The Day The Earth Stood Still. Abrams wisely doesn’t just make us endure 90 minutes of training exercises until a third-act Stripes-like conflict, but it’s the getting-to-know-you sections that prove to be the most engaging. Once they have to be helped along with the knowledge that they’re going to get to know each other even more in the years to come we no longer have any curiosity in their relationships and we lose any potential for genuine emotion; ironic in a film that uses that as a plotting arc. The new Star Trek turns out to be a major failure that fans should feel comfortable enacting a Nero-like outrage at the hacktacular Kurtzman & Orci, who when not sequelizing Mission: Impossible or Zorro have been Michael Bay’s go-to boys on The Island and Transformers films. I suppose if you want a duo to deliver a film lacking in genuine emotion you go to the guys responsible for writing about robots who turn into cars. But Trekkers and movie fans deserve much better.
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