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Star Trek (2009)

Reviewed By W. Scott Gordon
Posted 05/31/09 22:09:01

"Star Trek Goes Boldy, if not quite intelligently"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

As I dyed-in-the-wool Star Trek fan who was ready for a shakeup of my beloved franchise, I went in with high expectations. I'm pleased to say that most of them were met. I am sure that this franchise will continue to live long and, well, you know.

Before I was really old enough to understand its messages about aging and friendship, before I could laugh at the superb campiness of Captain Kirk's most infamous line, "Khaaaaaannnn!" I got glorious goosebumps when Khan put those scorpion-thingies in Chekov's ear near the beginning of Star Trek II. My love affair with Star Trek survived through TNG ups and downs, reveled in the unexpected greatness of DS9, tolerated Voyager, and finally tanked with that other attempted Star Trek reboot, the perhaps well-intentioned but ultimately awful Enterprise.

Like Enterprise, the new movie mines the past for its inspiration; also similar is the use of time travel as a tool to cover new ground when the audience knows the future. This is where any similarities end. As Scotty (played comedically by Simon Pegg) quips at one point: "I LIKE this ship! It's exciting!" I couldn't agree more.

The movie begins on the Federation Starship USS Kelvin, where young first officer George Kirk is suddenly forced to take command after the captain is killed by an angry Romulan (played adequately by Eric Bana) who is in control of a squid like monstrosity of a ship that screams "from the future." Clearly outgunned, Kirk bravely sets the Kelvin on a collision course--but not before evacuating all 800 souls aboard, including wife Winona, who gives birth just as she is being wheeled to her shuttle. During a harried final radio transmission, Commander Kirk discovers that he is the father of a new baby boy--and christens him, "James 'Tiberius' Kirk--just before plunging into oblivion. Commander Kirk is clearly the Jor-el of this tale, the doomed patriarch blasting his prodigal son into the unknown and onto greatness. The film never again approaches this grand fusion of emotion and action, but it doesn't need to; the Enterprise has launched, and Trekkers and neophytes alike will want to be onboard.

Before James T. Kirk can become Superman, of course, he must rebel--the loss of the father he never knew has left a hole in his life, which he fills by driving antique corvettes off of cliffs, chasing women, and getting into barroom brawls. Beaten and broken, Kirk meets Starfleet Captain Christopher Pike, who sets the young firebrand toward greatness with a single challenge: "Your father was captain of a starship for twelve minutes. He saved 800 lives. I dare you to do better." Young Kirk takes the bait. Chris Pine plays Kirk with a smirk and a swagger that may, in time, become likable. I look forward to the day when there is some gravitas behind his knowing winks.

Across the galaxy, another young man faces different challenges. Although raised on the planet Vulcan, where logic is prized above all else, young Spock is actually half-human. He struggles for control over his dual nature, eventually coming to a crossroads: Cast off all emotion and join the Vulcan Science Academy, or join Starfleet and explore the galaxy? His decision has more to do with righteous rebellion than logic. After being reminded of the "disadvantages" that his mixed parentage pose for him, Spock declines the Science Academy invitation and stalks out with a barely civil, "live long and prosper." The geek in me cheered inside. Zachary Quinto is simply a revelation as Spock, providing an emotionally-layered performance that even Leonard Nimoy (who appears to wonderful, venerable effect as the original Spock in the film) should appreciate. He also looks eerily like the older actor, yet the resemblance never forces him into parody. The emotional journey he takes, which involves logic, love and loss, is tragic and surprisingly deep.

A few years later, Spock is a freshly-minted Academy instructor and the designer of Starfleet Academy's so-called "no-win scenario," dubbed the Kobayashi Maru, and Kirk is the freewheeling hothead destined to beat that scenario by manipulating the computer controlling it. This is supposedly the event that sets two very different men on the course to a conflicted life-long friendship, yet it is played entirely for laughs. This choice is disappointing not only because I expected more as a fan, but also because it undermines Kirk's credibility as a character. We are privy only to his brash arrogance, never to his supposed genius. Only later, aboard the USS Enterprise, does Kirk (and the actor playing him) begin to shine.

With the exception of Anton Yelchin, who tries too hard for comedy in the part of Chekov, the other characters making up Star Trek's first incarnation (Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, and of course, the irascible Dr. Leonard 'Bones' McCoy) are also plausibly reintroduced. Mere cadets, they are forced into action when a distress call from Vulcan puts them face to face with the same ship that killed Kirk's father 25 years ago.

I wish I could say that the reasons why that mysterious ship suddenly appears again, or the struggle of the man in control of her, made for a compelling story. Neither do, largely because we are told why Nero is angry, but we are never actually shown. While Ricardo Montalban as Khan conveyed extraordinary pathos with little screen time or back-story, Eric Bana's Nero is given even less to work with--and Bana is no Montalban. The result is that the Romulan ship's appearance (and the time-travel involved with it) serve primarily to unite our would-be heroes in crisis and give the franchise some breathing room. I hope for more of a philosophical turn in the next outing.

There is also the issue of production design. Director J.J. Abrams eschewed the crisp lines of previous Star Trek incarnations in favor of busy slam-bang sets and special effects; the Enterprise bridge was too light, Nero's ship too dark, the uniforms too patchwork, the planet Vulcan too robot like--nothing of Star Trek's optimistic vision could be seen in the visual cacophony. I was reminded many times of Star Wars, which I suppose was the point. But the jaunty interaction of the characters sustained this new adventure beyond any of these criticisms.

As its pared-down name indicates, "Star Trek" is Trek at its very essence--the story of a diverse team of mostly-human crew exploring the far reaches of the galaxy. I eagerly anticipate new journeys with this old crew.

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