On Film: Star Trek
Directed By J.J. Abrams
Starring Chris Pine, Zachery Quinto, Simon Pegg, Carl Urban, Eric Bana
I’m an unabashed Trek fan, so much so that I actually like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan more than the Star Wars films. With that said, Empire Strikes Back is better than the rest of the Trek films. I wouldn’t consider myself a “rivet counter” of the Trek series though. For example, it makes no difference to me whether a new movie brings Checkov appears on the bridge at the same time as Sulu or if he comes along later like in the original series. The only reason I know that’s the case is because I have a friend who follows the mythology of the series to the finest detail.
I do however believe that there are certain parts of the Trek universe that are required to create a Trek film. There’s of course a look to the ships and uniforms, but even more important there are thematic elements and philosophy that make Trek what it is and not a Star Wars film.
J.J. Abrams had big shoes to fill by taking on this franchise. The fanbase is rabid and intensely critical of change to the franchise. At the same time, those shoes were beat up by the last movie in the franchise. Star Trek: Nemesis actually caused the demise of the franchise, at least temporarily. Insurrection was a good enough extended episode of the Next Generation series but not feature film worthy so the forces behind the franchise in those days had really hit a wall. So shutting down the franchise for a while was the best thing Paramount could have done.
J.J. Abrams is someone I always follow and I’m seldom disappointed. Admittedly, I never watched his early television series Felicity but I did watch Alias and I’m obsessed with LOST. His installment of the Mission Impossible franchise was the best of those films also. Tom Cruise destroyed that franchise with all of his couch hopping antics. Last year , Abrams produced a little film called Cloverfield that reinvented the Godzilla story in an exciting and innovative way too. So, Abrams track record on TV and bringing a new vision to existing tropes has been really successful. When I first heard he was taking on the franchise, I couldn’t have been more excited. Then the sound bites started hitting the web where he’d say things like “I never really liked the Star Trek franchise”. Those sorts of comments, even if true, were a mistake because they devalued a successful franchise that he was taking over and wanted the fanbase, and the mainstream audience to re-embrace. It actually felt like he didn’t care much for the hardcore fans but instead wanted to focus on mainstream movie goers. Granted, the mainstream is a larger audience, but the Trek fanbase is large enough that they alone could make the film a success at the box office.
So I sat down in the theater with all of this on my mind, and then, the lights went down.
The film starts with a bang. I was concerned that I had seen too much of the action in the trailers and ads. Everything that was shown in the marketing for this film takes place in the first few minutes of the movie. From those first few minutes all the way to the end this film is action packed. After the film, I talked with a friend about it and he complained that there was so much action that the philosophy of the franchise never gets any screen time. He’s right that the film is action packed but aren’t they all? Didn’t we see the Enterprise crash and skip across the surface of a planet? With that said, it would have been nice for Abrams to have integrated some of the thematic elements that make the franchise stand out into his launch film. The truth is that he may choose to change all of that. At this point, we really don’t know. The bulk of the movie that isn’t action is focused on the introductions of the main characters. This is what Abrams is best at, building characters within unreal situations. He did it in the first few seasons of Alias and he continues to do it in LOST, with the help of some top notch writers of course. The back-story of these characters has radically been changed. Some of the iconic bits are still in place making the characters recognizable but how these characters came to the Federation for example is quite difference. Kirk is still a ladies’ man and rebellious, Spock still struggles with his human heritage, and Mr. Scott, brilliantly played by Simon Pegg, is still “giving her all she’s got!” Perhaps my favorite modernization of a classic character has to be Dr. McCoy played by Carl Urban. “Bones” was always hot headed and he still is but a reason for the way he acts is built into his character now; he’s completely neurotic. I have to give credit to Chris Pine too. He takes the Kirk role and makes it his own but he still embodies a lot of what Shatner brought to the role so many years ago. Fortunately, he doesn’t attempt Shatner’s specific line delivery style but he does embody the bravado of the character that was so much fun in early films such as Wrath of Khan. Zachery Quinto does a fine job as Spock too. He’s not as much of a standout as Pine and Urban but he looks the part and he handles the character just fine. The one hiccup is Checkov played by Anton Yelchin. He’s more irritating than interesting. He’s supposed to be funny but Simon Pegg is much better at handling the comic relief.
The thing that is the most surprising about this film is just how much it honors the original series. There are lines taken right from Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country and used in such a way that the hardcore fans would recognize them and the uninitiated wouldn’t even catch the wink at the audience. The lines make perfect sense within the story. The original franchise is not only honored with winks though. It would have been easy for Abrams and crew to have just ignored everything that came before their film and start anew but instead they find a clever way to tie everything from the original series to this new film and make it all work. We old school fans have to except that the franchise must be updated and modernized but at least this film doesn’t render all of the past TV series and films unimportant. Without spoiling the film everything that has happened actually happened. That’s all I’ll say. It all still matters even if won’t happen again to these versions of the Trek characters and its all done using classic franchise tools.
The action is stunning and the character designs are all properly modernized yet still representative of what they once were. The main story is a bit simplistic with Eric Bana getting very little to do but that story is a tool that there to set up this new version of the star trek universe and for that it works great. With this film we don’t yet know how much of the philosophy of the original mythology is going to be important in this re-invention of the franchise but this film is to epically tied to the main story to have time for all of that. The closing seconds of the film just before the credits do hint that what made Star trek what it was is important to the creators of the film so hopefully we’ll see more of what Rodenberry meant to do with the original story in future installments of the franchise. There’s plenty in this film for the true Trek fan and the “noob” can jump in here and know nothing about the mythology. It’s a fun summer action movie reboot to the franchise. I can’t wait to see where it goes in the future.