Friday, May 8, 2009

Star Trek: A Triumph

As bad as things are in America economically and culturally, it’s reassuring to see that Hollywood can still produce good, heroic films.

J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek is what Trek movies should have been from the start: a fast paced, character-driven adventure story set in a plausible future society. Abrams employs a hackneyed plot device (time travel) to sidestep 40 years of stale canon and begin the tale of the Enterprise crew afresh. Properly, this tale centers on the relationship between the young James Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), bitter rivals who grudgingly learn to respect each other under the stress of combat.

Pine captures the essence of a role William Shatner seldom played to perfection, and often debased into parody. His Jim Kirk is sly, aggressive and brilliant, a high achiever whose arrogance and penchant for extreme risk-taking seem almost justified by his abilities. But the real standout is Quinto, portraying Spock's half-human/half-Vulcan personality with breathtaking subtlety and power. As good as Leonard Nimoy has handled the role, he's been surpassed by his younger replacement, who enjoys the advantages of a more expressive face and a more versatile voice. Both characters are enthralling, and by the end of the film you're rooting for them.

The supporting characters are also better realized. Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy, snapping out his lines with no hint of the Georgia drawl, comes closest (as nearly every critic remarks) to imitating the style of his predecessor (DeForest Kelly). His warmth and gravitas convey the big-hearted soul beneath the carping, technophobic exterior. Zoe Saldana's Uhura, a crack linguist with romantic designs on Spock, is no longer the passive switchboard operator. Yet neither is she the type of hectoring, feminist bitch seen in lesser incarnations of Trek (e.g., Dr. Helen Pulaski of The Next Generation). Simon Pegg's Scotty and Anton Yelchin's Chekov are both technical wizards largely relegated to comic relief on this maiden voyage. Pegg's brogue is more authentic by far than James Doohan's. Yelchin's Russian accent is truer than Walter Koenig's in the pronunciation of vowels, but fake as ever in its substitution of w's for v's. John Cho's Sulu is as mild and understated as George Takei's original, but he's given the chance to shine in hand-to-hand combat using a katana with a telescoping blade.

Of the pacing, suffice it say the film leaves you little room for breath, save for the more touching and intimates scenes (Captain Pike quietly upbraiding civilian Jim Kirk after an Iowa bar brawl, Uhura comforting Spock in the turbolift). Otherwise, the swiftness of the narrative is almost brutal. Abrams understands the short attention span of modern audiences, whittled to a sliver by video games, the frenetic editing of TV shows, and the mouse-clickable context dropping made possible by the Internet.

Production design is another strong point. Star Trek, decades late, has adopted the Star Wars aesthetic of a lived-in universe, with many sets and props showing degrees of dirt and wear. To be sure, the bridge of the Enterprise is white-walled, blazing with numerous lights, but its vertical glass screens and closely packed consoles suggest the complexity of a nuclear attack sub bridge, the nerve center of a strictly regulated war machine where spit and polish are entirely appropriate. Yet the engineering compartment is surprisingly primitive, with catwalks, cylindrical storage tanks marked with today's standard nuclear hazard symbol, and a water cooling system. The Federation outpost where Kirk meets Scotty is a dingy military base with peeling paint and flickering florescent overhead lights. By comparison the plush, upholstered, carpeted Enterprise of The Next Generation looks ridiculously effete.

The shape of the Enterprise's hulls and nacelles are a compromise between the original Sixties version and the ship's appearance in the first six films. The new contours may be liked or disliked according to taste, but in place of the inert, rectangular nacelles of the Eighties we see tapered cylinders whirling and pulsating with visible energy. Brilliant cinematography, making effective use of light and shadow, allows us to sense as never before the colossal bulk of this vessel.

My only disappointments with the film are the convoluted plot and somewhat underdeveloped villain. Both shortcomings are deliberate sacrifices made to keep the story focused on the main characters and moving briskly. Abrams needed to sell his version of Star Trek to a general audience while keeping the existing fan base happy, and more important, craft a work good enough to stand on its own as a science fiction masterpiece. He has succeeded handsomely on all three counts.


  1. Very good review. I still hate movies, but at least now I know I won't miss it entirely, and won't be lost when people discuss it.

  2. "Abrams understands the short attention span of modern audiences, whittled to a sliver by video games, the frenetic editing of TV shows, and the mouse-clickable context dropping made possible by the Internet."

    And how. I am a fan of Gerry Anderson's marionette work (I find the acting less wooden than in Space: 1999), and the hour-long THUNDERBIRDS episodes now seem interminable. Thanks, Short Attention-span Theatre!

  3. Aardvark, it seems we have very similar tastes in science fiction. THUNDERBIRDS was a favorite in my early childhood, and I also thought it superior to SPACE:1999. Viewing all episodes of the former a few years ago (courtesy of Netflix), I found most to be sluggishly paced. Given that I have a much longer attention span as as an adult, I'd blame this squarely on THUNDERBIRDS' writers and directors.

    Gerry Anderson's creations can be re-imagined and relaunched as brilliantly as BATMAN and STAR TREK have been. They just need to be produced uncompromisingly, by talented people, for grownups. The kid-oriented 2004 THUNDERBIRDS movie was doomed from the start.

  4. Sooooo, "Space: 2099" then? Especially with the new Obama NASA. Or maybe not!

    I agree that the movie seemed more realistic in some aspects of the feel. I also agree that the villain was under-developed, and the physics was pretty much impossible on so many levels. But the acting was much improved, with the only detraction being Nemoy's almost parody-ish acting, 'phoning it in' in a manner that should have been as insulting to fans as it was meant to be.

    Why the Checkov hate though? I thought the laughing in the audience went on far too long over the "gag", which sounded authentic to me if only because I've worked with expatriate Rus before (a rocket scientist of all things!) who had the same exact problem with the w/v interchange. He liked to ask me a lot if I was a "wetran", and I would say "Oh, you mean a Vetran, and he would then reply "Eeyes, that is what I said: wetran".

    Can't wait to see how they do Kahn without Montalban.

  5. My Russian teacher didn't have that problem. Two possibilities: She'd worked harder on her English articulation, or her native language was a different dialect of Russian.

    It seems that no one's yet figured out what to do with Chekov over the years, except to exploit him as comic relief. Depending on which origin story you believe, Gene Roddenberry either added the character for: (1) affirmative action reasons (the bridge crew lacked a Russian, which was odd given the Russians were the first to put a man in space, or; (2) to get more young people to watch the show.