Saturday, May 23, 2009

Movie Review: Star Trek - Part 2

For part one of this review, please scroll down to the previous entry.

When word started to come out that the latest in the Star Trek line of movies was going to be a redux of the original crew, re-cast with up and coming young actors, I have to admit I was both intrigued and skeptical.  This was a clear gamble by Paramount... as I discussed in my prior post, breathing new life into the original series crew and the stories that surround them had unlimited potential.  On the flip side, a poorly written plot, or poor casting could doom the franchise permanently. The casting part in particular was crucial.  This isn't your run-of-the-mill re-make... this is Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Scott, Bones... these are cultural icons and larger than life personalities. Leonard Nimoy became so synonymous with his Spock character that he found it nearly impossible to find work as an actor outside of that role, and had an identity crisis that stayed with him most of his life, to the point that he wrote a best-selling book about it.  Getting the characters for the original crew cast properly was critical. And to their credit, J.J Abrams and his crew did an outstanding job of casting the roles.  

Eschewing larger name actors for the major roles, Abrams pegged the young and fairly unknown Chris Pine for the role of Kirk, while casting 'Heroes' uber-villain Zachary Quinto as a convincing Spock. In what may have been the most controversial casting move, Abrams picked the super-sexy Zoe Saldana, another relative unknown, for the part of Uhura, and then gave that character a more interesting and dynamic role than I think anyone would have imagined.

Warning!  From this point, there may be some spoilers... not so much on the plot or the film's conclusion, but on some of the more important plot points of the movie and character interactions.  

The movie starts out jumping right into the plot, with Jim Kirk's father, George, serving aboard the USS Kelvin.  The plot immediately deviates from the traditional "Trek" lore when George is killed during an attack on the Kelvin.  It is during this attack James T. Kirk is born (and we also learn the origin of his middle name, 'Tiberius') as his mother is ushered off of the badly damaged Kelvin.  This initial scene, and how it deviates from the original 'Star Trek' lore concerning Jim Kirk's father, is actually critical to the plot as the movie develops.  In fact, while it is not immediately clear to the movie-goer at the time, this one encounter is a space-time event, and completely re-shapes the lives of the original Enterprise crew, and from that point forward, all original 'Trek' lore is completely wiped away as a new 'Trek' universe is created.

I'd like to spend a moment talking about that aspect of the movie.  There are several aspects of this movie that are what I would consider HUGE gambles for the 'Trek' franchise.  But from my vantage-point, I consider them all brilliant moves.  First off, killing off Kirk's father early in the movie (an even that never took place in the original 'Trek' lore) adds an entirely new element to Kirk's personality and motivation.  This is a theme that is touched upon several times in the movie.  In fact, in one of the best lines of the movie, Captain Pike (who served with Kirk's father aboard the Kelvin) reminds Kirk that his father "served as Captain for exactly 12 minutes, and saved 800 lives... I dare you to do better".  So again, here we have an entirely new aspect to Kirk's psyche to explore that did not exist in the prior Trek world.

In another stunning plot twist, as a result of the same "space-time" event that destroys the Kelvin, the entire planet Vulcan is destroyed... turned into a quantum singularity (one of Star Trek's favorite plot devices over the years) by something called "Red matter".  Only a small fragment of the Vulcan population survives.  Later it is revealed that the person, however indirectly, responsible for all the chaos is none other than a much older Spock (reprised, of course, by Leonard Nimoy) in a time several hundred years into the future.  

At this point it is clear that what the writers are doing here is not only creating an exciting and interesting set of plot devices, but in doing so, completely wiping the slate clean on the entire Star Trek universe.  This, I imagine, is done with the foresight of introducing a new series or movie sequels, using the original crew, but unbound by any of the lore or story-lines of the prior series.  In essence, the original crew of the Enterprise is re-born, and is starting over from day one.  

This concept is the essential launching point for the rest of the movie.  The events that lead up to the 'alternate' universe for Kirk and the rest of the crew, and the events that follow during the movie, almost feel secondary to the characters and their interactions in this new world.  And I think this is a good thing.  It's not that the story is all that terrible, it's just not all that important once the major plot points are laid out early on. As a Trek fan and a viewer, I was far more drawn in by the back stories surrounding the crew members... especially Kirk and Spock.  In fact, I could have watched, with great interest, an entire movie devoted to Kirk's character and his development, with more focus on his time at Star Fleet Academy.  And similarly, I would loved to have spent two hours with Spock's character and his development.

And it's at this point that I think the movie hits a home run:  the interplay between Kirk and Spock.  One of the things that I never liked about the original series was that Kirk and Spock were such complete polar opposites, yet had such admiration and respect for each other and were ultimately the best of friends.  I know, I know... that was supposed to be the juxtaposition, but the fact is that even if they ended up as friends, they NEVER would have started out that way.  In fact, they likely would have started out hating each other.  And in this film, that's exactly the dynamic that Abrams explores. Kirk and Spock spend most of the film as direct, fierce adversaries, and it is in this dynamic that we learn the most about their respective characters. Those two should have hated one another, especially in their youthful, developmental days. Kirk and Spock share a contempt for each of the other's reputed strongest qualities: Spock finds Kirk's impulsiveness and neglect of basic protocol wreckless and dangerous, and Kirk finds Spock's adherence to regulation and logic cold and calculating. This leads to a palpable tension between the two, and a clear dislike. In one rare adherence to 'Trek' lore we are shown Kirk's solution to the 'Kobayashi Maru' (no-win scenario) test at Starfleet Academy.  This event really did have to be explored in this film, as it is a central construct to Kirk's personality (he famously declares 'I don't believe in no-win scenarios').  However, the writers put an interesting spin on the incident, making Spock the person who programmed the test, as well as the primary accuser during Kirk's hearing on the incident.  Thus the initial animosity is born.

Speaking of Spock, I really thought Abrams and his writers did a great job of putting more focus on Spock's youthful character, and highlighting how it would have differed from the Spock he would become later in his life as part of the original crew in the original series.  Being half-human, no doubt the young Spock would have been filled with conflict regarding his place, and would have struggled restraining his more 'human' impulses.  Abrams explores these aspects wonderfully, albeit briefly.  This lends Spock's character, in this movie, to be far more flawed than ever would have been allowed with the original Spock character.  Additionally, it allowed the writers to introduce another key element that would serve to heighten the tension between Spock and Kirk:  Spock's intimate relationship with Uhura (again, a plot twist that never would have been accepted with the original characters, but within the constructs of this movie, it is perfectly acceptable), whom Kirk has been hitting on since early in the movie.

The rest of the characters are well cast by Abrams. 'Bones' McCoy is played admirably, if not a little over the top, by action movie regular Karl Urban (of Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Riddick fame).  Anton Yelchin takes on the role of Chekov, and does a pretty good job, despite the over-play of the humor in his Russian accent.  The 'Asian ubiquitous' John Cho plays an excellent Sulu, and Scottish comedian Simon Pegg reprises the role of Scottie with great humor, along with a much more believable Scottish accent and mannerisms.  In an interesting twist, the more famous actors that appear in this film play more bit roles, with the exception of Eric Bana, who makes a wonderfully understated primary villain.  Other big names making bit appearances:  Winona Ryder as Spock's mother, Ben Cross as Spock's father, Jennifer Morrison (House's Dr. Cameron) as Kirk's mother, and of course Nimoy as the "future Spock".

As I said, the most engaging aspects of this film have little to do with the plot.  The plot is there to set up the bigger parts of the story, and then to sort of act as an agent to force the interaction of the primary characters, and not get in the way... and in this way it works wonderfully.  Some would call the plot weak and contrived.  I'm not sure about contrived, but it might be a little weak.  However I see this as a good thing in this case.  A half-hour into the film, I couldn't care less about Nero and the Narada and who they were going to attack next... I wanted to see Kirk and Spock interact... I wanted to see Uhura and Spock explore their relationship... I wanted to see the integration of the other characters, and enjoy the interplay off of one another, and I got that in spades.  

As with most 'Trek' movies and many episodes, the whole 'space-time' rip meme gets old and confusing, and while I understand why it was needed to set up the events that would define the movie, I still hate it.  It's never well explained, you are always just supposed to 'accept it' without question. And for the sake of the rest of the movie, I will... but I'm warning you, 'Trek' producers, we're all getting sick of how easy it is to screw with space-time.  It's just too convenient and easy a plot device to do whatever you want.  Just ask the audience of "Generations".  

Beyond that minor nit-pick, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this film.  It gave me everything I wanted as a 'Trek' fan, while inserting elements I never expected, and can't wait to explore further.  As I said above, the whole film feels like a set-up for more movies or even a series.  If it is written and acted as well as this movie, it can't come soon enough.

Grade: A

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