Sunday, May 10, 2009
A critic (even a wannabe) is nothing if not honest, so let me start by saying this: I’ve never cared for Star Trek. Oh, I know about Shatner’s staccato delivery and Spock’s logic and his death grips. I know that the show featured the first interracial kiss on television, and for that it was truly groundbreaking. But to my eyes, the original series was a bundle of campy, stiffly acted escapism that tried to argue for an idealistic utopia in which all were equal, despite the fact that the cast was overwhelmingly white. Heck, I’ve never even seen The Wrath of Khan. Therefore, I haven’t the foggiest clue how closely J.J Abrams and his writers adhere to continuity, nor do I know whether the cast offers up exciting new takes on the characters or simply resorts to imitation. What I do know is that Star Trek is a hell of a blockbuster, and it’ll bring in new fans by the starship-load.
Then again, continuity might not mean very much, as Abrams rather brilliantly uses time travel to free himself from the need to be faithful to the show’s mythology. When a massive Romulan ship emerges from a black hole demanding the head of Spock (who hasn’t even been born yet), an alternate reality splinters off from the proper timeline. Thus, Kirk’s father dies in the opening sequence to protect his escaping crew (as well as his pregnant wife) rather than see his son become a captain. And when a fatherless, rebellious James (Chris Pine) finally enlists in Starfleet, he comes into direct conflict with Spock (Zachary Quinto), who accuses him on cheating on the half-Vulcan’s “unwinnable” flight simulator.
When the Romulan ship and its vindictive captain, Nero (Eric Bana), re-emerges over the planet Vulcan, Kirk and Spock end up on the newly-christened Enterprise, while various members of the proper Trek crew enter the film at various times. By this time, we’ve met Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban, supposedly the person who comes closest to imitation). On the bridge of the ship are Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Sulu (John Cho). Connections between the characters slowly form until Nero commits a terrible act that rends the crew apart.
After the cataclysmic event, the film takes a number of twists and turns that are not really deep or inventive but allow a nonstop action assault that makes sure to keep track of its characters. Even when Scotty (Simon Pegg in show-stealing form) arrives too late in the film, he gets enough lines to make him memorable. Abrams name-checks the continuity even as he forges different character relationships, giving the film a tongue-in-cheek bent to balance out the severity of some of the story elements. He even manages to bring in Leonard Nimoy as the “proper” Spock without lapsing into gimmickry.
It’s also surprisingly funny. Pine wonderfully mimics Shatner’s swagger while avoiding any real imitation, while Uhura gets an upgrade from space secretary to full-on alien translator – she also has a fling with an unlikely beau. And if Urban is just channeling the original McCoy, he does so in style, getting the biggest laughs of the film with golden nuggets like “Damn it, man!! I’m a doctor not a physicist!” and a running gag where he continues to painfully inject Kirk with medicines that contain awful side effects while Kirk is trying to save the ship. My only real complaint is that either Quinto isn't quite right for the role or, more likely, they wrote him the weakest lines. In some spots he's on fire as Spock, and in others he merely fizzles.
Sure, Star Trek might be short on depth, even the heavy-handed depth that informed the original series. It may be all pop and fizzle, all quips and witticisms, and its grasp on black hole theory is, if I may be so crass, highly illogical. But it’s also the perfect blockbuster because it never takes itself too seriously. I’ve seen a few reviews that call it the perfect blockbuster for the Obama era, which actually makes sense: a young, inexperienced man comes to power on the strength of his ability, intelligence and idealism. I don’t know if I put much stock in that theory, but either way, Star Trek is one of the most exhilarating blockbusters in years, and I can’t wait to delve further into this universe.