Thursday, July 21, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek' (2009)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

I was kind of blown away by J.J. Abrams' Star Trek when I first saw it in 2009 (and wrote a glowing review), and I think a big part of that was how fresh and new it felt compared to the last iterations of Trek in movies and especially on TV. But coming back to it now, after a positive reevaluation of Nemesis and many years of familiarity with the style of the new series, I was slightly less impressed. I still think it's an extremely entertaining movie and very effective at what it sets out to do (resetting the series into a new continuity while preserving the old one), but I was more aware of the faults this time around, especially the forgettable villain and the contrived way that the familiar crew comes together on the Enterprise.

Still, it's a lot of fun, and Abrams deserves enormous credit for putting together a cast that both effortlessly evokes the original characters and stands on its own. Every actor in this movie does a great job, and that goes a long way toward smoothing over the rough spots in the plotting. As in The Search for Spock and Generations, large portions of the plot exist solely for logistical reasons, so that the timeline for this series can diverge from classic continuity while leaving that continuity intact. That applies to the entire role of Leonard Nimoy as the original Spock (or Spock Prime, as he's referred to in the credits), whose presence connects the main Trek universe to this new alternate version. He travels back in time from a point eight years after the events of Nemesis, chasing the Romulan terrorist Nero (Eric Bana), and thus creating a divergent timeline. Even though his function in the movie is a continuity patch, Nimoy imbues Spock with the same soulful wisdom that he's always brought to the character, with an additional wistfulness that comes from age.

Nimoy never overshadows the main cast, though, and that's a testament to the ensemble that Abrams puts together. Chris Pine makes Kirk into a modern action hero while retaining his sense of integrity, and Zachary Quinto gives the young Spock a darker intensity to go with his typical Vulcan reserve. Karl Urban expertly channels DeForest Kelley as McCoy, still curmudgeonly even at a younger age. As they do in the original movies, Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) get only brief spotlights, but they make the most of them. Simon Pegg turns Scotty into a slightly more comedic character, although his constant exasperation was always a source of humor. Possibly the biggest change comes from Zoe Saldana as Uhura, who gets a much larger role and a more proactive personality. Her unexpected romance with Spock is one of the movie's most surprisingly successful alterations to continuity.

With a budget significantly larger than any of the previous Trek movies (even adjusted for inflation), Abrams' film features a number of very strong action set pieces, and the best special effects of the entire series. The space jump to destroy Nero's massive drill, the battle between the U.S.S. Kelvin and Nero's ship that opens the movie, and Kirk's encounter with giant alien beasts on Delta Vega are all exciting, well-designed sequences that mark the movie as a top-notch sci-fi/action blockbuster. Even with the emphasis on action, this film doesn't entirely lose the thoughtfulness that Trek is known for, and it's especially strong at character development, quickly and efficiently establishing background and relationships among the main characters. It's easy to see the respect that Kirk and Spock develop for each other, the good-natured camaraderie between Kirk and Scotty and Kirk and McCoy, and the deep love between Spock and Uhura. As the older Spock, Nimoy gets the same kind of meaningful passing-the-torch moment that William Shatner got in Generations.

The weakest point in the movie is definitely Bana's Nero, who, like Spock Prime, exists primarily to move the plot where it needs to go. Unlike Spock Prime, he never really makes an impression as a character beyond that, and the movie's use of Romulans as antagonists is less effective than their use in Nemesis. It's also a bit disappointing to see the somewhat cavalier destruction of the entire planet of Vulcan (and the entire planet of Romulus in the main timeline) as a plot device, although Quinto manages to make its loss feel significant, as Spock struggles with his grief. Given how many requirements screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman undoubtedly had to fulfill in order to get this movie to satisfy the continuity-obsessed Trekkies, remain accessible for a general audience and feature a number of big action sequences, they do a remarkable job of holding it all together. Some fans will never accept the direction that this movie set for the franchise, but to me it's an excellent synthesis between studio mandates and creative integrity.

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