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Star Trek (2009)

Reviewed by Eliza DoLots

It might be hard for some younger fans to realize, but there was a time when Star Trek was fun. There were no arguments about timeline disruption, Klingon forehead ridges, Federation ship classification or whether Pon Farr made biological sense, and there was never, ever a discussion about canon…it was just fun. Yes, in an era where the news was full of images of war and death, it was heartening to see visions of a future in which humanity came together as one. But mostly, it was fun. Kirk and McCoy ganging up on Spock. Spock and McCoy bickering. Kirk chasing yet another alien female and once again getting his clock rung by thugs hiding behind that same set of rocks that every planet in the galazy seems to have.

Four subsequent series and ten movies have apparently sucked the fun out of Star Trek. Perhaps it was Patrick Stewart's classical theater voice that first started to weigh the franchise down. Certainly, the bridge was never as fun after Kirk left.

Maybe it was the truly frightening aliens that were presented. On the old show, a really scary alien was a rubber lizard. Those aliens with awe-inspring power were shown to us in fairly silly forms (arrogant fancy boy who can't understand "speed of light" in relation to time, feeble old men who just want to be left alone). Q, to some extent, harkens back to the "ultra powerful aliens" of old…sure, he can move a planet, but he has much more fun teasing Bill Riker about his beard. But The Borg (it demands capitalization) were different and their threat so frightening on both a personal and global level that there was no hope for levity.

Voyager, with its "lost dog trying to find home" theme and Deep Space 9 with its "peacekeeping in the midst of severe social tensions" theme were equally mired in seriousness. No amount of frolicking in the holodecks could erase the "reality" of their universes.

Not that serious is a bad thing, but it's not what Star Trek started out being.

Director J. J. Abrams and his writing team of Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman have attempted to return Trek to its roots of fun and hopefulness. To accomplish this they have recast the original Enterprise crew and basically called for a do over. For the most part, they have succeeded.

Trek fans obsessed with "correctness" will likely hate it. If you're one whose opinion of The Undiscovered Country was ruined by the inclusion of a shuttle craft design not shown until season three of Next Generation, then you probably won't appreciate this reboot. If you don't care about such things then I suspect you will find this to be an enjoyable ride.

Some general observations: this movie looks great. Of course, they spent $140 million on it, so it should, but there have been expensive movies that didn't look this good before. Abrams devotes enough time to staring at the ship to please all but the most tech-obsessed fans. The moving cameras and tracking shots keep the audience in the action. There's a "new" but "used" quality to the environment that's reminiscent of Alien.

The uniforms recall the old "pajamas" of the series while looking more modern and more comfortable. Best of all, they did away with the silly little "bell" that ended the pants mid-calf. Pants are now tucked into boots, which visually gives the same shape without making you worry about how they look without their boots and socks.

The scenes at the academy are suitably "academy-like," much more so than the times Next Gen visited Wesley Crusher. Crowds are in abundance (as they are in most university settings) and people look like they have some place to be.

The first major issue is the time travel plot. I'll confess when I first heard about it I was concerned. I found it hard to believe this much money was being spent just to turn Star Trek into Terminator. Fortunately, early rumors were wrong. While it is true that Nero's ship (with a substantial crew) and Spock's ship travel back in time, it is an accident. There was no plot to kill Kirk's (or Spock's) parents to prevent a hero from being born.

The movie does a good enough job explaining why our familiar characters are in ever so slightly different situations that the series. The short answer is that Nero's ship altered the timeline. But, this is not an alternate universe, it's a different timeline or "reality" within our universe. So, no one's wearing armor or carrying a knife to work, but things are a bit different. Which is the explanation for all the handy coincidences in the movies: it's only a bit different so things and people are still very close to what they were before. This is, after all, Star Trek, and spending too much time worrying about the science will only detract from the fun.

Once transported to the past, Nero - a self-described peaceful miner - decides extreme punishment is in order despite the fact that Spock is only guilty of having failed in a rescue mission. Due to the order in which their ships enter the "singularity," Nero arrives 25 years before Spock. This gives Nero time to work himself into a fairly psychotic state. One of my regrets is that we are not given enough information about how Nero and crew spent this time. We see glimpses in a flashback, but more would have been helpful. I really enjoyed both Eric Bana as Nero and Clifton Collins Jr. as his right-hand man Ayel. They bring an almost light-hearted quality to their discussions with the earth ships that I found very amusing. They are absolutely certain that no one in this timeframe can be a threat to their ship and speak to the Captains as though they are errant children. I told my daughter they both sound like they're just calling to see if "Your Mom" can come to the phone.

In the first of many handy coincidences, Nero's ship emerges and immediately engages in a fight with some Klingons, just as James Tiberius Kirk is going to be born. For unexplained reasons, he is being born on an active starship in deep space. Go figure. Kirk's father, George, is played by Shatner look-alike Chris Hemsworth. Captain George Kirk saves his wife, son and crew in a display of courage and strategy that will be studied by future Captains-in-training.

Kirk and Spock's childhoods are condensed to blissfully short scenes. While Kirk is just shown to be a bratty kid, Spock's background is given more illumination. This is good both because Spock's character is more complex and because a recurring element in his life comes into play later in the movie (so you do have to watch!). I have to mention Winona Ryder as Amanda, mother of Spock. Her very brief performance is absolutely spot on, more than any of the other performances, including the much lauded Karl Urban. Ryder is the character we saw in the series.

My first "Spock Highlight" in the movie happens when he makes the decision to pass on the Vulcan Science Academy and pursue a career in Star Fleet. For the first (and only) time, the words "live long and prosper" sound like a curse. It's really nicely done.

Orci and Kurtzman are both very knowledgeable fans of the show. I don't think there's anything in the movie that cannot be found at least hinted at in the series. This "slightly off" perspective actually lets them answer some questions left over from the television show and original movies. Why didn't Spock ever take the Kobayashi Maru? How is it Chekov gets assigned to the bridge when he's obviously so young? What does Lt. Uhura hear through her earpiece? Why "Tiberius"? And, of course, what is Uhura's first name?

The story devotes substantial time to the development of the Kirk-Spock dynamic, and those two characters are among the most fully fleshed-out. Zachary Quinto's Spock is perhaps a bit more comfortable among humans than Leonard Nimoy's Spock was. Lacking Nimoy's startling baritone, Quinto settles on an almost whimsical delivery that works surprisingly well. Chris Pine is simply incredible at James T. Kirk. No, he doesn't sound or look the least bit like Shatner, but Pine is still utterly believable as the genius kid who feels life gave him a raw deal. He has a scene with Nimoy's Spock that is touching and enlightening. We can see in Kirk's eyes that right at that moment, the antipathy he'd felt for Spock at the Academy and on the ship was gone. Pine's Kirk is one of the two performances that make this movie truly worthwhile.

The other stellar performance is Bruce Greenwood as Captain Christopher Pike. Pike is something of a Star Trek legend. We knew there were 11 years of adventures, but we only got to see the one. In it, we met a thoughtful man capable of great action. In some ways, Pike seemed to have more in common with Captain Picard than Captain Kirk. Orci and Kurtzman embrace that seriousness but give Pike a lighter persona. When Pike finds himself with a crew of largely fresh cadets (one of several nods to The Wrath of Khan) he is obviously amused by the idea. Bruce Greenwood is everything a starship captain is supposed to be. He manages to convey both the power of the position and an appreciation for things outside regulations.

Leonard Nimoy is obviously the quintessential symbol of the original Trek. It would be sacrilege to dissect the performance in any way. Nimoy does seem discouragingly fragile in the movie. Perhaps it is because he took a fall during filming, breaking his nose.

Simon Pegg as Scotty is probably the most dramatic change from the original. While Doohan's Scotty was always capable of humor, Pegg seems almost incapable of refraining from humor. It works, and the movie doesn't fall into slapstick just because he's there.

Karl Urban's McCoy is getting talked up as the most faithful to the original, but I don't agree (as noted above). I find Urban's southern accent to be harsh, where DeForrest Kelly's was soft and seductive. Urban does capture the pessimism that McCoy so frequently espoused well. McCoy doesn't have nearly enough to do in this movie and it is my fervent hope that the next movie (a second Abram's Trek has already been given the green light) the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate will be fully established. They gave us a little hint of the classic Spock vs. McCoy debates and both Urban and Quinto seem able to rise to the challenge.

The rest of the cast is largely under-used. Zoe Saldana's Uhura is appropriately bossy (Nichelle Nichols' Uhura was bossy! Don't even pretend she wasn't.) and Anton Yelchin's Chekov is appropriately annoying. John Cho as Sulu gets to take part in the film's biggest action scene but otherwise has little to do. While one hopes that we'll see more of them in future movies it's probably good to remember that none of these three characters were in all of the episodes. They are secondary characters and should rightfully remain such.

There are a few negatives. Promotion in Star Fleet seems to be a bit whimsical. One second Kirk is an illegal stowaway up on charges at the Academy, the next he's being promoted to First Officer. Uhura gets a similar, if not quite as odd, promotion to Communications Officer and Scotty's ascension to Engineering Chief makes no sense at all. Although my daughter thought it made sense, so maybe I'm just an old fuddy-duddy.

There is a substance that - like so many substances - can be used for good or evil. This substance is at the heart of Nero's attacks. It goes by the name "red matter." Other than what it can do, all we learn is that it's red and it likes to be in "bubble" formation. We never get a clue where it comes from, how it works, who discovered it …nothing. Everyone just says "I used Red Matter" as though that explains it. Frankly, it makes Kryptonite look positively scientific. But this is where we chant, "Hey, it's Star Trek! Don't think about the science!"

There are a couple of huge, gaping plot holes, but again, those are a hallmark of Star Trek and open the door for lots of fan fiction to be written, so I won't complain overly.

I have already seen the movie twice. I've made it known that I'm fully prepared to recreate the Summer of Star Wars and just go see Trek anytime there's a lull in the day. It is really that much fun. Hang your cynical hat on the hook, pretend you don't know what "canon" means, and enjoy it!

 

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Director
J. J. Abrams

Screenplay
Robert Orci
Alex Kurtzman

Released
May 8, 2009

Cast
Chris Pine
Zachary Quinto
Leonard Nimoy
Bruce Greenwood
Karl Urban
Zoe Saldana
John Cho
Eric Bana

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray