Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Star Trek (2009)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Movie Review: Star Trek (2009)

by Tony Dayoub

J.J. Abrams' Star Trek captures the spirit of Gene Roddenberry's original creation better than any other subsequent spinoff or sequel has up until now. I'm even including the six films which starred the original cast led by William Shatner. This enormously enjoyable summer confection is still lacking the all important philosophical depth of the sixties-era sci-fi actioner. But with the once ailing franchise now reinvigorated by Abrams and crew, it looks like there will be plenty of opportunity to perfect the brew.

When I say the film goes back to Star Trek's beginnings, I'm not kidding. We see the birth of our hero, James T. Kirk, during a turbulent battle in which his father dies at the hand of the Romulan villain, Nero (Eric Bana). There's also a glimpse at the childhood of the stoic Vulcan, Spock, a painful time when he is teased and bullied for being half-human. Twenty minutes of this setup are a bit too much for anyone but the fanboys. It's enough to know that Kirk (Chris Pine) grows up with a chip on his shoulder due to daddy's absence, and Spock (Zachary Quinto) has his own - an inner emotional turmoil due to his mixed parentage - that he hides from his father's race which forbids such emotions.

The action really begins after Starfleet cadets, including Kirk and Spock, are called to defend one of the planets in their Federation from a Romulan attack, again led by Nero. This is the impetus for the familiar supporting players of McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Scotty (Simon Pegg) to unite under Spock's command on the starship Enterprise against the lunatic Nero. Wait... shouldn't it be Kirk commanding?

This Star Trek is at once familiar, yet different, one of its strongest conceits used to inject jeopardy into what is otherwise a well-worn storyline. Every character displays the energy and wit we know them for, but the perspective has been a little skewed by the presence of Nero, who has traveled back from the future to get revenge on Spock for a "crime" he has yet to commit. Nero's presence has altered the way events unfold. Kirk's dad should never had died, and now he must become the man, the captain, he should have been without his father's guidance.

It is through Pine's performance as Kirk that the movie brings in elements of the original series that have been missing for so long. His Kirk is rebellious, stubborn, athletic, funny, and sexy. Part of the original Star Trek's charm was the infusion of an adolescent sexiness, best personified in this film by the green-skinned Orion woman Kirk is fooling around with in a scene set in a Starfleet Academy dorm room. Its appeal also lay in the friendly camaraderie between Kirk and the sarcastic McCoy, captured pitch-perfectly by actors Pine and Urban.

The action? Well, between the increasingly steep age of the original crew, and the general stateliness of Patrick Stewart and his Next Generation castmates, this component is what had truly been lacking in the film series. Here, Abrams does not disappoint. The film has a driving relentlessness behind it that literally keeps you glued to your seat. After the unnecessary prologue, it's just a big race to the finish line, and one that doesn't confuse you with its geography the way last year's big summer prequel, The Dark Knight, seemed to do in its action sequences. If there's one thing Star Trek has going for it, it's a sheer exuberance for the story and its players that is more akin to last year's fantastic Iron Man, that should give the movie some good word-of-mouth among the skeptical younger demographic it hopes to succeed with.

The only negative criticism I have for Star Trek is that it feels like it ends just when it's getting started. I can't wait to see the newly united crew of the Enterprise on their next adventure. And that is not a bad criticism to have.

More Star Trek coverage:

First Look: J.J. Abrams' Star Trek
J.J. Abrams' Star Trek - Speculation on What to Expect
Star Trek Week Begins
Blu-ray Review: Star Trek: The Original Series - Season 1 (1966-67)
Star Trek Podcast, Part 1
Star Trek Podcast, Part 2


tsandaal said...

I have to ask how you get out of the house with two kids to see so many dang movies! I am glad you liked the flick as it represents the ultimate stamp of approval in my book.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks, Team Sandaal.

As for getting out of the house, we had to get a babysitter for this particular film. But for most other movies, I get invited to special morning screenings or get advance screeners on DVD which I can watch at my convenience.

Joel Bocko said...

I'm congenitally antagonistic towards the idea of "reboots" though I sometimes change my mind when I see the film itself (Bond being one example). Rebooting can often mean superficial moodiness, a smug air of techno-savvy, and surface realism masking an adolescent immaturity (even in Casino Royale, which I liked, these elements hovered threatingly in view, and in Batman begins I felt they predominated - don't get me started on King Kong, if that counts). Not to mention the fact that, in the back of our mind, we're aware that today's reboot is tomorrow's old hat. I weary of hearing how Batman Begins or Dark Knight "deepens" the vapid Batman franchise as if nobody remembers how Tim Burton's version was celebrated for doing the same 20 years earlier (hell, I was 6 at the time and I remember that!). In a word, the whole idea - at least as it's presented in the media - strikes me as glib.

Despite loyally following "The Next Generation" for a couple seasons as a kid, I've never been much of a Trekker/ie (Star Wars was much more my bag). I'm not really planning on seeing this, but your reaction is interesting, in that you felt it recaptured the original spirit more than any other film in the series. Though you mention a certain youthfulness and playfulness that was present in the 60s show but absent from the movies, most of your descriptions (and certainly most of the advertising I've seen for the movie) indicate a departure in spirit from the more thoughtful and, in its own occasionally chintzy way, mature series. Do you feel that this aspect has been overstated and that the true appeal of the original Star Trek lies in its forgotten playfulness? Or is the new movie more thoughtful/mature than I've been led to believe?

Coffee Nomad said...

who knew Eric Bana was a "Trekkie"? He did a great job as the villain though seriously

Tony Dayoub said...


You raise some interesting points that I'd like to respond to.

First, let's get rid of the annoying "reboot" term, which is limiting because of the negative connotations associated with it. I prefer "new interpretation." Genre films with strong central characters or genre adaptations from other sources often get interpreted several times, especially when there are generational zeitgeist shifts. Take Sherlock Holmes, interpreted most famously by Basil Rathbone. But there is the Hammer movie, starring Peter Cushing in the part, and Robert Downey will be interpreting the role for Guy Ritchie this Christmas. Reboots? Like Dracula, Holmes and the Star Trek crew are elastic characters that can stand different reworkings because after some surface characteristics are adhered to there is still a lot of room for reinterpretation.

The danger is in getting too attached to a particular performance. But it's not like we're talking about Pacino's Michael Corleone. For example, I'm a big fan of Shatner-as-Kirk (no jokes, please). But Chris Pine interprets the role in such a way that captures the essence of Kirk without mimicking Shatner. Isn't part of the fun of watching endless iterations of Hamlet to watch what different actors bring to the role?

Why am I ignoring the plot and speaking strictly about acting? Because the Star Trek formula is so familiar, that even when you attempt to revise it, it still comes out the same. The extraordinary thing about this film, is that JJ Abrams makes the formula exciting again by refusing to accept that any of its trappings are sacred cows.

Rick Berman, shepherd of Star Trek since Gene Roddenberry's death in the nineties, had painted his creative team into a corner with some of the dramatic rules he had set up as to what was and what wasn't Star Trek. The crew couldn't engage in petty disagreements with each other, have any vices, etc. all which robbed the show of any dramatic tension. The aliens were all bipedal with funny foreheads, ignoring some of the more creative aliens in the old series, like the lizard-like Gorn or the crystalline Tholians, creatures that though cheesy looking today still fired the imagination. Sex and action, both vital components of the original series had all but disappeared for fear of scaring kids away, a demographic that had mostly moved on anyway. Risk had been written out of the concept, save for Deep Space Nine, who's show-runner Ira Steven Behr was a major original series fan and was rewarded by having his show largely ignored by Berman as the ugly step-child of the production dynasty.

Abrams makes the damn thing fun again.

P.S. As for King Kong, that is more of a remake than a reboot, so I don't see how it counts, really.

Coffee Nomad,

I would have loved to see more of Bana's Nero. He was an interesting villain in that he was not a dictator or looking to attain any personal riches or power as much as avenge what he felt was genocide. Apparently 20 minutes of his backstory was cut to help the film move as quickly as it did.

Joel Bocko said...

Tony, as always your description of the historical context is both interesting & illuminating - I'd love to hear more about how Baker's interpretation of Trek was causing friction with his collaborators.

In a sense you're right about Kong - the term "reboot" has franchise connotations which don't really apply to that film. I guess what I was getting at is a specific kind of remake/interpretation - one which tries to make its subject, supposedly "dated", "cool" again. Holmes appears to be another example of this - I recall reading an item on the Siren's blog about how some snarky culture critic was blabbing about how much cooler and sexier Downey's Holmes would be than Basil Rathbone's.

I know, I know. This condescending (and wrong-headed) view of the past isn't always a part of the films themselves; sometimes its the media piling on. But it definitely colors my view of these projects, whereas your description of the process is much more imicable to my sensibility. I just wish there was more of a sense of respect for the tradition these "reboots" were working in; despite the lip service that "returning to the roots" receives more often I get the sense that these projects are born out of a cultural arrogance which sees the past as withered junk needing a "reboot."

But again, this is more about the phenomena - particularly the way "buzz" builds around these projects - than, at least, this particular project, which I haven't seen (though the snow monster scene I saw excerpted turned me off a bit).

Out of curiosity, what's your view of The Next Generation? I definitely get the sense that you're more of an old-line Trekkie, but that was the show for which I came closest to joining your tribe. Actually, the only reason I stopped watching it was that I misunderstood the TV Guide listing and mistook the season finale (the one in which Picard becomes a Borg) for the series finale and assumed the show was over! Only years later did I come across an item that The Next Generation was going off the air...imagine my surprise! (A similar thing happened with The Simpsons, though in that case the ad - featuring the big text "Last Simpsons episode ever!" - was an April Fools Joke...)

Tony Dayoub said...

Behr's interpretation of Trek was more in keeping with Roddenberry's original line of thinking. Roddenberry had pitched Trek as "Wagon Train to the stars." Wagon Train was a famous western TV series of the time starring Ward Bond. Roddenberry's point was that TV audiences were not necessarily interested in seeing historically accurate cowboys as much as they were in seeing contemporary men playing cowboys. So Kirk was supposed to be a contemporary man in a futuristic setting, with all the imperfections a still heroic figure of the sixties would have, yet transplanted into the future. Spock could be the more evolved individual that we aspired to be in such a future, and this would create chemistry. In fact, when he tried selling the original pilot with Jeffery Hunter playing a far more future-minded individual, the network turned it down. The problem is that Roddenberry started believing some of the own myths he had conjured up about himself in later life. So when Next Generation came around, the strictest rule he set forth was that their must not be conflict between the main characters. The writers chafed against that, saying it robbed the show of any drama. Ira Steven Behr and Ronald D. Moore were two examples of writers that found ways to sneak conflict onto the show. They, in fact, were some of the most prolific writers of Deep Space Nine which they deliberately cast with a mixture of Starfleet and non-Starfleet characters in order to heighten the tension without breaking Roddenberry's edict. Fans accustomed to Next Gen accused them of sullying the Trek franchise. But these two writers grew up as fans of the original series, and if anything took the series back to its roots. Each of them went on to develop their own sci-fi shows that seem to be their own dramatic response to this unpopular "rule," The 4400 and Battlestar Galactica, both shows where conflict between the characters are the rule, not the exception.

I loved the Next Generation during its original run, and saw it in its entirety repeatedly. But today, its attitude stikes me as even more dated than the original's. The serialized Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, stands up pretty well. Definitely recommended but beware. Though the first three seasons set up some important story points, it doesn't really hit its stride till the 4th season. Then it stays consistently excellent through to its end.

T.S. said...

Glad you enjoyed it. I did as well, although I've never seen an episode or film of the Star Trek series in any iteration. My Trekkie mother-in-law enjoyed it immensely (Mother's Day gift from us), and my wife, who is outright hostile to most science fiction, also came away entertained.

The primary dispute among us leaving the theater was whether Abrams make a film self-conscious enough. Mom-in-law voted yea, my wife voted nay (and thought it took itself too seriously in parts), and I'm sort of indifferent. As someone who knows very little of Star Trek save its cultural contributions (Beam me up, Set phasers to stun, Life long and prosper), I felt the film balanced the obligatory nods to the past for fans and the necessary broadening needed for public consumption. The mystique glowed around the edges, but the meatiness was not lost.

Still, I feel more skepticism toward the setup for more installments than you. I'm happy to pick up the phrase "new interpretation" rather than "reboot," but I will give the term "reboot" its due in the sense that part of the enjoyment of any franchise re-imagining is the momentary kick in the ass that's needed. The allure of Casino Royale to me was the move back in time; otherwise, it would have just been another Bond movie. That allure was completely lost on me with Quantum of Solace, which I mightily fought with from post-credit sequence to finale because it embraced the inherent insularity of the series. I think Christopher Nolan has found a way to make Batman interesting to people approaching from all angles, though some like them less and may ultimately disagree. The question for me will be whether Abram's Star Trek continues to push itself outward or whether it will fall back in on itself out of comfort — essentially a question of whether I'll be interested in what it offers next, whether it goes the way of Batman or the way of Bond.

Jason Bellamy said...

Tony: Great review. (And very interesting comments, all.) Indeed, Abrams has reinvigorated the franchise.

I agree with you that the setup is a bit overlong. I found Nero to be a bland villain, so based on your information, I wish they'd cut the kid-Kirk scenes and trimmed the Kirk dad scenes in order to bring more dimension to Nero. (The childhood scenes of Spock, however, were crisp and informative.)

I can't agree with you that the film doesn't confuse us with its geography. Often I had a hard time keeping track of characters on the bridge, and the hand-to-hand combat scenes were typically (for this era) over cut. But, so what. Yeah, I'd prefer an ounce of suspense in those scenes (which requires me to be able to follow along, to feel like the characters are fighting and not dancing), but I'm not going to fault Abrams (too much) for adhering to what has become the norm.

I'm excited to see where the series goes. Though I am a bit skeptical. So much of the enjoyment of this picture comes from the way the famous character catchphrases and quirks are scattered like Easter eggs for the diehards to find. It's tremendous fun this time around, but that won't be so special in a sequel.

Tony Dayoub said...


I'm definitely hoping "Trek" keeps growing outward. For example, though it may be hard to avoid, I don't want them remaking or rebooting already existing episodes. Give us something new.


Thanks for your comments. Jim Emerson had much to say on the confusing gegraphy over at Scanners. Here I reprint my response to him:

I agree with you that "The Dark Knight" had some serious problems with its action choreography, mostly because it served no purpose. But I don't think it's the same for "Star Trek."

Chaos versus order... that's what it came down to for me. For instance, Kirk's reckless youth is staged much more jaggedly than Spock's relatively sedate upbringing forming a visual counterpoint that is also reflected in Nero vs. Starfleet.

If one accepts that Nero is an agent of chaos and Kirk and co. are agents of order, then the visual style is justified. In the early part of the film, every Nero appearance has a chaotic, dangerous feeling due to the tight and disorienting camera movements. His ship's design also reflects that in the sense that it's size or scale is hard to get a grasp of (except we know it dwarfs the clean-looking Enterprise). The dislocation felt by the viewer is also necessary to create the sense of the timeline being disrupted by Nero with the iciting event of the movie, the (SPOILER WARNING) death of Kirk's father.

Compare the sequence where the Enterprise first emerges into a starship graveyard over Vulcan - the dizzying dirtiness of it - to the same set of circumstances at the beginning of "Star Trek: First Contact" where the Enterprise zooms into a similar field of starship debris when fighting the Borg. How clean and antiseptic it was in that case. In this new version of "Trek," space feels dangerous in a way it hasn't since the days of the original series when redshirts galore were killed to prove that point.

This was one area in which I didn't mind the "Star Wars" influence (or more precisely "Battlestar Galactica" influence) of the "twisty-turny" camera in space. One of my biggest criticisms of space shots in "Star Trek" has always been it's two-dimensional thinking in regard to space. Space is not a flat plane. Kirk even used this to defeat Khan in ST:II, the last film in the series to really take advantage of this 3-D concept. How gratifying it was to see the film's opening shot be that of the USS Kelvin zooming in space upside-down, as there is no up or down in space.

Once Kirk and crew start to get a handle on the situation, and control of the film's events falls into their hands, then the space sequences become more visually ordered (the turning point seems to be Spock's hijacking of the future-ship from Nero's landing bay).

If I have any nits to pick it is in the script, where there seems to be a "Lost"-ification of Kirk by injecting a Daddy issue that was never present in the original character. This seems to be part of the effort to bring "Trek" closer to the more popular "Star Wars," i.e., Luke's destiny being informed by Anakin's decisions.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good arguments. I did a speed-reading of Emerson's piece this morning, but I need to re-read it later tonight. (A lot to chew on there.)

With that disclaimer provided: While I found myself agreeing with Emerson in spirit (the lens flares were obnoxious, in my opinion), it seemed that in this case, more than in his slams of The Dark Knight, he is complaining based on preconception of what the picture should be, rather than reacting to the effect of what it is.

At some point, maybe it just comes down to taste. And you can't have effect without taste. (As I suggested in an earlier comment: if I can't follow the action, I can't be moved by it.) But if Star Trek had always had the Abrams look and feel, I don't think the visual (controlled?) chaos would have gotten under Emerson's skin.

Yes, I found myself desperate for a clean, wide shot of the bridge. But that's because the original series (TV and films) were filled with clean, wide shots of the bridge. Thus I had a sense that I was "missing" something, but was I? I didn't mind as much that I never got a clean look at the Romulan ship, because I had no preconceived notion of what it should feel like to be (see) inside it. (That said, Abrams did seem to go out of his way to stick the camera behind stuff.)

Your reply to Emerson does a terrific job of analyzing the effect (at least the potential effect) of these approaches. As difficult as it must have been to revive the Star Trek series, perhaps it's even harder for many of us to see it with fresh eyes.