Saturday, May 9, 2009

Star Trek

J.J. Abrams' Star Trek is 2009's answer to 2008's Iron Man: no one will mistake it for intellectually profound or thematically ambitious science fiction, but what it is is action-adventure spit-shined to Hollywood summer movie perfection. Like Iron Man it's stuffed with cool action, likable characters, gorgeous special effects, loads of comedy, and (although no single performance can hold a candle to Downey Jr.) a memorable ensemble with solid chemistry. It's pure popcorn fun that seamlessly joins Batman Begins and Casino Royale in a string of terrific reboots that brought fresh verve to lagging franchises, and I enthusiastically recommend it.

First, as all hack reviewers must, I'll recount my own personal history with the Star Trek franchise: I have none. I was raised on a diet of Star Wars and James Bond and before this year the only Trek I'd ever seen in my life was the utterly insipid Star Trek: Nemesis. A couple months back I watched five or six episodes of The Original Series along with Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to get finally acquainted with the original characters, so although I can identify Vulcans and Romulans I have no emotional investment in the franchise whatsoever.

I don't care about its original intent. I don't care about Trek mythology. I don't care about canon. I don't care about flaws in ships or races or planets. I don't care. I was going into this geek movie for once as a non-geek, a totally objective filmgoer who wouldn't have had the slightest qualm calling a shitty movie a shitty movie. And it hooked me within two minutes.

J.J. Abrams paces this movie like greased lightning, opening with one of the decade's most impressive cinematic space battles and following it up with a deft two-hour juggling act of rapid-fire character development and eye-popping effects and stunts and battles. It's wildly kinetic, and although you can easily imagine the callous hand of the studio dictating strategically-placed action scenes every ten to fifteen minutes, they're handled so well I couldn't mind less. One extended sequence involving base jumping, giant space drills, black holes, swordfighting, and an unfortunate redshirt near the movie's midpoint is one of the most drunkenly entertaining movie sequences since the train battle with Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2.

Chris Pine's rendition of James T. Kirk retains the swagger of William Shatner while making it less about scenery-chewing and more the symptom of a general cocky attitude, but it's Zachary Quinto's Spock who steals the movie as surely as he steals the increasingly dire Heroes every week as Sylar. He calls Leonard Nimoy instantly to mind while doing a superb job with Spock's classic human-Vulcan dilemma, and as far as I'm concerned Pine and Quinto are essentially co-leads.

Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy has a hugely entertaining alpha male presence although Trekkies may be disappointed with him taking a backseat to the action in the film's latter half, while Zoe Saldana (clad in classic Trek miniskirt), John Cho, and Anton Yelchin get a big scene or two each to shine as Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov even as the movie leaves their backgrounds as ambiguous as ever. Beyond Quinto the film's highlight is probably Simon Pegg - Shaun of the Dead himself! - as Scotty, predictably hilarious and with one of the most amusing non-English-speaking science fiction sidekicks since we met Chewbacca thirty years ago.

Of course, Star Trek ain't perfect. In fact, keeping with my opening analogy, the only two blemishes reflect the same two I found in Iron Man exactly a year ago: the music and the villain. Michael Giacchino does good work with the subtle underscoring music in Lost but his haphazardly loud and generically grandiose score in Trek shows him not to have a tenth the grasp of epic bombast that John Williams does. The music isn't terrible but it fails to produce a single memorable theme. Similarly, the villain, Eric Bana's Nero, is serviceable and gets the job done but he's really just the token opposition to give our heroes something to unite against. A totally generic genocidal Romulan, he won't ever be making anyone's favorite villains list.

But Giacchino and Nero are my minor gripes about an otherwise grand entertainment. As a lifelong Star Wars hardcore and ally of the Force in the eternal Wars vs. Trek debate I'm embarrassed at how much more wit, energy, and a muscular sense of pure fun this movie has than the entire prequel trilogy put together. Comedy that's legitimately funny instead of limply geek-funny! Tributes to nostalgia and classic iconography that totally work in contrast to the horror of kid Boba Fett! And to compare the epic drill bit action sequence at the movie's midpoint to Episode I's midmovie pod race simply makes me cringe.

In fact, to sum up, I'll go so far as to say that Star Trek might just make little kids out there feel similarly awed and transported to the way I felt when I first saw the original Star Wars trilogy way back when, and I don't say that something like that lightly. It's awesome, and for once I can't wait for the inevitable sequel.

5 Stars out of 5

No comments: