Star Trek JJA
Spoiler Assessment: Past the assertions in the first couple of paragraphs, this first section is pretty much spoiler-free. But in the sections that follow—after the subtitles—spoilers for those who haven’t seen the new movie are frequent.
Seeing the new Star Trek movie confirms that there are now two Star Trek story universes. There is Star Trek GR, the universe created by Gene Roddenberry and his collaborators on the original series and the Next Generation, altered but carried forward under the direction of Rick Berman. There are hundreds of hours of television and feature film stories set in this universe, along with many books and other forms of story.
But Paramount, owner of Star Trek copyrights for movies at least, authorized a new Trek movie universe, represented by one story told over a couple of hours plus, in this new feature film: what I’m calling Star Trek JJA, for the movie’s producer and director, J. J. Abrams.
I have some thoughts about the implications of this below, but first: the movie.
The impression produced by the commercials and previews turned out to be accurate: this is a fast-paced action movie, with (mostly) convincing and even inspiring visuals. The sets, effects and cinematography produce an exciting ride in a credible and exciting Trek context.
In order to give themselves over to this ride, even casual viewers of past Trek need to have confidence in the actors playing these iconic characters. These actors succeed in creating that confidence, with skill, presence and—aided by the scriptwriters—with new colors to the characters as well as selected references to the spirit and sometimes the vocal and visual mannerisms of the actors who created these characters.
This is especially true of the crucial trio: Chris Pine as Kirk, Karl Urban as McCoy, Zachary Quinto as Spock. Urban is almost an idealized DeForrest Kelley—younger and stronger than we ever saw D.K. as McCoy. Pine has the Shatner swagger and smile, but he fits the premise of this movie especially well because he’s the same, only different. He’s Kirk in an alternate timeline.
The wonder is Quinto. It’s not just that he instantly looks like Spock, but that he establishes complete credibility as Spock with so little apparent effort. Playing any Vulcan is difficult, and several actors have visibly labored with their portrayals, not always successfully. But playing the ultimate Vulcan is the ultimate challenge, and Quinto does it with seeming ease. Even when he is behaving in ways unfamiliar from Star Trek GR, he’s believable.
I’d been neutral on whether Quinto would really make a credible Spock (though I was rooting for him as a fellow Pittsburgher), but I had real doubts about Zoe Saldana as Uhura. She doesn’t look or sound like Nichelle Nichols, so it seemed like it could have been a case of indifferent casting: any young black actress is good enough. But Saldana is gorgeous and alluring in her own way, and a fine actor. Her scenes with Quinto were models of restraint, yet full of emotion.
Simon Pegg makes a charming Scotty, and even though John Cho as Sulu and Anton Yelchin as Chekov didn’t do much for me, one of the virtues of this movie for Star Trek GR fans is how it expands on these characters, giving them real expertise.
They are a young and attractive group as well as a capable one, and together with the look and feel of the film—purchased, it must be said, with a budget that goes higher than any Star Trek GR film had gone before—this movie revitalizes Star Trek for feature films.
Beyond the young crew, Bruce Greenwood was outstanding in the crucial role of Captain Pike, and the other subsidiary characters were fine, although I didn't really believe Ben Cross as Spock’s father, Sarek. Leonard Nimoy was perfect as Spock Prime—which seems redundant, but to me this performance was better than his previous 24th century Spock portrayals in those Next Generation episodes.
There were several references or homages to Trek GR films, both visually (the Enterprise fly-by as in Star Trek: the Motion Picture) and in the dialogue (Spock Prime repeating a famous line from Star Trek: Wrath of Khan and both Spock and Kirk repeating or referencing lines from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.) And that’s not counting the obligatory TOS echoes from Bones and Scotty.
There are as well some directorial references to other space opera movies, especially Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some of the Star Wars stuff was questionable: Scotty’s little Ewok-like alien buddy was cute I guess, but the animated monster chasing Kirk on the ice planet was an embarrassing drag.
As they enabled J.J. Abrams fluid direction, screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman noted one basic structural element of Trek GR movies: they properly begin with the Enterprise getting underway on this adventure, and they properly end with the Enterprise warping off to its next adventure.
Warp, by the way, is handled more realistically (that is, according to theory) than in other portrayals: the ships simply disappear, though with a satisfyingly loud pop.
I’ll leave it to others to parse the look of this Enterprise, but it looked pretty good to me, and though it wasn’t quite the “character” GR said it should be in a Trek story, it was an exciting vehicle.
As a movie script, I thought this one was fluid and skillful, especially given all that it had to accomplish. Part of its accomplishment was obviously knowing Trek—playing with what it wanted to keep, and knowing what it was departing from. I also really liked the music, especially in certain scenes, and appreciated the quotes from past Trek movie scores—although I noted that the signature four note theme beginning didn’t emerge until the end credits. You know, your father’s Star Trek.