Tuesday, May 12, 2009

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.



Anonymous said...

but you got say that the movie does not hold up minutes after ending. red matter?! the timeline thing just does not work. did old spock just say f it after blowing up the romulan homeworld? wouldn't he want to fix it? now that would have been the movie. spock comes into an alternate time, has to find kirk, kirk et al find a way to get old spock back. bad guys don't want this to happen the adventure begins. and... if it was all about alternate realities why keep faithful to the original. did kirk have to be captain. why not keep spock as captain? could the story start soon after kirk takes charge of the ship as in the tos? also, so if one drop can turn into a planet sucking black hole how do you get it and then contain it. if it did exist wouldn't it be black holed already? and when the hole thing gets sent into nero's ship why didn't the galaxy or two get sucking and become a black hole? and, as vulcan was so advanced how could they not stop a frigging miner's laser beam from working? what no mirrors on vulcan? and then earth, with star ships etc, they couldn't just ram the cable?

see what i'm getting at.

Chris Hudson said...

As I've said before, I enjoyed the movie, till I learned that it intended to replace all that came before it. Lucky that came at the end of the film for me. My son and I was discussing the movie and he didn't seem to understand my hated for what they did, until I explained it to him this way. "Matt (My Son) if I woke up tomorrow and found out that during the night you had been replaced, aka "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"'56 or '78 version :) Do I just continue to love & care for this "thing" that may Look like you, sound like you, Hell, it may even do his chores and such and Be "better" than You. NO !!! Cause it's not you!! Simple as that. Think about it. We have followed and supported Star Trek "GR" for 43 years, I know I have since I was born in '62. I went to this movie on opening night to support Star Trek "GR". Had I know that "JJA" was going to "Body Snatch" the entire universe of Star Trek "GR", I would have stayed home. I support the Star Trek that we all know and Love. The one thats been around for 43 years. The one that "GR" gave us! If suddenly your loved one was "Body Snatched" would you continue on with your day to day life with them?? No matter you know it's not them anymore? Would You, Really??

otowi said...

I do agree the insect alien thing on Hoth, as my friends and I took to calling it, was lame. I also thought the necessary interval where Old Spock explains to Kirk about the black hole was weak - it was the only time in the movie my attention waned because I just didn't buy it. But I LOVED Karl Urban as McCoy and Quinto really did do a good job as this different Spock, and Pine captures the essence of just how Kirk ought to be in this different timeline - relationship and all - hats off to the cast, director and the scriptwriters for character development. And I enjoyed the special effects - beautiful.

I was wondering if that Ewok thing was supposed to be a Tellarite at first, but I don't know what it was!

otowi said...

P.S. Anonymous - Spock did not blow up the Romulan homeworld - it just appeared so to Nero. Romulus was destroyed in a supernova (although you would think they could see that coming - the basic premise for the timeline change is weak yes). The mysterious red matter was weak and the name of Nero was lame. But the movie was fun!

Also - as for black holes - there is some physics involved here that they got right - all black holes have event horizons - a limited sphere of influence. They do not suck in entire galaxies unless the entire galaxy gets in its event horizon.

As for Mr. Hudson, I expected this going in - how else can you have a whole new cast, and Old Spock, unless you're starting over? I don't mind - I see it as freedom to explore an alternate reality - plenty of which have ended up Star Trek novels! What matters to me was maintained - the characters are still who they are, but in a new situation.

Anonymous said...

They loudly went - that is what I thought of the film. The alternate universe thing is so "old" and even lazy - given that JJA is supposed to the new GR of narrative innovation. Lost rocks but this Star Trek didn't. It's not because I'm a purist - it was just a quite ordinary Star Trek movie. Lots of action and some sly humour here and there. And yes, Quinto was the star of the film. But overall, dull and uninvolving. When Spock Prime shows up I didn't feel any surprise or barely cared. I got the impression this was just a job for JJA IE "revitalize" the franchise. He is very talented and smart, but I didn't feel he had any real emotional connection with the genre or Star Trek in general. Now if Josh Wheldon directed this, that would've been amazing.

Anonymous said...

If you are a fan of the old Star Trek DO NO GO SEE THIS MOVIE! It is NOT Star Trek! As a matter of fact, they rouined Star Trek in the first five minutes. If they make another (and they will) they MUST fix the errors that they created, or I will not go to see it. When it comes out, I will wait to hear if the original plot line has been repaired, and if it is not, I will write off Star Trek forever! I can't believe that they were so disrespectful to integrity of such a beloved series.

Anonymous said...

To the Anonymous commenter who said Star Trek is ruined and is prepared to write off the franchise forever, I'm sorry you feel that way. This movie was great. It is bringing in thousands of new fans. And if you saw what was happening with my kids, prompting many new fans to watch and enjoy and experience TOS for the first time. Can't wait for more of the same from JJ. (Except maybe fewer lens flares!)

Joey Clams/Joey Scallops said...

I stopped following the Trek universe after the horrible Nemesis... I was looking forward to this Trek movie because maybe by going back to the original characters (source) you could actually get "psyched" again about seeing a Star Trek movie which wasn't the case with those dreadful Next Generation movies... but with that said, the Romulan bad guy portrayed by Eric Bana was a giant bore. I got the feeling that he was like some "space Trucker" who got pissed off at his home planet being destroyed... sounded like a country western song story. I found the whole time-line slamdancing to be fresh, but I'm a little surprised that the hard-core fans are not up in arms about this.

Eric V. Kirk said...

Hey Captain! Just wanted to let you know that I wrote my own review, such as it is. I focused more on the general loss of GR vision over the years, but I agree with most of your thoughts on the presentation itself.

My post