Dir: JJ Abrams
Trekker, Trekkie, whatever the preferred term is I’m not one. I never really discovered Star Trek, like everyone I’ve seen episodes of both the original series and The Next Generation, and I’ve seen most of the films. I don’t really rate most of it though, Star Trek’s II and VI being the only ones I think I’d really want to watch again. So, going in, my expectations were pretty low for JJ Abrams’ reboot of this venerable franchise.
Let’s say this for starters: Star Trek is not only better than I expected it to be, it’s not only better than it has any right to be, it’s good enough that it throws down the gauntlet to the rest of the summer blockbusters of 2009 and says “beat that”. For the most part this is blockbuster cinema at its absolute finest; a completely engaging and exciting thrill ride that grabs you from the off and seldom lets go thereafter - an action movie that has time for character and humour despite its relentless pace. It’s a rare thing these days, and genuinely refreshing to see.
Given that it features an all new cast playing iconic characters, whose onscreen lives date back almost 45 years, Star Trek was always going to live or die by its casting and its performances, and on both counts it strikes a fine balance. You have to capture the flavour of the original versions of these characters, because if you don’t fans will never forgive you, but equally you can’t be held hostage by what another actor did between the mid 60’s and the mid 90’s. Star Trek deals with this difficult issue perfectly, paying just enough tribute, but also making these characters feel fresh and exciting in a way the other movies never could.
The film rests heaviest on the shoulders of Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as, respectively, the new Kirk and Spock, and happily both carry their difficult tasks off brilliantly. Pine, fortunately, doesn’t APE William Shatner’s odd deLIVery, but he’s got a swagger that suits the young Kirk, and his physicality, the way he seems entirely comfortable in that Captain’s chair (even when he isn’t supposed to be in it) really works. Quinto, of course, has the tough job of being Spock in a movie that also features Leonard Nimoy. Quinto gets eerily close to Nimoy’s performance, yet still manages to make this young Spock feel like a different man, like he has some real growing to do, in more than just the physical sense, to become Nimoy’s Spock. What’s even better is the way that Pine and Quinto play off against one another. This movie, as much as anything, is about the foundation of the respect on which is built the long friendship between Kirk and Spock and Pine and Quinto work well together to credibly build that crucial aspect of the film.
The rest of the crew are not so key to this instalment, but everyone gets his or her moment to shine. Karl Urban, more than anyone, is doing an impression as Bones, but it’s so completely dead on, and so very funny (“Damnit, I’m a doctor not a physicist”) that you forgive him and enjoy the character for what it is - fine, hammy, comic relief. John Cho’s Sulu gets to have an excellent fight during one of the film’s stand out action sequences (which also has a nice nod to the doomed nature of people wearing red in Star Trek). Anton Yelchin does a nice line in comedy Russian accent as Chekov, and has more to do than most of the Enterprise based crew. Simon Pegg shows up late to the party, with an appropriately dreadful Skuttish accent, as Scotty, but is entertaining enough that you’ll want more of him in the sequel. Nimoy, for his part, is an entirely appropriate inclusion as the older Spock, passing the torch to Quinto and the new cast in a touching scene at the end of the film, as well as making a dignified exit from the franchise. Only Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is really short changed, she’s a striking presence until we get aboard the Enterprise, after which she’s largely forgotten, with little to do other than inexplicably make out with Spock.
All this character establishment leaves little room for plot, and so Eric Bana’s Romulan villain has a very simple evil plan, and things do have a tendency to proceed in a relatively predictable fashion, without too much shading. The thing that really stood out, for example, about Star Trek VI was it’s moral complexity. That’s missing here, as we get Bana and his facial tattoos to boo and hiss at. However, that’s perfectly okay for this movie, and the plot does run throughout the film, which means that it plays better than the first X-Men film, which spent an hour letting you meet everybody, then remembered it needed a plot.
Star Trek apparently cost $150 million, but Paramount certainly have their money’s worth, every cent is up there on screen, visible in almost flawless effects (bar one shot of Titan, which is so bad it looks like a cardboard cut out), gorgeous, spacious design which updates the look of the franchise without betraying its roots, and fantastic action sequences, which range from large scale space battles to well choreographed hand to hand fights. The only thing that, look wise, I could have done without is the distracting, and ever present, lens flare, it’s clearly a stylistic choice and one I can’t for the life of me figure out. Overall though JJ Abrams has done a fantastic job here, he’s managed to keep all that is iconic about Star Trek, and yet (through a clever use of time travel in the plot) present endless opportunities to remodel the universe more or less as he pleases.
It’s not quite perfect. You could argue that a couple of the action beats could easily be lost, as they have little impact on the plot. A few early scenes of Kirk and Spock as children would also be easy to cut, as would Winona Ryder’s whole, rather thankless, role as Spock’s mother. But these few indulgences don’t impinge on the enjoyment of the movie as a whole. I’m sure this is a Trekker’s wet dream, and even for me, a confirmed non-fan, Star Trek was the best time I’ve had with a blockbuster for some time. It will be hard for summer 2009 to top this.