Monday, May 18, 2009

Boldly going where several franchises have gone before

Star Trek
Directed by J.J. Abrams

Chris Pine (Kirk)
Zachary Quinto (Spock)
Karl Urban (McCoy)
Zoe Saldana (Uhura)
Simon Pegg (Scotty)
John Cho (Sulu)
Anton Yelchin (Pavel Chekhov)
Eric Bana (Nero, a.k.a. the bad guy)

Hollywood continues to cannibalize itself, and another franchise gets remade. This month, it's Star Trek's turn, and the end results aren't bad.

On an entertainment-for-your-dollar level, Star Trek is a decent summer blockbuster, with a lot of action, comedy, and sex appeal. Hardcore Trekkies will complain (correctly) that the movie doesn't tackle the usual themes of Star Trek. There isn't even a token effort to deal with a social issue other than the not exactly controversial position that genocide is bad. Some critics have complained about the Star Wars-ification of Star Trek, and there is some truth to that. The movie places much greater emphasis on conflict, and doesn't display much interest in the traditional themes of exploration and cultural exchange. However, there is plenty of goofball comedy that seems in the spirit of the original series.

The first half of the film is the strongest, as Kirk, Spock, and the other characters get introduced. Scenes are well-paced, and each character gets a few decent moments that help explain who they are to non-Trekkies. The bad guys come across as suitably formidable, and the special effects during the space battles are superb.

Things begin to fall apart in the second half, as the movie starts getting tongue-tied in continuity issues and technobabble. Without giving too much away, there's time travel, alternate realities, and Leonard Nimoy. Other than appeasing the un-appeasable Trekkies, there was no real need to explain how this movie ties in with previous installments of the franchise. A clean reboot would have been preferable. Ultimately, the movie does set a new direction for the crew of the Enterprise, but we'll have to wait for the inevitable sequel to see it play out.

Another problem with the film is the obnoxious pimping of Captain Kirk as the BEST CAPTAIN EVER. The first half of the film does a good job of illustrating how Kirk has the potential to be a great officer, but he's arrogant and impulsive. Unfortunately, the movie needs to position young Kirk in the captain's chair by the end of story, and it doesn't have the time to demonstrate why Kirk is better for the job than Spock (or anyone else, for that matter). Time and reality must be warped and Leonard Nimoy must deliver treacly speeches so that Kirk gets to be the leader. This occurs despite the fact that the heroes' victory owed more to Chekhov, Scotty, and above all Spock. To borrow a term from fan-fiction, Kirk is a Mary Sue of epic proportions.

On a more pleasant note, the casting is well done. Pine does an excellent job of channeling William Shatner's macho bravado and self-effacing humor. Quinto is outstanding as Spock, and Simon Pegg steals every scene he's in. Karl Urban's portrayal of McCoy is hit-or-miss; while he does a good job of capturing the character's temper and biting sense of humor, he tries too hard to replicate DeForrest Kelley's manner of speaking, and it comes across as affected.

Despite its problems, I'd recommend Star Trek. Just keep your expectations on stun (which is nerd speak for low).


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