Thursday, May 14, 2009

J.J. Abrams's Star Trek: A Review

I saw Star Trek last week, on opening night (May 7). I saw it in IMAX. I really enjoyed it.

The movie was invigorating on many levels. It literally brought life back tot he franchise. I personally think Star Trek was, for many years, sort of stagnant in the episodes on TV. Not that there weren't some great episodes, even in the last season of Enterprise (not that I saw every single one either, which is telling in itself). There were some great episodes. But I think the owners of the franchise, like Rick Berman, had sterlized things so much that there simply wasn't room for real good, human storytelling.

I think Ron Moore saw this when he wrote for Star Trek on TV, and brought it to Deep Space Nine when he was finally freer to do so. (As he said, he got more freedom there when Rick Berman was busy with his new baby, Voyager). Ron Moore then brought even more of that sensibility to the new Battlestar Galactica, which was beyond awesome. But now I digress.

This new Star Trek starts basically right when Kirk is born. And it being Kirk, it is a pretty action packed moment, even if the future James T. Kirk is only a passenger along for the ride.

As has been well known, the start also includes a change in the timeline, which can then explain away all of the differences you see from that point forward. And there are more changes, still. Warning - I might as well use spoilers, because otherwise, how can I really talk about the movie?

Kirk is born as his father takes command of the starship he is on after the Captain is killed. The Captain went over to an attacking Romulan vessel from the future (though they don't know this). The vessel is destroying Kirk's ship, so George Kirk, his father, evacuates the whole crew and then manually rams the Romulan vessel, allowing the crew to escape. (Autopilot was offline).

Now Kirk grows up without a father, and perhaps, without a brother either. You see him as a child racing a car (off a cliff). At the same time, we see Spock's childhood on vulcan.

Spock is in a learning center that is very much a nod to the training program you see Spock using at the start of Star Trek IV - lots of children in little pits, doing the same training. Then you see Spock, as other, full vulcans come up behind him, he quips, "I assume you've prepared new insults for today?" in a matter-of-fact tone. You soon learn that this is attempt 35 to provoke an emotional response from Spock. This time, it works - by the classic method - they insult his mother. So he jumps on one of them and proceeds to beat the crap out of him.

Later you see Spock about to get accepted into the Vulcan Science Academy. They note, with some disdain, that he applied also to be in Starfleet. He said he was logically applying for a backup. They tell him it isn't needed, because he is in. But then they also add he succeeded, "despite his handicap". Raised eyebrow. "What handicap?" asks Spock. "Your human mother." At which point, Spock, in polite vulcan fashion, tells them to stick it and he goes into starfleet. So again, insulting his mother is what sets Spock off, though with no green blood spilt this time. It was a beautiful moment, and it encapsulated so much of Star Trek lore and so much for Spock's character. Quninto (as Spock) is just brilliant. And it is a microcosm of what makes this movie so good. It uses tons of references to so many things in Star Trek lore, yet it is also fresh and new.

As the movie goes back to Kirk, he is 25 years old and seemingly listless. He gets into a bar and gets into a bar fight with four starfleet cadets. And frankly, Kirk is a badass. He gets his ass kicked, but still puts up a good fight, outnumbered as he is. He also meets and flirts with Uhura there. They have a running joke with that about her first name, also a nod to the original series, where she didn't have one for a while.

Kirk there is befriended by Captain Pike, who has done his dissertation on George Kirk and his final acts. This is a changed history moment, but it also has Pike telling Kirk to get into Starfleet on the shuttle leaving the next day.

Of course, he goes. And he meets McCoy on the way up - apparently the good doctor is getting a divorce and his wife "got the planet" - so despite his spacesickness and aversion to space, he goes.

Then it goes forward three years, where you see Kirk planning to take the Kobyashi Maru test for the third time. A test it turns out is designed by Commander Spock. And a test that, we all know, was the one that Kirk cheated on (as referenced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Of course, you see him cheat it, casually eating an apple as he destroys all of the Klingon ships and rescues the Kobyashi Maru. It was beautiful. This results in an inquiry and Kirk put on probation - meanwhile there is an alert as the Romulan ship is now causing trouble at vulcan, though starfleet isn't aware of this. The cadets are called up to ships and off they go, which Kirk smuggled on by McCoy since he is on probation.

I won't go over all of the remaining plot points of the movie. Suffice it to say, the action is well paced and there are little nuggets of cool moments alluding to Star Trek lore EVERYWHERE. Not just with Kirk and Spoke, but with McCoy, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty, Uhura, even Pike. And yet it is all fast-paced, fun, and the characters are interesting to watch. So much is packed into such a tiny space, I have to give great kudos to the writers as well as Abrams. It truly is just about perfect.

There are a few things that are jarring. The biggest thing is the engineering section inside the ship. It reminds me more of an industrial park than a starship - lots of huge pipes going everywhere. That is the most difficult thing for me to deal with, but given how wonderful everything else was, it really did not distract me much. Another jarring thing is the phaser sounds - they sound more like shooting guns than phaser shots, but it works ok. And finally, the action sequences in space - they can get so busy with what is going on that it is hard to really see it or take it all in. Maybe that was partly because it was IMAX, but with all of the gorgeous shots of the ships and the effects, it would have been nice to be able to see it a little better than just as a blur.

Overall, an excellent movie, and it makes me excited and ready for another one with this "new" crew of old friends. Star Trek needs to go on. Given how successful it was, I'm sure there will be at least one more movie. And maybe, someday, it will come back to TV in some form or another. Hopefully with a Ron Moore at the helm rather than a Rick Berman.

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