New review: Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek (dir: J.J. Abrams)

It’s just Star Trek. No numbers, no subtitles, no tag and no repeat of The Motion Picture. The newest take on the beloved franchise that spawned generations of Trekkies (sorry, I meant Trekkers) takes the Enterprise bridge crew back to their roots as Starfleet cadets, meeting cute at the Academy shuttle (or over a bar fight near the Iowa starshipyards) and clashing in their first bridge assignments on an emergency mission (hey, it’s cadets on a starship!). The old friends are just new acquaintances learning to work together here.

Kirk and Spock clash over the finer points of command
Kirk and Spock clash over the finer points of command

Most long-lived franchises survive through reinvention every generation or so, but the foundation of the Star Trek legacy is not the premise or the promise of a certain brand of SF adventure. It’s characters and personality. None of the Star Trek spin-off shows have captured the dynamic that Kirk, Spock and McCoy did on TV, and the young blood imported for the early Star Trek movies couldn’t hold their own against the old characters and their defining chemistry and were quickly beamed out of the series. Once the Next Generation crew took over the film franchise, the audiences lost interest.

That’s what director J.J. Abrams is faced with preserving with his take on “Kirk and Spock: The Early Years” and for the most part he succeeds. These younger models deliver a new take on all the old classics: Zachary Quinto (best known as “the creepy guy on ‘Heroes'”) slips into Spock’s deadpan commentary and raised eyebrow and Karl Urban drawls Dr. McCoy’s country doctor homilies and frontier exclamations. Anton Yelchin gives a pitch-perfect impression of Chekov’s cartoon accent (right down to a joke that turns on his inability to pronounce the letter “v”) and offers plenty of boyish energy, Simon Pegg has a blast playing with Scotty’s unalloyed joy at mucking with equipment and pushing the warp engines to their limit, and John Cho gets to pull out the sword for pilot and fencing champion Sulu. New to this universe: Zoe Saldana creates a much more spirited Uhuru than the sixties model and she even has a boyfriend. You’ll never guess who it is.

And in the central role of the macho James Tiberius Kirk, bleach blond Chris Pine is a two-fisted delinquent turned Starfleet maverick: impulsive and cocky and swashbuckling. The opening scene literally rewrites his story and Kirk grows up fast, cocky and arrogant, a townie with a chip on his shoulder who likes to scrap with the local Starfleet cadets. His blue eyes twinkle, his grin rarely drops and he focus only falters when a girl walks by. Which gives him plenty of distraction.

J.J. Abrams has improved significantly as a director since Mission: Impossible III. He has a lighter touch this time around, with plenty of humor (at times coming dangerously close to the event horizon of flippancy) and real eye-candy spectacle and cosmic imagery. The writers (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, veterans of Abrams TV projects) take a page out of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn to give these kids a madman of a nemesis on a mission of vengeance and tosses in a time-travel twist (yes, it’s yet another Star Trek time travel story) to give him the tools to destroy the Federation. (Does every villain have to threaten life as we know it? Just asking…) Unfortunately Nero is no Kahn and Eric Bana doesn’t have much to do but glare and grimace and vow revenge through gritted teeth, but his ship is intimidating, vaguely organic with a hint of predatory insect on a galactic scale.

Fans of the old get to see Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood here), Kirk’s famed “Kobayashi Maru” stunt (as discussed in Star Trek II) and the inevitable fate of the first red shirt (chronologically speaking, of course) to join Kirk for an away team mission. And yes, Leonard Nimoy is back as Spock, playing the elder statesmen to the green young versions of his old crew. Even viewers with only passing familiarity of the show will get a lot of the tongue-in-cheek asides but you don’t have to be a fan to enjoy the energy, the color and the character of the film.

Abrams and company cram an awful lot into one film but, for all the momentum and humor and galactic action, there really isn’t much dramatic substance or emotional heft to a story that literally shakes up the mythology as we know it. And it hardly seems to matter.

Star Trek has it every which way: it’s a prequel and a relaunch, a self-aware tribute that honors the legacy with winking references and in-joke yet gives itself license to revise and rework the mythology. It takes itself seriously and yet has fun with the characters and the chemistry. It aspires to be everything to everyone and it’s as good as can be expected given those directives, but its prime directive is simple: have fun. It does and I did.

[a shorter version of this review is at the Seattle PostGlobe]

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Spock and Uhuru before the mission

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

3 thoughts on “New review: Star Trek (2009)”

  1. All I have to say is that anyone who prefers the label “Trekkers” is pompous and/or embarrassed and not a “real” fan. We are “Trekkies” and proud to be so!

  2. Well personally I just watched this movie and I think it SUCKS! J.J. has gone too far now there’s two Spock’s, and his mom dies, and his dad feels grief over it. Jim Kirk is an only child, born in space not in Iowa. Uhura is Spock’s lover. Christopher Pike Never goes to the planet of illusions. Vulcan is destroyed, and everyone seems to know what a Romulan looks like. Did he ever pick up a book or even watch a show about STAR TREK before he did this movie. I mean yes its got a lot of action the fight seen are greet but he doesn’t know the first thing about what STAR TREK is. Star Trek is about people and there struggle to be better. He’s made it into” WOW I hope I can kill them first” Not to mention that he changed things about the ships to just stupid designs. First the turbo lifts are behind the bridge for a reason. If people get hurt or some thing gets damaged say oh I don’t know in a space battle, medical personal and engineering crews can get to were they can help out WITHOUT CROSSING IN FRONT OF ANYONE WHO HAPPENS TO BE FIGHTING THE ENEMY SHIP It would get kind of crazy if every time some came on the bridge the captain has to say OH COULD YOU PLEASE STOP FIRING YOUR RAY GUNS AT US THIS MAN IS BLOCKING SOMEONES VEIW
    Second not everyone sits at the same level as everyone else on the bridge because unlike oh say on a submarine everyone has to be able to see the view screen OH IM SORRY BUT COULD YOU MOVE YOUR HEAD could cost lives in the wrong situation. And the Vulcan ship and the Romulan ship look stupid since when did we or anyone else start using propellers’ in space. And according to Spock he came there from 128 years in the future well according to my calculations that puts him about ten years after Voyager got home so WHAT IN THE HELL IS RED MATTER

  3. Well as I have been reading some of the letters and blogs, and as any of you that have seen my letters on so many web sights know I did not like this film. As I’ve been called I have to admit there is some proof to the fact that I’m an old die hard STICK IN THE MUD fan of Star Trek. The biggest problem I’ve got with the film is that it completely goes against Star Trek canon. As some people agree with me, some do not. So I think we both can come up with a solution that will appease both new fans of this film and us die hard STICK IN THE MUDS. We die hards cant do it alone so we need you new fans help and the best part about it is any of you that don’t know anything about Star Trek shouldn’t notice a thing anyway.
    I purpose introducing characters that are not considered canon but are still known to us old STICK IN THE MUDS. As well as some we didn’t get to know real well and for those of you that don’t know what I mean here some names to help you out.

    ROBERT APRIL he was suppose to be the Enterprises first Captain before Pike and was the only character ever played by Gene Rodenberry himself

    AREX he was a navigator in the animated Star Trek and had six limbs. With new C.G.I. he could be created vary easily

    WILL DECKER he was killed in the first movie but was suppose to be in the second T.V. show witch never happened.

    ILIA also killed in the first movie

    M’RESS also from the animated Star Trek she was of a cat like race easy to create now

    I feel a letter writing campaign would help with this and then maybe you new fan and us old STICK IN THE MUDS can both enjoy the ride the next film takes us on

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