Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In Brief: STAR TREK (2009)

The DVD prepares you for J.J. Abrams's revision of Gene Roddenberry's "Wagon Train to the Stars" with trailers for the home-video releases of G.I. Joe and the Transformers sequel. For the first few minutes of the actual movie, I feared that those previews had set the tone for the feature presentation. The prologue culminating in the birth of James T. Kirk is a lot of hysterical hubbub with a godawful payoff, and the introduction of little Kirk as a 23rd century rebel to the tune of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" did little to inspire confidence. But the film grew on me despite its drastic inconsistencies in tone and its contradictory compulsions to be different yet winkingly sound familiar notes. This is a movie in which billions of people are wiped out in a scene designed to be traumatic to characters and fans alike, and a few minutes later we're invited to laugh at Kirk being chased by a giant lizard sort of creature on an ice planet. It is overinflated and often much too busy, and it's the sort of origin story that really never needed to be told, but after the smoke clears the movie passes the crucial test. It proves that Star Trek as a concept, and its mythic original characters, have a viability that transcends the founding creative talent.

Just as William Shatner has heroically reinvented himself so that "Shatner" as a personality is arguably bigger than Kirk, Kirk has to be performable by other actors if the character isn't going to be just a footnote to Shatner's career. Chris Pine hasn't fully proved himself -- he won't until a sequel comes up with more characteristically Kirkian activities for him -- but he didn't botch the job, and Zachary Quinto as Spock passed the test quite admirably on the first try. As for the rest, Karl Urban really impressed me by evoking but not quite imitating DeForrest Kelley, while Anton Yelchin as Chekhov was insufferably obnoxious and Simon Pegg as Scotty was merely loud. John Cho lacks George Takei's exuberance as Sulu, though he gets to wield a retractable sword, and Zoe Saldana's Uhura is the most thoroughly revisioned character, evoking Nichelle Nichols on only the most superficial level while playing a more assertive, dominant character who is also the Enterprise's principal sex object. The actors in familiar supporting roles are all adequate, though I must ask why, if you're going to put Winona Ryder in middle-aged makeup, you don't just hire a middle-aged actress? The major failure in the cast is Eric Bana's villain, a disgruntled hardhat of a tattooed Romulan who rips apart the space-time continuum in pursuit of preventive vengeance. Here is a foreign actor playing an alien -- and he talks with an American accent, often in a disconcertingly casual way. He does get to utter awesome lines like "Prepare the red matter!" but despite his genocidal exploits he is neither redeemingly charismatic nor so despicable that you cheer every blow struck at him. That exposes a dissatisfying lightness to the film that is barely outweighed by the continued effectiveness of the core characters. Abrams has at least earned a second chance, and with that opportunity he should think more carefully about what might distinguish Star Trek from all the other FX-heavy smashups on the market. I concede that there is probably no way to make a feature film that resembles an Original Series episode (explore Strange New World, discover dominant High Concept, overthrow it if objectionable) because the stakes apparently need to be higher in a two-hour show. But while the new team shouldn't feel obliged to imitate Roddenberry any more than the actors should simply ape their predecessors, they should remember that Star Trek has a sensibility that leads people to expect a little more than slam-bang space opera. Abrams can add "a little rock 'n roll" to the concept as long as we still recognize the tune.


Rev. Phantom said...

I'm not a Star Trek fan at all, but this one peaked my interest when it was in the theaters and I will probably check it out now that it's on DVD.

Samuel Wilson said...

To an extent it's meant to be a Star Trek film for non-fans though it tries to please the fans as well. It's kind of like the Daniel Craig Bond films in its attempt to revitalize a franchise that seemed too tied up in traditional ways of telling its stories. Like them, it's been criticized by fans for turning the beloved tradition into "just another action movie," but Star Trek is so character driven that it'll never be that.