Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

"See If You Can Do Better"

I got a call from the Captain about 5 o'clock (that'd be 2000 hours for him)on Friday, and when I saw who it was, I called him back and said "I know what this is about."

The Captain is a life-long Trekker. He knows the arcana of "Star Trek" in its canon, that being the television series—both broadcast and syndicated—and film. Plus, he's a little "inside," having drinks with the late Majel Barrett Roddenberry
, introducing Patrick Stewart to "Buzz" Aldrin, and calling up Jonathan Frakes the day show creator Gene Roddenberry died to talk about "what it all meant."

The Captain knows from "Trek." So I was particularly interested in his take on "The New Version" of
J.J. Abrams, or "Star Trek Begins" (a version of which producer Harve Bennett had proposed away back in the time-space continuum before "Star Trek V"—you know, the Shatner-directed one best forgotten). I'd watched the trailers warily, noting the emphasis on disrobing cadets and slam-bang action (not mutually exclusive), but noting a certain underlying devotion, not entirely slavish, to the original. They weren't trying to re-invent the warp-drive, which was a good thing.

"So..." I said, "what'd ya think?"

"This is the way they should have always done it.." he began.

Yeah. It is.

"Star Trek" is a rollicking world-and-expectations-shattering version of the Gene Roddenberry original, and most niftily, done in a way that fits within its science-fiction-y concepts. The whole movie is its plot-point and one watches in wonder how the deconstruction happens before one's eyes, while simultaneously nodding acquaintance with the tropes, concepts, and characterizations of the original. One gets the feeling of happy ebullience watching a favorite building imploded with the added delight of seeing it rise simultaneously from its own ashes to be sleeker, shinier and un-compromising

Part of it is due to budget.
Abrams was given a fat check to re-launch Paramount's key franchise (which it nickeled and dimed into the ground), so the limitations the creators always had to contend with aren't so apparent. The Enterprise corridors no longer look like motel hallways, Engineering isn't a big space with a back-lit perspective painting behind it, and the aliens restricted to stereo-eyed bipeds with varying head-ridges. No, there's a lot of imagineering going on here in the Enterprise's brave new world of industrial-strength space-faring (at one point the new Captain Kirk sprints—of which he does...a lot—through what I swear was a brewery standing in for some section of the Enterprise's inner workings). The creatures have evolved differently* with nonhuman proportions, sometimes tossing out the human baggage entirely. It's a messy universe, but a full one with good ideas and concepts tossed amid the dialogue. It's a "Star Trek" Universe so full of potential, that there's no chance of coming across a creatively bankrupt parallel Earth, although the film manages to do exactly that in its own clever way.

That's the big picture.
The question is the actors; the franchise will live or die on how "the New Kids" can portray the old characters. Fortunately, it's where "Star Trek" shines. Everyone will have their favorites—mine are Karl Urban's note-perfect blustering McCoy and Simon Pegg's hyper-driven Scotty—but Chris Pine is a genuine find for Captain James Tiberius Kirk, employing none of the Shatnerisms (well, there's one deliberate vocal steal that made me laugh), but supplying the one thing that Shatner always brought to the table—energy. John Cho's Sulu is terrific and it's a hoot to see Russian actor Anton Yelchin employing the wretched "wessels" accent of the original Chekov. Zoe Saldana is given much more to do as Lt. Uhura, and given that he had Leonard Nimoy on-set for inspiration, Zachary Quinto might have taken the easy way out with a direct imitation, but his Mr. Spock is far less serene, more volatile and haughty, betraying that human half far more subtly than Nimoy did—and I believe saying that might be a court-martial offense in my house.

Where the other "Trek" movies have fallen down have been the secondary characters, but here they're just as important—
Ben Cross and Winona Ryder play the star-crossed parents of Spock, while Bruce Greenwood is a superb Captain Christopher Pike. And Eric Bana, who can be on or off depending on the movie, is terrific as the long-suffering, revenge-driven Romulan Nero.

There will be a lot of sniping from the "Trekkies" who want things their way, or no way—that's to be expected with any "Trek" movie.
But in the words of the former Captain Kirk: "Get a life."

Star Trek" certainly got a new one.

"Star Trek" is a Full-Price Ticket.

* There is a wickedly funny bar scene where Kirk tries to pick up the comely Lt. Uhura, while between them sits an alien seemingly modeled on the "Spitting Image" version of Leonard Nimoy, when it suddenly dawned on me what it was doing there: "Why the long face?"

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