Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Star Trek

Saw the new Star Trek last night and have some assorted thoughts. I'll try to keep this spoiler-free, so it'll be necessarily oblique at times. If you're just looking for a quick take-away, overall there's a lot to like and admire about the movie, but it isn't an instant classic.

Let's start with the good:

* Time travel makes me nervous as a conceit because it tends to open up a narrative Pandora's Box. The Abrams Star Trek (written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) revolves around a single instance of time travel, which is the engine for the entire plot. And the writing here is exceptionally elegant. Again, without getting into any details, the conceit allows Abrams to create his own Star Trek universe without disavowing or re-imagining the original. It allows the new Trek to have both continuity and freedom to go in whatever new directions it wants. I can't overstate my admiration for this thoughtfulness.

But to make it even more impressive, the writers do it with such little fanfare that I suspect most audiences (and critics) won't even realize what's been done until long after they've left the theater.

* The casting is great. Ever single performer succeeds in creating interesting characters from the icons. They're helped enormously by the writing, of course, but even so, the featured players do really solid, organic work. Even in this group, though, were some standouts.

Chris Pine looks, to my eyes, like a serious, bona fide movie star. He's charismatic and interesting; the camera loves him. I haven's seen a star turn like this since George Clooney took over ER. He's already a far superior Kirk. Zoe Saldana turns Uhura from a background token into an actual human being. It's fantastic, subtle, and even touching work. And Bruce Greenwood makes Christopher Pike into a presence that anchors the film even when he's not onscreen. But then, Greenwood is one of those actors who adds value every time he shows up.

* The film really moves. The pacing is brisk and unrelenting. There are very few wasted beats. Nearly every aside has pay-off integral to the story. As a for instance, when Capt. Pike is first taking the Enterprise out he tells Sulu to engage the warp drive. Sulu flubs it and the episode become a joke--a funny little character moment. But it also provides two important narrative points--(1) the minute the Enterprise loses waiting for Sulu to figure things out turns out to be critical and (2) it gives Sulu motivation for another action he takes which might otherwise be out of character. Again, the writers deserve a great deal of credit for this.

With all of that, I feel a little guilty complaining about a few things that didn't quite work for me:

* The villain, Eric Bana's Nero, isn't quite heavy enough (or interesting enough) to hold his own. The best villains are the ones who act as though the story is really about them. Nero is really never more than an afterthought, a guy keeping us from spending time with the really interesting people: Kirk, Spock, etc.

* At times the production felt a little TV-ish. The CGI space battles were less convincing that what was concocted for Battlestar Galactica and some of the sets felt a lot like sets. I don't know what the budget for the production was, but if it cost more than $80M, then I don't know that they got every last dollar up on the screen.

* There were, to my mind, maybe three in-jokes too many. Part of the appeal of this project is that it's a chance to bring in new, non-Trek fans and convert them. I think the movie still has a very good chance of doing that, but newcomers will be aware that there are moments passing over their heads.

One final note: Growing up, you could be either a Star Trek guy or a Star Wars guy. You could like both, but could really only love one. (I was a Star Wars guy.)

Watching flicks like Trek's Search for Whale Songs or whatever that dreadful movie was, I never would have imagined that there could come a time when the Star Wars universe would become such a joke that nobody could thoughtfully embrace it and Trek would be the only serious sci-fi game in town.

But here we are.

1 comment:

jjv said...


I was a Star Trek guy. Star Trek classic to be precise. When you made the Empire the good guys, I shrugged. But this? "He's already a far superior Kirk." For this there can be no forgiveness. Khan will forgive Kirk before this foulness departs my memory.

This is a good movie. Pine does a fine job. But only Shatner's Kirk (ye Gods am I really using the modifier?), on the small screen, week after week, and in syndication, day after day created the icon. Pine is a fine actor and a pretty face but he will never really be Kirk. That's why Spock and Spock Prime can be in the same time line but not Kirk-Pine and Kirk-Shatner. Shatner would blow him off the screen.