Friday, May 08, 2009

Star Trek / ***½ (PG-13)

Kirk: Chris Pine
Spock: Zachary Quinto
McCoy: Karl Urban
Uhura: Zoë Saldana
Scotty: Simon Pegg
Sulu: John Cho
Chekov: Anton Yelchin
Serek: Ben Cross
Amanda Grayson: Wynona Ryder
Pike: Bruce Greenwood
Nero: Eric Bana
Spock Prime: Leonard Nimoy

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Based on “Star Trek” created by Gene Rodenberry. Running time: 126 min. Rated PG-13 (for sci-fi action and violence, and brief sexual content).

The eleventh installment of the “Star Trek” film franchise arrives with no subtitle. No “The Wrath of Kahn”. No “Nemesis”. Not even a “The Motion Picture (Again)”. It could be titled “Star Trek Origins”, but Paramount may not want to associate it with the hack job 20th Century Fox is currently doing to the “X-Men” franchise. Perhaps “Star Trek: Tabula Rasa”.

Of course, to limit the history of the “Star Trek” universe to just the motion pictures is to ignore a long account of one of the most prolific franchises in Hollywood. Spanning two different crews in the previous ten movies and five television shows (six including an animated series), “Star Trek” has become a genus of entertainment of its own with a rich and diverse mythology to live up to. All of that was built upon the foundation of the original “Star Trek” television series, which teetered on the edge of cancelation for three years before the axe was finally dropped. That series thrived through syndication to develop into the phenomenon it is today.

What drew audiences to that high concept show that claimed its subject’s mission was “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations — to boldly go where no man has gone before."? That is certainly what gave the series the legs to blossom into its multiple incarnations. But more likely the visceral characterizations of the original core crewmembers that embodied such a diverse pool of personalities (not to mention racial representation) was what drew audiences to find something to relate to in just about every episode. Even the show’s villains embodied a degree of human empathy that engaged its audience to actually think about what life might be like from the “bad” guy’s point of view.

Some “Star Trek” purists may argue that much of the spirit of the series has been compromised for this new version of the original crew’s adventures. They may say that the message of “Star Trek” has been omitted for a more action-oriented blockbuster formula that finds the characters engaging more in fisticuffs than in ideas. As an admitted enthusiast, I will agree that the only disappointment I found in this new “Star Trek” was that there did not seem to be some form of overall observation about our society as a whole, no lesson to be gleaned from this particular “Star Trek” adventure. But, “Star Trek” has never been this much fun before.

What this new Trek does succeed in doing is it revisits the original crew with a new cast for the old set of characters in a way that takes what has already been established about them and sets them in a fresh new light. It expands upon their identities and motivations without betraying anything that has come before.

The story begins before any of the characters have even thought about entering the service of the Starfleet Command for the Federation of Planets, although the Earth-based galaxy uniting organization seems quite well established at this 23rd Century date. After an action-packed but deliberately confusing opening sequence, we meet James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine, “Bottle Shock”), a delinquent whose father died at the helm of a Starfleet vessel in that first scene. He was committing a selfless act to save over 800 people. Kirk has taken the rebellious route out of the shadow of his father’s deed, but Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood, “National Treasure: Book of Secrets”) of the U.S.S Enterprise sees the potential for greatness in him and convinces him to join the Starfleet academy.

Meanwhile, on the Federation alien planet named Vulcan we meet the young Spock (Zachary Quinto, NBC’s “Heroes”). He has a human mother and a Vulcan father and is persecuted for being a half-breed. The Vulcan culture is one based on pure logic. Emotions are thought of as distractions from the perfect discipline of logic. Spock becomes the first half-Vulcan to be honored with an invitation by the High Council to attend its Scientific Academy. Since he can’t seem to avoid blatant prejudices, even when being offered the Vulcan’s highest honor, Spock declines the invitation and turns to Starfleet instead.

The story centers around the differences between Kirk and Spock, who are polar opposites. Spock operates entirely based upon rational thought, while Kirk’s acts are informed primarily by his emotions. Pine and Quinto are perfectly cast in these iconic roles.

Pine embodies the passionate warrior and lover even better than the young William Shatner did in the original series. He does not mimic Shatner’s mannerisms as so many comedians have throughout the last thirty years, but he captures the same essence, and—with the help of screenwriter’s Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (“Transformers”)—provides a solid basis for why he is who he is.

Quinto has the difficult challenge of portraying Spock in a storyline that also has Leonard Nimoy reprising his original role from the series, travelling back in time as an elder Spock to join the adventure. But Quinto never misses a beat of the character that has been so strongly defined by Nimoy throughout his career. And, the famous story of Kirk becoming the only cadet to pass the Kobayashi Maru test is finally depicted on film as a defining moment in his relationship with Spock.

The rest of the Enterprise’s original crew is also fleshed out. We see the instant friendship struck up between Kirk and Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban, “The Lord of the Rings”) and even learn where his nickname “Bones” comes from. Lieutenant Uhura’s role as the ship’s communications officer is greatly expanded from Nichelle Nichols’ incarnation. Zoë Saldana (“Vantage Point”) is smarter and sexier as Uhura. She shares a deeper relationship than you’d expect with one of the other leads. Sulu (John Cho, “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle”), after a shaky start at the helm, proves to be a valuable asset to the enterprise crew. Chekov (Anton Yelchin, “Charlie Bartlett”) may be a poor choice to give the ship’s announcements but proves to be a capable navigator, amongst other talents. And Scotty (Simon Pegg, “Run Fatboy Run”) is the only man inventive enough to be the engineer of a ship under Kirk’s command.

As for the villain, Nero, Eric Bana (“Hulk”) is plenty heavy enough to chew the scenery of his ominous ship on a mission inspired from the empathy that I mentioned earlier for villains of the series. However, director J.J. Abrams (“Mission: Impossible III”) isn’t as interested in being as innovative with Nero’s storyline as he is in using the Romulan as a catalyst for action sequences.

It’s impossible for me to look at “Star Trek” from the point of view of the uninitiated. As such, I cannot tell whether this movie will work for audiences that are new to the series. It certainly seems designed as a fresh start. Pretty much all of “Star Trek” history as it is known up to this point is entirely wiped clean by the events depicted here. This may be a move that leaves long time Trekkies feeling a bit betrayed. For me, however, it opens the series up to a whole new future, one that isn’t tied to what has come before, something akin to the undiscovered country or the final frontier. It may not be the logical choice of direction in which to take the series, but it’s unpredictable enough that I believe Captain James T. Kirk would approve.

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