Monday, May 11, 2009

View from the Tank: Star Trek (2009)

I was worried about this movie, and hesitant to embrace it, especially as everyone began raving about how exciting, sexy, and action-packed it was. I was, in fact, like the fanboys The Onion parodied, worried that it was a thrilling, accessible blockbuster.

But I had no reason to fear. Star Trek is the best film in the series, with the possible -- possible -- exception of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It is thrilling, it is slick, and it's even sort of sexy. But it is also true to the essence of the series, to Gene Roddenberry's vision, to what makes Star Trek the most important and influential science fiction series in American television history. The film captures the optimistic vision of the universe so many of us were entranced by in the Original Series, The Next Generation, and the other progeny of Star Trek. At its heart, Star Trek is about the hope that logic and ethical actions will win out in the end and that we must approach the universe with an openness to new ideas and new ways of thinking.

After seeing this film twice in four days, I appreciate this film most for its faith in the fans of of the series. J.J. Abrams and the screenwriters recognized something that maybe some of us had forgotten as Star Trek became steadily ossified in an endless series of lifeless museum pieces in films numbers three through ten: Star Trek is about accepting new ideas and new realities. This film has the faith in its fans to take away (almost) everything we know. The arrival of a Romulan ship from the future (and a very special Vulcan ambassador) fundamentally alters the course of Trek history at the very beginning of the story of James T. Kirk, Spock, and crew. As Spock explains mid-way through the movie, the arrival of the Romulan ship has changed the course of history and set them all on an alternative timeline: as he says, their destinies have changed. The Original Series, the Next Generation, etc. -- none of these "exist" any longer as we know them. The new series can go anywhere it wants, almost entirely unconstrained by any of the previous Trek series.

What is especially wonderful is that this creation of an entirely new "reality" for the crew of the Enterprise is done in a way that honors the very best of TOS: the greatest episode in the original series, City on the Edge of Forever (written by the great (and litigious) Harlan Ellison) featured a similar diversion of history, when McCoy travelled back to 1930's America and accidentally prevented the entry of the U.S. into W.W.II. There are other ingenious quotations from earlier Trek: e.g., Kirk's goading of Spock, straight out of This Side of Paradise, the upgrading of Uhura's abilities to expertise in xenolinguistics (from Hoshi Sato in Enterprise), etc. And don't miss the tribble hidden in the film. (Hint: you'll hear the tribble cooing and purring before you see it.)

The casting is phenomenal -- as in perfect. I liked the controversial casting for Chekhov quite a bit: the whiz-kid math genius angle works. John Cho as Sulu seemed a little shaky to me at first, but you will be won over once he pulls out his sword -- I almost jumped out of my seat cheering. Zoe Saldana as Uhura is a revelation, and I do appreciate the efforts of the filmmakers to add some depth to this crucial character. Simon Pegg is delightful and appropriately zany as Scottie (I even liked his ewok-like sidekick as a frivolous add-on). Karl Urban is phenomenal in capturing McCoy, and his performance is the closest to impersonation, though it's much richer than that. Chris Pine won me over, despite my initial impulse to dislike him, with his thoughtful balance of Kirk's narcissism, cocksureness, and comic side, while avoiding falling into easy caricature. Finally, Zack Quinto has offered us a deeply textured Spock, bringing his emotional torment to just below the surface -- constantly simmering. (Never before have the words "Live long and prosper" so clearly meant "fuck off" as they do in a key scene here.)

Eric Bana does what he can with the Romulan villain Nero: he's got no real story and no real depth to work with. The much ballyhooed presence of Leonard Nimoy is just okay: I found some of his lines a bit cheesy and manipulative. (I thought the use of the line "I have been and always will be your friend" was an unforgivable abuse of that historic and moving line.) There are some stupid and cheesy monsters, and more than a few holes in the plot. And perhaps you will be as put off as I was by the less than convincing reaction of some of the characters to the destruction of an entire planet. Finally, what was with all the lens flare?

It's not a perfect movie -- but it's pretty damn good. It's a fresh and thrilling reboot (paging Daniel Craig), opening the door to a new chapter of Trek. Oh, and the opening scene may be the single greatest scene that I know of in all of Star Trek.

I've decided to bump up my rating after my second viewing: four and 1/2 tentacles.

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