Star Trek (United States, 2009)

May 02, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Star Trek Poster

Spoiler Warning! This review contains spoiler elements, especially for those unfamiliar with the general premise.

In a culture where seemingly everything is remade or re-booted, even Star Trek, the venerable science fiction TV show and movie series, could not avoid this trend. Despite having existed for 28 years (1966-1994) with a single group of actors in the major roles, there comes a time when concessions must be made to age. This is one of the motivating factors behind Star Trek's rejuvenation. Another no less practical reason is economic. Paramount Pictures, which has for decades viewed the Star Trek property as a "cash cow," wants this to continue. For that to happen, a new generation of Trek fans must be born and the series must reach out to a wider audience. 2009's Star Trek has been designed with the lofty goal of keeping current fans, repatriating lapsed ones and, by re-branding the name, opening the Trek universe to millions of new viewers. J.J. Abrams' attempt has mostly succeeded.

By employing the services of Leonard Nimoy in the role that made him famous, Abrams has cemented the connection between "new Trek" and "classic Trek." Nimoy's presence allows the movie to be seen as sequel as well as prequel, although the time travel aspects of the story are weakly developed and poorly explained. (The original series, it's worth mentioning, rarely did time travel well.) If Nimoy's performance as Old Spock (or, as the credits refer to him, "Spock Prime") is a Valentine to longtime fans, there are also numerous Easter Eggs - from obscure references to whole passages of dialogue (even a Tribble). These are incorporated in ways that will not be distracting to viewers who are unaware of their place in Star Trek's mythos. When Old Spock says, "I have been and always shall be your friend," it's a natural statement within the context of the moment. The words, however, will mean so much more to those who have lived - and died - with Kirk and Spock through the years.

Like nearly all "origin" stories, this one displays some narrative cracks as it goes through the obligatory process of gathering the characters, providing them with perfunctory backstories, and generating a story that allows for plenty of space battles and hand-to-hand combat. One weakness with Star Trek, as with all movies charged with reworking established universes, is that only at the end do the characters seem primed to move in new and interesting directions. Abrams and his screenwriters, longtime Trek fans Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (the duo responsible for the abysmally dumb Transformers), do their best to keep things engaging despite the tremendous constraints of the "origin" format, but there are times when the material feels rushed. When considering pace, this is most definitely that anti-Star Trek: The Motion Picture. No loving, languid shots here.

Star Trek opens with a rousing space battle between the U.S.S. Kelvin, temporarily commanded by George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth), and the Romulan vessel Narada, newly arrived from 120 years in the future. Nero (Eric Bana), the Narada's commander, has come to the past with specific objectives, one of which is genocide. After his devastating attack on the Kelvin, Nero remains in hiding for 25 years, awaiting the inevitable arrival of his hated enemy from the future. Then, and only then, will he act.

Meanwhile, in Iowa, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) grows up to be a brilliant but undisciplined young man. He is recruited into Starfleet by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who sees vast quantities of untapped potential in the young man. When Pike's crew is called to emergency duty aboard the newly completed flagship of the fleet, the U.S.S. Enterprise, Kirk is on board, as are First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), Doctor Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban), Communications Officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and Navigators Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin). The Enterprise's chief engineer, Scotty (Simon Pegg), will join later. It's the job of the Enterprise to stop the Narada, despite being massively overmatched and outgunned. Fortunately, they have an unexpected ally.

Star Trek is clearly an action-oriented motion picture, with an intensity that exceeds even that of The Wrath of Khan. The pace is blistering, and the movie is littered with the eye candy of expertly realized space battles. The special effects are beyond those seen in any of the previous ten Star Trek features; in terms of technical aptitude, they are in line with what George Lucas delivered in the Star Wars prequels. In addition to the battles, there are also chases, fight scenes, and all the other staples one expects from an action movie. Those hoping for some kind of "message" or "idea" will be disappointed. Star Trek spends some time on relationship development - especially the crucial one between Kirk and Spock - but there is little in the way of depth. Breadth, yes. Depth, no.

So how do the actors fare stepping into such well-worn shoes? Perhaps the most pleasant surprise is Chris Pine, who suggests William Shatner without mimicking him. Pine captures Kirk's cockiness and charisma, mixing in enough humor and humanity to prevent the character from becoming a prima donna. Zachary Quinto is marginally less successful as Spock, perhaps because the original portrayer of the part is in the movie. Zoe Saldana boosts Uhura's sexy quotient (and provides a most unexpected romantic element), John Cho reminds us of Sulu's physicality, and Karl Urban is spot-on as McCoy (even some of DeForest Kelley's vocal inflections are represented). There are problems with both Anton Yelchin's Chekov and Simon Pegg's Scotty - primarily because both characters are marginalized for comic relief. It's unclear whether the problem is more with the acting or the writing. For his part, Nimoy provides a Spock who has not been this relaxed and comfortable in his skin since before his "death." It's amazing that after a gap of 18 years, Nimoy is able to return to the character without missing a beat. Eric Bana's Nero is a flaccid and underutilized villain; he is neither a Khan nor a Kruge nor a Chang, although he's certainly a step up from V'Ger or the God Who Needs a Starship.

One thing missing from Star Trek is the Enterprise as a character. Although it looks like a sleeker version of the iconic starship, here it's little more than a prop. Throughout the original series and into the movies, the Enterprise was always more than just a location. It was as much a part of the Star Trek family as Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the others. Some fans shed tears when it was destroyed in Star Trek III, and nearly everyone felt the loss. In this film, it's a piece of hardware, an excellently rendered special effect. But it generates no warmth or feeling. It's generic and sterile. It is not home.

Music has always been an important element in the Star Trek movies, from Jerry Goldsmith's epic score to Star Trek: The Motion Picture to Cliff Eidelman's gloomy, Holst-inspired work for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Michael Giacchino's contribution is in the Goldsmith/James Horner vein. Giacchino holds back on incorporating Alexander Courage's original series theme until the end of the movie, much as was the case with Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme" in The Quantum of Solace. It works as a way to end the film on a triumphant note, but one hopes Giacchino, if he returns as the composer for the next Star Trek movie, will do as most of his predecessors have done and rely a little more on at least the "Star Trek Fanfare."

Ultimately, when the end credits roll, we're left with the sense that Star Trek represents a good beginning. As a film tasked with getting all the characters together, re-booting a timeline, and finding a way to return a veteran actor to his beloved role, Star Trek works. There is some awkwardness here - it feels like the "hybrid" it is (or, as it has been called, "Not Your Father's Star Trek") but, considering how ponderous and stilted the Star Trek movie series had become, perhaps that's not a bad thing. Still, as with any prequel/re-start, the real test will arrive with the next movie (purportedly in two years - assuming this one does not flop at the box office). The setup is complete; now it's time to see whether the implied potential of this first entry into a new series can be realized in its sequel. Let's hope the human adventure is once again only beginning...

Star Trek (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 2009-05-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1