Monday, May 18, 2009

Star Trek

Not since Star Trek: The Next Generation aired on television (1987-1994) has the Star Trek franchise been so accessible and enjoyable. J.J. Abrams’ latest film will be appreciated by the mainstream, while still delivering substance for the fans. Star Trek now joins the ranks of other once-tired franchises that have been successfully revived, most recently James Bond and Batman. Most Trekkies will love it, but even if you’ve never enjoyed the franchise before, don’t let that stop you. Through a potent blend of style and solid character development, the new Star Trek boldly goes ... well, where no Star Trek has gone for a good while.

The film features the original slate of characters, most notably a young James Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). Having grown into a rowdy degenerate in Iowa, Kirk follows the advice of a military officer and enlists in Starfleet. Spock, a half-human, half-Vulcan, sees Kirk as immature and incapable of leadership. Once Kirk and Spock find themselves working aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise together, the two slowly learn to respect one another, despite their opposite sensibilities. The full cast of characters from Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969) stands alongside Kirk and Spock in the battle to defeat Nero (Eric Bana), a dangerous Romulan who has journeyed from the future.

Character development serves as this installment’s primary success. After years of mediocrity, the Star Trek universe needed a revival, and putting characters first was the best way to rebuild momentum. The writers give us classic characters that we know already, but then expand them through generous backstory and well-crafted dialogue. As is often the case with films featuring already-iconic characters, the casting director is the unsung hero. The stellar cast, composed largely of semi-stars and unknowns, makes a wonderful ensemble that could easily carry this franchise into two or three more films.

The plot doesn’t make much sense, but in this unique situation, it doesn’t really matter. The story involves time travel and essentially serves as a gimmick to establish an alternate timeline of events. Because Nero travels back in time and changes the past, a reality is established that doesn’t have to match the continuity of the other films. I wondered if this film would keep with Star Trek continuity or if it would disregard the originals and simply start over the way Batman Begins or Casino Royale did, but it ultimately keeps a foot in each camp, which should please the fans. It honors the originals without being constrained by them.

Having run for over 40 years, the vastness of the Star Trek universe poses a problem for outsiders. This film walks the same sort of line that The Lord of the Rings successfully walked: faithful and thick enough for fans, yet still approachable for those who don’t know the lore. Average Joe doesn’t speak Klingon, and the writers did a fine job recognizing that and striking the appropriate tone. Most great science fiction has more to do with relatable characters than with innovative science, and the characters usually make the difference between popularity and nerdy obscurity. Popularity isn’t always the mark of solid sci-fi, but it did accompany the original Star Trek series/films, and I predict that this latest will find similar success.

A few moments feel out of place, most of which feature unnecessary spectacle. When a monster chases Kirk through the snow, it feels like a cheap thrill, well below the standard set by the rest of the film. These moments are fortunately few, as most of the action not only advances the story and/or character development, but also boasts a grittier, less-polished quality. The action isn’t more realistic, but it does carry an intensity and an edge that the shiny originals never achieved. The heightened action increases the peril, making us care even more about the characters. The formula sounds simple, but this well-tuned machine was assembled by first-rate storytellers.

The powerful opening scene may bring fans to tears, and that’s a real triumph. The writers achieve some emotional depth, but not so much that the timbre of Star Trek gets lost. They fixed only what was broken, leaving many other aspects (such as ship design and costumes) largely untouched. Star Trek hasn’t been cool for a long time, but I’m thrilled to see this new franchise starting off so solidly. May it live long and prosper.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, and brief sexual content.

The action gets pretty intense, though as you might expect, there’s no gore to be found. The brief sexual content is indeed brief, featuring Kirk and two female roommates in their underwear (Kirk and his lover are interrupted by the other roommate, and the scene is played for laughs more than anything). I’d say it’s appropriate for teens, and the only big concern with younger kids is that they might be frightened. If your child usually enjoys action movies, he/she will probably enjoy this one.

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