Saturday 25 June 2011

Star Trek (2009)

Director: J J Abrams
Stars: John Cho, Ben Cross, Bruce Greenwood, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Winona Ryder, Zoë Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Eric Bana and Leonard Nimoy

The J J Abrams reboot of Star Trek is a bright and shiny affair from moment one. It isn't just the action and the explosions, it's the light and the colour of it all too. The spectacle sucks us in but a brief moment when a crew member explodes into space suggests quality because, admirably, the sound disappears when we're outside. It reminds us to search for substance in this summer blockbuster, which has also been called a great film. It's still in the IMDb Top 250 two years on, but then so is Avatar which, as far as sci-fi blockbusters go, had precisely nothing beyond the bright and shiny. We wonder for a while as substitute captain Kirk orders an evacuation of the USS Kelvin, only to remain to fight off Capt Nero and his Romulans single handed while his wife gives birth in a corridor. The key is that the Capt Kirk we know is the baby being born not the man at the helm. I'm amazed mom doesn't say, 'He's dead, Jim' when inevitability arrives.

Next are introductions. The young James Tiberius Kirk runs his guardian's vintage car off a cliff trying to outrun a robot cop on a hoverbike, while Spock declines acceptance into the Vulcan Academy of Science when they suggest that his human mother was a disadvantage. He goes to Starfleet Academy instead. Uhura is already there, as Kirk discovers when she walks into an Iowa bar and he hits on her. She's under Capt Pike, who dares young Jim to do better than his father, a man who was a starship captain for only twelve minutes but who still saved eight hundred lives, including Jim's and his mother's. These introductions bode well, given that they're required to both introduce new characters to a new audience and re-establish those that many of us already know from a generation or two of background, while still throwing in some cool geeky details for hardcore fans to notice. The inclusion of Pike as mentor was a neat touch.

Star Trek has been around for a long time and has become the bedrock of popular science fiction on the screen. To highlight that, I turned forty this year but I wasn't even born when the original series aired on NBC. I did grow up watching the show though, then the next show and the films and people like me are going to watch this one with the aim of finding out how the characters we already know are introduced to the next generation, pun not intended. Everyone except Nurse Chapel arrives eventually, as the script contorts itself every which way it can to ensure that they do. Somehow a serious attack on the Federation from the future encompasses only the original series characters plus a single new villain, Capt Nero. To hint that there are plot conveniences is the understatement of the year, but half the fun here is watching to see how they do it. It's like a magic trick. We know we're being fooled but we want to try to figure out how.
Bones shows up next, on the shuttle Jim takes after he decides to sign up for officer training. Karl Urban does the best job of connecting to the original character, believable as a young DeForest Kelley, but the rest didn't do too badly. Chris Pine naturally gets most opportunity, but while Kirk was always unconventional, Pine plays him a little more maverick than I expected. He's certainly the focal point. Zachary Quinto was the most disappointing for me as Spock, though I wonder if this was inevitable because of the way his character was written. His story arc here relates to a struggle to determine whether he wants his human side or his Vulcan side to dominate. He goes for the Vulcan but he's obviously too human for it to work. There's potential for him to be great in the inevitable second film but he wasn't here. In fact when Leonard Nimoy turns up at a rather surprising moment, it only serves to underline Quinto's inadequacies.

Eventually there's the new bright and shiny flagship USS Enterprise, ever a character of its own. Pike is in charge, with Spock as his first officer. It's there we meet Sulu and seventeen year old Chekov, both already at their customary posts but very green. John Cho and Anton Yelchin have fun with their roles and make themselves noticed, growing as characters as the story runs on. Uhura and Bones are there too, quickly promoted as superiors die or their particular skills are needed. All fit what we might visualise as embryonic versions of the characters we know, but Zoë Saldana plays Uhura a little differently. She's a strong woman and a sex symbol, neither of which are surprising, but she doesn't seem remotely like a young Nichelle Nichols. Scotty is the last to arrive, halfway through the film after it jumps the shark. Simon Pegg gets least to do, as a deus ex machina to get Jim back onto the Enterprise, but he impresses from moment one.

I wasn't kidding about the film jumping the shark but it seems to revel in it, perhaps because of what it's trying to do. There's an important thing to know here, one that I wasn't aware of before watching. This is a reboot to an established franchise, like so many other films nowadays, but it isn't the usual safe and pointless remake. It boldly goes where nobody quite expected it to go, unafraid to change fundamentals, and had I been more of a fan than I am I'd have noticed that from the opening scene. For half the film, I didn't buy into the suspense, because this is the past and I knew which characters would be alive in the future. Yet when Capt Nero destroys the entire planet of Vulcan, I was shocked into realising that this is not the Star Trek we know. This is an alternate universe Star Trek, one in which sacred cows are slain and we can't be sure of what might happen next. The suspense returns because the future is suddenly open.
There's an underlying theme of cheating in the story, beginning with the famous Kobayashi Maru test which Kirk passes by reprogramming the simulation in his version of the Gordian knot. Here, Spock is the original programmer and they meet for the first time in front of Starfleet Academy to argue about the ethics of what was done. It's all about cheating and that theme returns over and over again. I can't help but see the entire film as a cheat, a deliberate one from scriptwriters who were firmly on Kirk's side of that argument. They know where they want their story to end up and they are utterly willing to cheat in every way possible to ensure that it gets there. I don't necessarily like everything they did but I can't help but admire how bold Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were to attempt this. Given what director J J Abrams has been doing with Fringe over the last season, also with Nimoy, I can't help but see comparisons.

I don't buy into this version of Star Trek being a great film. It's certainly leagues ahead of Avatar but it has obvious flaws beyond any geek discussion about how beloved characters were treated. The overblown choral music and some floating platform set design are clichés. The stunts are over the top. Plot conveniences are omnipresent and at some points blatant. The central plot is inevitably underdeveloped with a new franchise in mind and so many characters to re-introduce. Yet I think it succeeds for the most part. It's thoughtful as well as dynamic, as any Star Trek story should be. Its two hours whiz by in a flash, with plenty of action. There are fun new gadgets like retractable parachutes, most of the expected catchphrases and some fun references: we watch Jim in bed with a girl with green skin, there's a running joke about Uhura's first name and the red shirt arrives exactly when we expect him. It definitely bodes well for the 2012 sequel.

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