Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"Star Trek" (2009)

Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Zoe Saldana
Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman
Directed by JJ Abrams

After 2002's "Star Trek: Nemesis" was deemed a box office failure and TV's "Star Trek: Enterprise" was canceled in its fourth season, the incredible run of "Star Trek," uninterrupted production since 1987, came to a close.  Though it was never really in question, fans would wonder: Will "Star Trek" ever come back?

Hell yes.

To give rebirth to its beloved cash cow golden goose franchise, Paramount/Viacom turned to successful TV director JJ Abrams, who had seen massive success with "Felicity," "Alias" and "Lost."  With Abrams came the large group of talented people he worked with on those other projects, and their pitch to Paramount was given the green light... and a $150 million budget, the largest of any "Star Trek" to date.

Charged with modernizing a franchise many deemed "stale" and "old-fashioned," Abrams and co. set about to make "Star Trek" hip and cool again.  It had to be fast, furious, and above all, fun.  The film they craft here is unlike any previous "Star Trek" adventure, like a strange mixture of the character of "Star Trek" and the tone of "Star Wars."

"Star Trek" is both a prequel and a sequel and a reboot.  That's a pretty incredible feat, though ultimately it exists as such mainly in order to please hard-line fans who would never accept a straight-up remake.  It begins aboard the starship Kelvin, which encounters a strange lightning storm in space.  From this storm emerges a massive Romulan ship, captained by a man named Nero (Eric Bana).  Nero savagely attacks the Kelvin, and kidnaps and murders Captain Robau (Faran Tahir), leaving George Kirk in charge.  As George pilots the Kelvin on a suicide run against Nero's ship, his wife Winona is giving birth to their son, James.  George uses the Kelvin, sacrificing himself and ship, to allow the crew (and his wife and newborn child) to escape.

Twenty-something years later, James T. Kirk is a rebellious waste of a youth, listless, not having any clue what to do with this life.  One night in a bar, he meets Starfleet cadet Uhura (Zoe Saldana, "Avatar") and, attempting to pick her up, gets into a fight with a number of other cadets.  After getting thoroughly trounced, Kirk is met by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood).  Pike gives Kirk a challenge: to join Starfleet and do something with his life.  Taking Pike's challenge, Kirk joins up, and on the way to the Academy meets Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), a physician headed to space to escape his ex-wife.

Three years pass, and Kirk and McCoy have become best friends.  Kirk is obsessed with beating the supposedly unbeatable Kobayashi Maru test.  To do so, he cheats, as Kirk is wont to do.  In doing so, he runs afoul of Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) who designed the test.  Before the situation can be resolved, a distress call is received from the planet Vulcan, Spock's homeworld.  Kirk, despite being suspended for cheating, manages to get aboard the starship Enterprise along with Spock, Uhura, McCoy, and Captain Pike.  The ship races to Vulcan, and Kirk realizes that the crisis on Vulcan is related to what happened to the Kelvin decades earlier.

When the ship arrives at Vulcan, they find Nero drilling into its surface.  Nero demands Pike give himself up, but Pike has other plans.  He assigns Kirk a mission to destroy Nero's drill and gives command of the ship to Spock.  These two rivals must overcome their differences to recover Captain Pike and stop Nero before he destroys the Federation.

This movie is huge.  It moves at warp speed from one set piece to the next, changing and altering the "Star Trek" universe in massive strokes.  Nero, it turns out, is from the future, and his presence in this film creates "an alternate timeline," which gives the filmmakers carte blanche to make wholesale changes to this fictional universe, reshaping it as they see fit.  This doesn't just include random changes to costumes or ship designs, but the actual landscape of the universe.  The destruction of the planet Vulcan (and the near decimation of its population) has huge implications for the future.

Of course, finicky fans will bitch about changing the backstory and making grand alterations to characters and planets in the universe.  But frankly, that's pretty bullshit.  After nearly half a century, the "Star Trek" universe had become unwieldy and labyrinthine,  contradicting itself at seemingly every turn.  Getting back to basics with a "Star Trek" film wouldn't just be enough.  The filmmakers need the freedom to do whatever they please, otherwise they'd be hamstrung by 40 years of continuity, and the fans would complain anyway. 

This is not to say that "Star Trek" is a perfect film; it's not.  The plot is a bit loose, and somewhat formulaic (Nero's headed for Earth... shocking).  But what "Star Trek" absolutely nails is the characters.  Chris Pine is full of win as Kirk, bringing all the swagger and confidence of Shatner's original, without outright aping Shatner's performances.  The result is a less theatrical, more natural James Kirk, but still one with all those qualities that made him such an endearing character to begin with.  This is not to say that he's a better Kirk, but probably one less ripe for parody.

Similarly, Zachary Quinto is a fine Mr. Spock, and not only because he so incredibly looks the part.  He balances the cold logic and raw emotion of the character rather well.  But this Spock is also one that is much easier to provoke, and interestingly, Spock is the one who the film heaps most of its emotional impact upon.  Quinto's delivery of Spock's narration, describing himself as a member of an endangered species, is hauntingly excellent.  Here, Spock's human mother, Amanda (Winona Ryder), is the focal point for Spock's emotions.  Not only is she the literal source of them, but she is used to trigger them. 

Karl Urban is also a surprise, taking over admirably for the late DeForest Kelley, an actor who had infused the McCoy character with such a charm that I thought it would be nearly impossible to replicate.  And yet, when Urban hisses, "Are you out of your Vulcan mind?!" it feels perfectly natural.  I can't help but grin with nerdly pleasure at his performance here.  Simon Pegg ("Shaun of the Dead") is hilarious as Scotty, John Cho ("Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle" is a serviceable Sulu, and Anton Yelchin ("Terminator: Salvation") gets a few good gags in as Chekov.

Eric Bana doesn't get much to do as the villain, Nero.  We're given snippets of his back story, and Bana plays him a bit looser than the typical "Star Trek" heavy, which is refreshing.  But ultimately, Nero isn't deep enough of a character for us to care much, though he's effective as a threat to the crew of the Enterprise.

As I've said, the tone of "Star Trek" is much different here than in previous films.  There's a colorful sense of fun here that was mostly missing from the latter features and TV series, which strove to be more serious and less corny than the original 60s TV show.  Even the movies starring the original cast were quite different from the TV show that spawned them.  And although this new film doesn't feature obviously styrofoam sets or cheesy acting, it still feels full of the fun spirit of that original show.  While other "Star Trek" films have struggled to integrate humor, this film is the funniest of all eleven films without the gags seeming absurdly out of place.  The action sequences are fast and frenetic, but aren't hard to follow.  A lot of the staples of the old films and TV shows are still there - people calling out that the shields are failing, consoles exploding, sparks flying everywhere, etc - but they're not the focus of these sequences.  In fact, Abrams seems almost eager to get these parts over with so he can move on to other things.

Ultimately, for all its bombast and mayhem, "Star Trek" is about Kirk and Spock.  Leonard Nimoy reprises his role as an older Spock, also transplanted from the future, who realizes that the best thing he can do to help this new timeline and save Earth is to make sure that Kirk and the younger Spock are put in their correct places.  The writers recognize that the relationship between these two is absolutely paramount to the success of any "Star Trek" feature, and incorporate that as an actual story thread. 

"Star Trek" quickly became a $200 million hit for Paramount, and then the most successful "Star Trek" film to date.  Audiences clearly connected with its sense of fun and well-drawn, iconic characters.  A sequel was announced almost immediately and in my mind, it can't get here fast enough.

The blu-ray disc is first-rate in every sense of the word.  Image quality is absolutely stellar, with fine details like skin and cloth texture absolutely jumping off the screen.  This is quite easily the most colorful of all the "Star Trek" films, and that shows off here beautifully, as well.  The surround track is incredible, as well, with deep, full bass and excellent directionality.  This disc is demo material, the kind of thing you put in to show off your system to your friends and neighbors.