TrekMovie.com Review of JJ Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’ April 12, 2009by Anthony Pascale , Filed under: Review,Star Trek (2009 film) , trackback
Although TrekMovie has grown to be the most popular general Trek news site and we now cover all aspects of the franchise, it was born in 2006 in the wake of the Paramount announcement of bringing Star Trek back to the big screen. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek movie represents what could be a make or break moment for the franchise, at a time when it has seen better days. So it was with much excitement and trepidation that I sat down to finally see the film a couple of days ago. My full review is below. [Review is almost entirely SPOILER FREE]
NOTE: This review does not give away any major plot details, but if you want to remain 100% spoiler free (if you still don’t know the background of the villain for example), then you should not read it and just skip to the ‘bottom line’ at the bottom of the article.
My experience of seeing the new Star Trek film was different than those at the various events over the last few days. No star-studded red carpets and no theater packed with fanboys being surprised by Leonard Nimoy. For this viewing it was just me in the Sherry Lansing Theater on the Paramount lot. This created a much more serious feeling atmosphere, but perhaps that is best as this was a serious event. This would be the first viewing of something I have been writing about for over two years and a critical component in the franchise to which I have devoted this site.
Before getting into the film itself it is appropriate to discuss some context (and personal perspective). It was only a few years ago that the Star Trek franchise was on life-support and things were not looking good for the future. The last two films were disappointments, with the 2002 outing of Nemesis being the first actual bomb of the ten film series going back to 1979. The last two TV series (Voyager and Enterprise) were mixed bags, with neither show truly living up to its full potential, culminating in the cancellation of the latter show in 2005. On top of that, licensees were dropping out and things were bleak. So I was as shocked as everyone else when in 2006 it was announced that Paramount was going with the full tent pole treatment for Trek and they were assigning it to their new A Team of JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Bryan Burk, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. It was a bold and risky move and I hoped that the change in team would give Trek a much needed kick in the pants, while still keeping true to the spirit of the 40+ year saga that I loved so much.
And after seeing the finished product, in short, that is exactly what they have done. Star Trek is amazing.
Nimoy was right when he said these guys knew their Trek
A new Trek future – which honors Trek past
The plot of Star Trek follows the origin story format, with the focus here being on the path Kirk and Spock take to get to the bridge of the USS Enterprise. For Trek fans, this part of the film will probably feel like it went by too quickly, but we do get to see some key moments… [MINOR SPOILERS] with Kirk’s solution to the Kobayashi Maru and a very young Spock dealing with bullies at school being highlights. [END SPOILERS] The rest of the plot focuses on the Romulan villain Nero and the threat he presents to the Federation and to some characters in particular. Nero and his thirst for vengeance combined with his powerful ship create ‘save the world’ stakes that is at the heart of all the best Star Trek films.
This new Star Trek movie certainly looks like none you have seen before. It has a very modern sensibility. Director JJ Abrams frenetic style combined with almost non-stop action, make this film into what is certainly the best ‘summer popcorn’ movie of the Trek franchise. He has also delivered big time on his promise to make this film ‘feel realer’ than any Trek before it, manifesting in a wide array of real locations, modern dialog and more (some of which may be a bit ‘too real’). Star Trek is also the most ‘epic’ feeling Trek film ever (including Star Trek The Motion Picture). Abrams has certainly evolved as a director since his first feature film, Mission Impossible III. While MI3 felt a bit trapped in a TV sensibility, he has has now opened up his palette to take advantage of what you can do with film (and a huge budget). Star Trek is a bit over two-hours long, but it goes by in a flash. The camera is constantly in motion (complete with frequent lens flares), the editing is rapid-fire, and the script hardly ever leaves you with a moment to catch your breath. Star Trek is a quintessential ‘thrill ride’ event movie, that should certainly appeal to that elusive wider audience that have avoided many Trek films in the past.
The big question for us fans is, even with all that feels different, is this film still a ‘Star Trek’ film? Or it just a good summer action movie called "Star Trek." One thing is for certain, this film does not ‘fit’ right between the TOS pilots "The Cage" and "Where No Man Has Gone Before". However the filmmakers have been clear since the beginning that this Star Trek is not a traditional prequel and so that standard does not really apply. [MINOR SPOILER] And being that this film involves time-travel, there is a very traditional Star Trek-ian reasoning behind the apparent changes in look and character/universe continuity (which is openly discussed by the characters in the film). [END SPOILER]
In my new interview with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (in the May issue of Geek Monthly Magazine) I asked the pair what they saw as the fundamental elements of a Star Trek movie. They agreed for something to be Star Trek it firstly must have hope and optimism, and secondly, it must have a bridge crew with a sense of family with a ship as their home. Without a doubt, those two goals have been met with this Star Trek. Even though we live in the post-9/11 world, where genre TV and films and ‘dark’ have almost become synonymous, this new Star Trek exudes the kind of optimistic themes that would make Gene Roddenberry proud. From the literally ‘bright and shiny’ bridge of the new USS Enterprise, to Pike lecturing Kirk about the importance of the peacekeeping and humanitarian mission of Starfleet, to the multi-cultural (and multi-world) Federation working together – you get a vision that there is much hope in our future (and this is clearly our future, and not some galaxy, far, far, away). As for the sense of family, the relationships on display here hearken back to some of the best character moments of The Original Series, TNG and the rest of the Trek franchise. As this is an origin story, this sense of family is something that you can see evolve throughout the film, especially with the relationship between Kirk and Spock, including what could be seen as some serious sibling rivalry growing pains.
Spock and Kirk go through a lot to get to this point
Beyond thematics, there is still much here for the Star Trek continuity lover to enjoy. There are nods to past Trek both subtle (like look closely or you might miss the Tribble), to the profound, such as moments between Amanda and Spock on Vulcan discussing Kolinahr. The film also fills in many blanks, in some cases borrowing from non-canon sources (like with Uhura’s first name), and in other cases they come up with new bits of back-story (as in the origin of McCoy’s nickname ‘Bones’). In fact there are so many fun little elements in this film that at one point I realized I was focusing too closely on the details and would start missing what was going on in the movie. It is recommended that you see this film a couple of times, and make your second pass the one to focus on the continuity nuggets, new bits of canon (and of course, note the stuff for future nitpicking).
There are a few things that will be noticeably different to Trek fans. For example stardates are handled differently, with the new convention being more like modern dates to make them easier to understand for a general audience. It is certain that these kinds of details will be the source of many fan debates for years to come. However, if you think of how far a ‘true reboot’ of the franchise could stray, there is much less of this kind of thing then may have been done in less caring hands.
There are also a few contrivances in the film that may be hard for some fans to buy. The biggest thing will be the series of coincidence meetings and extremely rapid promotions to get this crew to go from junior officers and cadets to the bridge crew of Starfleet’s flagship. It is obvious that the Abrams team didn’t want to take three movies to get there (like the Star Wars prequels did to take Anakin from kid to Vader). The upside is that they get their crew into their chairs and ready to go for the sequel, but you may have to let a few eyrolling ‘that was convenient’ moments pass to get there. [MINOR SPOILER] There is also some playing fast and loose with the location of the planet Delta Vega relative to planet Vulcan that is certain to be controversial with fans. Again this was done to both create a nod to continuity as well as serve a dramatic moment in the plot. However, I look forward to debating with Bob Orci whether it meets his standards for scientific accuracy, something Trek fans do value. [END MINOR SPOILER]
Where exactly is this planet?
It’s all about character
For me, I have always felt the most important things to make a Trek film are the characters, both how they are written and portrayed by the actors. I really don’t get worked up over the size of the nacelles, but if they turned Kirk into Han Solo I would be calling for the torches and the pitchforks. The good news is that on this front, the new Star Trek movie delivers. Interspersed with the cool space battles, Corvette driving and sword fights, are a series of impactful character moments that prove that Orci and Kurtzman understand and love this crew as much as we all do.
First off, the three most important characters remain Kirk, Spock and McCoy. In JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, James T. Kirk is going through a long arc and certainly does not start out as the Captain Kirk that we know. His confidence starts off as cockiness, to the extreme, but as the film progresses you see that Kirk grow into his destiny. This transformation is not easy to pull of, but Chris Pine performs it perfectly. So too does Karl Urban brilliantly inhabit Doctor McCoy. Although Urban comes closest to doing an impersonation to the original actor, it never seems like mimicry. Both Bones’ friendship with Kirk and head-butting with Spock are classic elements that feel just right. As for Zachary Quinto’s Spock, we also get a layered performance and an arc for the character. The irony here is that he starts off feeling more Vulcan and serene, but due to the events of the film, his emotional control is put to the test. Quinto nails the Vulcan side of Spock, right down to the mannerisms. However, at times when he is struggling with the emotional control, it is less effective, with perhaps too much of his Heroes Sylar character coming through. As for the performance of Leonard Nimoy, I am not worthy to judge it, but just you try and not get welled-up when you see his Spock in what are a few very key character moments, which ring true for where we see him on his arc, so many years after "Unification."
The rest of the cast fit well into their roles, and in this film each one of them gets at least one ‘moment’ that befits their character. Sulu (John Cho) gets to show off his sword-fighting chops, Uhura (Zoe Saldana) her linguistic expertise, Scotty (Simon Pegg) who is here mostly for comic-relief, still gets to take it one step beyond ‘giving it all she’s got’ in engineering and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) actually saves the day a couple times. All the actors put in good performances, with the standout for me being Zoe Saldana who shows off how Uhura is both strong and capable, as well as romantic and compassionate (with a rather surprising love interest). In this viewing Yelchin’s choice to go heavy on the ‘wery Russian’ accent was not as annoying as it was when I saw a preview last Fall, but it still was too much. However, the young actor was quite effective in this new role as a bit of an overly-enthusiastic boy genius.
The new crew works
The supporting cast is also to be commended, and in many cases you wish this film wasn’t trying to pack so much into two hours and you can learn more about them and see more of the performances. I just couldn’t get enough of the all-to-brief scenes of Spock’s upbringing, with Ben Cross as Sarek, Winona Ryder as Amanda and the excellent Jacob Kogan as young Spock. Bruce Greenwood’s Pike brings a whole new depth to the character seen in only one episode of The Original Series, and Pike should go down now as a worthy captain in Trek movie history (not named Kirk or Picard), and Faran Tahir’s all-to-brief time seen as Capt Robau goes on that list as well. Another standout was Chris Hemsworth as ‘Captain of the USS Kelvin for twelve minutes’ George Kirk who isn’t in the film for long, but will not be easily forgotten. There were also a few performances that didn’t work for me, notably the cameo of Tyler Perry had the actor/writer/producer very obviously not in his own element and feeling out of place as the head of Starfleet Academy. And veteran genre actor William Morgan Sheppard was disappointingly not very believable as the head of the Vulcan Science Council, as he played the role exactly as he played the Klingon Commandant in Star Trek VI.
One of the more interesting performances and characters in the film is the Romulan villain Nero. Alex Kurtzman once stated that their goal for Nero was to create a memorable bad guy like Khan. But Nero is nothing like Khan, nor Chang, nor Darth Vader, nor any other well-known bad guys. It is hard to know if he will be as memorable, because Nero is really the opposite all of those over-the-top antagonists. There is no larger-than-life Shakespearean proclamations from this Romulan, who is just a miner that through some back-story turns out to be really really angry and on a path of vengeance. But the way he is portrayed by Eric Bana is surprising and very interesting. For example when Nero calls over to the USS Enterprise shortly after a brutal attack, instead of the usual bombast he just says ‘Helloooo’ as if he popped by for a chat and to borrow some sugar, that is kind of refreshing. As for the rest of the Romulan crew, there really isn’t much to report. Ayel played by Clifton Collins isn’t given enough to do to really get any read, and there are a few others who bark out a few reports or get into fights, but in the end they will just be remembered as various minions of Nero.
What is perhaps lacking in this film is a full understanding of Nero and his motivation beyond revenge. There are a couple of exposition moments, but definitely not long enough for Trek fans who want to be ‘fully briefed.’ Although this will not take away from enjoying the film, especially for a general audience, Trek fans are likely to feel wanting for more details. It is for this reason that I highly recommend Trek fans read the "Star Trek Countdown" comic series (which is based on a story written by the Star Trek movie screenwriters). This is especially important if you want to fully understand how this new Star Trek film ties into all the past Trek continuity.
The new look and feel
Two areas with the clearest differences from past Trek are the production design and effects. There is a lot to take in here as everything about this film is new. I am actually a fan (mostly) of look of the new USS Enterprise, but it certainly is something that works better when seen in motion, both inside and out. And with the help of ILM, this new Enterprise really gets around. It doesn’t maneuver like a Star Wars fighter, but the ‘space lake’ 2-D sensibility of past Trek films is gone. When we are in space, ILM have surpassed all their previous work on Trek (and even that of their work on the Star Wars prequels). On the interiors, the bridge is also something that really works when you see (and hear) it in action. This bridge is the hub of activity that a starship should be, with the constantly moving graphics and outstanding array of sounds, both new and familiar to fans (thanks to Academy award-winner Ben Burtt). And the same is true for the bridge of the earlier era USS Kelvin, but with a much more TOS sensibility. The big letdown for the Enterprise (and the USS Kelvin) are the ‘bowels’ of the ships. The theory of making these seem more functional is sound, however the execution of using barely redressed industrial locations just didn’t work. It is one thing for these parts of the ship to seem ‘real’ and another for them to be ‘recognizable.’ It just doesn’t seem believable for a 23rd century warp-capable starship to have an engineering room full of 20th century valves, pipes and light fixtures.
However, when you go inside Nero’s Narada, you will find what is probably the most unique Star Trek alien ship ever. Without obviously resorting to CGI, the Romulan ship is made out to be gigantic and confusing (in a good way) and downright creepy. The ‘alien-ness’ of it is made even better with a whole different kind of sound and the use of unique technologies within the ship, some quite contradictory. The Romulans have very cool 3D displays that can be literally thrown around the room, but yet for some reason parts of the ship appear flooded with water. Beyond the ships, Scott Chambliss and his team do an excellent job redressing other real world locations to make them believable 23rd century locales, notably the Vulcan Science Council and an Assembly in Starfleet Academy.
The Narada sets are creepy and truly alien
Many other aspects of the production are noteworthy for raising the bar for Trek production. The make-up is best in class. There are not a lot of aliens in the film, but the few who are there are done with a very clever combination of real world make-up and CGI. It is just unfortunate that almost all of these aliens are just for show and in the background, with very little dialog coming from aliens who aren’t Vulcan, Orion or Romulan. The variety of costumes is also a delight, with the TOS era bridge designs being a big favorite. But Michael Kaplan did a fantastic job on the Romulans with their varied ‘space pirate’ outfits, the TOS & TMP inspired Vulcan costumes and even the slightly future-ized real-world folks in an Iowa bar. The most disappointing uniforms for me were those of the USS Kelvin. It isn’t that they were not well designed, it was that they strangely seemed more of an homage to Next Generation designs, instead of those from "The Cage" or "Where No Man Has Gone Before" which would have been more appropriate. Also the Kelvin crew are equipped with what seem to be perfect examples of TOS era communicators and phasers. The communicator flips open and makes the same sound as TOS, but again you wonder why not match "The Cage" if you are going to go out of the way to make a link to Trek history.
The last bit of the production to discuss is the score. Michael Giacchino’s music may be the most different thing about this new Star Trek film when compared to the scores from Horner or Goldsmith, although fans of his soundtracks from Lost, The Incredibles, Ratatouille will certainly recognize his signature stylings. His main theme is beautiful and uplifting and woven throughout the film. Also his almost tribal percussive themes for the Romulan sections of the film add to their menace and creepiness. And there is also a long portion in the opening sequence for the movie where Abrams essentially hands the storytelling over to Giacchino and the score, which is very emotional and unforgettable. Overall I like the score, but as a fanboy I was really hoping that Giacchino would have incorporated more stings from some of the great moments of The Original Series or the TOS era movies. He had done this with his past scores, like for Speed Racer and Mission: Impossible: III, but it seems here that he (and Abrams) wanted this score to have its own voice.
This music from the official site is an edit of "Hella Bar Talk" from the Giacchino Score for ‘Star Trek’
A new era has begun
In the end I believe that JJ Abrams and his team have done what they set out to do, which is the seemingly impossible task of creating a ‘realer’, more accessible and more action-oriented Star Trek for a new generation — while at the same time honoring the Star Trek that has come before it. This film is not ‘your father’s Star Trek‘ and it will certainly be difficult for some Trek fans to accept all of the change this film represents, but in my mind it still is Star Trek. This Star Trek is a fun (and often funny) entertaining film with a lot of emotional impact, especially for a Trek fan. This is certainly a film that every Trek fan should want to see in theaters at least once (I know that I very much look forward to multiple viewings, especially IMAX). Even if you are the most hardened canonista, it would be worth it just to see what a $150 Million Star Trek film looks like (and how else will you know what to nitpick later?)
I for one loved it, Star Trek made me feel like a kid again. Is it the best Star Trek film ever? Possibly. In some aspects, there can be no doubt. The scale, the effects, the sound, and much more are at a level never before seen in Star Trek and on par with the best films of the day. Every Star Trek film gets compared to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is my favorite as it is with many other fans. It will take a few more viewings to make the final call, but for me, it is certainly in that top tier of great Star Trek films.
It is truly 1982 again. We have a new team, with a new sensibility, who have come in and shook things up. And like with The Wrath of Khan, they have set up a platform to create additional films for years to come. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek is a very worthy addition to the Star Trek family, just when it needed one, and I eagerly look forward to what comes next.
Mr. Abrams, take us out
NOTE: A FULL-ON SPOILERY version of this review will be published closer to the film’s release