Today we present our third review of JJ Abrams’ new Star Trek film. This time Geek Monthly Magazine editor-in-chief (and regular TOS-R reviewer for TrekMovie.com) Jeff Bond, shares his thoughts the eleventh Trek feature film.
[contains some spoilers]
Review by Jeff Bond
J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie has probably been the most anticipated, as well as the most hated and feared (prior to actually being seen) Star Trek movie since 1982’s The Wrath of Khan. In ’82 Nicholas Meyer dared to kill Spock and he was on the receiving end of some pretty juicy death threats for having the temerity to do so. Now Abrams has dared to do something even more threatening to Star Trek fundamentalists: recast and re-imagine Spock, and the rest of the crew of the original U.S.S. Enterprise, and show us how they wound up as the finest crew in Starfleet.
It’s heresy to replace William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, the late DeForest Kelley and the rest of the original series’ legendary cast and replace them with younger actors—it’s what Trek fans have feared and fought against since Harve Bennett’s idea for a Starfleet Academy film was first floated—90210 in space. And after years of moribund Star Trek movies and series, trekkers seemed even more outraged at the idea that Abrams and other behind-the-camera talents who hadn’t spent the past few decades toiling in the Star Trek military industrial complex at Paramount would now get the chance to reconstruct the franchise from top to bottom. Never have so many been so afraid to boldly go.
1991’s Star Trek VI — the last TOS movie
(that was almost a TOS recast at the Academy movie)
So it’s with a certain satisfaction, and the realization that so many people I know will think me crazy or a traitor to the cause, that I say that J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek for the most part works fantastically well. And the key is the impossible task of starting from ground zero with these iconic characters and daring to recast and revive them while acknowledging—but not enslaving them to—the franchise’s beloved “canon.” We all know how this pitch began—the idea of a time traveler changing the past of James T. Kirk, in effect creating a new character, one who might, or might not, have the original Kirk’s destiny. It’s clear there was something about Shatner’s Kirk, the very human but sometimes high-flown soldier-philosopher, which the filmmakers either couldn’t relate to or felt no longer spoke to modern audiences. Chris Pine plays a rudderless Kirk almost goaded into joining Starfleet by would-be mentor Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood)—Pine’s Kirk looks a bit like a male model and sounds a little like Christian Slater, and he’s introduced crudely pitching a young Uhura (Zoe Saldana) in an Iowa bar (in this Star Trek everything—from Kirk to Starfleet recruiting to the Enterprise itself—revolves around Iowa). It’s Kirk a la Top Gun (right down to the motorcycle), but Pine makes it work. You might not always believe how his Kirk rises through the ranks, but you do believe there’s a potential Captain Kirk underneath all the hubris.
Pine’s new Kirk works
Nevertheless had the rest of the Trek characters been as radically overhauled as Kirk, this new Trek might have worked for newbies but it would be unrecognizable to fans. They key to the original series’ popularity was always the buddy team of Kirk and Spock and their interaction—and indeed the mysterious appeal of the Spock character itself. With Leonard Nimoy playing the older Spock as part of the plot’s time travel dynamic, and initial clips of actor Zachary Quinto in action as the new, young Spock, a potential disaster seemed to loom. Quinto’s physicality fits the role to a T but Nimoy’s resonant baritone voice and impeccable diction and inflection were such a crucial part of the character that it seemed like Quinto might get blown off the screen by his older counterpart.
Not so. Quinto actually anchors the film and keeps an adventure that might easily have become pandering and silly rooted firmly in the kind of fascinating character drama that marked the best of the original series. This is a Spock who may also have chosen a slightly different path than the one we saw in the original series—or we may be seeing an ingenious reflection of the unformed Spock Nimoy himself played in the show’s first two pilot episodes—a character that seemed quite emotional even as he belittled human feelings. The plot makes ingenious and powerful use of Spock’s back story (to the point that D.C. Fontana almost deserves a story credit)—his upbringing as a Vulcan boy bullied and rejected by his peers, his biracial parents, his rejection of the Vulcan Science Academy in favor of Starfleet (a decision that seems to turn on a final, low grade insult from a Vulcan superior), and his ties to the planet Vulcan itself. But as with the character of Kirk, the screenwriters uses these familiar elements to chart a bold new course for Spock. Of any aspect of the film this is the most resounding vindication of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision—because these characters still work and still hold their mystique after almost half a century.
Quinto’s Spock fits Trek history
The original show’s supporting characters were always a mix of stereotypical ‘types’ given life by a talented cast. Leonard “Bones” McCoy quickly proved himself equal to Kirk and Spock due to DeForest Kelley’s enormously likeable, half testy, half easygoing persona. It’s no surprise that Karl Urban nails McCoy—Leonard Nimoy just recently said he cried when he watched Urban’s work in the role. It’s an imitation in a way, but with an element of relaxed realism that brings Kelley’s distinctive mannerisms into a contemporary style. McCoy’s introduction scene in a Starfleet shuttle is perfect, laying down all the beats of the character in a few well-chosen words. The downside is that it’s Urban’s best scene—McCoy is in there pitching throughout the movie, often seeming to reprise every trademark line the Doctor ever uttered in the series—but he doesn’t get the kind of intimate, key scene with Kirk where he can truly function as the film’s conscience. More of him next time! The real surprise is Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, who pulls off the magic trick of not only working perfectly in the role, but of actually deepening your appreciation for the original character, and Nichelle Nichols’ performance. This Uhura plays a pivotal dramatic scene that establishes her as far more integral to this new Star Trek than her original counterpart, yet it shows you how indispensable this officer—and woman—is onboard the Enterprise.
John Cho’s Sulu figures more in action than dramatically—he’s a reserved Sulu and maybe the only other character on the ship besides Spock who never cracks a smile. Anton Yelchin is a surprisingly affecting Chekov although probably a love-him-or-hate-him choice—this is a 17-year old Chekov and I found his accent more convincing, if no less cartoonishly funny, than Walter Koenig’s. Simon Pegg’s Scotty is the biggest adjustment—he’s much more Pegg than James Doohan, and you won’t believe what a miracle worker this Scotty turns out to be. But Pegg can shout “I’m givin’ her all I can, Captain!” with the best of them.
The rest of the cast are more than just ‘aye aye Captain’
Star Trek’s new cast is so good and watching them team up and work together so much fun that the film’s problems mostly sail under the sensors. The one unfortunate artifact from the success of 1982’s The Wrath of Khan is the need to have a madman out for vengeance in every other Star Trek movie. This was never an important trope in the original series except in dopey episodes like “The Alternative Factor,” or disguised by mystery in stories like “The Conscience of the King.” Eric Bana’s Nero is an offbeat, deceptively low-key villain—he’s a Romulan everyman tasked with the job of wreaking vengeance for his race and he sometimes seems barely up to the job, although he does manage some early creepy moments. His space vessel is far scarier than he is—it’s like a marauding, malevolent V’ger commandeered by Romulan gang bangers, and Abrams uses its tentacled vastness to choreograph some eye-popping space battles as well as an extended imbroglio over Vulcan that’s probably the most successfully sustained dramatic action sequence in the film series since Kirk battled Khan in the Mutara Nebula. Nero is hunting down Spock for some barely registered sin of omission, and there’s a nice irony in the fact that alters the past of James Kirk—and in doing so seals his own doom—while on the hunt for Spock.
Nitpickers will have a field day with some of the movie’s science, tech and logic issues. Questions such as ‘Is Delta Vega a moon or a planet’ and ‘is there anything a transporter can’t do’ will be clogging message boards for the next few years, and fans already resistant to the reboot may also wince at the amount of coincidence that drives the plot. You can make a strong case that this is intentional—that it’s the universe attempting to right itself and undo the damage Nero has done to the time stream. There’s a fascinating bridge scene with Spock theorizing about the effect of Nero’s actions on destiny itself, but just a little more lip service to the idea would help make Kirk’s rise from lowly (but promising) cadet to starship captain easier to swallow.
Star Trek pumps up the action
While many superhero films (and I’m convinced the currently popular superhero genre was an inspiration for the new Trek) make the mistake of focusing too much on their villains, Star Trek’s Nero is clearly a device to propel the plot and turn Trek’s universe upside down. And for those hardened dead-enders holding out the hope that the magic Star Trek Reset Button will erase this movie’s profound changes to canon, well—spoiler alert!—you’re out of luck. You’ll have to get used to Star Trek’s new canvas, but the changes made aren’t arbitrary ones—they deepen the characters, making them not only instantly relatable to Trek neophytes but, in my opinion, that much more fascinating if you’ve been absorbing the series from the beginning. The reboot removes the biggest curse of “prequilitis”—the total lack of suspense derived from knowing how history unfolds in these TV and movie franchises. That safety net is gone now and future Treks can use the familiarity and baggage of a whole universe of familiar characters but tell new and unpredictable stories about them. As for the aesthetic changes, they’re hit and miss but for the most part everything works. For everyone complaining about the Enterprise, take another look—the proportions and details are far closer to the look of the original ship than we had any right to expect. This easily could have been some unrecognizable blob of a ship but it is very much the classic icon it always was and I’m perfectly happy to have a toy of this vessel on my desk. The visual effects are stupendous and Michael Giacchino’s score, much like Abrams’ direction, works from the inside out—providing character and emotion first and space spectacle at the margins. Giacchino’s theme for Kirk (the one heard on the movie’s website) is fascinatingly internal, suggesting the character’s lost quality with its first five notes before the melody hardens into a feeling of resolve and duty that lends the theme its ‘superhero’ quality and suggests the journey Kirk has ahead of him. Even better is Giacchino’s theme for Spock, often played by an erhu—a Chinese violin—that gives the theme an ethereal, foreign quality in some scenes while more conventional orchestration suggests the warmth and even sadness hidden beneath the Vulcan’s stoic exterior.
Star Trek’s Effects are stupendous
I’m old enough to remember the thrill of rushing out to see Star Trek – The Motion Picture in 1979 after years of anticipation—and coming away from it crushingly disappointed. Since then Star Trek films have been hit and miss, but even as I’ve enjoyed some of them there’s an acknowledgment that I have never gotten what I’ve wanted from these movies—because what I’ve wanted is to re-experience the thrill I got out of watching the wonderful character moments in episodes like “Journey to Babel” and “Amok Time”—while seeing the Trek characters in a MOVIE with the kind of scope, action and drama I was used to seeing from the post-Star Wars era. And as heretical as it is to say this, that was never possible while watching the original cast do their Trek movies. As much as I loved those people, as good as they still were at what they did, it required a frustrating act of faith to watch old men and women trying their best to fit into the uniforms and chairs they inhabited decades earlier. The movie series had to jump through hoops to keep poor Sulu sitting at the helm as an old man while Spock—a Vulcan with a lifespan of hundreds of years—looked 20 years older than everyone around him, his father included. Gallivanting around the universe is a game for the young, and what I wanted was to see those heroes again in their prime. That’s what struck me when I was watching this movie—that I was finally seeing what I wanted a Star Trek movie to be. This is the most emotionally involving Star Trek film in at least twenty years, and the first in an equally long time to leave you breathlessly anticipating the next chapter. I can’t wait to see where these characters boldly go, and I can only hope Abrams returns to direct. His work here is a quantum leap above his filmmaking in Mission Impossible III and shows him capable of handling epic scope, high-octane action, and humor all while pulling very strong performances out of his cast. Best of all, Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci leave these characters with enormous room to grow, conflict, change and learn—unlike the self-satisfied, dully perfect Starfleet bores who’ve inhabited the franchise since Voyager and Enterprise. If that negates my opinion for fans who enjoyed those shows, so be it. Star Trek has been comfort food for too long and to paraphrase Simon Pegg’s Scotty regarding the new movie: “this is exciting.” David Gerrold said this scoldingly after his review of Star Trek – The Motion Picture, but I’ll repeat it here with nothing but enthusiasm for this Trek: let the human adventure begin.
Let the human adventure begin
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Star Trek in Geek
Pick up this month’s Geek Magazine for more Star Trek, including Jeff’s interview with JJ Abrams. More on the Star Trek issue at geekmonthly.com.