May 13, 2009 > Movie Review: Star Trek
Movie Review: Star Trek
By Jeremy M. Inman
It's been seven years since Trekkies have had a Star Trek film in theaters for them to pick apart, but something tells me even die-hard fanatics will find little to complain about in J. J. Abram's latest directorial outing. More than just the average franchise reboot (although I won't spoil exactly how) the latest entry, simply titled Star Trek, not only successfully reinvents the now-legendary characters from the 1960s TV show, but it does so in a manner that actually adds an appropriate entry into the Star Trek canon rather than just erasing everything and starting over.
The film tells the story of young James T. Kirk's tumultuous early years as a Starfleet cadet and his rise to the Captain's seat of the Enterprise Bridge. While some minor details might be a little different than fans remember (which the film explains in due time) it draws on enough classic lore to appease series regulars while providing audiences across the board with characters that are entertaining to watch as well as easy to believe. Classic members of the ensemble, like Spock, Uhura, Leonard "Bones" McCoy (played with perfection by Karl Urban), Scotty, Chekov and Sulu, are all worked into the script with masterful ease. Their first flight as the crew of the USS Enterprise is cut drastically short, however, when a madman - a mysterious Romulan named Nero - launches a surprise attack on the Federation with devastating results. Without giving away too much plot, Nero is out to change history as he knows it, but in doing so he presents a threat to the Federation, the Planet Earth, and perhaps the entire galaxy.
While the plot is pretty much standard fare for Star Trek, the film is more about establishing these newly-envisioned characters and providing meaningful ways for them to interact. Gone is the unwavering friendship and trust between Kirk and Spock, replaced by fundamental disagreements on the nature of duty and destiny. This younger Kirk approaches seeming "no win scenarios" with the same decisive bravado as his television counterpart - only here he doesn't have years of experience telling him it's going to work. Gone are the tempered, non-emotional responses of the pointy-eared Vulcan Mr. Spock - replaced by a Spock more prone to heated emotional outbursts. Zachary Quinto (Sylar from TVs Heroes) plays the role with a holstered intensity as he struggles to find the balance between his human and Vulcan upbringing.
In summation: this isn't your daddy's Star Trek. J. J. Abrams has approached his directorial duties with a modern sensibility for visual grammar and narrative storytelling. This film moves quickly and looks amazingly real - partly because of the filmmaker's decision to include minor visual imperfections such as lens flares and shaky camera, which has the subconscious effect of normalizing what could have otherwise appeared fake and sterile. Sound drops to an almost silent hum in the far reaches of space, dirt will kick up onto the lens and catch reflections from in-frame light sources and the passing of a massive warp engine will certainly leave the camera whirling in its wake. Couple this with very purposeful camera machinations (such as mid-shot snap zooms or refocusing) and suddenly this genre which typically alienates most audiences takes on a very organic and approachable feel while remaining quintessentially Star Trek - an utterly fantastic fictional world presented with the utmost realism. The easiest comparison is to the new Star Wars films. The clean, smooth, perfectly-composed and (most importantly) DIGITAL look of George Lucas' more recent Episodes defeats the believability of his universe. In contrast, J.J. Abrams' down and dirty (and purposefully apparent) camera work subconsciously tricks the audience into thinking that there's actually a cameraman suspended miles above the surface of the planet Vulcan as a giant heat-drill bores a chasm into the planet's core - which in turn just makes it feel all the more real.
And this is the fundamental driving design behind this newest entry (slash reboot) of the Star Trek franchise: believability and purpose in action. While there is a fair amount of Deus ex Machina in this film, it's not as groan-inducing as the more pulpy summer blockbuster fare (cough, Wolverine). Legitimizing everything are the real motivations of the characters and their believable emotional portrayals. Casting on this film could not have been handled better - each character is presented with just enough of their traditional traits to make them recognizable, while at the same time bringing them up-to-date in a way that lends weight and believability. And even though the bad guy Nero (Eric Bana) might at first glance appear a little one-dimensional, even he provides a solid ground for audiences to really understand where he's coming from.
This is a summer blockbuster for sure, but it's the very best of its class; providing audiences with more than just popcorn. Drawing on years of fan loyalty and established continuity and then making something that all at once fits in AND carves out a space of its own within the fiction is no simple task, but Star Trek makes it look easy. J. J. Abrams has once again proven himself to be a modern master. My only hope now is that casual audiences can look past the geek-riddled roots of the franchise and spend enough money on tickets to warrant a sequel so this series can continue to live long and prosper.
Directed by J. J. Abrams