I’m not much a movie goer these days. Not only are the tickets just too expensive, the cost of hiring a babysitter for my wife and I to go out is often cost prohibitive. We sometimes sneak off individually to catch a flick but we really prefer going together so it takes a really special movie for us to fork over the bucks. Star Trek is such a movie. Nine hours later and $40. poorer, I’m in awe of JJ Abrams’s take on the sci-fi classic.
Let me just say up front I’m a genre geek. I’m not quite a fan boy but I do enjoy most anything that is science fiction, super hero, fantasy, or horror related. I spent may hot summer days in my youth running around in red and blue sweats, a red towel tied around my neck, pretending to be Superman. I once even thought he must be related to Jesus, not realizing the character was originally conceived as a Christ figure. When Star Wars debuted, I totally got the underlying yet simple “good shall overcome evil” premise. Star Trek, though, was another animal completely. The late afternoon hours my father and brothers were glued to the TV watching reruns were misery for me. It was too cerebral for a kid. I just didn’t get it. I would have gone to a friend’s house but all my friends were watching it, too! And when they were done, they were folding pieces of notebook paper in such a way as to resemble a Federation-grade communicator and ruining perfectly good blue and yellow (never red!) t-shirts by trying to draw the Star Trek insignia on them with permanent markers.
By middle school, though, something clicked. A civics teacher remarked how the series had pushed the boundaries for television in the 60s with social commentary on the war in Viet Nam and civil rights. By then, I was already watching it passively but started seeing it in a new light after the fateful day in Coach Danielly’s class. Already somewhat of a political junkie and history buff at 14, Star Trek may have shaped my political views just a bit. The show existed in a universe where poverty had been eliminated, there was no hunger, no racism, and everyone had jobs. People worked to better themselves and society. The world of Star Trek was militarized for sure, but the Federation was never the aggressor. Earth, and all the worlds that make up the United Federation of Planets, was a bold glimpse of what the United States of America could be – the last best hope, the shining beacon of light, for everyone everywhere. And that’s how Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, envisioned it.
Of course, the comparisons with Star Wars couldn’t be avoided. Trek’s better financed and more profitable rival was good science fiction to be sure, but lacked the underlying meaning of Star Trek. Years later a friend of mine was making the case that Captain Kirk was a cold-war era New Deal liberal (Truman-Kennedy), and that the Federation represented what our society could be if liberals finally win the war of ideas. Conversely, he contended, the Star Wars universe was a gloomy place where conservatives ruled the roost, where poor people still haggled to get the best deal for life saving droids and power converters, where the divide between the rich and everyone else was wide, where fundamentalist religion (The Force) played a large role in society, and where big brother was looming just over your planet’s horizon waiting to make you comply with the Empire… or else.
In the coming years, Star Trek became like pizza – even when it was bad, it was pretty good. The Next Generation was also grand commentary of the times. Debuting in the late 80s, the cold war with the Klingons, I mean the Soviets, was over, and America, I mean the Federation, was looking to the future and spreading it’s diverse culture far and wide. Each series thereafter, Deep Space 9, Voyager, and Enterprise, suffered dropoffs in quality but every now and then you’d catch a glimmer of Star Trek’s vision. And the movies? Pretty much the same. They range from good (Wrath of Khan, First Contact) to bad (Final Frontier) and all points in between. But even the bad ones had a thought provoking and and often positive message.
But trekkers dreamed of a new Star Trek that would finally put the series on the level it deserved to be on. We lamented the fact that Paramount Pictures simply didn’t want to sink the money into a Star Trek project that would put in on the same commercially successful level as Star Wars. We openly laughed at Star War fans who tried their damnedest to spin the last three prequels as anything other than total crap, secretly envious that 20th Century FOX was still making serious bank with an obviously inferior product.
Then news of a reboot started surfacing – even way back in the late 90s. The premise was Kirk, Spock, and company during their Star Fleet Academy days. Immediately the fan boys panned the idea, labeling it as Star Trek 90210. A couple of scripts were even written – damn good scripts and even better concepts. (here and here.) But Paramount wouldn’t bite and instead chose to try to wring a little more blood out of an old turnip and gave us Star Trek: Nemesis with the Next Generation cast – a movie I still contend was not that bad but clearly personified the proverbial last guest at a party who just doesn’t realize his welcome has been worn out.
So Trek fans waited and argued and debated with as much passion as I’ve ever seen – even on political message forums – about the best way to save the Star Trek franchise. Glen Oliver over at IGN films wrote it best: “Star Trek is not dead, but the ability of its shepherds to properly protect the flock may be irreparably compromised. Whether or not there are more Star Trek stories to tell is not an issue – such potential is as vast as the universe itself. Whether or not the people in charge can tell such stores IS a concern. This attrition has been happening for a long time, but only now is the full extent of Paramount’s remiss complacency becoming evident. Give Star Trek its balls back. Take chances. Think out of the box. Put some color into the shows – good God, who wants to look at murky gray tones every week? Add visual dynamic and kinetics. Pump-up the sound. Above all, let the characters be human, and unpredictable. Let them make mistakes, and compromise their ideals – because Trek is about humans, and humans can be inconsistent. Let our characters not always do the right thing, and let us not always agree with them. Make it…well…real. Let Star Trek be a youthful child, filled with energy, quirkiness, driven by a sense of experimentation, exploration, and wonder. Something needs to be done here – bravely, and with extreme prejudice.”
A couple of years back, rumors started circulating that Alias and Lost creator J.J. Abrams had been handed the reigns from Paramount to reboot the Trek universe. You might think this would have been met with wild applause by Trek fans, but there was a subtle hesitation. We’d been down this road before. Stuart Baird, a well respected producer and director worldwide, who’d worked on such films as Superman, the Die Hard series, the Lethal Weapon series, and who’d won on Oscar for his work on Gorillas In The Mist was announced as the director of Star Trek: Nemesis. Even better, John Logan – who’d been nominated for an Academy Award for writing Gladiator – was tapped to write it! Awesome! And the final result? Leftover room-temperature pizza.
So excuse us if the Abrams announcement elicited a certain collective yawn.
Boy, are we pleasantly surprise. Star Trek is a masterpiece. When stories surfaced over the last year or so from people who’d seen clips of the film and were gushing uncontrollably over it, we all secretly thought, “eh, they were just shown the best parts.” When groups of people were shown sneak previews of it over the last month, we all thought, “eh, they’re die hard trekkies, they’d wet their pants over anything tall, dark, and pointy eared.”
But then the mainstream press started flooding newspapers and the internets with reviews. About 95% positive. I mean, you have to really look hard to find an outright negative review from even the harshest movies critics in the industry today.
It seems odd to say, but say it I will. Star Trek is a masterpiece.
Does it have it’s weak points? God yes! Some of the plot devices are just too damn convenient. Seriously, Kirk gets stranded on a planet and Spock and Scotty just happen to already be there?
Has it borrowed heavily from other sci-fi series? Uh huh. You can see the Star Wars influences (enough of the cute cuddly mascots, please!) and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica influences – like how some of the more violent space battle scenes were given dramatic boosts by understated music.
Once scene I looked forward to, and was not disappointed by, was Kirk beating the Kobayashi Maru test. The looks on the faces of Uhura and Spock when his plot unfolds in the testing simulation was priceless. And the resulting debate between Kirk and Spock in front of the academic council was one of finest moments in Trek’s 40+ year history.
The opening scene is dramatic… heart wrenching, even. If you have children, imagine them growing up without you. Once you see this film, you’ll know what I mean.
The actors are spot on – sometimes eerily so. Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy is a carbon copy of the original. He delivers the lines, the demeanor, the mannerisms of DeForest Kelly perfectly.
Simon Pegg’s portrayal of Montgomery Scott can be a little over the top. Fortunately he doesn’t make his appearance until mid-way through the movie. I’m not sure I could have taken two hours of his shenanigans. But then again, James Doohan’s original portrayal of the character, especially in a few of the movies, could wear a little thin, too. Some reviewers found Pegg to be a delight, so don’t take my word for it.
John Cho and Anton Yelchin, in the characters of Sulu and Chekov, really play minor roles in the movie but they each have their moments. Again, perfectly cast.
Zoe Saldana as Uhura – well, I’m trying not to be such a guy about her. She’s hot, yes. She’s the perfect fan boy fantasy. A party girl with a sharp wit who can still discuss xenolinguistics and warp drive theory when she gets in at 2AM. A worthy edition to Trek’s long line of Stiletto Feminists – just as smart as the guys but about 100 times sexier.
Zachery Quinto as Spock was a marvel. You might catch yourself forgetting you’re not watching Leonard Nimoy. But the added element of the character constantly fighting his human emotions – and I mean really being in conflict – made this character. Hats off to the writers.
If Quinto is a marvel as Spock, then Chris Pine is a miracle as Captain James T. Kirk. If Saldana serves as sex on a plate for the guys, then Pine is pure candy for the girls. Though he doesn’t look much like William Shatner, he carries himself with the same swagger and brash boyish confidence. There’s one scene, near the end of the movie, when you’ll say, “Oh My God! THAT is Captain Kirk!”
Star Trek is not a perfect movie. But it’s about as perfect as a Star Trek movie has ever been. Four Stars!