Star Trek Review
Let’s face it, on any list of moribund franchises ripe for revival, Star Trek would be pretty near the bottom. Ten films and over seven hundred television episodes should be enough for any title, no matter how endless the possibilities the format theoretically has, while the reduction over recent years of the number of Trekkers into a relatively small hardcore of followers would seem to make any further adventures an unappetising prospect for studio bean counters. For years Trek has looked old and tired, run into the ground by a creative team who ruthlessly strip mined their asset until it was creatively exhausted, visible for all to see in the rapidly diminishing returns of the last few movies. From the lacklustre Insurrection to the nadir of Nemesis, it appeared that Trek had oldly gone where many franchises had gone before – the interstellar scrap yard. But now, almost out of the blue, steps forward JJ Abrams, populist auteur du jour, to mastermind with writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman a Spock-like resurrection, in one fell swoop doing for Gene Roddenberry’s creation what Casino Royale did for Bond and Batman Begins for the Caped Crusader: not reinvent the format so much as rejuvenate it and make it once more feel fresh and exciting.
Going back to an idea first kicked around back when Star Trek VI was at an early stage of development, Abrams’s film tells the story of how James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine, replacing Shatner) first assumes command of the Enterprise. Here Kirk is a brash, cocksure young Starfleet cadet, brilliant but wayward, as interested in trying to get Uhura (Zoe Saldana) into bed as he is in taking charge of a starship. Trying to live up the legacy of his father, a Starfleet commander who died saving his crew from an attack by the mysterious Romulan Nero (Eric Bana), Kirk Jr ends up facing Nero himself in battle when the Enterprise is ordered to the planet Vulcan to prevent another attack. Nero, it turns out, has a major beef with the Federation, blaming it for the destruction of his home planet a hundred years in the future, and has travelled back in time armed with a fearsome weapon which he plans to use to destroy the galactic organisation, thus saving his world. After he manages to swat aside most of Starfleet’s task force sent to take him on, the Enterprise and her new crew, fresh out of Starfleet Academy, find themselves to be all that stands between the Federation and total annihilation, but can the impetuous Kirk find a way to work with the ship’s new CO, a conflicted young half-human half-Vulcan called Spock (Zachary Quinto) or will their mutual antipathy get in the way of their warping into town and saving the day?
Neatly avoiding any complaints from the diehards about continuity errors, Bana’s time travelling escapades means (as the film rather pointedly underlines a couple of times) that the timeline of The Original Series no longer exists, thus explaining why Kirk, the Enterprise, and everything else looks substantially different to what we’re all used to. It’s a useful conceit, not only in that it effectively presses the reset button on the franchise but also because it gives its young cast license to bring their own interpretations to the familiar characters. Much of the film’s success is down to the fact that the actors take full advantage of this, creating their own personas rather than slavishly caricaturing the originals. Arguably the character who benefits most from this reinvention is Zoe Saldana’s sexy Uhura, the original one-note communications officer re-imagined as a sexy, assured young woman – it’s easy to imagine Nichelle Nichols smiling through gritted teeth at the premiere as her replacement gets more character work and screentime in two hours than she did in forty years. However, even the actor who comes closest to echoing his predecessor, Karl Urban as Dr McCoy, manages to compare favourably; despite looking nothing like original McCoy DeForest Kelley, Urban gives an at times uncannily similar performance, both in mannerisms and vocal inflections (if you weren’t looking at the screen, a couple of times you’d swear it was Kelley talking), along the way managing to provide many of the film’s most amusing moments (far more so than Simon Pegg’s Scotty, who seems only there to provide laughs and is thus a little bit of a disappointment.)
Inevitably, though, all eyes are on the two leads, Pine and Quinto. No matter what you think of their acting, Shatner and Nimoy are both sci-fi icons, and stepping into their shoes would be a daunting task for anyone, but Pine especially manages to take the character of Kirk and completely make it his own. It helps that he is, of course, considerably younger than Shatner ever was in the role, adding a youthful rebel-without-a-commission insouciance to the Enterprise’s all-American hero, but virtually from his first appearance, in which he ends up on the wrong side of a group of cadets, all thoughts of Shatner are banished. Most impressively he manages to successfully combine the tricky components of youthful arrogance and unquestionable authority which were always the cornerstones of Kirk’s character, so that when he takes command of the bridge the viewer doesn’t doubt for a moment that the rest of the crew would follow him to hell and back. The major difference between him and his predecessor (aside from lack of corset) is that while Shatner often had his tongue placed firmly in cheek, occasionally breaking the fourth wall, Pine is totally commited and genuine, lending the film an authenticity that some of the previous Treks didn’t have. Quinto is a little more mannered, not having quite mastered Nimoy’s trick of conveying the turmoil of emotions that were at the core of the half-human, half-Vulcan character, but still gives a good performance – although it’s notably hard to buy into the idea, when Nimoy’s Old Spock turns up, that the two men are the same person.
The major difference between this incarnation of Trek and those of the past (besides the fact that for the first time since the first film it's had a blockbuster budget spent on it) is that this movie is very much geared as an epic, swashbuckling adventure rather than anything more profound. Abrams favours high octane adventure over po-faced philosophising, generally to the film's benefit; from the thrilling opening sequence on the pace never lets up, the film’s defining image the many scenes of Enterprise crew members running up and down the spotlessly white corridors as Red Alert klaxons blare. It’s not exactly the vision of Trek Roddenberry had in mind – there are no messages to be discerned other than those of family loyalty and comradeship – but it’s undeniably exciting, if at times a little too frenetic. For years those involved in making the television spin-offs tried unsuccessfully to replicate the original’s mix of high adventure and light-hearted banter, but this movie manages it almost effortlessly, Orci and Kurtzman’s witty script moving from insults about pointy-eared bastards to high drama and back again in less time than it takes to jump to warp speed. Despite its new, ultra hi-tech appearance the captures the feel of the Sixties show, more successfully than almost anything that’s gone out under the Star Trek banner in nearly twenty years, helped along by a series of nicely judged nods to the past, from the blatant (the infamous Kobayshi Maru test from The Wrath of Khan) through to the obscure (the dog from Enterprise gets a mention) - there’s even an amusing running joke reflecting the fact that in all her onscreen appearances Uhura was never given a first name.
However, it’s also very broad. The treatment of Kirk and – especially Spock – is done well, but not especially deeply – Kirk is a brilliant rebel, Spock conflicted about his mixed heritage – and aside from one revolutionary new relationship on the Bridge I’m not sure the film does anything with the characters that hadn’t already been seen. The story is also rather flimsy, with several extremely awkwardly plotted moments (Kirk’s abandonment on the ice planet), and continues the regrettable Trek tradition of having a weak villain in Nero. More Shinzon from Nemesis than Khan Noonien Singh, he spends his time issuing threats from viewscreens and growling at minions who look exactly like him (so much so, indeed, that when Kirk stabs one I briefly thought that was the end of Nero) rather than getting to be truly nasty. The film’s climax is a little disappointing; given that both Kirk and Spock have a personal vendetta against the guy, their encounter with Nero is strangely emotionless (one good line from Spock notwithstanding) and over a little quickly. It doesn’t help that the last twenty minutes pale in comparison to the visual orgasm of the battle which opens the film (a sequence the likes of which Trekkers have dreamed of seeing for years), an opening which is easily the most viscerally exciting moment of the entire film and which, a mid-film parachute jump onto an orbiting weapons platform aside, is never really matched.
But then such quibbles about what is envisaged as a exuberant, action-packed blockbuster are a little pedantic – it succeeds in what it sets out to do, and does so admirably. Thanks to its youthful cast and vibrant pace, Trek is suddenly sexy, possibly for the first time ever, and all thoughts of the original cast, bar the cameo from Nimoy, are swiftly forgotten. However, I did come away from the theatre with the thought that behind all the flash and banter and noise there wasn’t, bar the odd moment of emotional truth, a great deal in the way of substance, and the impression that perhaps the film is so fast because it was scared if it slowed down too much its plot holes would begin to unravel faster than a subspace anomaly. As said before, in many ways, this is Trek’s Casino Royale, but with one crucial difference – I came away from the 007 film feeling I knew Bond a little better, and wanted to know more, whereas the same cannot in truth be said about the crew here - we feel like we've already seen everything there is about these people in this one film. Nevertheless, as a piece of popcorn entertainment it’s great fun, and easily the strongest Trek since The Wrath of Khan, although I do have one final, somewhat nerdy quibble – why on earth at the end isn’t it Pine who gets to give the “Space... the Final Frontier” speech? If nothing else, this film conclusively proves one thing – it’s his ship now. Sorry, Bill.