J.J. Abrams and his production powerhouse have of late become a nigh-unstoppable engine of entertainment excellence. With hit ABC television series Lost winding down its penultimate season, newcomer Fringe heading into its sophomore year on Fox and 2008's Cloverfield almost certain to succeed as a franchise in its own right, Abrams' crew can seemingly do no wrong. That is, if they had kept on playing it safe...
...because let's face it: to accept the challenge of not only taking charge of the Star Trek brand name, but to make it actually exciting again for the average person, is certainly tempting the fates if not the hordes of die-hard Trekkies.
The last time I had seen a Star Trek movie, it was December 2002. I was waiting for the midnight premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. My ticket was in hand, and for whatever reason I arrived hours early. The nice ladies running the small cinema said that I didn't have to wait out in the cold rain: "Come on in and watch a movie on us!", they insisted. So Star Trek Nemesis was about to play. I was the only one in the theater. I never paid to see Star Trek Nemesis and almost seven years later you couldn't pay me to see it again either.
Star Trek had become a bloated whore. A depleted cow. A field left barren and waste of life-giving nutrient. At times I watched Star Trek: Enterprise and tried, really tried, to care anymore about something that I had only a fleeting appreciation for to begin with. At its best, Star Trek was always capable of producing genuinely remarkable storytelling, like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (high on the list of my all-time favorite movies, incidentally). But after Nemesis and Enterprise I had become content to let the good memories endure, even while doubting that Star Trek could ever again burn as brilliant.
A few years ago I heard about J.J. Abrams being given his shot at directing a Star Trek film. Last year came the teaser attached to Cloverfield and for the first time in over a decade I felt a tinge of giddiness about the franchise. By the time the final trailer came out, I'd heard enough good about what Abrams, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were doing that it compelled me to vow to do something I had never done before in my entire life: see a Star Trek movie on its opening day.
Well folks, I just got out a few hours ago from catching the first showing of Star Trek at the Palladium in High Point and I darn well plan to see this at least two or three more times over the next few weeks, if not a hella lot more than that! Star Trek is not just the Star Trek movie that we've always wanted to see but never thought we would ever get: it surpasses everything that a solid summer blockbuster is meant to be!
Heck, I'm gonna have to see it at least once more, just to fully "take in" the entire sheer glorious spectacle of it all.
Let me put it this way, and I don't say it lightly: ten years ago this month, a lot of us were lining up to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Remember leaving the theater after seeing it, and how many of us were like "Wow ummm... yeah... it was kinda good, uhhh...", trying to convince ourselves that all those years of waiting for a new Star Wars movie had paid off, only to be met with committee meetings and Jar-Jar Binks?
Well, Star Trek is the prequel movie that Star Wars Episode I could have, should have, ought to have been!
(Feel free to comment on whatever observations you've inferred that I'm making here.)
With Star Trek, Paramount has finally done what it should have done a long time ago: turn some new blood loose on its biggest in-house legendarium to prove what Star Trek can really do once it's off the chain. That's evident early in Star Trek, first with the gnarliest space battle seen thus far in the history of the franchise and then a scene featuring something you never, ever would have expected to hear in a Star Trek production: "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys. Truly, this is not your father's Final Frontier...
...and yet, it still is. Orci and Kurtzman's story is exceedingly faithful to the original premise and setting of Star Trek, even while slaughtering sacred cows wholesale and serving them up like so many White Castle burgers. It's widely known even among those who haven't seen it that Star Trek reboots the franchise with that "good ol' standby" of reset buttons: Time Travel(tm). The setup begins in the very first moments of Star Trek, as a Romulan ship armed to the teeth with mega-advanced weaponry shows up in the wrong place and even wronger time: namely, Federation space and the twenty-third century.
That wasn't supposed to happen, but nobody knows it... yet anyway. The Romulan vessel opens fire on the Federation starship Kelvin, and First Officer George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) assumes command and orders everyone to abandon ship. His wife Winona had just gone into labor and is forced to give birth aboard an outgoing shuttlecraft. The last thing George Kirk hears before his kamikaze plunge into the Romulan Narada is the crying of his newborn son James Tiberius over the ship's radio.
Twenty-two years later we find a teenage James T. Kirk (played by Chris Pine). An untamed spirit running wild on the great high plains of Iowa, riding his motorcycle and guzzling beer (apparently Budweiser and Miller are still around 300 years from now, along with Nokia: Star Trek's product placement might rival Blade Runner's). Kirk's youth is juxtaposed with that of Spock (Zachary Quinto, AKA Sylar from Heroes), intensely training his logical mind on Vulcan while also weighing his human nature against himself as much as against the culture of his home world. Back on Earth, a pep talk following a bar fight has Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) reminding Kirk of the sacrifice his father made so that he and 800 others could live. "I dare you to do better," Pike challenges Kirk. The next day Kirk enlists in Starfleet, and heads off to the Academy alongside physician Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), who's entering Starfleet because he had nowhere else to go after his ex-wife left him with nothing but "bones".
From that point on, Star Trek re-introduces us to the classic characters from the original series while throwing wide-open the shiny new canvas of the relaunched timeline. We finally get to see how Kirk beat the "unwinnable" Kobayashi Maru, his personal "up yours" to the Academy that throws him into his first-ever meeting with the man who programmed the scenario: Spock (and it's not a pleasant one). But that "special commendation" that we knew he earned for his creativity? That don't quite happen in this new chronology, because a distress call soon comes in from Vulcan that sends all Starfleet personnel scrambling: the Narada has returned. And its captain, Nero (Eric Bana), is not happy.
I'm not gonna say anything else about the story, 'cuz Star Trek, at the risk of being punny, does boldly go into places that have never been approached in the more than forty years since the original television series began. Everything has been lavished onto Star Trek: the biggest effects budget in franchise history, the ballsiest plot twists and... some may disagree with me for saying this, but already this is the best cast of actors since the original show. Chris Pine is growing on me a lot as the newly-minted James T. Kirk: he's brash and lusty (wouldn't be proper Star Trek without Kirk trying to nail at least one hot alien vixen would it?) but he's also learning how to curb his passion with experience and wisdom. The chemistry between he and Zachary Quinto's Spock is going to make for a terrific dynamic as this new series unfolds. And Quinto... well, trust me: the guy is born to be Spock. Zoe Saldana's portrayal of Uhura came across as a little too sexy for me, but she shines so much in every other aspect, I can overlook it. Anton Yelchin is a riot as young Pavel Chekov: even the Enterprise computer can barely understand his Russian-mangled English speech, but the kid pulls his weight and then some. John Cho's incarnation of Sulu is probably the most action-oriented we've seen the character in Trek history: wait 'til you see that wicked sword he uses on the Romulan drill platform (for my money it'll beat a Klingon bat'leth any day). And Simon Pegg as Scotty: he comes in later on in the movie, but he lights up every scene he's in. There will be a healthy demand for him to be given more screen time in the next movie.
But there are three actors that I believe are especially worthy of praise for what they bring to Star Trek. Eric Bana's Nero is absolutely the greatest villain that Star Trek has had since Khan all the way back in 1982. Nero isn't really an evil person so much as a grieving man who has become obsessed with avenging a terrible personal loss. Unfortunately he also winds up with technology that's much too powerful for his or anyone else's own good: not the best of combinations. He doesn't "lord it over" and chew up the scenery like Khan and the Borg Queen did, but Bana's Nero is still powerful in his own right. I think he'll end up rating high on the all-time list of Trek baddies.
Then there is Karl Urban. It's positively freaky how much it's like he's channeling DeForrest Kelley's spirit. He's got the voice, the attitude... heck even the look down pat.
And then there is Leonard Nimoy, back as the original Spock, or Spock Prime or whatever you want to call him. The very first time we see Nimoy back in action (literally), the entire theater roared with cheers. I can't even remember that happening when Yoda made his first appearance in The Phantom Menace. And Nimoy's Spock is no mere cameo either: he is at the heart of what has gone wrong in the creation of this new "alternate reality". Consequently, the older Spock is the bridge between this new reality and the original. Don't chuck out your Star Trek TV and movie DVDs out: they still "happened", but "that was another life" as one character says. Lord willing, we'll see Nimoy as Spock again in future installments.
I love, love, love the score that Michael Giacchino has composed for Star Trek. It's something entirely fresh (with the exception of reprising the original television series' theme music for the end credits) but its vibe is perfectly Trek-ish. Wouldn't surprise me if Giacchino's score for this film wound up as much a fan favorite as was James Horner's for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
I don't know what else to say folks.
So help me, I am actually stoked about Star Trek again.
That is something I thought would never happen and for that, I will gladly thank J.J. Abrams and his compatriots again for the work they have done by buying at least one more ticket for Star Trek. And I'll do my darndest to encourage everyone else to catch this movie during its first run. Don't wait for the DVD or Blu-ray, folks. This is a movie you owe it to yourself to see in a crowded theater. There are thrills, there are laughs, and there is quite a bit of genuine emotion.
Go watch Star Trek and see if you don't connect with these much beloved characters again... for the first time.
Star Trek is back! May it live long and prosper :-)