7 May 2009

Review: Star Trek

Space. The final frontier. These are the continuing voyages of the Star Trek film franchises. Its mission; to reboot a franchise that's been dead in the water since that one where Data got blew up, and to boldly go where no fan has gone before.

Even people who have never really liked Star Trek seem to want to give this film a go. The first Trek film in seven years replaces the Next Generation crew with an older crew but in an alternate reality. If your head is spinning, I wouldn't worry. I can say with total honesty- not just that fan-honesty about stuff like Watchmen where I'd say "You'll totally understand it!"- that JJ Abrams has made this a new beginning more or less, broadening the appeal to everyone. If you haven't got time to read the full review and want a quick idea of how good this is, it's up there with the reboots like Batman Begins and Casino Royale. But for everyone else, here's a review that contains a spoiler or two, but nothing crucial, storywise.


Who's in it? Chris Pine (Smokin' Aces), Zachary Quinto (TV's Heroes), Zoe Saldana (Vantage Point), Eric Bana (The Other Boleyn Girl), and Karl Urban (Pathfinder)

What's it all about?
I already did the "Space. The final frontier" joke up there, so here's a proper summary. The intervention of a vengeful Romulan miner called Nero (Bana) creates an alternate reality before James T. Kirk (Pine) has even been born. Their destinies changed, the crew of the USS Enterprise are fresh out of the Academy when they're pitted against Nero in a battle to save the Federation.

Any good? Let me illustrate my position on Star Trek prior to any mention of this film going into production. I had no time for it. I'd seen the last three movies with the Next Generation cast, and hadn't been particularly moved by any of them. I'd never seen a single episode of the series and nor did I plan to. I much preferred (prefer) Doctor Who, and was suspicious of the little rip-offs this other series was guilty of. Borg and Cybermen? An original leading man called William who was later replaced by a Patrick? Terrible! In 2006, JJ Abrams directed the third instalment of the Mission: Impossible series, which I thought was brilliant- and I hated the first two films. Nine months later, it was officially announced that he'd be directing a prequel/reboot of Star Trek. This flagged my interest a little, and the brilliant marketing and trailers eventually reeled me in. And I'm so very glad it did.

Abrams brings his great directorial flair to the Trek universe, pleasing fans and new viewers alike with brilliant action scenes and callbacks to the past. The former is particularly well observed by the lack of "pyoo-pyoo" laser sound effects during battle scenes in space- in fact, by the lack of any sound in space whatsoever. It's a scientifically accurate touch that I remember noticing in Firefly and the subsequent film spin-off, Serenity, and for me, that's what this film had to live up to. Firefly is such a brilliant show that its shadow hangs over every other bit of American science fiction I've watched since, but Abrams passed that criteria of mine with aplomb. The characters who make up the crew of the Enterprise are every bit as real as those who live on-board Serenity, aided by some fantastic performances from the film's cast.

In particular, Chris Pine gives the kind of performance that would earmark any young actor as one to watch in Hollywood in coming years. His Kirk is part-Mal Reynolds, part-Indiana Jones- since both of those characters were created after William Shatner's original portrayal of Kirk in the TV series, it's safe to say that Pine does much more than an impersonation of Shatner. Zachary Quinto may well have been chosen for his eyebrows for all I know, but besides looking somewhat similar to Leonard Nimoy, who reprises his role here as a much older Spock, Quinto is brilliant as Spock. Once he collides with Kirk, it reminded me of the dynamic between Woody and Buzz in the first Toy Story film, which is by no means a negative comparison.

Elsewhere, Eric Bana gives a wonderfully villainous turn as Nero, albeit with a couple of moments where he seems to be echoing Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight- though I'm sure that was just me seeing Jokers everywhere- and Karl Urban is terrific as the neurotic Dr. "Bones" McCoy. Both Bana and Urban are generally underrated as actors, although I prefer to see the former in supporting roles as opposed to leading roles. With such a large cast of characters, you'd think that some characters would be short-changed, but the film manages what no X-Men film ever has by balancing them all, giving each of them their moment to shine. The only character who feels under-used is Simon Pegg's Scotty, but it's a narrative necessity that he doesn't enter the film until after the halfway point. And the time he does have on-screen is brilliant too.

Scotty being slightly sidelined by the narrative does illustrate how the narrative is paramount to Abrams' film. That's not to say there aren't a few good references to the show's tropes and conventions for the fans- my friend Andy came with me to see this, and he was essentially my reference-o-meter, with big grins following every reference to the Kobayashi Maru or Scotty giving it all she's got. And that those references gel with the narrative without alienating newbies is marvellous. The major strength of Abrams' M:I3 was its structure and pace, and as it was in that film, Star Trek's second act just doesn't let up for a moment. This does slightly undercut the film's climax, which doesn't feel quite as riproaring as what had come immediately before, but provides for an incredibly entertaining film nonetheless. The opening half-hour does feel like it could've used a little editing too, as we plod through the fan-serving glimpses of Kirk and Spock in their respective childhoods, but once the Enterprise takes off into space, it's all go.

Though it seems I've gone to great pains to establish my disinterest in Star Trek at the beginning of this review, I was fortunate enough that I opened my mind and watched Wrath of Khan on Monday night and found it to be one of the best sci-fi films I've ever seen. That the subsequent films essentially retconned the ending hardly endears the other films in the series to me, but I think I went in to see this film with expectations that it would best even Khan, and it only slightly underperformed. So it's maybe not the best of the films, but it's a hell of a way way to kick off a new franchise. Like all the really good reboots (all two of them), it's entertaining, intelligent, and the ending leaves you wanting more. Perhaps the inevitable sequel will be even better. And have more Simon Pegg. As it is, Star Trek is a very good film on its own merits, and one I'll happily see again and again this summer. A coach trip to my nearest IMAX screen might even be in order. The definitive beginning, not only to Kirk and Spock's adventures, but to this year's summer movie season.

And if it's a choice between this and Wolverine- for the love of Landru, make sure you see this.

Coming next... um... probably that vampire rant/review I mentioned, but if not, another raft of reviews, including State of Play and Coraline (once I've seen them).

Until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch!

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