Movie review: Star Trek
posted at 9:15 am on May 10, 2009 by Ed Morrissey
Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by the Star Trek franchise, more so than any other science-fiction series. The Utopian concept worked in that time frame, especially since in the original series they frequently let it fray around the edges. In The Next Generation, they took it far more seriously, sometimes to a tiresome level. By the time DS-9 rolled around, the series took a Casablanca vibe that started off well and then got strangely messianic, and finally the entire enterprise lost me at Voyager and, well, Enterprise. It had lost its sense of fun and ability to surprise, and almost seemed like a religion — or maybe a lecture series — more than a speculative fantasy.
Nevertheless, I didn’t initially believe that the new “reboot” movie Star Trek would be an improvement. The previews looked like Star Trek mated with Transformers by way of Dawson’s Creek, or perhaps Starship Troopers. Like almost all of the previews that accompanied the film, it looked like a chaotic mess of special effects combined with cliché-driven dialogue (which comprised the entirety of Transformers, whose sequel is one of the previews). It would, I supposed, do nothing but exploit the careful crafting of the Trek universe and its characters for steroidal explosions, manic dialogue, moronic love triangles, and cheap laughs.
Oddly enough, while these elements do exist in Star Trek, the movie itself is a winning combination of rethinking, swashbuckling, and most critically a respect for the characterizations that made the original series so much of a classic that it launched six motion pictures more than a decade after its cancellation. It plays hell with the Trek “canon”, but only the geekiest of the geeks and the nerdiest of the nerds will mind, especially since the movie has an explanation for it, which is itself an homage to the Trek universe. It brings a surprise return of a beloved cast member in a key role befitting his standing.
I don’t want to give too much away in the overall review, so below I will discuss some of the details of what worked and what didn’t for me as a long-time Trek fan in white text so that readers can choose whether to see it. There were plenty of both, but perhaps I was so surprised to find myself legitimately entertained that I was more than happy to excuse the latter while I enjoyed the former. In all truth, we Trek fans have to admit that the television series had their own brand of cheesiness, and the Bay-like elements of this film simply replace those with a more modern type. If this film is shorter on philosophy and soap-opera elements (and not that much shorter on the soap opera, actually), it’s the fastest-paced Trek film I can recall from first to last. Unlike most of those films, non-Trekkies will find themselves enchanted, too.
The cast does a fine job, perhaps especially Zachary Quinto as Spock and Eric Bana as Nero, a grittier and less flamboyant villain than in most Trek movies, which isn’t hard to accomplish. Bruce Greenwood is excellent as Christopher Pike, the original commander of the Enterprise, and one hopes to see more of him in the sequels. Chris Pine does a good job of making Kirk into a bad boy, and Zoe Saldana makes Uhura much more than just a comms officer. Karl Urban does a good Bones McCoy, after his terrific turn as Eomer in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I couldn’t quite shake the resemblance to Tommy Christopher. I’ve seen Tommy in a Star Trek uniform and it’s not pretty.
I do have one non-spoiler gripe, however. For a series that has always taken its science seriously, at least internally, why do Star Trek movies always have sound effects for explosions in space? The only series I recall that actually handled that properly, Firefly and its movie follow-up Serenity, had no such scientific pretenses but knew that sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum — and for that matter, fireballs don’t exist in space either.
Spoilers follow in the rest of the review. Highlight to the bottom of the post to read further.
So what works and what doesn’t? I thought the explanation of the disruption of the time sequence was good, and it allowed the producers to change the “canon” to suit their purposes for the reboot. It moved the series away from the Roddenberry era, which had been happening anyway for most of the last 15-20 years. It didn’t quite explain the differences in rank that existed in the original series, though. Pavel Chekov and Hikaru Sulu were significantly younger than Kirk, and their inclusion at the Academy at the same time doesn’t make much sense. Chekov’s presence is explained by making him a prodigy, which he clearly wasn’t during the original series; he was a rebellious wiseguy, included to attract the counterculture during the Summer of Love.
A few exchanges made me raise one eyebrow, Spock-like, during the movie. First, Pike’s decision to make Kirk the first officer made no sense at all. In the assembly, we saw dozens of graduates who would have outranked Kirk, some of whom wound up on Enterprise for the mission. Why pick the guy who just got his butt in a sling for not taking a key test seriously? The emotional outburst of Spock seemed utterly contrived, so much so that one would hope that any Vulcan that gullible would not be made responsible for Star Fleet finances. The writers appeared to lack a clear idea of how to get Kirk into the captain’s chair by proving his brilliance, but instead had to make everyone else around Kirk so stupid that he was the only option left. Military discipline seemed completely absent, which is something that the original series actually did fairly well, even when they made it more casual and natural.
But this is supposed to be fun, not serious business, which is something Trek 1.0 forgot. It’s fun to have the old gang back again, this time with a new cast portraying them. If that means we need a couple of black holes and the destruction of Vulcan and six billion Vulcans, including Winona Ryder, then so be it. It’s the Next Generation, after all, and I’ll be there on opening weekend for the next Trek.
Update: Some comments may have spoilers, so proceed with caution. Also, I’m reminded that Babylon 5 handled space destruction sequences realistically, too.