Editor’s Note: We reviewed Star Trek following the film’s premiere on April 6 in Austin, Texas. We are republishing this review during the week of release for anyone who missed it.
By any stretch of the imagination, I’m not exactly the ideal person to be reviewing this film so early, especially under the circumstances. Those circumstances are spelled out in more detail by Neil in his report, but the short version is that a crew of the faithful gathered in Austin for a late-night showing of Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan only to have the print burn out after the opening credits. To apologize for the mistake, the theater sent out Leonard Nimoy who asked the audience rhetorically if we wouldn’t just rather see the new film instead. And then, the Paramount logo flashed big and bright, looming over a crowd that would soon be transported to space – the final frontier.
For all intents and purposes, this was a fan event – a group of people dedicated to the idea, the icon, the spirit of “Star Trek.” There were people in the audience who could name an episode just by giving a few plot details, people who could argue the true origin of a Tribble, people who wore Starfleet uniforms to a late-night screening. Then there’s me – a guy who has never seen a single episode of the series or seen a single movie.
That’s right, friends, I’m a “Star Trek” virgin.
Or, at least, I’m as much of one as I can be while still living in the glow of its cultural significance. I’ve never seen an episode, but I still know most of the main characters and some of the relationships. I know some of the rules of the universe and what a Vulcan Death Grip is. I’ve jokingly told people to ‘Live long and prosper,’ but even a casual fan would wipe the floor with me in the “Star Trek” edition of Trivial Pursuit.
So, actually, in a way I’m the ideal person to give some perspective outside of the excitement and awe-inspiring wonder that sitting near Leonard Nimoy during the true World Premiere of Star Trek can create. I imagine that you should go read a review from a true fan of the series and prior films, but for a lot of you that aren’t fans, hopefully my review will provide some perspective.
The rebellious young James Kirk (Chris Pine) joins Starfleet at the behest of Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) in order to follow in his father’s brave footsteps. When a distress signal is sent from the planet Vulcan, the Starship Enterprise makes its maiden voyage with Pike captaining a crew including Sulu (John Cho), Uhura (Zoa Saldana), Spock (Zachary Quinto), McCoy (Karl Urban) and the stowed-away Kirk. After the signal turns out to be a trap mirroring the one that killed Kirk’s father, the crew engages in a fight against Nero – a captain seeking revenge for the destruction of his planet – and while attempting to stop him from destroying Earth, both Kirk and Spock have to find and fulfill their destiny as leaders and friends.
First of all, this is a fantastic movie. It’s pacing is rapid-fire, the action is larger-than-life and raises blood pressure with ease, and the characters come to life in a very cool way. Overall, it’s an exciting flick that is shot beautifully – featuring a cast that carries all the weight necessarily to create some enduring figures to root for. A near-perfect Summer tentpole blockbuster.
Make no mistake – this is Kirk and Spock’s story. The script introduces us to two outcasts (in some ways by society and in some ways by choice) who are exact opposites. Logic versus emotion, rationale versus instinct, the reasonable thing to do versus the right thing to do. There’s a clear tension between very different value systems that either work in perfect tandem or clash so heatedly that logic has to pinch the neck of emotion to render it unconscious. There’s a complex dynamic there that builds, falls apart, and has to be rebuilt from time to time. Kirk is a constant ass, shooting from the hip and mouthing off to no one in particular. Spock is cold and unfeeling to a fault. Without coming together to find the middle, these two pendulums swing so wildly out of control that they risk their own lives and the lives of others.
There’s also a lot at stake in Star Trek. In a strange way, you don’t really get too invested in planet Earth, but you do get invested in the individual characters and the sacrifices that they make. The plot is not stripped down to give Kirk an easy time at gaining the helm of The Enterprise – he has to risk his life in some very severe life-threatening scenarios in order to prove himself as a leader. The filmmakers never let the characters have an easy way out. There are hard decisions to make, some losses to endure, and the characters come out the other end polished and honed.
As far as performances go, Chris Pine is outstanding. He’s the embodiment of a conflicted soul, transcending the cliche of the troubled rebel with a greater destiny. His delivery manages to give depth while maintaining the cocky veneer. Zachary Quinto is brilliant – creating an emotionless man without being robotic, using nuances to hint at something far more dynamic lurking just below his stark delivery. Their chemistry is worth the ticket price alone. On a similar level, Zoe Saldana is strong – although it would have been better to see her character fleshed out more. Bruce Greenwood, Eric Bana and Karl Urban are all explosive and command the screen when they’re on. On the other end, Anton Yelchin is passable as is John Cho as Sulu, but neither character gets much material to work with beyond some simple comic relief and a brave moment apiece. Simon Pegg as Scotty provides a very strong comic presence that goes beyond the easy jokes – his scenes are a welcome tone-shift to give the audience a second to drop their heart rate and smile.
There are some really interesting camera angles – including a lot of flares that peek through (as perhaps an homage to other sci-fi shots) and shots that don’t quite have a clear focal point (which work amazingly well). The music and sound design are impeccably shaped – creating a full-body sonic boom when the ships head into warp speed. However, the true star beyond the actors and script is the art-styled CGI that gives the full gravity that a black hole deserves, destroys spacecrafts with reckless abandon, and presents alien planets that will revert the average adult back into a twelve-year old experiencing the planetarium for the first time. It’s used enough to drop jaws but sparingly enough to prove that J.J. Abrams understands the limitations and doesn’t need to use fancy graphics as a replacement for good story.
There are a few science fiction elements that are never explained – but nothing far out enough to lose an audience that’s paying attention. Space travel seems plausible, teleportation is pretty standard, and the explanation for time travel is actually pretty clever considering no one really knows what happens on the other end of black holes. There could have been more clarity on a few points, but for certain problems, you just have to accept that the characters are experts at advanced physics and accept that their solution is probably going to work in that universe. Even if their solution teleports them into a giant water pipe instead of onto the deck of the ship.
Beyond that, the only other issue is logistical – this film had a lot of work to do to introduce a lot of characters, and instead of making a film purely for the fans, it tackled that challenge head on. It ultimately makes the movie stronger (and certainly more accessible), but it does have the adverse effect of giving certain characters less screen time, and the small number of actual goals they have to achieve (although they are herculean tasks) makes the film feel a bit like more of a set up for a sequel than I would have liked.
Just like its two main characters, Star Trek is a balance of opposites. The plot is simple, basically three segments – the introduction to the characters followed by two distinct battle sequences – but it remains complex with a solid revenge plot. It’s a heavy action film, but it’s one of the funnest movies I’ve seen in years. The characters could easily have slipped into cliche, but pushed past it to become unique entities. There are goofy one-liners up against intense dialog, but nothing ever sounds out of place. It could have become a big, dumb CGI-fest, but a ton of smart, character-development scenes give it most of its life. It irritates and energizes, reaches a climax, and pulls back to develop the human beings that inhabit a very dangerous world.
In a way, and it may seem cheesy now, seeing Star Trek reminded me of the first time that I saw Independence Day on the big screen when I was younger. It’s a huge, sprawling film with gigantic explosions that manages to have heart and bravery built into each small moment. Fortunately, Star Trek is a much tighter film, a better film, that showcases the brilliance of science fiction: building a universe that is different from our own and filling it with people that are just like us.