We should begin this little report with a few disclosures — first of all, I just got back home from seeing J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek movie at the world-famous Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. I was there, as you may know if you follow along with the Austin film scene, for a special screening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a personal favorite of mine. I was genuinely excited to see Khan and Kirk wage a war of wit on the big screen — an experience that I’ve never personally had before. As well, there was the promise that the Fantastic Fest/Ain’t It Cool News sponsored screening would be flanked by 10 minutes of the new film. Of course, there was suspicion going into the event that there would be something else in store — but that’s all behind the scenes jargon saved for another day. What matters is that a few moments into the opening titles of Khan — after the film had been introduced by writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, along with producer Damon Lindelof — the reel burned up on screen, leaving a few hundred die hard fans in the dark. Moments later, the lights came back up and on stage there was a man in a trench coat and hat, giving the crowd an age-old Vulcan hand greeting. That man was Leonard Nimoy. You know him. To a standing ovation, Nimoy stood and held a film canister as he announced that while Australia was holding the official premiere of Star Trek, that the real world premiere would be best held here in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse. Needless to say, that went over very well with the capacity crowd.
So that happened.
Another bit of disclosure that I feel must happen before I can move on and tell you all about this movie that I just saw — my seat was right next to where the night’s special guests were seated. So as a Star Trek fan (not a hardcore Trekker, but a casual fan of the franchise), there was nothing more amazing than sitting two seats away from Leonard Nimoy as I watched a new era of Trek being ushered in. I can only imagine what it was like for my mom — yes, I took my mom to the event — who grew up watching Nimoy and Shatner on television in the late ’60s. For me it was a big deal, no matter how you slice it. So please take that into consideration as I move forward, dropping hyperbole all over this mother with an almost reckless abandon. I am going to try my best to separate the experience from the actual film, but I make no promises. What I will promise is that Cole Abaius has a full review that you can read here — he’s got more of an outsider perspective on Trek and no emotional attachment to the property, so it should be an interesting write up.
Anyway, moving on to a little bit about this little Star Trek movie. As you may know, this reboot follows the story of the early years of James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock, two men born under extreme circumstances and set on a path toward great adventure as the leaders of the USS Enterprise. Their friendship is one of legend, their adventures are iconic in so many ways, and in this episode we get to see how that friendship was forged — or at least, how the friendship will be forged in this new world of Star Trek. If there is one thing that Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have captured in their script and that J.J. Abrams seems to hold in high regard, it is the relationships that are forged between the crew of the Enterprise. The bonds between Kirk and the likes of Spock, Scotty, Sulu and most notably, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. But we’ll talk more about Bones later, as there’s plenty to say. What I’d like to make clear is that the two writers on this project — whose work I have loved at times and hated at others — is some of the smartest work they’ve done. They get these characters and when you combine that with the visual style that J.J. Abrams has brought to the franchise, it makes for a dangerously accessible and exciting film.
Speaking of a visual style — let’s talk about some of the CGI. There are a few Trek fans who were worried that Abrams would turn this film into a big, glossy CGI spectacle that completely disregards the very intelligent roots of the series. If there is one thing Star Trek always got right in the old days — and we’re talking The Original Series and the first two films, of which I’m a big fan — it was a commitment to character and story above all else. This movie has that same commitment, but it is muted by an intense sensory experience. This may be a small problem for some fans, but I can assure you that when you get that first gorgeous shot of the USS Enterprise or you are thrust into the midst of a wild space battle, you won’t mind one bit. This is a big, fast-paced, sleek version of Star Trek that is unlike anything we’ve seen before — a new brand of space film that stretches what we thought possible in the realm of visual effects, and I don’t think that’s going to bother anyone.
Another wonderful part of the sensory experience is the sound design. In fact, this might just be the one thing that stuck out most in the experience of this reviewer. When the USS Enterprise jumps to warp speed, you feel it. When it bears down on another ship, firing its photon cannons left and right, you feel as if you’re right in the middle of the battle. The sound design is also dead on in all of the places that it needs to be, everything from the sound of the Enterprise’s doors to the hum of the engine room to the sound of the Phasers — it all works perfectly. And why wouldn’t it? It is the work of Ben Burtt, whom you may remember as the man who gave both R2-D2 and Wall-E life with sound effects. The man is a legend, as you know, and with Trek he’s once again reminding us why. Of course, it takes a team of people to make a movie sound this good — so an equal amount of kudos go out to Supervising Sound Editor Mark Stoeckinger and Sound Designer Harry Cohen. Combine that with a very big and sweeping score from Michael Giacchino, whose previous works include Pixar’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and we’ve got ourselves the perfect sound set to match the intense visuals in this film. It is the yin and yang of big summer blockbusters, a perfect storm of visual and audible stimuli.
Moving on — I suppose that we should talk a little bit about this cast. This is the cast that many of us, myself included, scoffed at when they were announced. What was J.J. Abrams trying to do, make a version of Star Trek with a cast fit for a show on The CW? Luckily for everyone involved, J.J. Abrams is much smarter than the rest of us, because it’s clear that he knew what he was doing. Because while there were a few actors who worked only marginally, there were also a few that really pop in these somewhat iconic roles. First and foremost is Chris Pine as James Tiberius Kirk — with the unquantifiable big shoes of William Shatner to be filled, Pine steps up and delivers a performance that is well beyond anything you might expect. He captures the arrogance and fortitude of Kirk while also keeping that bit of humanity and depth that Shatner was so good at. Kirk is reckless at times, but he’s smart and ever-confident in his own abilities — and Pine captures that quite well. Also solid in his role is Zachary Quinto as the young Mr. Spock. It is hard to think that anyone could step in and play Spock instead of Leonard Nimoy and even harder to imagine that it could be done alongside Leonard Nimoy, which as you know is the case in this film, but Quinto works. He fights history well, making Spock Spocky enough to keep us from being reminded of Sylar from Heroes, if that makes sense. Also, it is worth noting that there is a lot more time dedicated to Spock’s humanity in this film. In fact, it is really one of the over-arching themes of the film. From my perspective, Spock is a slightly different character than what I’ve seen before, especially in his relationship with Uhura, and while it fits well into the context of this story, it feels very different. That may bother some fans, but again, its not like J.J. Abrams removed the squid from the end of Watchmen here, people. This version is new and fresh, but it doesn’t forget its roots — and I think fans will appreciate that.
I’m getting off track a bit here, so lets get back to talking about some of these other characters. By far the two most impressive supporting characters in this film are Karl Urban in the role of Bones McCoy and Simon Pegg in the role of Scotty. Urban’s McCoy is likely to be one of the most loved characters of this new crew, as he perfectly captures the same spirit that the character had when Deforest Kelley was in the role and adds just a pinch of neurosis. The scene in which Bones comes into the life of James Kirk is one of my favorite non-action sequences of the entire film. He bursts into the story and instantly steals the scene with some sharp dialogue and a classic bit of Bones’ ramblings. He just plain works perfectly in the role and delivers some awesome comedic beats with his generally irritated state of existence. As well, Simon Pegg uses mere moments of screen time to give us a Scotty that is delightfully reminiscent of James Doohan’s character. I will admit right here, right now, that I thought Pegg was absolutely wrong for this role — and I was dead wrong. Pegg is used in all the right ways, mostly in the film’s third act, and fits well into the context of the story. And when he finally delivers Scotty’s most iconic line — something about giving her all she’s got — it works so well that it made more than a few of the die hard Trek fans in the audience cheer.
Of course, it isn’t all perfect. Like any big glossy blockbuster, Star Trek does come with a few minor problems. Anton Yelchin feels a little funny in his role as Chekov, though after a while he is easy to get used to. The accent felt a little goofy for me, but let’s not have any delusions of grandeur here, as Walter Koenig’s accent was never perfect either. It might sound a little funny at first, but it works in the end. As well, John Cho feels very forgettable as Sulu. He’s got one very awesome action sequence in which he gets to show off some sweet fencing moves, but that’s about it. In the end, his character is more a victim of under use than of poor casting. And when he is used, it is either part of the action or part of a comedic gag. And trust me when I say that there are plenty of comedic moments, the majority of which seem to work. It was a risky play on the part of Kurtzman and Orci, as we’ve seen it go wrong before (i.e. Optimus Prime’s rose garden mishap of 2007), but in this film they walk that fine line between funny and dopey. What works best is when the humor is less gaggy, and more derivative of the banter between characters. There are moments of dialogue between Kirk and Bones, Kirk and Spock and Scotty and just about anyone that will have you chuckling out loud, trust me.
In addition to the glitz and the fun of this iteration of Trek, there is also a very cool revenge story at its core, one that calls back to the film I was expecting to see this evening, Wrath of Khan. And while Eric Bana is no Ricardo Montalban and thus, Nero is no Khan, their stories work in many of the same ways. It is clear that the creative team behind this new film were influenced by Khan, as they really infuse their film with a lot of that revenge element, as well as one specific — and brilliant — callback to a very famous test that James T. Kirk notoriously beat in his days at Starfleet Academy.
Phew… We should probably wrap this up soon, as I originally intended for this to be a quick reaction. So much for not being long-winded. The overwhelming sentiment that I have about this film is that J.J. Abrams, with the help of a few incredibly talented people, has created a very accessible, fun Star Trek film that is perfect for a new generation of sci-fi fans. Sure, it plays to the fan base a little bit, but its real strength is in the fact that it is delivered with a ton of energy, it presents a story that is easily grasped by fans and newbies alike and is a big, kick-ass ride. My hope is not only that this sort of film will inspire young people to go out and check out some of the older Trek movies and series, but that it also helps usher in a new era of space science fiction filmmaking. With this piece of work, J.J. Abrams has really pushed the envelope with the visual effects and delivered a Star Trek tale that is fresh and vibrant, but he also remembered that it’s important to maintain a commitment to character and story, something that too many filmmakers forget these days. And for that reason alone, I think this film will not only find success but it also just might find itself as one of the surprise winners of the year. Because when it all comes down to it, the average moviegoer in America just wants to see a movie that is a shitload of fun — and that’s exactly what you’ll get with Star Trek.
Star Trek hits theaters on May 8, 2009.