Saturday, May 09, 2009
STAR TREK:THE REVIEW
Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman
Based on the TV Series created by Gene Roddenberry
Directed by J.J. Abrams
CAST: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, John Cho, Zoe Saldana, Eric Bana, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg, Leonard Nimoy, Bruce Greenwood, Winona Ryder, Clifton Collins, Jr., Ben Cross, Tyler Perry, Jennifer Morrison
by Brian Holcomb
Somehow pulling off the magic trick of appealing to the wider mass audience with one foot in Star WARS, this STAR TREK is at once as mythic as Lucas' Joseph Campbell inspired saga and as situationally gripping as any episode of the 60s TV series. There are two major storylines in this reboot, but director J.J. Abrams and writers Orci and Kurtzman are smart enough to just make it play as one. So, evil Romulan Nero (Eric Bana) doesn't do random things-when he kills a Starship captain-it's Kirk's father-when he destroys an entire planet-it is Spock's homeworld of Vulcan. This allows the narrative to focus on its more important story: the developing friendship of two very different beings, the hot blooded and very human James Tiberious Kirk and the mostly logical and half-human-half-Vulcan Spock . Unable to agree on the color of the sky, these two at least have a common enemy.
Kirk's story is of how THIS rebellious punk becomes THAT Starship Captain. It's Campbell's Hero's Journey once again and the biggest flaw could've been it's sheer unimaginability. Kirk has always seemed to be a self righteous space cowboy, a smirking two fisted George W. Bush knocking about the universe in his brash way and indulging in his preference for women of color-especially shades of green and blue-whenever possible.
Having walked onto TV screens fully formed, it seems impossible to imagine Kirk ever not being Kirk-that is, being a kid. But Abrams goes ahead and shows us some infant from General Casting and what appears to be another Culkin-bot as younger versions of Kirk. These aren't very convincing but this is where Abrams is getting better as a filmmaker. If you go fast enough, a good filmmaker can make you forget things like Indiana Jones being dragged underwater for miles lashed to a U-Boat. (See Raiders of the Lost Ark). As Hitchcock once said to a crew member looking for logic in the directionally illogical North By Northwest, "Don't be droll, dear boy."
Droll is the last thing Abrams ever wants to be and as a self sworn student of Movie Brats like Spielberg and Lucas he knows the power that mythic stories can hold over audiences. After Kirk gets into a barroom brawl with some Starfleet goons, he meets Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) who lectures him on making something of his life. Pike encourages him to join the Starfleet Academy and challenges him to do better than his father who once was Captain for 13 minutes and died saving the lives of 800 men and women including Kirk's mother and Kirk himself. This is a moment out of John Ford or Howard Hawks, a classic moment of mythic storytelling in which the young man, having refused the call to heroism his whole life, is made to confront his own destiny. Abrams follows this scene with one featuring Kirk riding his motorcycle alone into a field as the sun rises at dawn. A young man contemplating his future in much the same way as Luke Skywalker in that other Star film that Abrams obviously loves. Abrams knows well that if audiences can buy this moment, then they will go along willingly with this young man on his adventure which will also be their adventure as his choices reflect their own choices.
The most startling thing about this new TREK is how it avoids being incredibly AWFUL. If you think about it, there is no reason that this should ever be good or even great as it is. Trek has long entered the realm of parody and since the characters are so identified with the actors who played them, any attempt to step into those roles should seem like the worst of high school theater.
So, the real trick here is perhaps not pulled off by the writers or the director per se but by the cast. Somehow Chris Pine, the son of CHIPS actor Robert Pine and future winner of a Matt Damon look-a-like contest, is able to invoke the character of Kirk without EVER reminding you of the actor who made the role his own-William Shatner. There's not one iota of mimicry from Pine but at the same time you have no doubt that this man will become the Captain we know and love. Pine is good at looking smart when he behaves recklessly and maybe this is where his Damon-ness is most helpful. Jason Bourne operates as much from instinct as intellect and this is one of the strengths Pine brings to the role.
Zachary Quinto also makes the role of Spock his own and he has the uneviable task of having to actually share screen time with the real Spock-Leonard Nimoy. Quinto's Spock is still dealing with his emotions in a more raw way and the actor seems to channel as much of the classic Spock as the slightly unfamiliar one from the original pilot The Cage in which Spock was somewhat more emotional. Here Spock seems quite open to the shows of affection from Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and inclined to lose his temper when baited by Kirk.
The rest of the cast works extraordinarilly well in their respective roles, each taking a slightly different tactic in making the roles their own. Karl Urban steals many scenes with his near pitch perfect mimicry of DeForest Kelly's very particular voice and speech patterns. Along with Anton Yelchin's "V" challenged Chekhov, Bones is a character almost completely defined by the way he speaks-Urban's achievement is to do this without resorting to cariacature. Yelchin is primarily comic relief but the actor captures Chekhov's youth and is able to display his quirky intelligence in several scenes. One of the strengths of Orci and Kurtzman's script is the way they give each character a turn onscreen in the middle of the action to contribute something of their own. Sulu is known for his fencing so here he gets to best some Romulans with his saber and even save Kirk. Simon Pegg as Scotty is Simon Pegg with a Scottish accent but this is exactly right. He gets to beam his shipmates all over the place with the kind of professionalism James Doohan would approve of. Zoe Saldana is able to take the 60s Uhura and take away the issue of color. This Uhura is simply a valued member of the team, strong in her convictions but without losing her sensitivity to feelings, particularly those of Mr. Spock.
A note must be made of Bruce Greenwood's very strong performance as Captain Christopher Pike and of Eric Bana's choices as Nero. Greenwood's role may seem throwaway but it's of great importance to the story in actuality. Pike HAS to immediately evoke the honor and courage that that command requires. It is Pike whose prescence onscreen is the example set for Kirk and for us to understand what defines this duty and responsibility. Without an actor of quiet strength in this role, these ideas would merely be abstract instead of immediate.
Bana is a really good actor himself. Watch five seconds of Chopper followed by Munich and most would be instantly convinced. But his performance as Nero is perhaps too psychologically credible for a Star Trek film. The script doesn't help him here as Nero isn't given any more dimensions outside of his thirst for revenge. Bana gets the intensity just right but not the size. It's certainly good enough for the film and never hurts the storytelling but there is little of the Shakespearian quality needed for these Trek villains. Bana needed to keep the intensity but broaden the range of his performance a bit. Maybe this is where Shatner could've come in to participate. He could've easily coached Bana in how to get big without losing the plot.
Production wise, the film is damn near faultless. We've reached the zenith of special effects now where the painted and the photographed have lost their dividing lines. The sound mix is simply stunning. It's the work of Ben Burtt whose work on the Star Wars films defined the modern space epic. There are moments where the mix achieves poetry-as when Kirk and Sulu "spacedive" into the atmosphere of Planet Vulcan and the sound is cut off-leaving the dead silence of space and just the faint sound of breathing.
The sets and costumes are a wonderful evocation of the original '60s look but just tweaked enough to lose the camp value and become believable. Abrams then does something very smart with the excellent effects, sets and costumes-He ignores them. Never does the camera dwell on anything for its own good-every shot is there to further the story, nothing more. The result of this is a kind of space realism-we see things that look complex in the background and this helps us believe in the world of the story.
The biggest letdown is the score by the usually fantastic Michael Giacchino. There's nothing wrong with the scoring of the action pieces in the film, these are superbly done. What the film lacks is a strong and thrilling theme to get the film off to a big start when the STAR TREK title fills the screen. What we get is most underwhelming and remains underwhelming in other "big" moments in the film such as the reveal of the Starship Enterprise for the first time. It's a serviceable score but perhaps a bit too cerebral for its own good. What's missing is the guts of it. The big, powerful sound that Jerry Goldsmith used to bring to these films or James Horner's driving war themes in The Wrath of Khan. That said, there is great wit with which Alexander Courage's original theme is brought in at the end and Giacchino adapts it wonderfully with some very nice percussion.
Where Abrams still has a way to go to match his idols is in his staging. There is a lack of economy in some of his visual storytelling that would be effortless for Spielberg, for example. Where Spielberg can make a scene "sing" with a single tracking shot and downward tilt, Abrams still resorts to the scissors and breaks the action down into tiny pieces. A cut from one close-up to another close-up is a lot easier to shoot than to create more complex blocking with actor and camera and with the foreground and background. Still, this is only Abrams' second feature film not counting his work on the pilots of Alias and Lost. I'm sure he'll learn fast and soon his work will go where no man has gone before. Or something like that.