Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Saturday, May 09, 2009


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.


Tom Lowe said...

I couldn't agree more. Mr. Holcomb has pegged the film exactly as it is and has seen things from different angles I wasn't even contemplating. It's a superb film. Sure it has its weaknesses, like the musical score, but so many things are going right here. I'd see it again, over and over,

Chris said...

Loved the film and highly recommended go ahead and watch it folks.

Anonymous said...

Great review for a great film. You have opened my eyes to new perspectives and wrote a piece where I actually learned something.

I'm still buzzing from seeing it and look forward to seeing it when it comes out on the smaller screen

UltraDust said...

I agree that the score is serviceable but could have been better. For the most part it was loud but couldn't help me get out of my "im still in the theater" mindset. I think its the lack of varying themes - "funny theme", "desperate theme", "heart warming theme". I only paid attention to the music during the end credits--where it evoked old star trek. I hardly heard it in the rest of the movie.

Brian said...

Good point, Ultradust. I think in these heroic adventure epics we are used to the more classical John Williams style of theme scoring rather than the more cerebral score Giacchino composed. To not get it leaves us a bit cold.

Yogchick said...

I absolutely LOVED this movie based on the acting and characterizations alone. The plot, however, lost me. Below are my questions and if anyone can answer them, I would greatly appreciate it:

If you already saw this movie, please answer the questions below. If you are going to see this movie, please reply to this email after you've seen it (WARNING: Spoilers in questions below).

1. Why was Nero so angry at Spock? Spock tried to save his planet but failed -- but he did try his best. Did Nero think Spock intentionally let his planet be destroyed? His wrath just seems strange. Is Nero psychotically insane? I just didn't get that part. What is his motivation for destroying every planet in the Federation? He says at one point to Captain Pike, "I'm preventing genocide." WTF?!!

2. How was Nero able to time travel in the first place?

3. If Nero was able to time travel, why didn't he travel to a time before his planet was destroyed? That way he would have more time to alert Spock to extract the red matter, etc.

Brian said...

Hello there Yogchick! Yeah, this was a fun movie that seemed to be more about the characterizations than plot or rather that the plot was really only there to serve the characters so I think the filmmakers kind of left it a bit confusing. But here's what I got out of it:

1. Nero simply doesn't care to understand that Spock was trying to save his planet. He just interprets the situation as Spock having double crossed his people. It's possible he's insane but probably more grief stricken over the death of his wife and loss of his home. He can't or won't see the truth.

As for why he's destroying every planet in the federation-I think it's his plan to stop the federation from existing later in the future. He's preventing the Federation from performing genocide on his people. I think.

2. Nero is able to time travel by sheer luck. His ship is sucked into the same wormhole with Spock when he fails to set off the Red Matter...

3. Nero isn't able to time travel by choice so he ends up where he is by accident as does Spock. He has to wait years for young Spock and Kirk to be aboard the Enterprise in order to carry out his revenge...or something like that-now how he sits around floating in space for years I don't know-

yogchick said...

Thanks Brian. Especially for the speedy reply. You cleared up a lot.

But I still am confused: How is Nero getting it into his head that the Federation was trying to commit genocide against his own people? Or is he just paranoid and assuming Spock intentionally didn't react in time so that his planet would be destroyed?

Finally, are we to assume that now that the Enterprise people know in advance about the destruction of Romulus, they will indeed stop it from happening? Perhaps this will be shown in the next Star Trek?

Sorry about all these questions. But I really liked this movie because of the whole Kirk/Spock/Uhura segments and would like to understand more about the plot. I'm not used to seeing sci-fi movies so maybe that's a part of the problem!

Brian said...

I think there are TREKKERS out there who could probably explain all of these plot points as I've been told by such folks that there are no holes at all in the story if you've read the tie in novels written years ago and upon which the script was partially based.

But I think you are totally right. And we have to just assume that Nero is paranoid and believed Spock-and through him the Federation-did nothing to save Romulan.

As if they can save Romulan in the future I guess they might-though if they do will that cause this timeline NERO to thank them, and invite them over to dinner? Hmmm.

yogchick said...

Thanks Brian. My friend just sent me the following link which is an exhaustive summary of the movie plot:

Anonymous said...

I am a fan of the original TV series, and if it weren't for the throwback references, I would call this a poor movie. The action sequences are mostly cliche by now (too many SciFi movies around, I guess). The plot ignores time travel paradoxes completely, and thus is unsatisfying. The music is unmemorable. It was nice to see new actors in old roles, though.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who thinks the music for this movie was absolutely brilliant? In fact, I find it so memorable that it's the first thing that comes into my head when I think of this movie. The "Evil" music in particular was astonishing. The very best since Darth Vader.

Brian said...

You know, I found the music to be terribly banal but I'm interested to know what was distinctive about it for you. I did like several of the more atmospheric pieces but the lack of a strong TREK them except for the "da-da-da-dum" repetition was disappointing. But perhaps I'm being very traditional. I may have to listen to it again sometime (still trying to get back for anything viewing of the movie) and give it another chance. Music that's not initially gripping can sometimes be more complex and appreciated after time.

Yogchick said...

I, for one, really liked the music. I liked the fact that it was a throwback to the original television theme; it just seemed appropriate.

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