43 years ago, the creative mind of Gene Roddenberry brought the world a new kind of television program where no man had gone before. Captain James T. Kirk, Commander Spock and the rest of the crew of the Starship Enterprise journeyed the galaxy and beamed over the TV airwaves for three years and countless syndication runs. Director J.J. Abrams reinvents one of the longest running film franchises and brings us back before the time setting of the classic TV series as we meet the younger versions of the original crew in “Star Trek.”
When I saw the trailer for this latest rendition in the “Star Trek” feature series, I was less than thrilled with the prospect of seeing yet another sequel (prequel in this case) in the staling ST franchise. Surprise! Surprise! This is the best “Star Trek” movie, ever. Better, even, than the classic “Start Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”
I thought my fears were well grounded at the start of the film when we are introduced to a bratty, pre-teen car thief driving through the flat lands of Iowa in a stolen, hundreds of years old Corvette (huh?). The thief, punk and scofflaw turns out to be none other than young James Tiberius Kirk (Jimmy Bennett). Fortunately, things flash forward to tweenie JTK (Chris Pine) trying to pick up pretty cadet Uhura (Zoe Saldana) at a bar close to a Star Fleet base. The cocky Kirk picks a fight with not one, but four large fellow cadets and Jim does not fare too well in the lopsided battle. However, he does come to the attention of Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) who sees the potential in the younger man.
We also meet adolescent Spock (Jacob Kogan), as he is scorned by fellow students for being a half-breed who cannot control his emotions like a good Vulcan should. (Remember, Spock has a Vulcan father and Earth mother, something explored more than once in the original TV series.) Young adult Spock (Zachary Quinto) proves to be a fine officer in Star Fleet and is second in command aboard the Enterprise and under Captain Pike’s command. When future friends Kirk and Spock meet, sparks fly as the two top dogs have a battle of wills. But, the safety of the galaxy is number one priority for them and the Enterprise crew and this brings in the bad guys.
As the story gets going, a giant (and I’m talking small planet size) Romulan spaceship, under the command of nasty Captain Nero (Eric Bana), is on a planet destroying mission in revenge against the Federation. Nero’s attack and destruction includes a starship commanded by the father of James T. Kirk, who is born during the battle just as his new dad dies saving him. The bravery and spirit of the father are bestowed upon the son and young officer Kirk is destined for greatness. Along the way we are reintroduced to those folk we know so well – Nyota Uhura (yes, she does have a first name), Hikaru Sulu (John Cho), Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin), who, with Scotty (Simon Pegg), provide most of the comic relief, and, of course Leonard “Bones” McCoy, perfectly played by Karl Urban.
Stopping evil Nero’s plan to destroy Earth is the meat of this new millennium “Star Trek” and it is the getting there that is its great fun. The excellent action is wall to wall with the cast and CGI crew creating credible, sweaty palms scenes that make the two-plus hour runtime pass in a flash. Writer-director Abrams teams with his longtime co-scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman in this fresh approach to material that has long been thought played out. The “Star Trek” saga is a melding of the back-stories of our heroes, references to the original series (well integrated) and excellent casting of all the new faces of those characters familiar to us.
These new faces are a good combination of thoughtful casting and actors who give new life to the old characters. Most surprising is Chris Pine’s cocky, assured performance as JTK. The actor shifts from overly smug cadet to a commanding presence as he rises to the crisis facing spacekind. Zachary Quinto is spot on (or, is that Spock on?) as the half human/half Vulcan peaceful warrior, both in looks and manner. The rest of the cast, particularly Karl Urban as surly, cynical Bones – “I’m a doctor, damn it, not a physicist!” – play their roles with great balance.
“Star Trek” is a first class operation with its finely told story, great characters and cast, excellent CGI and some of the best action scenes I have seen in years. I do have one nitpick, though. Kirk hangs over a dangerous precipice by his fingertips not once but FIVE times, to the point of distraction. This was the only overt sloppiness in what is otherwise a near flawless story. It is the rebirth of the decades long franchise. I give it an A-.
James T. Kirk is an angry young man living in Iowa who comes to the attention of Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood, "Capote," "Eight Below") after a barroom brawl over Cadet Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana, "Guess Who," "Vantage Point"). After growing up constantly having to defend his human mother (Winona Ryder, "The Age of Innocence") on Vulcan, a planet whose society prides controlling one's emotions, Spock (Zachary Quinto, TV's "Heroes") has joined Starfleet where he is a respected officer and mentor. Grounded for having cheated on the Kobayashi Maru test, Kirk is smuggled aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise for its maiden voyage by Bones (Karl Urban, "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King") and put into sick bay, but he refuses to stay quiet when he suspects Pike is steering into a trap in "Star Trek."
Director J.J. Abrams ("Mission Impossible: III," TV's "Lost") and his screenwriters Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman ("Transformers," TV's "Fringe") have done the seemingly impossible - gone back to "Star Trek" basics and retooled them for today's audience with a story that honors the essence and will please both hard core fans and the masses. Exemplary casting of actors who not only look the parts but make them their own is the icing on the cake. 2009's "Star Trek" is not only a fantastic summer tentpole film, it just happens to be better than each and every one of the most recent Best Picture Oscar nominees.
The film begins with an exciting prologue that establishes Kirk's heritage (his father, George (Chris Hemsworth, TV's "Home and Away"), is a heroic Starfleet captain who saves 800 lives in only twelve minutes at the helm while his son is being born in an escaping shuttle). As young boys, Kirk is shown as a law-flouting rebel (and this sequence is one of my few nits, as while it exhibits Kirk's risk-taking nature, it also paints him as a bit of a brat) and Spock is shown being 'bullied' by older boys hoping to get a rise out of him (they do). It is the cocky, skirt-chasing Kirk who enlists with Starfleet and it's a surprise to find him behind much of his later crew. When he finally meets up with Spock, it is in a Starfleet court (led by Tyler Perry!) and the two lock horns over their philosophical differences (Kirk doesn't believe in no-win situations while Spock believes a future captain must know the fear attendant with facing death).
Once they are all aboard the Enterprise, which has a rough start due to Sulu's (John Cho, "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle") inexperienced piloting and Chekov's (Anton Yelchin, "Alpha Dog," "Charlie Bartlett") problems with the voice recognition software, it takes little time before Pike is up against Nero (Eric Bana, "Troy," "The Other Boleyn Girl"), a Romulan from the future with a major grudge against an older Spock (Nimoy, who sends out the film with the familiar "Space, the final frontier..." speech). Pike is held and Spock assumes command of the ship with his newly promoted 2nd officer Kirk, but that philosophy thing kicks in again and Spock ejects Kirk to a frozen planet where Kirk has a number of interesting run-ins.
Orci and Kurtzman found their way into "Star Trek" by using the basic science fiction concept of alternate reality and time travel in order to spin the original Enterprise's crew's back stories into something that might have happened, if. They then spin a terrific yarn that hews closely to the series but remains exciting and relevant on its own, more modern terms. And as kids grow up faster these days, it takes a younger crew to appear the equal of the older cast of 1966 to a modern audience - a seventeen year-old Chekov is just one of the great ideas the filmmakers use to energize this new beginning. There is also plenty of humor (Quinto's timing is magnificent while Urban really gets at Dr. McCoy's core) and romance (not between who one might initially expect and yet, again, sourced from the original series).
Abrams, a self-professed non Trek fanatic, keeps plenty of loving references around without succumbing to them. The trippy little sound fx of the old TV show pop in and out and we're glad to hear them, yet Abrams is also sophisticated enough to let sound become a vacuum for a space interlude. Costume is recognizable, but streamlined. Action sequences are well staged, particularly a parachuting exercise, although the old time chestnuts remain.
Pine gives Kirk a nice arc from cocky kid to matured leader with more depth than I expected from the star of "Bottle Shock." He doesn't try to channel Shatner, yet he's got Kirk covered. Quinto is so dead right as Spock it is amazing. Physically he is an excellent match, with slightly softer features that give Quinto a touch more of the human than Nimoy let through. Saldana is a feisty Uhura, Yelchin simply adorable and Cho won't remind anyone of Kumar's buddy Harold here. Slight quibble with Simon Pegg's performance as Scotty - he pushes the comedy over the character while his colleagues all find the humor from within who their characters are - but this is something that will hopefully smooth out.
"Star Trek" starts summer 2009 off in warp speed, which is how fast the filmmakers will need to deliver the next installment.
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