May 11, 2009

On the Starship Enterprise, under Captain Kirk

I, and my soon-to-be-former roommate, went to see a Saturday matinee showing of J. .J. Abrams' "re-imagined" Star Trek. It has been seven years since a big-budget, big-screen Trek feature (the merely OK Star Trek: Nemesis), and with the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005, it's been 4 years almost to the day since any form of Federation-themed entertainment graced our screens. So Star Trek (no number, no fancy subtitle) could have gone either way: a good remake, or a very tired sequel/prequel.

Thankfully, it was the former. In a word: Star Trek rocked.

In the teaser, the Federation starship U.S.S. Kelvin encounters a rift in space, from which a gigantic, menacing vessel emerges. The Kelvin is no match for its weapons, and the captain, a Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana, Hulk), demands that the Federation ship's captain, be sent aboard his own ship. Before leaving, however, he puts his first officer, George Kirk, in command and orders him to evacuate the Kelvin. However, when Nero kills his captain, Kirk sacrifices his own life by ramming Nero's ship with the Kelvin to give the evacuating shuttlecraft time to escape. One one of the shuttlecraft, Kirk's wife gives birth to their son: James Tiberius Kirk.

Meanwhile on the planet Vulcan, a young Spock lashes out against three Vulcan bullies who taunt him about his mixed Vulcan/human heritage. His father, Sarek, tells him that he must choose his own destiny. The adult Spock (Zachary Quinto, Heroes) later turns down an appointment to the Vulcan Science Academy - an unprecedented move - in favour of joining Starfleet.

Back in Iowa, James Kirk (Chris Pine) has grown up to become a reckless young man without a father. When he flirts with Uhura (Zoe Saldana), a Starfleet cadet, he gets into a bar brawl with several other cadets. This catches the attention of Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who knew and admired George Kirk, and challenges the younger Kirk to join Starfleet and follow in his father's footsteps: he could be an officer in four years. Kirk initially brushes him off, but then changes his mind: "I'll do it in three," he tells Pike, as he boards the shuttle for Starfleet Academy. En route he makes a new friend: a doctor named Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban, Lord of the Rings): "All I've got left is my bones," he remarks ruefully about his recent divorce.

Three years later, Kirk takes so-called "Kobayashi Maru" test, a "no-win" simulation intended to test command officers' reaction to certain death. Kirk, nonetheless, wins quite handily. As fans of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan already know, he had reprogrammed the scenario to make it winnable. In the older movie, this earned him a commendation for original thinking; this time, it earns him academic suspension. However, his hearing is interrupted by a distress call from Vulcan: a rift has opened over the planet. Starfleet hastily deploys the cadets to starships to mount a rescue mission. Though on suspension and not assigned, Kirk stows away aboard the newly completed U.S.S. Enterprise with McCoy's help. En route to Vulcan he realizes that the rift is the same as the one that had resulted in his father's death. Despite being a stowaway, he manages to convince Captain Pike and First Officer Spock that they are heading into a trap.

I have never seen anything created by J. J. Abrams before.1 I have yet to see Cloverfield, for example, or a single episode of Felicity or Alias. Indeed, while I had no interest in Lost initially, by the time I found out that it was exactly the kind of show I would have enjoyed, it was so far along that it was pointless to try and pick it up, and this remains my greatest television-related regret. So I didn't know what to expect from him here, except for a vague idea that he had a strong cult following and did slightly weird science fiction.

I'm glad I wasn't disappointed. "Re-imagination" can be a bit of a hit-and-miss prospect (hit: Battlestar Galactica; miss: Planet of the Apes). CSI recently had a fun episode about a filmmaker who was murdered, apparently, because his remix of a Star Trek-like cult series enraged the drooling fanboys. Star Trek is one of the hits.

The single best thing about Star Trek is Zachary Quinto as Spock. I have enjoyed his performance as the villain Sylar on Heroes, and couldn't help noticing his resemblance to a younger Leonard Nimoy the first time I saw production stills of him in costume. The producers couldn't have cast a better choice. While we meet Kirk's father and family first, the centre of this movie's plot is actually Spock and the conflicts that drive him: the tension between his emotional human and stoic Vulcan heritage, the contempt of the Vulcans for his humanity, and his relationship with Amanda, his human mother (Winona Ryder). Karl Urban is also good as McCoy: he gets DeForrest Kelley's mannerisms down pat. I almost didn't recognize him as Eomer from The Two Towers and The Return of the King, and so I wouldn't otherwise have realized he was a New Zealander instead of an American. Chris Pine is good as Kirk, but overall a weaker portrayal - despite a striking resemblance to a younger William Shatner, including his cool T. J. Hooker hair.

As a "reboot" to the Trek franchise, Star Trek is largely self-contained: while it helps to be a Trekkie, on the macro level it doesn't presuppose prior knowledge of what came before. You'll be able to appreciate it on its own merits if you are at least vaguely familiar with what Star Trek is all about. Nonetheless, it's full of sly references to the TV shows and earlier movies, mainly classic lines spoken in new contexts. For example, when Kirk takes his third attempt at the Kobayashi Maru test, he nonchalantly crunches an apple as he aces the "no-win" scenario. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the older Kirk was eating an appleas he recounted the story. "I don't believe in the no-win scenario," both Kirks say. Apart from George Kirk's sacrifice at the beginning, the first character to die in a dramatic fashion is, predictably, wearing a red suit. Abrams and crew could have followed the lead of many recent moviemakers, and produced a parody that deconstructs and subverts the source material, but instead he decided to make a movie that respects, rather than mocks, older fans. He has retained the spirit of the original series, while taking itself far less seriously than many of the older Star Trek movies. If anything, it feels like a fan film with a feature film budget: a movie made not merely for Trek fans, but by them as well.2

Finally, there's the redesigned Enterprise. Reading through the blogosphere or Trek-related forums, there's a real love-hate relationship with this new "refit." Put me down on the "love" side. It largely retains the kitchy, 60s look and feel from the original series, but combines it with the more "organic" look of TNG-era starships, as well as the sort of minute detail a modern audience, accustomed to complex CGI models, would expect. It's an F-86 Sabre to the movie Enterprise's F-18. One nerdly little detail I spotted and appreciated: the ship's phasers on the movie-era Enterprise were small bumps on the hull; here, the modellers have retained that feature, but it is obvious that the bumps are tiny spherical turrets. The interior of the ship is bright and slightly psychedelic; the design was clearly inspired by other classic SF such as 2001. I'm sure the droolingest of fanboys still hate it, but I'm sold.

The biggest weakness of Star Trek is its major plot device: Time travel, again? It seems that whenever Trek writers are looking for a plot, they settle on a time-travel one. Voyager was especially guilty of this - it always gave the writers an excuse to push the infamous Voyager Reset Button. To the credit of Abrams et al, the time travel is what sets up the story and not a major plot point; nor (without giving anything away) does the climax just nullify the events of two hours (yes, I'm looking at you, Year of Hell parts I and II) - and, of course, it is a handy excuse for Leonard Nimoy to put in an appearance as Future Spock. So I didn't mind it as much, but I do think that if Abrams had wanted to "reboot" the Trek franchise and change around a few of its premises, he could have just done it without trying to shoehorn it into the existing continuity. It worked for Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

There is a popular notion of an "odd-number curse": that the even-numbered Star Trek movie sequels are pretty good, while odd-numbered Star Trek movies are awful. I personally think this is over-simplified even if it is true in a very general sense. But this being the eleventh film made so far, it breaks the curse definitively. Somewhere on my list of Things To Blog this year is a rundown of all my favourite SF movies of the last several decades. I've been mulling over this list for several years, but have only begun thinking about the 2000s as the decade started to come to a close. I generally prefer original works to remakes, but nonetheless Star Trek is now in the running for my consideration. It's that good. If you like good action movies that don't take themselves too seriously, if you like science fiction, and especially if you like Star Trek, you owe it to yourself to see this movie.

Footnotes

1 Putting my footnote in my mouth: Not entirely true, as I realized during writing. I have seen 1992's Mel Gibson flick Forever Young, which Abrams wrote and produced, and 1998's Michael Bay explosion-fest Armageddon, for which he co-wrote the screenplay. The former was a long time ago and I had no idea who J. J. Abrams was; and his involvement in the latter was fairly minor. Oh, and Mission Impossible: III, though it was so forgettable I had in fact almost forgotten that someone had loaned me the DVD. Still, in the interests of accuracy in media, full disclosure, and all that.

2 Walk-on footnote: I didn't spot him myself, but Star Trek's fanboy credentials are solidified by a cameo by fan filmmaker James Cawley, as a Starfleet officer. Cawley is a Trek collector and creator of the well-received Star Trek: The New Voyages (aka Star Trek: Phase II) fan series, and has built a highly accurate $100,000 bridge set on his property. The makers of Enterprise borrowed parts of it for the "A Mirror Darkly" two-parter. Oddly enough, Cawley's day job is Elvis impersonator. Go figure.