Monday, May 11, 2009

Amok Time

A new Kirk and crew fight the future in Star Trek.

Tonight I got to catch the brand new movie Star Trek, JJ Abrams reboot of the long running sci fi series. Having been a Star Trek fan since childhood and being particularly partial to the classic show with Kirk, Spock and McCoy I was looking forward to this movie. For much of my life, Star Trek was among the premier franchises in science fiction. A brilliant blend of intellectual navel gazing, operatic morality plays and Flash Gordon space adventure, Star Trek became a dominant force in pop culture for decades. But a good idea can only go so far and after generation on top of generation of Star Trek shows and films they eventually hit a place where there was nothing left to do. Star Trek had become mundane and so the franchise took a nap.

For years I've heard and read talk about a Star Trek reboot following Kirk and Spock from their Academy days. It sounded like a real cheesy idea. So I was surprised when that is more or less what plays out in this movie and it comes off pretty good.

This is a serious reboot of Star Trek, so much so that it doesn't accomplish much to heavily compare it to the original series. There are a lot of nods to the classic tv show yet Abrams smartly uses these moments to go in a different direction. Which is really the point of the whole movie, a movie where a Romulan from presumably The Next Generation era comes back in time with an inexplicably large starship with the destruction of the Federation in mind. Nero, played with appropriate cool menace by Eric Bana, has a weapon that can destroy planets. It's up to a class of cadet graduates on the brand new USS Enterprise to stop him.

The plot sounds like classic Star Trek, there's time travel, a bad guy and an ultimate weapon. It's been done before and on that front the movie offers nothing new. What Star Trek does offer is an entirely different tact.

In the tv series led by show creator Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek used sci fi to weigh the days issues of confusing wars and the human condition. His vision of Trek was one where mankind had matured to the point that all races got along and consistently acted with a firm set of high minded moral values. It was only due to pressure from NBC that Star Trek had a lot of action and eventually cheeseball silliness.

And it's the latter version of Trek which survives, a version that will certainly make the corporate suits proud. Although dedicated to the memory of Gene and Majel Roddenberry, Star Trek takes much of what the existing franchise had and flushes it away. There is very little pondering or taking the high road going on in this version. Star Trek is at heart a pure popcorn movie. Very little deep thought happens and there are some plot holes as big as the black holes shown on screen. What it does have is an adrenalized focus on endless action and grandstand acting. In other words it's like a lot of other movies made these days.

Yet it's that lack of depth that re-energizes Star Trek. With no struggles of conscience to deal with, Trek becomes an ass kicking machine. Hand to hand, phaser to phaser and ship to ship battles are depicted at regular intervals. The cast valiantly tries to approximate the performances of the original cast with a variety of results. Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy is dead on in demeanor to DeForest Kelley. The other characters bear only some resemblance to their famed counterparts (Uhura was never depicted as strong as she is here), still it's enough that you can feel like it's a continuation of the original series. Except for Simon Pegg as Mr. Scott, very little similarity there. Add on an emotional Spock and a frat boy Kirk and you've got room for a series to continue to bloom.

As a simple minded flashy movie Star Trek succeeds, it can even be considered really good. A third of the way in the movie goes out it's way to emphasize that this Star Trek is an alternate reality and not part of the other shows canon. The special effects by ILM are first rate. And what should be a handicap turns out to be a plus for Star Trek. By ignoring much of the shows and movies that came before, Star Trek recaptures a sense of fresh energy and fun. There are missteps (a young Kirk joyriding an antique car while blasting the Beastie Boys took me right out of the movie) yet most are forgivable. But by not just ignoring the platitude based format of previous works but thumbing it's nose at Roddenberry's ideals, Star Trek becomes a slightly hollow experience.

Though there is too much going on in the movie to feel that way while watching. Star Trek is a thrill a minute Summer Blockbuster and taken on those terms it's quite good. Like Mr Spock in the throes of Pon Farr (spelling? I doubt my spell check covers Vulcan), Star Trek's reason is overcome by emotion. My wife asked me for a number grade between 1 and 10 so I'll tell you what I told her. Star Trek is an 8. Oh yeah, Leonard Nimoy's cameo as Spock was good and plays an important part of the story. Live long and prosper folks!

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