Star Trek (2009)

J. J. Abrams has become the sci-fi nerd’s best friend. He’s created both the sexy spy series “Alias” and the currently running “Fringe” television shows. Perhaps more importantly he created “Lost,” a polarizing show to be sure, but part of its brilliance was in tricking tons of people into watching what is essentially a sci-fi show without ever presenting it as such. But how does he fair with the sacred cow of sci-fi nerds, one of the most beloved television series of all time? I am, of course, speaking of “Star Trek.”

Abrams goes back to the beginning with the origin story of the crew that came to comprise the Enterprise. After an intense, action packed opening prologue where we witness the circumstances of the birth of James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) the film jumps a decade. We witness the rebellious streak in both the young Kirk and the half human, half Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto), a streak we’ll see resurface five years later. The film then jumps half a decade to put together the famous crew of the Enterprise. It’s a tale of vengeance, impending annihilation and lens flare—lots and lots of lens flare.

The film focuses on the characters of Kirk and Spock, the unlikely duo that drove most of the original television series. Kirk is not quite the suave professional we’re familiar with. In his youth he’s much more of the rough and tumble kid, perhaps due to the lack of a father figure. He’s still got the charm but more in a sleazy way. Think more Harrison Ford and less William Shatner.  Spock is the more compelling of the two because he’s far more conflicted. He is constantly torn between his Human and Vulcan descent. Does he do what is logical or what feels right? Does he completely cut off his emotions or embrace them? It’s a fascinating turmoil we see resurface when he comes across this young know-it-all punk.

A lot of the other character development comes from the brilliant performance. We know these characters well from the show, but the film finds interesting and unexpected people to take on the roles. Chris Pine is a looker to be sure and he’s got the egotism down, but it’s that youthful smugness he constantly has on his face that makes him memorable and likable. And Zachary Quinto as Spock is fantastic as the stoic Vulcan as we can see the anger constantly seething beneath him (probably due to his years playing Sylar in “Heroes”). The rest of the cast is filled with brilliant choices such as Karl Urban who sounds like an odd choice but his Bones takes the constant pessimism we love and runs with it to hilarious ends. The list goes on with every actor bringing their A game and giving us a new angle to old characters.

The only exception is Eric Bana as the film’s villain Nero. Not only is Bana not all that convincing beneath the makeup, he’s forced to play a poorly written character. His motivation is excessive to say the least as his reason for going around and killing millions of innocent people feels more like an offhand whim than seething plan. It feels like something written more for a Saturday day morning cartoon than a serious sci-fi picture. However, it does provide us with that social commentary that Trekkies (or Trekkers if you are going to be a pain about it) so desperately want: take care of your working class or they will kill you.

And speaking of class, J. J. Abrams takes on a curious style with this film. He takes the camerawork of Cloverfield and puts it in space. It’s simply too shaky for a film set in space. The whole idea of the handheld craze is to make you feel more grounded in the scene, like you are there. Well, there’s something odd about space: it’s doesn’t really have a consistent gravitational pull, hence no grounding.  The film also uses those horrible, horrible zoom effects that make me want to barf. And to top it all off we get lens flares, lots and lots and lots of lens flairs. The aesthetic of the film itself is beautiful but the camerawork doesn’t fit the tone of the film.

This is because Abrams is returning to what made Star Trek so popular to begin with: it captured the unwavering optimism of a bright, better future. The high key lighting, bright colors and heavy presence of white make the tone more upbeat and footloose. It’s actually quite refreshing to experience the wonder and beauty of space in a genre that has become progressively more and more cynical over the years.

But the film does contain some dark, emotional moments, some in the first few minutes of the film. J.J. Abrams is able to craft some powerful moments here without manipulating the audience. There’s no intense sound or blaring music in these scenes, in fact, the moments are almost devoid of sound as Abrams simply lets the drama of what is happening unfold instead of punctuating each moment with tense, morose music or simple overproduction.

Yet overall it’s a funny picture as we are coastally laughing at the antics of these characters we love. How James T. Kirk first gets on the Enterprise and the trouble that ensues afterwards is one of the funniest scenes of the year. A lot of the action has this humorous edge to it and is more in tune with physical comedy. Even just the casual banter between two characters results in some hilarious moments such as the introduction of Bones.

Star Trek is such a bright, fun film that it’s hard to fault it too much. The issues it does have are large enough that it does drag the film down from achieving brilliance but it’s a film with many brilliant moments. It’s by no means true to the source material but it captures its essence and creates a far more interesting and entertaining cast of characters. Every moment among crew members is brilliantly written, superbly performed and highly entertaining. It’s just a shame this film had to actually have a plot because I could have watched this cast argue over petty squabbles for hours on end.

© 2009 James Blake Ewing