“I’ve waited for this day all my life…This day of reckoning”
The above quote is spoken by the Romulan warrior Nero in JJ Abrams new reboot of the Star Trek franchise, but I think I also heard it whispered among the Trekkies sitting in front of me as the lights went down and the Paramount logo came up tonight. Yea, no doubt about it. This was a big one for all parties involved. My wife and I don’t hail from the land of the Trek maniacs, but we are among the Losties, a group no less geeky than our star faring brethren but perhaps more culturally acceptable (at least for now). Give it 40 years, 5 series, and 11 films and then see how many of us are walking around with shaved heads and carrying large hunting knives. Either way, whether you were rooting for JJ or Roddenberry or keeping your fingers crossed for a Shatner Priceline tie-in, we were all holding out for a winner. And it delivered. Big time.
It’s been a long time since we have had a truly great, epic space opera. The Star Wars prequels, while not nearly as bad as the current consensus would have them, were at best entertaining distractions with poorly constructed narratives and clunky, numbing dialogue. At worst, they were dramatically hollow in the places where they should have been brimming with passion and heart. Abrams’ Star Trek changes all of that with a film that is far more boldly conceived than any of its franchise predecessors. It does three things amazingly well: it tells a solid, interesting story, it builds onto and accentuates an inspiring and expansive universe, and it draws out of its leads terrific performances that truly give their characters emotional weight and reality.
The new movie begins immediately with an unknown Romulan warship tearing its way out of an anomalous lightning storm. When it does so, a small federation starship challenges it, the Romulan captain demands to know the whereabouts of a Mr. Spock, and eventually one young first officer is thrust into the position of captain and does the only thing he can do to buy the evacuating crew the time they need to escape. He rams his ship into the Romulan destroyer, and sacrifices his life for the others, who happen to include his wife and newly born son, James Tiberius Kirk. And like that, the entire Trek universe has been reinvented.
That opening scene is really something else. It sketches in details with speed and efficiency. The production design gives us ships and technology that are sleek and metallic, but a bit retro. We can believe that this world is a relatively young, burgeoning future where the Federation is still getting its legs and learning how to best monitor the galaxy. George Kirk, Jim’s father, is only in the film for a few moments but instead of being a shadowy legend we get to see him being a reluctant, but determined hero. His sacrifice means something, only five minutes in. And it really does change things dramatically for the film.
See, the James Kirk of the previous films knew his father, was prompted by his father to join Starfleet and had all the benefits of a structured upbringing with a nurturing figure that loved him and inspired him. The James Kirk of this film does not. When Nero’s ship enters the picture, everything that would have happened in that timeline is knocked off its base: fighting Khan, saving the whales, throwing down with God, and everything else is no longer a certainty. Every character is freed up to go wherever this particular story takes them, although they still possess the same traits and spirit of those original characters. And then, there is Spock.
Or rather, there are two Spocks; the younger and the older. Abrams, trotting out the elements of fate, destiny and providence that come up so frequently on Lost uses Leonard Nimoy as the delivery boy of those same themes here. And Nimoy doesn’t disappoint. He slips into this character as if he had never left it, and he brings a greater sensitivity and world weariness to Spock. Add to that Quinto’s more impassioned, even arrogant portrayal as he actually wages a tug of war with his two disparate lineages and you have a classic character fleshed out in ways he never was before. The idea of the logical, emotionless alien who harbors human feelings has become a cliché since Star Trek debuted. It doesn’t feel stale though, and the writing and the acting are the primary reasons why.
The acting is uniformly strong all across the cast. Chris Pine has perhaps a job even more difficult than Quinto whose biggest hurdle is trying to suggest that he could ever become Nimoy in any potential future. Pine has to embody Kirk the character, shrug off the idiosyncrasies of Shatner the actor and suggest the differences in this alternate Kirk. If it sounds confusing to read, then imagine what a challenge it would be to actually convey that. Still, that’s exactly what happens. This isn’t Star Trek 90210 or Muppet Babies in Space. We aren’t just seeing a cool, hip, snarky version of Shatner’s more romantic, literature loving captain. Pine gives a layered performance that starts with the attitude but goes all the way through. It’s not an impersonation. It’s a whole new creation, and it’s a believable one. I’m looking forward to what Pine will do with other roles, and what he will do with this role in the future.
Abrams pits Kirk and Spock against each other early on and the rest of the characters get to spin in their orbit a bit. This supporting crew doesn’t get the same development they did in the earlier films. Scotty and Bones make out the best. Pegg shows up late, and provides hearty doses of comic relief that aren’t manic, but simply bemused, which is in keeping with Doohan’s portrayal. Karl Urban is the winner amongst the cast for being closest to his original character while looking nothing like him. Bones is probably the character least affected by the changes in the continuum, and it shows.
If I have made it all sound like imitation than I have betrayed the movie’s accomplishment. The characters are interesting to us initially because we know them, but satisfying to us later because they manage to surprise. There are consequences and stakes, and that is hardly ever true of a “prequel” because we always know how it ends up. Characters may go through a series of hoops where they jump differently, but they always have to land in the place we left them. This movie isn’t saddled with that. At any moment, we could have a moment like the one at the end of Wrath of Khan. Anything is possible.
Eric Bana as Nero is another strong point. Bana as an actor is an odd presence on film. Sometimes he can be very dynamic, especially in villainous roles (see Chopper) and yet so often it seems that he sleepwalks through his performances. Nero isn’t an emperor or a skilled warrior. In the future he comes from he was really just a blue collar worker; a miner who was affected deeply by a galactic tragedy. He’s a ball of seething rage and bitter drive thinly masked by his own self righteous sense of “justice”. Bana gets that, and he channels every physical and emotional trait of the character through that idea.
For all of the great acting and intelligent writing, the movie isn’t a serious affair or a particularly literary endeavor. The plot is classic space opera, with massive coincidences and clandestine meetings and a few dues ex machinas, even if God himself doesn’t show up demanding a starship. The script has been banged together into a vehicle just suitable enough for making those hyper jumps to the film’s climax without flying apart before the thing ends. And that’s all it really needs to be. It paves the way for numerous action scenes that are staged with imagination and a sense of space and logical motion. No herky jerky camera work, although the lilting movement during the space battles is almost vertigo inducing and that’s as it should be.
Despite the superb effects, wonderfully odd creatures (loved the green skinned girl, the ice planet’s giant insectoid, and the cabbage midget) and rousing battles, the heart of the movie are its characters and ideas. Star Trek always imagined a universe where mankind was seeking to better itself, to move beyond its more base natures and come into its own unique destiny. This new film posits that each individual has his own destiny that sits outside of one race or one civilizations’ overarching path, and in the moment it is our understanding of our place and the choices we make that define that. Forty some years after it first struck out on that mission, Star Trek is still boldly exploring those ideas, and in some ways, better than it ever has before.
Star Trek isn’t just one of the best summer movies I’ve come across in some time; it’s also the best space adventure I’ve seen in ages. The only thing that prevents it from getting a 5 star rating is the fact that it never quite makes the leap into the truly dramatic or spectacular. There are no moments as awing as the creation of the Genesis planet or as emotionally disarming as the death of Spock. What it does it does wonderfully, and it’s far better than I would have ever expected it to be. It’s so good in fact, that it isn’t a far stretch to wish it had been just that little bit of extra that would have rendered it extraordinary. Still, it accomplishes something few movies have done for me in a while. It generates that gnawing urge to see it again, as soon as possible. Bravo, Star Trek. Live long and prosper.