Star Trek (2009) Full Review
“Set a course for awesome – maximum warp. The summer has officially begun.”
The Science Fiction hall of fame officially has another inductee. J.J. Abram’s re-imagining of Star Trek sets the bar so ridiculously high this season, that I feel bad for the other summer epics yet to come that are now hopelessly doomed to mediocrity. This is quite possibly the best film of 2009 and there are five very good reasons why I say this:
1. The Plot
I’m not going to spoil it for you in case you haven’t seen it yet. But let me make something abundantly clear: If you have little or no interest in Star Trek, rejoice. The plot is so powerfully intriguing and emotionally satisfying that even if you have absolutely no idea what Star Trek is all about, this film will grip you to the very end.
However, if you are a total Sci-Fi geek who has a relatively good grasp of Star Trek lore (especially as it pertains to Vulcan / Romulan relations), then bring an extra pair of undies. You will wet yourself. In fact, I think it’d suffice to say that even die hard Star Wars fans will find themselves choking back a hypocritical tear of pure bliss.
The movie is a truly brilliant character sketch. It examines the strengths and weaknesses of both James T. Kirk and his Vulcan counterpart Spock, with a whole new, brilliantly executed character building approach. We see both lead characters evolve into the men of Starfleet that they eventually become from seeds sewn in their youth.
By the time the second act begins, you will find yourself resonating with these characters with great intensity. When the film begins its third and final act, you will be on the edge of your seat with tense anticipation. This ensures that the ultimate emotional payoff at the end (even though it departs slightly from Star Trek canon) is easily forgiven.
Speaking of a departure from Star Trek canon, the plot does use a very familiar device to weave its complex story. If you remember the events of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) and Star Trek: First Contact (1996) , you will know the plot device of which I speak. It’s a very old science fiction gimmick, but it is brilliantly executed here.
This plot device is used in a way that is not only innovative, but provides a very clever way for this movie to almost completely depart from canon to start a new franchise, without actually departing from canon. I think this is what Star Trek: Generations (1994) attempted to do, but poorly.
If you are paying attention, you will see that this Star Trek is not so much a reboot, as it is actually a continuation vis-a-vis a reboot (or is it the other way around?). Don’t get confused. The plot line is thick enough to warrant a second viewing. The concept however is pure Science Fiction genius. Its application to the Star Trek universe is both very familiar (if you know your Star Trek: Voyager) but simultaneously very fresh. It has never been done this way before.
2. The Cast
Let’s get a few obvious things out of the way: The casting for this film was nothing short of brilliant. The young ensemble featured a mix of some relatively new faces, and some more familiar ones of stellar note. What is key to this team is their delivery. They are all solid actors in their own right and they delivered that grand sense of epic gravitas that you would need to get your suspension of belief going.
The comic relief afforded by Simon Pegg as Montgomery Scott (“beam me up Scotty!”) and John Cho as Sulu (isn’t Cho Korean?) had the audience belting whoops of laughter whenever they had something to say. If you remember Simon Pegg from “Shaun of the Dead” (2004) and “How to loose friends and alienate people” (2008) then you know that Pegg is innately brilliant. His Irish accent was incredible fun. Of course, we all know John Cho of “Harold and Kumar” fame.
With that said, the on screen chemistry between the actors was fantastically entertaining. Yes, they did have some really great lines to work with, but the youthful energy exuded so much grand entertainment at 35 frames per second, that at one point I couldn’t pick a favourite character. I loved them all – and being a person that is very rarely impressed by science fiction, this cast delivered. They certainly earned their salaries on this one.
Of particular note, Zachary Quinto of “Heroes” fame, delivered such a solid performance as Spock that at one particular sequence in the film, I feared that he was going to scalp Chris Pine’s James Kirk for an ability. (You won’t get that reference if you haven’t watched the popular TV series.)
He has a potent on screen presence that captivates the audience’s attention in every scene he is featured. He was frightfully accurate to the Leonard Nimoy character of renown, and then some. It is no small wonder why tv audiences loved Quinto’s bad guy. As an actor, he consistently outshone his fellow TV co-stars.
Then in a very special sequence towards the end of the film, the director’s contrast of old and new showed that Quinto was without question, the new Spock. The movie is really all about Spock, in many ways. However, based on his performance here, I very highly doubt that the character of Sylar will ever return to Heroes, especially after that season three finale. Quinto is on his way to the big leagues on the big screen for sure.
Not to be outdone, Chris Pine turned in a marvellous performance rendering the brash, brilliant, brave, foolhardy, womanising, James T. Kirk we’ve all come to know and love. His scenes with Quinto lit up the screen with a natural, fiery chemistry that was absolutely fun to watch. The portrayal of ego versus ego was fantastic. Even if there wasn’t an already fabulous plot to work with, just seeing these two banter on screen was worth the price of admission alone.
Australian Karl Urban’s portrayal of Dr. Leonard McKoy was a perfect, yet updated channel of Deforest Kelley who played the character in the original TV series. It was almost uncanny how the make up people even got the look down perfectly. He has many great one liners in the film, most notably:
“Damn it man! I’m a doctor, not a physicist!“
This classic line from the original TV series was delivered pitch perfect. When you come to appreciate the context in which this line was rendered, you’ll understand why it had the audience in an uproar of laughter and simultaneously why his casting was absolutely brilliant.
Speaking of Australian actors, Eric Bana’s rendition of a pissed off Romulan avenger was intense, dramatic, but credible. It wasn’t the over dramatised stuff you’d normally see with Science Fiction bad guys. He didn’t over act, but at the same time effectively conveyed an intense sense of misplaced urgency in every bit of his delivery. Again, his casting into this role is nothing short of perfect. Bana owned this one.
I particularly loved Zoë Saldana’s Uhura. She added a whole new level of dimension to the character in addition to the well demonstrated quantities of hot the original character is already well known for. I also liked the fact that the writer / director team didn’t relegate the Uhura character to just another hottie on the screen for the sake of eye candy.
There are several scenes where she interacts with Quinto that are just rife with palpable sexual tension. It isn’t over played, but its departure from Star Trek canon was both unexpected and yet, boldly refreshing. Her portrayal is never corny and never contrived. This outing has officially certified her as my new favourite black actress – especially in that dress. (Sorry Gabrielle Union)
Speaking of that dress, God bless the soul of the costume designer that returned the Star Trek universe to the über short dress uniforms worn by the female staff of Starfleet as depicted in the original 1966 TV series. Blatant sexual objectification of women aside, my girl Zoë looked rather fetch in that outfit. Yum-ee.
There are a few cast surprises too. If you’ve been busy reading up on spoilers, I won’t get into that here. Although, I could’ve sworn I saw Kal Pen in a one second cameo shot on the bridge. Needless to say, the rest of the cast brought in great, credible performances that didn’t feel like they were imitating the original 1966 actors. It was well done.
3. The Look
The director of photography must be thanked for giving this movie it’s seriously edgy look. The jerky camera shots and the intermittent bright light interference throughout the film gave you that sensation that you were watching an embedded press correspondent covering a war story for CNN in the 23rd century.
I especially loved when the ships jumped into hyperspace. The camera does this neat jerky kick back as if the DP was floating in space directly behind the ship with a camcorder. The ensuing sonic boom, while scientifically inaccurate (as there’s no air in space), will never the less leave fan boys with soiled underwear and a giddy, childish sense of pure glee. I’m not kidding. It was wicked sick.
This deliberate attempt to take away the “polish” of dolly mounted camera shots in this film worked very nicely towards giving it a gritty feel. This helps to kill the audience’s sense of detachment from the action on screen and it works marvelously. The same technique was used by Stephen Spielburg in “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) to great effect.
These days, it’s so common for special effects to be impressive that audiences practically take them for granted. So how do you wow an audience with CG? You don’t – and director JJ Abrams knew this very well. Directors who over indulge in CG are trying too hard to mask an inherent inadequacy of their film. (I’m talking to you George Lucas!).
CG should be so inconspicuous that the audience should never remember that it’s there. CG is a story telling tool. So it should help to tell the story, not become it. So from the impressive wide angle shots of Starfleet Academy superimposed onto San Francisco, to the intense space battles, the CG in Abram’s Star Trek delivers without being overbearing or undercooked.
I also like the look of the ship. While it retains much of the symmetry from the original design, these curvy new lines are refreshingly new. The interiors are pretty hot too – hotter than anything I’ve seen on any next generation episode. The translucent floating GUI of the ship’s controls is a marked departure from Star Trek canon – certainly imitating Star Wars with reckless abandon. It certainly gives a whole new meaning to the word “magic wall”.
Canon departure aside, it certainly feels a lot more far flung future than anything I’ve seen since “Minority Report” (2002). The entire production design was incredibly sleek. It so seamlessly integrated constructed sets and CG, that this one definitely warrants repeat viewings via Blu-Ray.
If you’ve been holding out on buying a HD-Tv, then rest assured: This film is a good enough reason to go out and get one. By my estimation, you have about 6 – 7 months before the DVD comes out. So start putting away your moolah. This one deserves the home theatre experience.
4. The Writing
While I was sitting there watching the credits, a familiar duo popped up for the writing nod: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. If you’ve seen “Transformers” (2007) or the on going Fox science fiction X-files knock off series “Fringe“, or are planning to see this summer’s highly anticipated Michael Bay action extravaganza “Transformers 2“, then you have these guys to thank.
As I’ve mentioned before, the dialog and plotting of the film were both thoroughly entertaining. The film has copious amounts of humor to offset the otherwise morbid tone of its opening act. Even though the actors were brilliant in their own right, the work of Kurtzman and Orci really shone. In fact, I smell an Oscar nomination here.
I haven’t seen original science fiction writing that was this entertaining since “The Matrix” (1999). Transformers was brilliant fun. It wasn’t the best of movies, but it certainly was thoroughly entertaining (something even Academy award winning films rarely possess). There were some clumsy moments in this flick of course, but mentioning those would be nothing more than needless nitpicking.
To think that Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are at the helm of this project brings them new respect from me as a science fiction junkie / movie buff. What this simply means is that if Star Trek and Fringe are anything to go by, then these guys are probably going to deliver a really sweet ride in Transformers 2.
With that said, I am curious as to how these two guys are at the helm of this many blockbusters. It reminds me of when Hugo Weaving was starring in no less than three epic movies in 2003: The Matrix: Reloaded, The Matrix: Revolutions and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. That was a stellar year for Weaving – and this, no doubt is a stellar year for Kurtzman and Orci. Nicely done guys.
5. It’s Science Fiction – DONE RIGHT
As you may have figured out by now, it’s easy to tell that I’m a huge Sci-Fi aficionado. What may perplex you is that I don’t subscribe to the Sci-Fi channel and I’m not a Battlestar Galactica or *gasp* Stargate fan. Why you may ask? Because in my opinion, while those may be somewhat entertaining, they do no consistently embody what I would consider quality science fiction. Allow me to clarify.
Science fiction is no good if it’s:
Predictable. 90% of forays into sci-fi are are as predictable as sunrise and sunset. The plotting is always the same and is often based on some one dimensional over use of the intrepid hero versus megalomaniacal villain archetypes. *yawn*
Intractible. The story shouldn’t sacrifice itself to make a scientific or philosophical point. The Matrix: Reloaded was thoroughly entertaining. However, it got so convoluted towards it’s finale that the entertainment value was invariably lost.
Incredulous. The story should be relevant, probable and frighteningly realistic. Most attempts rarely are. Monster movies are especially guilty of this crime because they are nothing more than really bad horror movies masquerading as sci fi.
Ugly. What’s the point of making a science fiction film if it’s not going to at least look believable? This is one of the primary reasons why I abhor the Sci-Fi channel. The schlocky special effects on its programs are just horrid.
Unoriginal. This is the flaw with most science fiction attempts. The plot is rarely based on an original idea. The obvious exception of course, is where an age old plot device is brilliantly re-used to create a whole new concept.
Boring. Some science fiction efforts get so caught up in the science, that they forget that it is fiction. Sci Fi is a genre of entertainment. If it achieves great originality, it must also achieve entertainment value to be worthy.
The reason why Star Trek stands out from most science fiction is because it suffered from none of the above problems. While I was worried about it’s use of an age old sci fi plot device, the outcome was nothing near what I expected. In fact, the actual brilliance of its use is that it gives the franchise new life without sacrificing any of the original canon. The ending leaves the film wide open for sequels of a completely different ilk, yet 100% in line with what made Star Trek such great science fiction in the first place.
It’s probably going to be downhill from here in terms of the entertainment value of the other upcoming films of the summer. At this stage, I’m pretty sure the other studios are worried about their projects being released in the wake of Star Trek. For sure, they will be hard pressed to compete.
If you have already spent money seeing the other blockbuster that was supposed to open the season, then I’m sorry for your loss. However, you can still redeem yourself and your wallet. Set a course for awesome – maximum warp. The summer has officially begun.