Saturday, May 9, 2009
Star Trek Goes Boldly
Star Trek gets going quickly with a gripping sequence in which a vast Romulan ship that looks like a cross between a squid and a metallic porcupine threatens a Starfleet ship captained by George Kirk, father of James T. Kirk. Fast cuts and frames filled with detail pump up the excitement, as the Starfleet crew members, including George’s wife in the process of delivering her son, abandon ship, and George buys time for the refugees by piloting his ship on a collision course – just as you would expect Jim Kirk’s dad to do.
After an over-loud, brash musical fanfare accompanying a gigantic main title hewn out of metal floating in space, the film jumps ahead to a scene in which James T., as a long-haired bad boy, takes a car on a high-speed joy ride, eludes police, and sends the vehicle flying off a cliff. This is James T. Kirk who, in the plot’s next leap forward, is a rude, brawling, randy womanizer who is encouraged by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) to channel his hot dog drive toward Starfleet Academy. Once James T. (Chris Pine) is in that familiar uniform, he quickly meets Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) and gets involved in a mission to stop that massive Romulan squid/porcupine from demolishing Earth.
Star Trek is a no-nonsense sci-fi action film that entertains successfully and is the best film spawned by the famous T.V. series because it includes cleverly evoked portrayals of the famous characters in their youths without wasting time for inordinate veneration of the T.V. show’s iconic elements. Kirk is just a young hotshot vying for greatness. Spock is just a conflicted half-breed Vulcan looking for his place in the world. The Enterprise is just a big ship that elicits a terse "Wow!" The transporter is just a quirky piece of machinery. The Romulans, led by their smoldering leader Nero (Eric Bana), are just bad guys. But all this combines to make Star Trek one of the most entertaining films of the year because it resists ponderous adherence to or fawning over source material.
You’ll have to forgive the film a few head-scratching conundrums such as that inscrutable red liquid (what was that?) and the always mind-blowing sci-fi paradox when a guy goes back in time and meets himself. (Now how does that work?) And if you’re a faithful fan, you’ll have to chill when the film kills off a character and destroys a planet that are supposed to appear in “later” episodes – though that might be set-up for a sequel in which all discrepancies are mended by a little time-travel repair work.
Watching Star Trek with its light tone and fast pacing, I found myself thinking of 1930s adventure films, especially Gunga Din (1939) with its triad of quarreling but loyal comrades who boldly set out on impossible adventures. In Star Trek, as in Gunga Din, you’ve got your charming characters, your snappy action, your rapid dialogue, your comic relief, your daring adventures – and it’s all packaged and edited expeditiously, never allowing the story to get bogged down by excess, pretension, or self-awareness. It comes off as a big film – but it is a big film with all the fat trimmed away – and it makes me wonder what J.J. Abrams could have done with bloated behemoths like the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean or Spielberg’s latest, pathetic Indiana Jones film.
So I’m not left worrying about what the hell ancient Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is doing in the future while he’s lingering with a younger version of himself in the past, or that Scottie (Simon Pegg) isn’t portrayed as the anal worry-wart he is in the episodes, or that the transporter beams spiraled instead of pixellated. I’m left feeling exhilarated by a smartly edited adventure film and hoping that the rest of this year’s summer blockbusters are just as tightly constructed – though having seen some of the previews I have a feeling they’re not.