Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Star Trek (2009)


With the implosion of the television series "Enterprise", the Star Trek franchise seemed dead. The last movie featuring the cast of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" had been beaten up in 2002 by a combination of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and James Bond. But fans and studio execs couldn't let it remain that way. Besides Batman and James Bond had both received makeovers to huge acclaim? The same could be done for "Star Trek"... right?


James Kirk (Chris Pine) finds himself in Star Fleet Academy facing a little matter of cheating during a test, when all hell breaks loose. The planet Vulcan is under attack, by a Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) who has some anger management issues. With some help from Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Kirk finds himself aboard the starship Enterprise. Things go from bad to worse, when Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) is captured and Spock (Zachary Quinto) is left in charge. Spock's logical nature is at odds with Kirk's impulsive personality. But the two will have to work together to stop Nero and save the galaxy. Look for turns by all your favorite characters in this revamp of "Star Trek".

Good Points:

  • Brings the fun back to the franchise
  • The story goes in a new direction but remains a part of the established series
  • Will appeal to fans of brisk entertainment and action

Bad Points:

  • The story uses time travel... again.
  • Some of the camera work and editing is too much
  • Missing the way the series tackles ideas as well as adventure


"Star Trek" needed a jump-start and this movie does just that. It introduces our heroic team, provides them with a thrilling adventure and injects life into the series. The name of the game is entertainment. And while it does that in spades, it is missing the thoughtful element that makes "Star Trek' what it is. As much as I enjoyed this film, I hope that the next one will have a little more brain behind the thrills.

Scores (out of 5)

Visual: 4

Sound: 5

Music: 4

Acting: 4

Script: 4

Direction: 4

Entertainment: 4

Total: 4

In Depth Review

I'm a fan of "Star Trek". My knowledge of the series isn't as well versed as that of "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings", but growing up in the 80's you couldn't really escape Trek. My grandmother loved the series and we'd watch it in the afternoons. I saw all the movies with the original cast in the theater. One of my first soundtracks was for "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home". I got caught up in the excitement for the new series back in 1987, but never really followed it after a few episodes. With all that said, I can say that I was a little sad when most people were counting the franchise as dead.

When I heard about the concept of going back to the original characters and setting, but taking it in a new direction I was intrigued but skeptical. I knew that many considered J.J. Abrams to have the magic touch, but I decided to wait and see what they came up with. The trailers looked promising and soon the reviews convinced me to check it out. You can see by my scores that I enjoyed the film.

That seems to be the real goal for this film - to create a solid piece of space adventure entertainment. It uses the familiar characters and tropes from the original series, but by using time travel creates an alternate reality where these characters can live and breathe. This will allow the more devoted fans to still have Shatner be their Captain Kirk, while a new generation of fans will see Pine as the man. It's a pretty clever work around and one that is executed with skill by the cast and crew.

The script does end up suffering a bit from having to use time travel as a plot device, only because it is so familiar with Star Trek. In the movies alone it's been done twice ("The Voyage Home" and "First Contact"), and the television series has done it countless times in all their incarnations. You could say it borders on lazy writing, but I think that it was utilized well here to create that alternate time line, something that is going to help long time fans work with this new version. But it does create some problems with the script. It gets a bit convoluted in places and has holes that if you look too closely, your Vulcan self will find illogical. This is compensated with by providing some great lines for nearly all the characters. Many of them remaining true to the characters as we know them, and yet spinning them all slightly. The most care was given to Kirk, McCoy and Spock, but nearly every character gets a chance to shine.

The actors take these parts and do a great job with them. Pine does a great balancing act of creating Kirk as a familiar character, but not going into parody mode. He inhabits the character well, and makes for a great hero. He adds a little bit of Shatner inflections or mannerisms, but they are subtle and will only stand out of fans of the series who are very familiar with Shatner. Quinto does a similar job with Spock, keeping him familiar but adding a bit more angst they we are used to seeing. The story provides a nice arc for the character and Quinto delivers. It is Urban as McCoy that impresses me. He actually attempts to mimic voice patterns and acting style of DeForest Kelley. He does it in a way that’s natural. We accept him as McCoy and not only that, but he seems like a perfect fit for the familiar role.

Working in the villains role is Eric Bana as Nero. The role has a lot of potential, and seeing some of the deleted scenes it looks like there was a bit more meat to it originally. But as it stands now, Nero is driven and dangerous, but for some reason never completely resonates. His interaction with Spock and Captain Pike is well executed, but he lacks that special something to make him a memorable villain. Of course compared to Khan, it’s going to be tough challenge for any actor.

The supporting cast is uniformly good. All the favorite characters are represented and given a key role in the story. The actors really do a good job with these familiar parts, even for characters that we'd seen only a couple times before like Captain Pike or Sarek (Ben Cross). I have mixed feeling on two parts. The first is Winona Ryder as Amanda Grayson. I'm not sure what it is, but she does not work for me in the part. I've seen the movie three times now and each time I keep hoping she won't grate on me as much as she does. And each time I always wonder - what is she doing that makes her stand out so much. Then there's Simon Peg as Scotty. Peg is a very funny man, and "Hot Fuzz" is one of my favorite comedies. But Scotty never struck me as comic relief. Peg is amusing in the role, but it just doesn't ring as true as the other characters in the film did.

Of course the other major players are the visuals and sound effects. Well this movie delivers in the visual effects department giving us everything from beauty passes over The Enterprise to full blown space battles with multiple starships. As opposed to the more recent Star Wars movies, this film went for location shooting whenever possible and this adds some weight and realism for many of the scenes. The costumes retain the basic look and color scheme of the original series, but modernize them a bit. Even the ship design is familiar and yet new. And the design schemes shifted depending on the cultures featured. The sound design follows the same scheme, fusing old sound effects with new, and in some cases re-creating the effects from scratch where the originals may have been lost. Sound effects guru, Ben Burtt who worked on "Star Wars" did an excellent job here.

The final bit to the puzzle is the music. In the past some illustrious names in film music have worked on Star Trek films including Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. This time around Abrams went for his go-to composer, Michael Giacchino. In my mind it was an excellent choice. Giacchino has done amazing work with Pixar (The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Up), and has a knack for working with established music (check out his interesting and entertaining work on Speed Racer). He steps right up and give us a solid fanfare for Kirk and the Enterprise, and balances it against an aggressive and powerful theme for Nero. Spock and the Vulcans get a bittersweet theme with unique instrumentation. Much like David Arnold's approach to "Casino Royale", Giacchino does use the Alexander Courage theme from the television series, but sparingly, hinting at it throughout the film. Then right before diving into the end credits he gives us a full-blown statement of the theme before blasting into his Enterprise them, and then proceeds to weave the two together. Great stuff! If there is one complaint it is that the new theme for Kirk is very simplistic and is stated boldly and repeatedly throughout the film. On my first viewing it didn't bother me, but I did notice it in subsequent viewings. Giacchino has commented on this saying that he intends on developing the theme in subsequent films. I hope he gets the chance, because his music in this film is a great start.

Abrams has commented that he grew up loving the original "Star Wars" trilogy and that "Star Trek" was always too stodgy for him. Fair enough. His love for Star Wars comes through in spades here, with lots of quick editing, flashy battle sequences, and scenes of massive destruction. These types of things do appeal to a modern audience and hell, they appeal to me. He does a great job of keeping the story moving forward and keeping all the plot points moving. This keeps viewers from really examining the story too closely and noticing some of the odd plotting moments. In addition he manages to keep his actors on track with tone of the film. This is truly an adventure film at heart and Abrams understands that. Even his editing which harmed the character of Nero ended up serving the film better.

As entertaining as the film is, there are a few choices made that Abrams that I question. The first is the camera that must be in constant motion. This is something that I've noticed in many modern films, and if it's done well, you don't actually notice it. But "Star Trek" has quite a few sequences where the camera motion and quick edits draw attention to themselves. For me the worst scene is the "hand held" camera look during the dialogue between Pike and Kirk in the bar. This is a key sequence where Kirk makes his decision to join Star Fleet. However I'm distracted from the discussion by the apparent seizures the cameraman is having. If camera motion is necessary (and I'm not convinced it is), simple cuts between the speakers or a slow zoom would have worked better. Instead we have a scene that looks like its film during a series of small earthquakes.

The other issue is the lens flares. I'll be honest and say I didn't notice them in my first viewing, but after they were pointed out to me, they were all over the place. Lens flares occur when a light source is used directly on the camera itself, creating a moment where brilliant white flares move appear on the image. These suckers appear all over, and with the camera constantly moving, the light sources constantly flare. One affect is to create an image that is very... well sparkly. Any scene on the bridge is filled with these and as I mentioned, they get a little annoying if someone points them out to you. So, well, you can thank me later.

This movie is fun, no two ways about it. Like I've mentioned, I've seen it three times since it's release at the time of this writing (once in theaters and twice on DVD) and I've enjoyed it each time. It may be the most action packed and up tempo Star Trek film of them all. The familiar characters in a new situation worked wonders and I eagerly look forward to another adventure with this crew. Only the curmudgeonly side of me grumbles a little. You see I still enjoy the television series and the first six movies. Each of them, even "The Final Frontier" had some kind of idea or theme at their core, something that you could talk about after the film was done. Even the most action packed of the original films; "The Wrath of Khan" was more than a revenge tale. There was themes about aging, your past coming back to haunt you, terra-forming and the whole "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" line. This movie, well it has lots of pretty explosions and cool battle scenes. But in the end there isn't a solid idea to really talk about after the movie ends. I'm hoping that this is due to the fact that this is a reboot film and that the script needed time to set everything up. But I hope that the next movie finds a way to balance fun with ideas. I can be done and Star Trek is a perfect vehicle for it. I'd hate to see the franchise lose that aspect that is now unique in big screen sci-fi.

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