Quick Review: Star Trek (2009)

I finally got around to seeing the new Star Trek film this weekend, a month into its theatrical run.

All in all, it was an enjoyable film; fast-paced, well-acted and with some cool visuals. I’m just old enough to be put off by modern special effects, with the shaky “camera work” and dizzying pans and zooms, so I didn’t get as much out of that element as some folks may have. Besides just being disorienting (and thus counter-productive), it also invites comparison to the new “Battlestar Galactica”, which I’m sure Abrams and company would desperately deny being an influence. It probably didn’t help that the two previews that ran before the picture were for “Transformers” and “GI Joe,” another two rocky rides in the video cuisinart.

The key to the film’s success is in the casting. I had my misgivings about Chris Pine as Kirk, not least because of my lifelong affection for Bill Shatner in the role, but also because there wasn’t anything in Pine’s resume to suggest he was capable of playing the charismatic action hero. That he did, however, and with real style.

Curiously, I had exactly the opposite feelings about Zachary Quinto as Spock. His casting early on predisposed me to like this film, but now that I’ve actually seen him in the part he’s left me underwhelmed. Maybe it’s his voice, which lacks the bassy authority of Nimoy, or as Trek legend Herb Solow has said it could be that he just doesn’t have that look of “the wisdom of a thousand years” in his eyes. It doesn’t help that the script puts Spock through his emotional paces, dealing with great anger, grief and passion in his first outing, and creating a much more outwardly emotional Spock than we’re used to seeing. A key to Nimoy’s success in the role was his ability to hold back, to suggest at powerful feelings beneath the surface, but keep them in check. Here Spock wears his emotions on his sleeve, and the result is a far less interesting characterization, in my opinion.

The rest of the cast is a bit uneven. Karl Urban nearly walks away with the movie as Leonard “Bones” McCoy, easily the standout in this lineup. It’s amazing when you consider what a brilliant scene-stealer DeForest Kelley was that Urban could come along and catch lightning in a bottle yet again. Simon Pegg as Scotty is a mixed bag; I got over his looks faster than I expected, and some of his dialog is fun, but overall it felt like they turned him into comic relief, and our Chief Engineer deserves better than that. John Cho bore no resemblance in looks or character to vintage Sulu, and although it’s cool to see the navigator get some real action in at last, in a way it just reinforces another stereotype to make the Asian guy a kick-butt martial artist. Zoe Saldana is gorgeous as Uhura, but otherwise shares no traits with Nichelle Nichols as far as I could tell. Anton Yelchin is fun as a super-young Checkov, but his presence creates one of my problems with the logic of the film, namely what are all these kids doing running the Enterprise?

Maybe I missed a line of exposition somewhere, but I could never figure out why a major space emergency has to be answered by the senior class at Starfleet Academy. Aside from Captain Christopher Pike and a handful of faculty, there seems to be no full-time Starfleet personnel on duty in this film. When the planet Vulcan is attacked, the students are pulled from their studies and shipped out on active duty, not just on the Enterprise but a whole fleet of ships. Is this day one of Starfleet, or what?

Arriving at Vulcan to find it under attack, Pike asks if anyone has advanced combat training. Sulu raises his hand, and Pike says, “You too, Kirk. You’re not even supposed to be here, anyway.” Meaning what, exactly? As a “stowaway,” he deserves to be sent on a suicide mission? Does HE have “advanced combat training” and Pike knows it from reading his file? Or does he just want him dead? Either way, Pike devises a Navy SEALS-like battle plan that depends on Sulu (about whose training Pike has just learned), Kirk (who isn’t even on active duty) and one security officer. Are we to assume there are no other personnel on the entire ship capable of this assignment? Has Pike shipped out with no security team whatsoever?

Adding to the fun, Pike makes Spock captain and Kirk his first officer. Again, why? Kirk is not only a cadet, he’s a cadet currently on academic suspension. And he’s being sent off-ship on what may be a suicide mission, anyway. What’s up with that?

But then, this Starfleet is a fairly laid-back outfit. For his meritorious service, Kirk is not only forgiven for cheating on an important exam, but is actually handed command of the Enterprise along with his diploma. That’s right, congratulations Cadet Kirk, here’s the best ship in the fleet, good luck. You’d think even James T Kirk should have to move his way up the ranks like everyone else. Also, it doesn’t help that it’s actually Spock who saves the Earth and not Kirk…so where’s his ship?

Not to worry; as the Enterprise prepares to leave orbit, Spock shows up and he’s all, “I’ll be your first officer, if that’s cool” and Kirk is like, “Righteous, bro” and so it’s all worked out, simple as that. We don’t stand on ceremony here in Starfleet.

Even the “real” Spock gets into the act, as Leonard Nimoy’s aging Vulcan sends Kirk to take command of the Enterprise away from his younger self. Of course, Earth is in immediate danger of being destroyed and time is of the essence, but Old Spock opts not to talk to Young Spock himself — even though that would speed things along greatly — because it’s more important that Young Spock learns what a great team he and Kirk make. Yes, that’s right, the Great Bromance is more important than the Earth itself.

But, what the heck, at least its all upbeat, harmless fun, unlike last year’s unrelentingly bleak “Dark Knight” or even the nihilistic “Galactica” that probably motivated Paramount to green light this film in the first place. If nothing else, “Star Trek” manages to recreate a sense of fun, adventure and — importantly for me — danger we haven’t really seen since the original TV series. As Bones says, space is a scary place, full of danger and death, and we should feel that. It was evident in the old shows, made in the days when the real space program was in its dangerous youth, and TV science fiction dominated by scary fare like “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” But somewhere along the way it got lost, until the various Trek spin-offs made space seem comfy and homey, with Picard running his Enterprise by committee vote from a love seat in what looked like a hotel lounge, and the biggest worry being a broken replicator or a nano-virus or some other such techno-babble. Space exploration should be scary and dangerous, and this film gets it.

Overall, a fun summer film, even if there’s not much to stick to your ribs. I’m willing and even eager to see more from this crew, which I guess is the acid test right there. The beauty of this “alternate reality” gimmick is that now anything can happen, creating not only the potential for real suspense (and tragedy) but also second chances for tragic characters like Captain Pike, who deserves it. Maybe we can even dare hope that when this Jim Kirk meets his maker (hopefully waaay down the road), he’ll do better than having a dumb bridge fall on top of him.