Wondering how to pitch this review has thrown up two initial routes to explore. Firstly, I think Mark Altman put it very succinctly in his own review of J.J Abrams Star Trek when he commented on the tag line of one of Paramount marketing department's TV spots. 'This is not your father's Star Trek' it rather ominously declared. Like Mark I really have to take issue with that and just say that this is in fact your father's Star Trek with great big postmodern knobs on. Secondly, I have to get all fanboyish, or is that fanoldmanish, and evoke the title of a book, published in 1975, by those original fangirls Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Sondra Marshak and Joan Winston. Star Trek Lives!
This is Star Trek with a firecracker up its ass
Yes, it does. It really does. Abrams film is like a hurricane busting through the last forty years of Trekdom, since the original series went off the air and through to the limp box office performance of Star Trek: Nemesis and the cancellation of television incarnation Enterprise. For those of you fearing that he's trashed all of that backstory then do not worry. He has rather ingeniously preserved it whilst also starting afresh with a heat seeking missile that gets to the very core of what we loved, and still love, about the original concept and those iconic, cultural figures of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Doctor McCoy. Worshipping at the altar of the Trek triumvirate is also no staid, continuity bound, dull affair. This is Star Trek with a firecracker up its ass, adrenaline fueled, blurring, whip-panning, lens flaring as it goes and edited with an amphetamine rush. It moves.
...the emotional whallop of birth and death on such a grand scaleOpening with the U.S.S Kelvin's investigation of an intruding vessel, its Captain Robau comes under attack and is forced to meet with the vessel's commander, the rogue Romulan Nero. This is the setting for the birth of James T. Kirk as his father George sacrifices himself and the ship to allow his mother, in labour, to escape on a shuttle craft. It's a brilliant opening sequence, full of frenzied death and destruction but where Abrams recognises and respects the birth of a future hero. As George hears the cry of his new born son over the intercom whilst he plunges the Kelvin into the heart of Nero's squid-like ship, the Narada, Michael Giacchino's music fills the theatre and the emotional whallop of birth and death on such a grand scale clearly sets out Abram's intentions for the film. It's a very moving sequence. Those knowledgeable Trekkies in the audience who have remained unspoiled will already be on the defensive because it's also clear that this ain't how George Kirk is supposed to meet his demise or where James Kirk was actually born. All I can say is, there is an explanation.
Quinto's performance echoes the early episodes of the original series.
The film then bats back and forth between Kirk's childhood in Iowa and Spock's playground bullying on Vulcan. Their paths then quickly develop; Kirk is a roguish James Dean type rebel without a clue, brawling in Iowa bars with Starfleet hotshots and Spock is questioning his half-human, half-Vulcan heritage before the Vulcan Science Academy. It's here that we initially get to see Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in their roles as Kirk and Spock. Pine is a revelation and utterly commands the film from the outset, investing Kirk with all the ballsy, instinctive pride that has been more than hinted at over the long history of the character. Quinto's performance echoes the early episodes of the original series. Remember the more emotional, shouty Spock from The Cage and Where No Man Has Gone Before? He's caught a flavour of that here, intentional or otherwise. There is also a lovely, heartfelt scene between Spock and his mother Amanda, a neat little cameo from Winona Ryder, where the themes of love, loyalty and logic start to develop.
the film isn't afraid to laugh with, and not at, the characters
At Starfleet Academy Kirk reprograms the Kobayashi Maru simulator (one of many nods to the simply wonderful Wrath Of Khan film) much to the chagrin of Spock and the film initially puts them at loggerheads with the rest of the running time devoted to how both characters learn to respect each other and develop a putative friendship. Here too are the introductions to McCoy and Uhura. Karl Urban has certainly honoured DeForest Kelley and I'm sure that gentle soul is smiling down on what Urban achieves here. There definitely isn't enough of him in the film but he's charming, funny, irascible and gets a long running joke where he continually inoculates Kirk against all manner of viruses to smuggle him aboard the Enterprise. Zoe Saldana's Uhura is cool and compassionate and from her introduction in the Iowa bar where Kirk hits on her to her iconic hailing frequency duties on the bridge of the Enterprise, Saldana hits the right notes. Her very sexy and emotional response to Spock's later plight after Nero attacks Vulcan will certainly raise eyebrows. Add into this mix the statesman like presence of Bruce Greenwood as Captain Christopher Pike, a sweet performance from Anton Yelchin as Chekov which trades on a wry postmodernist joke about his Russian accent and a stoic John Cho as Sulu, who demonstrates a mean bit of fencing but inadvertently leaves the brake on when the Enterprise leaves orbit. As you can tell, the film isn't afraid to laugh with, and not at, the characters and is often youthfully irreverent towards these nascent figures of legend. It's certainly one of the ingredients that will endear this ensemble to a new audience whilst also winking conspiratorially with die-hard fans longing to fall in love with these characters all over again.
...he is also, by some strange osmosis, undeniably Montgomery Scott
The meat of the story is delivered when Kirk is thrown off the Enterprise by Spock, now in command when Pike is captured by Nero after the attack on Vulcan. He's dumped on the icy Delta Vega (a nod to classic series episode Where No Man Has Gone Before) and after being chased by a rather big and nasty monster he's rescued by none other than Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy is utterly charming in the scenes that he's in and he very subtly plays off Chris Pine, his eyes communicating Spock's inner feelings at meeting the very young Kirk. Unfortunately, he's landed with a huge chunk of exposition which he has to deliver during a mind meld with Kirk. Through this we get to understand Nero's lust for revenge and the red matter MacGuffin that allows the film to preserve Trek's back history whilst also positioning the revised version of history here as an alternate timeline. It's the only really awkward moment in a slick and pacy adventure story but the chemistry between Pine and Nimoy is enough to get us through. It immediately picks up when Spock Prime and Kirk find Scotty manning a Federation outpost on the planet. Simon Pegg, like his fellow cast members, injects a cheeky vitality into the role even if his Scottish accent bounces all over the place and often disappears entirely. Where you can see traces of Shatner and Nimoy in both Pine and Quinto, Pegg has opted to eschew even a suggestion of Jimmy Doohan's mannerisms and, whilst he makes the role his own, he is also, by some strange osmosis, undeniably Montgomery Scott.
'I have been, and ever shall be, your friend'
To get to the final confrontation with Nero, Kirk must usurp Spock from the command seat, by trading on Spock's emotional fallibility, and fulfill his destiny as outlined by Spock Prime. Again, Abrams punctuates the slam-bang action with moments of emotional revelation and contemplation with Spock seeking counsel from his father Sarek (a suitably patrician Ben Cross) before he can truly understand Kirk's reckless heroics. The last third of the film is a derring do rescue of Pike (and if you know your Wrath Of Khan then Nero's torture will be oh-so-very familiar) from the soaking innards of the Narada, Spock and Kirk working together to steal the time bending, black hole creating red matter and the final comeuppance of Nero. The action sequences and fights are well choreographed and edited, with phaser fights whizzing across the screen and a tension inducing standoff between the Narada and the older Spock's time ship topped by a punch the air ambush by an all guns blazing Enterprise. By the conclusion, Nero's ship is simultaneously blasted to bits and sucked through a black hole, Kirk is made Captain of the Enterprise and, in a particularly poignant moment, the two Spocks finally meet. It does stretch credibility that Kirk could leap up the promotion ladder in so short a time but let's not let little niggles like that spoil a film that can simultaneously have a joke at the expense of Captain Archer's pet beagle, reference the 'I have been, and ever shall be, your friend' quote from the original film series, get a Tribble in on the action and fill the screen with a big, curvy bright green woman.
The visual effects are stunning and are probably the best to ever adorn a Star Trek film, capturing the frenzy of battle in hand held reportage style that perfectly mirrors the neo-documentary live action footage with its rapid camera movements, bright lens flares, quickly shifting focus and rocky angles. For the most part the production design is handsome and full of visual pleasure, although I'm not entirely won over by Scott Chamblis' insistence on mixing the clean, bright, white and blue designs of the bridge, corridors and sick bay with what looks like the inside of a present day brewery or a water treatment works to represent the engine room of the Enterprise. It's a stretch as far as the design is concerned. He's more successful with the interior of the Narada, a vast array of walkways and platforms, part surrounded by water, dark and dirty. Great costumes too from Michael Kaplan, evoking the spirit of the original series outfits but with a modern spin, and I loved the cadet uniforms and the Vulcan robes too. Finally, Giacchino's score is splendid and provides a very strong underpinning to the more contemplative moments, often sweeping in and becoming the only sound you hear as dialogue and effects are dropped out of the mix to allow it to be the voice for the scene. It's most effective in the scenes for Kirk's birth and the destruction of Vulcan. And stick around for the end titles because his use of the original Courage theme is utterly triumphal.
I would be genuinely shocked if this was not a crowd pleasing film because it is clear a lot of love has gone into its making. It's epic, funny, moving and above all captures a long overdue courage and optimism missing from science fiction films of recent years. The casting is pitch perfect and there's now an ensemble of Star Trek actors you know you want to see back on the screen again very soon. So yes...Star Trek Lives!
STAR TREK (Cert 12A. Released May 8th 2009. Directed by J.J Abrams)
Cathode Ray Tube Star Trek J.J Abrams Chris Pine Zachary Quinto