5/08/2009

Movie Review: Star Trek (2009)



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Last week, Hugh Jackman officially kicked off the summer movie season by clawing his way into the international box office with the number one blockbuster X-Men Origins: Wolverine. To this end, it's probably a good thing that television brainchild turned action director J.J. Abrams didn’t call his take on the science fiction classic Star Trek: Origins. However, as we learn right from the start of this deafening loud but truly entertaining summer popcorn movie, he very well could have.


And sure enough, by cleverly avoiding the trappings of the franchise’s more than forty-year history on screens both big and small—he bravely chose to hit “reset." In doing so, he conceived a work, along with his Mission Impossible III, Lost, and Alias screenwriters Robert Orsi and Alex Kurtzman that started at the very beginning of the Trekkie mythology as conceived by its mastermind and creator, Gene Roddenberry in the 1960s.


While it’s definitely a Paramount Studio classic and not part of the Marvel Studio umbrella (a la Wolverine)-- the film’s incredibly effective opener utilizes two of the strongest elements of last year’s Marvel Robert Downey Jr. double-play in the form of director Jon Favreau's Iron Man and its Marvel companion, The Incredible Hulk from Transporter 2 director Louis Leterrier.



One of the gifts that we've begun to take for granted when it comes to J.J. Abrams that made me an Alias fan right from the start is his truly unique, confident, and powerful ability to draw upon raw human emotion that builds into extraordinarily riveting (yet natural) plot points within the framework of the most complicated action sequences you can imagine.


In the bravura opener of Star Trek that serves as either a literary-like prologue managing to satisfy comic book fans and those who worship at the altar of Russian tragedy, he blends action and drama in a daring pre-credit sequence. Within moments, we witness the birth of the man who will become the notorious James Tiberius Kirk as his father sacrifices his life to save countless others in an escalating war with the monstrous Romulan villain Nero (a nearly unrecognizable turn by otherwise dishy Munich star Eric Bana).


Segueing from dazzling effects work as the battle rages on with scenes of Kirk’s mother in labor—Abrams takes an operatic cue to use simply visuals and a gorgeous score by composer Michael Giacchino as we view the sequence as if it were a modern day silent film until Kirk’s cry as a newborn bursts onto the soundtrack like a crescendo.

Unexpectedly moving and cinematically daring—it takes the opening of Leterrier’s beautiful beginning of Hulk a step further by wordlessly bringing us into the visceral realm of the film. And indeed, this was no accident as Abrams admitted to Bill Goodykoontz in The Arizona Republic that it was “the visceral experience, the feeling, the emotional experience” he “always [found] more critical than the intellectual one” that had made him “more of a Star Wars man growing up.”





And honestly, before I’d even read the article in The Republic, it’s one I referenced in my hastily scribbled screening notes when I wrote that George Lucas should’ve consulted Abrams for the development of his horrific prequels that seem to be a cautionary tale against too much CGI.

Yet, forgetting the sins of the latter day Lucas-- the man's earlier work provides an influence you can spot throughout Abrams’ version of Star Trek. When you couple this with Abrams' dedication to Roddenberry’s source material, it makes a stirring concoction of classic sci fi to reach devotees of both franchises.

And indeed Wars and Trek have become part of this generation's DNA and throughout Trek, Star Wars doesn't seem too far from Abrams' mind as it appeared to influence aspects of the film whether it’s in the way that the young Spock reminded me a bit of Luke Skywalker or Kirk giving off a distinct Han Solo vibe.


However, it’s just one of several post ‘60s works Abrams drew inspiration from as collaborators in Paramount's official production notes cited Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff as another film that lended to Trek's "origin" structure. And it definitely stands out when we catch up with the mischievous ladies man James T. Kirk (Bottle Shock’s Chris Pine), the gorgeous brainiac Uhura (Guess Who star Zoe Saldana), and the paranoid chatterbox scene-stealer Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) as they train at Starfleet Academy.


However, prior to their training-- the vastly different childhoods of Earth resident Kirk and Vulcan inhabitant Spock are touched upon in another nicely paced storytelling approach by Abrams and his writing team. While things for Spock are quite difficult as he faces intense prejudice and bullying for being the product of a Vulcan father (Chariots of Fire’s Ben Cross) and human mother (Winona Ryder), Kirk gets an Iron Man-like introduction. Yet to switch things up in a delightful futuristic anachronism, Abrams substitutes ACDC’s “Back in Black” used in Favreau’s film for the Beastie Boys' anti-authority classic “Sabotage” as he’s chased by a flying motorcycle cop while careening down a desert road.


Thereafter we're reunited with the adult versions of the two characters and the primary cast at Starfleet. And very quickly we see the makings of the captain Kirk would become, having to leave his tendency for Top Gun Maverick style heroics and bar brawls behind under the guidance of the tough but fair Captain Pine (The Republic of Love’s Bruce Greenwood) and the half-Vulcan, half-human with a chip on his shoulder larger than those memorable ears in the form of Dr. Spock (Heroes’ Zachary Quinto).


Although those familiar with the series recall the dynamic friendship of Spock and Kirk and the way they complemented each other—getting to that point in this film isn’t reached until the end. Typical for the Joseph Campbell-like Hero's Journey (a George Lucas favorite), it occurs as the U.S.S. Enterprise crew members (also consisting of John Cho’s Mr. Sulu and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov before Simon Pegg’s Scotty arrives very late into the picture) find themselves jeopardized when Bana’s ├╝ber-villain makes a recurrence.

Easily setting the audience up for an inevitable sequel by crafting a new Star Trek mythology that builds from the preexisting one as in-jokes, signature lines and even an extended cameo by Leonard Nimoy abound—it’s a highly satisfying “reintroduction” to the characters.


Despite this, it’s safe to say that die-hard Trekkies may resist change and even those—like myself—who’ve only seen one of the films and a handful of classic episodes definitely missed the intellectual allegories that existed on the small screen. For beneath the cheesy pretext of the Shatner era series-- vintage Star Trek also managed to comment on race, religion, prejudice, politics, war, disease, diversity and more during the Vietnam era by providing an atypical science fiction version of a positive and damn near Utopian—as opposed to doom-ridden and dystopian—view of the future.

And while overall, it’s a blast and a true big screen cinematic experience, I wished that some of the awesome Star Wars like action sequences may have been infused with the same level of Abrams intelligence he imbued into the film’s opening. Moreover, even though he revealed to Goodykoontz that he “thought the original show was too intellectual” and wanted to emphasize the adventure based pleasure of Lucas’ universe that enraptured him as a child—I’m hopeful that, along with his talented screenwriters-- they’ll pack a little more brain crunch into the next delicious bag of popcorn they manage to “beam up” in the future.

Star Trek