May 11, 2009

Movie Review: Star Trek XI

The Star Trek reboot movie is a fun ride and of course you should go see it. Non-science fiction fans will enjoy it because it is centered on character development at least as much as on its space-cowboy storyline. Science fiction fans, of course, have likely seen it already.

Story: We get to meet the members of the crew of the USS Enterprise as very young people, before they assume the roles which they held during the TV series and the earlier movies. But -- things are different. A time-traveling Romulan named Nero changes things in the movie's opening scene, shifting this movie away from the entire canon of Star Trek mythology even as the classic characters are being born. Their experiences and careers are altered, some more subtly than others, and by the time they are graduating or shortly graduated from Starfleet Academy, they are entirely their own characters and not the ones played by Shatner, Nimoy, et. al. Classic Star Trek fans ought not to fear this; new fans should embrace it because frankly, these characters are more complex and interesting. But at the end of the day, it is a "reboot" story, so it is burdened by the need to introduce us to the characters and set the stage for future adventures. This burden is carried, successfully although not lightly. Indeed, the most cumbersome parts of the script are those dealing with the time-travel dilemma and one hopes that this will not be a plot device used frequently in the future.

Script: The fun of the script is the way it realizes its new vision for the various characters. Spock is the central role of the movie, even more so than Kirk, and this is a fine thing to do because Spock's role standing between two very different cultures and societies is underlined repeatedly and very much to his conflict and our interest. Kirk is still an incorrigable skirt-chaser, but he is not universally successful in his seduction skills (Uhura blows him off, diverting her attentions elsewhere) and he is still cocky beyond his innate skills, but clearly lacks the polish that comes with actual experience. Still, there are a few holes in the story. Winona Ryder's character, for instance, is somewhere that it is not (excuse the pun) logical that she be, and this is jarring. The time-travel plot device that gets the whole ball rolling takes away some of the initial sting out of the bad actions of the antagonist and it takes a while before you realize what the writers are going to do with that part of the story. And it is something of a disappointment that we may not get to see very much of Captain Christopher Pike in future movies; he seems like an interesting figure from the moment he tries to recruit Kirk into Starfleet.

Cast: The young actors cast to play these various roles were all fantastic. Zachary Quinto was utterly believable as Spock. Zoe Saldana was luscious, intelligent, and a deeper and more useful character than the space-secretary of Uhura from the TV show. And as I noted above, I wanted more of Bruce Greenwood's Captain Christopher Pike. Karl Urban captures the sarcasm of "Bones" McCoy perhaps a bit too much; he comes across as bitter. John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekov, and Simon Pegg as Scotty are also nicely-portrayed although they are somewhat reduced to being caricatures (except for one fight scene in which Sulu gets to pull out his sword and show what he can do). But Star Trek is all about command and the way it is held and used, so the focus is very much on Kirk. Chris Pine is instantly and consistently Kirk, somehow embodying the essence of the role without once trying to imitate William Shatner's trademark stattaco delivery. After less than three minutes of film time, he manages to utterly convince the audience that he is Jim Kirk, that he is destined for command of a starship, and that he is the guy you would want at your back in a scrape.

Cinematography: The sets of the movie are modern, sleek, and well-imagined. No expense was spared to put them together. This is actually something of a problem. The Enterprise is not supposed to be a huge ship, but it seems positively luxurious in terms of its accomodations for engine facilities, work stations on the bridge, and width of its hallways. It does not seem like a spaceship at all. There is one nice bit of camera and effects work, though, in which the camera follows Spock into and out of an elevator and the scene changes from one deck of the ship to another, very smoothly and quickly, and there is no sense of how this is done (probably by swiveling rather than lifting the elevator) but it is very well-played and leaves the viewer with the impression that this is indeed a technologically advanced craft. But the look and feel of the Enterprise from the TV series -- which, logically, ought to be the same ship -- is entirely gone.

Costumes: The basic look of the classic TV series uniforms -- pullover shirts and black pants for the men, miniskirted suis for the women, with color varying based on duty assignment -- are kept once the characters get deployed. They look a little bit more intense in their coloring. Starfleet cadets wear uniforms reminiscent of the first few Star Trek movies from the 1980's. Civilians wear clothing that looks decidedly twentieth-century, and bad guys get to wear cool black leather.

Effects: No expense was spared here. The spaceship battle scenes are credible and have the same look that we've come to expect from movies and TV series of this nature -- a combination of models and CGI that is more than good enough to get the story told. The transporters no longer look like they are turning the characters into white noise and that's a welcome development. There are some space monsters who, while well-executed, are still more than a little bit silly.

Music: The classic theme of the TV show is not used until the very end; before that, new orchestral scores are used. But Star Trek has never been subtle with its use of music and this movie is no exception, as for the most part the brassy background music associated with these stories stays in place despite the composer's efforts to make it more lush with richer, deep strings. This score is mostly loud and direct, although at a few moments, the music becomes subdued to emphasize the tension felt by characters in difficult circumtances. This is a very effective technique when used sparingly, as it was in this movie.

Comments: The movie is better than a journeyman effort, but not a landmark piece of filmmaking. It's hard to see how it could be, given nearly half a century of accumulated writing and mythology to pressure the script. J.J. Abrams was a good pick to direct this film; he has a nice feel for mixing action and characters developing in spite of their dysfunctions. Given the "new" flaws and wrinkles seen in Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and Scotty, it will be very interesting to see where the series goes next -- as there will surely be a Star Trek XII using this remarkable cast of interesting young actors.


Left Coast Rebel said...

TL - how would you rate it against the classics, ie: my favorite VI The Undiscovered Country. Wish me luck in convincing my wife to go see this in theater with me....

Transplanted Lawyer said...

I liked it better than Undiscovered Country but not as much as Wrath of Khan or the one with the whales.

Maybe your wife can be lured to the theater with eye candy. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are both very good-looking young actors, whose sexiness is left nicely understated. For that matter, Bruce Greenwood, as a distinguished and seasoned officer, is also handsome and attractive.

Left Coast Rebel said...

TL - Eye candy? That is brilliant, sounds like you have many more years of marriage behind you than I do.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

It's our fifth anniversary this Friday. But see, I figure, during the movie I was all, "mm-MMM, I likes me that Zoe Saldana!" so it really wasn't a huge leap from there to realize that the ladies in the theater were probably up to something similar.