Star Trek

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday May 7, 2009

Old friends, new adventures: Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine star as iconic heroes Spock and Kirk in 'Star Trek'
Old friends, new adventures: Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine star as iconic heroes Spock and Kirk in 'Star Trek'  (Source:Paramount Pictures)

Director J.J. Abrams' take on a venerable, beloved sci-fi franchise does everything Abrams and his screenwriters, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, set out to do: Star Trek drops Roman numerals and subtitles, returning the U.S.S. Enterprise to a vital young Jim Kirk and his crew for a gripping adventure.

Expectations for "Star Trek" are high, and Trekkies are a notoriously nit-picky, vociferous, and protective bunch. There will be cries and laments about the movie's design elements, the cast, the events of the story (which shakes up old-school Trek and, in the process, re-energizes the franchise)... but those gripes will be drowned out by whoops of excitement, and not just from "Trek" fans: Abrams has made a movie that will thrill audiences of all sorts.

In short, we were promised the best sci-fi action movie of the summer, and unless something truly astonishing happens over the next few months, that's what we've been given.

Orco and Kurtzman warp in where angels would fear to venture, and they do so with nary a tremor: confidently--nay, boldly--they hit the mother of all reset buttons, acknowledging "Star Trek"'s crowded back-story (five live-action series and ten movies over a span of about four decades, not to mention literally hundreds of paperback adventures from Bantam Books and Pocket Books), but they also stake out the franchise as their own domain.

The movie has been described as a prequel, and it is; it's also a re-invention. When time-traveling Romulan bad guy Nero (Eric Bana), maddened by the destruction of his home planet 129 years in the future, pops up in the 23rd century, he immediately crosses paths with Jim Kirk. The twist is that Kirk, destined to become a legendary ship captain, is born right in the midst of Nero's deadly attack against the U.S.S. Kelvin, where George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) serves as first officer and, in the Kelvin's last minutes, as her skipper.

Twenty-two years later, Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who has just scraped a bar-brawling young James Kirk (Chris Pine) off a tavern floor, more or less dares Jim to go to Starfleet Academy. The next morning, Kirk reports to the shuttle for new recruits at the same shipyard where the fleet's new flagship is being built: with his first glimpse at the Enterprise, Kirk is smitten--and inspired. Four years at the Academy to become an officer? "I'll do it in three!" he jauntily announces to Pike.

So he does. Not that Kirk's wild edges are all sanded off in those three years: he's still a womanizing hellion, and still apt to "leap before he looks," as Pike puts it.

Nor does Jim Kirk play by the established rules: like a latter-day Odysseus, he's a man of wiles and stratagems, and in one of many nods to earlier films, Orci and Kurtzman show us how Kirk beats the notorious "Kobayashi Maru," a no-win simulation. This gets Kirk hauled up before a board of inquiry... which is interrupted just in time by an emergency, allowing Kirk to get caught up in the return of Nero and his huge mining ship. Nero, who has evidently been lurking on the galactic fringes all this time, is back to target the planet Vulcan with a laser drill.

The crisis brings cadet Kirk onto the Enterprise for the first time, and into conflict with Spock (Zachary Quinto), the half-human first officer whose parents (Ben Cross as Sarek and Winona Ryder as Amanda) and culture are at risk as Nero's assault on Vulcan continues. In order to stop Nero, Kirk and Spock--as yet far from having forged their legendary friendship--have to learn to work together, despite their mutual distrust and dislike.

Fans may worry about the look of the re-imagined Enterprise, which is a slender craft here, rather than one of the more muscular alternative designs that are available for perusal on the Web. The fast-and-loose handling of science may even concern a few fans, and no doubt many will chew their lips over the lack of a big ethical conundrum (Star Trek's traditional stock in trade). But die-hard fans must be sweating bullets over the choice of Quinto to play Spock, who, for all his non-emotional intellect, was the essence and the soul of the original series.

Quinto acquits himself faultlessly. Leonard Nimoy (who also appears in the film, as a future version of Spock) may have set the standard for the character, but Quinto takes the gestures, the intonations, and the look of Spock and adds whole new layers. Spock as mama's boy, we knew about from early in the original show; but Spock as lover? As seeker of revenge? Quinto folds additional facets into the character with respect and authenticity: Nimoy may have waffled on the subject, but Zacharay Quinto is Spock.

A harder sell is Chris Pine as a disconcertingly blue-eyed Kirk... until, that his, he sets one swaggering foot on the bridge of the Enterprise. Suddenly, Pine seems born for the role. He never adopts William Shatner's famously over-done rhetorical style, but he doesn't need to: the picture is lean, forever in motion, not giving anyone time to stand around and orate.

For that matter, the movie in and of itself is a gorgeous piece of filmmaking. Abrams, a "Star Wars" aficionado, errs a little on the side of bright white interiors and scuffed-up props; there's even a ship with more than a passing resemblance to Han Solo's Millennium Falcon.

But Abrams also has an inerrant eye for how to fill the screen with light, and movement: the camera work is dynamic and smooth, integrating live action and CGI elements in perfect accord. Lens flares are ubiquitous: they establish the glare of a sun, or of a ship's artificial lighting. The only place glare and flare are missing is in the dim and cavernous expanse of Nero's huge mining ship which, like the mines that are Nero's professional arena, is swaddled in darkness, with water sloshing underfoot.

Back on the Federation side, the rest of Kirk's crew are all present and accounted for, even young Chekhov (Anton Yelchin), who wasn't added to the original series until season two. No matter: Chekhov is a 17-year-old wunderkind, and he brings an infectious, excited energy to the ship.

Simon Pegg, as engineering genius Montgomery Scott, is the widest departure from the familiar characters. He still gets to complain from the bowels of engineering when Kirk wants too much juice from the ship, but he also brims with jittery one-liners, most unlike the salt-of-the-earth Scotty from the old show.

But McCoy, as played by Karl Urban, is note-perfect, from the timeless love-hate relationship McCoy shares with Spock ("Are you out of your Vulcan mind?!") to the good doctor's anxieties about technology, and the reference to a marriage having ended badly (long accepted among fans, though never, until now, confirmed on film) is incorporated into a suitably funny scene in which "Bones" gets his nickname.

John Cho plays helmsman Hikaru Sulu with panache--he gets to show off Sulu's sword skills in one action sequence--but it's exo-linguist Nyota Uhura who most definitely rises from the ranks of Trek's second-fiddle characters to assert herself. Zoe Saldana's performance (like her lush eyebrows and her revealing mini-uniforms) pays homage to original Uhura, actress Nichelle Nichols, but from her first frames in the picture, Saldana has a chance to do more than Nichols ever did, and do it with a mixture of strength and style that speaks of pure class. (And that first name? Like McCoy's divorce, it's long a part of Trek tradition, but only now used in a movie: a fact that Orci and Kurtzman celebrate, though you'll have to see just how in order to believe it.)

After so many hours TV episodes and ten movies, many of which failed to match the thrill of the small-screen episodes, "Star Trek" was starting to seem worn out, with few places left for our crew to boldly go, as the saying has it. That's a worry no more: suddenly, the old show is brand-new again. If Abrams has his way--and there's no reason he should not--legions of new fans will be there to greet the inevitable sequel.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.