Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Star Trek

My biggest fear, when I heard that this new movie was to be a prequel starring the original series crew, was, of course, that it would trample all over established history and my memories. While I had been willing to accept the concept of the Enterprise prequel TV series, it was quite another matter to have new, young actors posing as Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest. I mean, Shatner and company played these characters for thirty years. No actors could more accurately be said to own their roles. A part of me felt that, like a legendary athlete's jersey number, those roles should have been retired out of respect for what the original cast achieved.

I had to concede, however, that the franchise was in bad condition after Enterprise, and perhaps it needed to take things back to characters that audiences knew and cared about. I was subsequently relieved to hear that the movie was to be regarded as more of a hard reboot than a prequel within the same timeline. But then I heard that Leonard Nimoy would be appearing as old Spock in a role that would tie the movie to the original continuity, and I grew worried again.

Now that it's here and I've seen it, I'm reasonably satisfied by the direction it took. Star Trek 2009 is a reboot, a sequel and an alternate timeline, but it's less so a prequel, and, for the most part, it can be enjoyed without any fear of it impacting, let alone ruining, what came before. Although these characters retain the same names and positions, they possess distinct personalities, in some cases reflecting significant alterations to their histories. It's still hard to avoid comparing them against the original cast, but, once I started to think of new Kirk as "Ultimate Kirk," as opposed to original series Kirk's younger self, the compare/contrast game became more intriguing than distracting.

Surprisingly, while none of the principals are "stars," so to speak, a good number of them are recognizable genre actors that would be familiar to a large portion of the audience. Zachary Quinto, in particular, has had a high-profile part playing probably the worst character on the dumbest show on television. Given much better material to work with here, his thoughtful young Spock ended up becoming my favorite character in the movie. For me, the other big revelation was Karl Urban as McCoy. I never saw Pathfinder, so Urban, to me, was just some random recurring intense face in such movies as The Chronicles of Riddick, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Lord of the Rings. As the wry McCoy, he leaves all that behind, and instead really channels DeForest Kelley's performance without simply mimicking it, the result being the only one of the characters that I can actually see developing into his original series counterpart.

Chris Pine has the toughest job playing Kirk, a character that was 90 percent William Shatner's performance. Shatner is a true original, and despite many attempts to parody his style, no other actor can do what he does. Pine wisely does not try, starting pretty much from scratch with his interpretation of the character. He's okay, but, whereas Shatner can dominate any room (even if he's the only one in it), Pine's more orthodox performance serves to remind us that this is an ensemble cast. He is definitely at his best when he and Quinto are playing each other's foils, and perhaps that is as it should be.

Fine performances as well from all the rest, and, overall, I have no worries about enduring this crew through several more installments. The only potential concern is that I can't see Paramount holding this young cast together for more than three pictures before some of them begin asking for too much money, or, worse yet, start wanting to move on.

Moving past my perhaps petty concerns about its relationship to the existing fiction, I enjoyed the movie very much. I wouldn't put it in the same class as The Wrath of Kahn or The Voyage Home, which I consider to be among the all-time great films, transcending franchise and genre. As the first installment in a series, it was definitely superior, however, to The Motion Picture or Generations. In fact, I think I liked it better than any of the Next Generation films.

Despite a plot involving time travel and alternate timelines, it's a fairly breezy and straightforward sci-fi action film that struck me as extremely inviting to Trek newcomers. Although it does not entirely betray fans' expectations for the characters, it also doesn't assume knowledge on the part of its audience. Every character gets a defining moment in the spotlight, and it feels appropriately like an effective introduction, rather than the eleventh film in a forty-year-old franchise. The special effects, new and spectacular, certify it as a blockbuster, and I don't anticipate there being a better movie this summer. I'm already looking forward to the sequel that I expect to be better and bolder.

Finally, while it's great to have Star Trek back in theaters, I do still feel that there needs to be a new TV show as well. TV was the original home for the franchise, after all, and much of its essence remains tied to the episodic format, which affords a broader range of stories and more time for character development. The lack of three seasons of television to reflect back on may, in fact, keep the new movies from reaching the heights of Wrath of Kahn, which, among other things, included the greatest death scene of all time. If, even three films down the line, they tried to run the new cast through the events of that movie, I don't think it would be nearly as effective, because I wouldn't feel that the characters had earned the moment the way the originals had.


Czardoz said...

I always thought that Star Trek: First Contact stood shoulder to shoulder with the best of the "old generation" movies. I like how it created a history for the world that would become Star Trek (a history that worked very well and was taken up by later installments/episodes in the franchise), and I loved the gee-whiz surprise at the end. I might add that it handled time travel more elegantly than the new Star Trek movie did. I also thought the music was very moving, and it just occurred to me that Star Trek seems to bring the best out of composers.

Nemesis was also a very good movie, but it definitely required that you be invested in the characters coming into the movie. If you didn't already know something about Data, for example, the movie wouldn't have the intended impact. And both Nemesis and Insurrection felt small-time, like expanded television episodes, and Star Trek is definitely capable of more on the big screen.

What bothered me most about the new Star Trek was the plot holes - more prevalent than in any of the other Star Trek movies, I thought. But this was clearly a character-driven project, and it succeeded so well on that account that I was just barely able to get over my tendency to ask "but what about . . ." and "why didn't they just . . ."

Henry said...

I enjoyed all of the Next Generation films, but, as a fan who grew up watching and loving the TV show, I think I was disappointed at how inconsequential the movies felt as chapters in the ongoing stories of most of those characters. As solid a movie as First Contact was, as the years passed, I noticed that, any time I thought of Picard or Data, it would always be classic episodes of the show that came to mind. I hardly ever thought about the films.

We'll see whether my present enthusiasm for the new Star Trek endures. Much of my excitement is due, not to anything in the movie itself, but to the potential for a sequel that will do what Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight did.

Czardoz said...

Hmm, true. I also think of the Next Generation show first, because that's where the characters became themselves and had their finest moments, whereas the movies sometimes (not always) seem like "Data celebration day" and whatnot, sometimes actually stalling the stories of these people.

However, if I may infer that you don't think of the old Trek movies as being as "inconsequential" relative to their characters and TV source material, do you think it's because you have much less affection for the original Star Trek series? I don't know how much Star Trek old you've ingested, but I can tell you that most of my Kirk/Spock diet consisted of the movies. How could I reminisce on the original stories of these characters when I never watched the show, certainly not at an age when it would have affected me the most profoundly?

Henry said...

Yes, I do think that's a factor, which was why I thought it important to note Next Generation's place in my childhood.

But I also think the two crews differed in ways that made the originals more adaptable to film.

First, the original series cast had been together for almost twice as long going into Wrath of Kahn, and there was an easy rapport there that the viewer could instantly grasp. By comparison, the Next Generation characters always felt more disparate as individuals who had developed independently.

Then, within that original series group, the movies smartly kept the focus around the dynamic between the three main characters. Fans of the other crew members might have felt shortchanged, but, even then, I think that Scotty and Chekov were able to convey a lot of personality with very little screen time, whereas it takes a while to get to know characters like Geordi and Dr. Crusher. It seemed to me like the Next Generation movies struggled to find places even for Riker to appear.

Finally, movies 2-6 featured an actual ongoing arc, with major threads introduced and developed within and across the films. The Next Generation movies felt more standalone (perhaps at times disposable).