Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Stars My Destination

My earliest memory is a fragment. I am sitting in the back seat of my father's car. I am three years old. My father and my mother and I are at the drive-in. I am staring up at the screen, enthralled. The movie in question is Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Captain Kirk has arrived in Spock's quarters to find his friend Dr. McCoy there, burdened as it turns out with the carrying of his dead friend's soul. He speaks to Kirk in Spock's voice.

I was a Trekkie from an early age.

Appropo of the film itself, let's indulge in a little time travel. It's 2005. Star Trek: Enterprise has just been canceled, the fifth Star Trek TV series and the first since the franchise was relaunched to be canceled before its seven-season run ended. Enterprise lasted just four years. Three years earlier, the tenth film, Nemesis, stumbled in to theaters a colossal disappointment. The franchise appeared near dead. So someone advances the notion, something that had been around since 1991, of recasting the original series crew, of telling the story of them at their old academy days. Years go by, and finally, finally this idea starts to get some traction.

I was ambivalent to this idea from the start. Of course it made sense, rebrand your product using its most famous names. And ever since the first movie went to screens ten years after the original show was canceled, Star Trek has always been a movie series about, well, older people, and that just doesn't sell. Still, I didn't like the idea of someone stepping in to the venerable shoes of Captain Kirk, a man, however fictional, who was a big part of my life growing up.

Then came that trailer.

So I'm a trailer slut. What can I say? I was hooked.

Tonight I saw Star Trek. And let me tell ya: awesome. I should admit if it's not obvious by now that I'm incapable of being objective about this film, of reviewing it in the context of a film. I would not be an impartial juror. So let me tell you what I think in the context a hundred million other geeks are even now: how this film fits in with my childhood.

This movie is epic. From the first space battle to those two words, larger than life on the big screen, we are bombarded with massive sets, lots of punches, monsters, phaser fire being thrown here and there, guys jumping from space on to a big platform thing, planets in peril. One thing Star Trek never really had much of was scope, and that's a major benefit here. In their hopes of catering to a wider audience, director JJ Abrams and the producers of the film did what Americans have done best for decades: they threw millions and millions of dollars at the thing and it turned out it worked greatly to their advantage.

Really, it's hard for me to say anything bad about it, which seems to make writing out any sort of a review next to impossible. The film achieves what it sets out to achieve, and it does it in spades.

I wasn't sure about either Simon Pegg for Scotty or Karl Urban for McCoy, but both simply throw themselves in to their roles. Urban in particular cultivates DeForest Kelly's speech patterns, doing a dead-on impression without lapsing in to parody. Pegg is a delight. He isn't all that Scotty-like, but he's a fantastic comedian and he more than makes up for it. Chris Pine gets saddled with playing Kirk, and he wisely steers completely clear of Shatner's. Unique. Linedelivery! Zachary Quinto does great as Spock.

It's funny, too, in a naturalistic way that Star Trek has rarely managed well. The original series could be pretty amusing at times (some times not at all intentionally), but by the time the spinoff shows rolled around, the franchise seemed a bit stately and stolid and incapable of making any jokes that were not forced. (I'm looking at you, every single "funny" Deep Space Nine episode.) Here there are funny bits, quick quips thrown in as the film shoots along at its breakneck pace, but never in a way that distracts from the central danger.

And Leonard Nimoy comes back. In a move designed to tie this film in to the established Trek continuity, Nimoy's Spock is back from the future (well, further in the future anyway) trying to stop some other guys from the future from messing with history. It sounds complicated, and the exposition that Nimoy has to deliver is a bit of a stumbling block in the film's second act, briefly slowing to a crawl the movie's previously warp-speed pacing. But the film adroitly picks up steam again and you know all you need to know. Bad guy. Big gun. Gonna blow up Earth.

Of all the elements of the film, Nimoy's involvement caused me the most trepidation. It seemed like a good idea to simply make a clean break from the established history of the show, and putting on a guy who was in it 40 years ago does not seem the way to do that. I could easily see it turning prospective casual viewers off the idea. But the arrival of Future Spock is handled pretty gracefully and the film makes all-or-nothing significant breaches from established continuity. I see this as a good thing. David Gerrold (who wrote 'Trouble with Tribbles' for the show in '67) called Trek's continuity adherence (and, really, any TV show's) "hardening of the arteries." You establish a thing is done one way in one episode, it has to be done that way again, and pretty soon you've closed off a lot of your options. This film leaves the playing field wide open.

Humbug. Good reviews are no fun. Is there anything bad to say about this movie? I hated the sets for one thing, too "Apple Store." Overly contemporary designs have a way of dating themselves almost immediately. And there are a couple of instances of truly bizarre product placement. Apparently both Nokia and Budweiser are going to be around in three hundred years.

These are minor quibbles. And even speaking as a fan I think that non-fans will get plenty of enjoyment out of it. Subtract the numerous references to the original show and you still get a great adventure movie, and the original Star Trek at least is so culturally well known that the movie's "I'm a doctor, not a..."s and Logic vs. Emotion stuff won't fly over the heads of too many people who don't live in caves.

A fun time was had by all.


  1. Did you read the comic book backstory?

  2. Naw, though I'm familiar with the general gist of it. These days I don't stop in to the comic store for much that doesn't have Grant Morrison's name on it.