May 11 2009 2:54pm

Star Trek review (unspoiled!)

Star Trek
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman

I have a long history with Star Trek. Not as long as some people can claim, and certainly not as long as the franchise’s own history, but I’ve spent roughly half of my relatively brief life on Earth as a con-going, trivia-quoting fan. I’ve seen the good and the bad, and while the series at its best can be mind-blowingly amazing, one can argue that after five television series and ten movies, there are more bad hours of Trek than good.

J.J. Abrams’ new movie definitively tips the balance back to the good side.

One of the problems with Trek, for its creators and viewers alike, is that by now we’ve pretty much seen it all. This is a serious handicap for a franchise founded on exploration and questioning the human condition; the newest incarnations of Trek still went boldly, but they were on a course heading into the proverbial toilet.

Admittedly, Abrams’ Star Trek doesn’t add a lot of new material to the franchise. In fact, there’s a heavy amount of old: established characters, a familiar setting, and frankly unoriginal ideas. We have Spock’s struggle between his human and Vulcan side, Kirk’s struggle with the “no-win scenario”, Kirk’s slashy struggle with Spock over logic vs. intuition, a standard revenge plot, a little space operatic romance, and hell—we even have time travel, the most Trek of concepts. The only young and fresh things in this movie are (most of) the faces, the sets and costumes, and the special effects. Not to mention the director and writers, who were tasked with harnessing the power of nostalgia to drive a shiny new enterprise.

And they did their jobs better than anyone could have imagined, showing far more care than George Lucas did to his own franchise’s prequels. I was highly skeptical of this new Star Trek. I have big love for its roots, the campy TOS (Star Trek The Original Series) and its direct successor, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Though Deep Space Nine and Voyager had their high points, the real essence of Star Trek has always been a crew, a ship, the final frontier, and a heavy dose of optimism. Those other shows were fresher but darker concepts, frequently good science fiction perhaps but not great Star Trek; there’s a reason why only TOS and TNG have transitioned to the big screen. After four years of the mediocre Enterprise and the last two films, Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek Nemesis, I just didn’t have faith anymore that we would ever again see anything good with the words Star Trek attached to it.

Happily, J.J. Abrams proved me wrong, because Trek has never looked this good. It starts with a literal bang, an extravaganza of explosions and space combat, but touched with a very human drama that impressed me before the title even blazed onto the screen. It was this balance of premium special effects—beyond anything we’ve seen before in the series—and the emphasis on characters that makes this film so enjoyable. As much as TOS was about interesting plots, good writing, and addressing the social problems of its day, it was also about the characters: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Sulu, Scott, and Chekov. TOS always highlighted the complex friendships among the crew and how they faced their duties more as a family than simply co-workers. The fact that these relationships translated to this movie so successfully with an entirely new cast demonstrates that it wasn’t really Shatner, Kelley, and Nimoy that we wanted to see (as much as we always want to see Nimoy, and he’s here too, anyway), but Kirk, Bones, and Spock. Fans are driven by the desire to see the continuing voyages of their favorite crew, and there’s a particular joy at filling in the gaps in their history that have never been put to film. How else can you explain the popularity of media tie-in novels, which are completely devoid of actors?

As much as Star Trek has been embraced into the popular culture of the world, practically part of our collective subconscious, this new film treats it like a shared mythology. It’s not just a continuation or expansion of the old stories, but a reinvention of them, in the way that Superman has been constantly revised and remade over his seventy-one year history; fortunately this Star Trek bears more in common with Bryan Singer’s sequel/reboot Superman Returns than the CW’s “young Superman” series, Smallville.

As different as things are in the new film, no one can question that the creators have a respect for their source material. The time travel gimmick that makes the Enterprise’s new adventures possible, relatively unburdened by over four decades of continuity that require a 745-page encyclopedia to wrap your brain around, is sheer technobabbly brilliance—as long as you don’t think about it too hard. The science is probably the weakest aspect of the new movie, but you’re hopefully having so much fun you don’t really care. And as much as they jettison continuity, they also canonize a fair portion of “unofficial” background. This is the first time we hear Uhura’s name outside of the tie-in novels and fan films, we learn that McCoy was divorced by his wife, and we see Spock bullied as a child for being half-human (as he was in the animated series episode “Yesteryear”). And there are some other improvements. At last, in Star Trek, no one can hear you scream in the vacuum of space—bringing the franchise in line with some of the more “realistic” space scenes of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica. I was most enthusiastic about the new transporter effects, which make you believe that the transportee’s molecules are really being torn apart. And we finally get to see the Enterprise upside-down and sideways.

Most importantly, these actors are quite good in filling the boots of those who have gone before, keeping the spirit of the original roles with their own edge, not an easy accomplishment. This is more of an ensemble than the recent TNG films have been. Chris Pine is brash and womanizing, but his version of Kirk lacks the command sense and charm that serve the Kirk we know so well on the bridge and in bed. Karl Urban channels Dr. McCoy the way we remember him, and his scenes with Kirk and Spock are pitch-perfect. Zachary Quinto is young Spock, understandably a bit moodier than we see him in most of TOS; one of the best moments in the film is when he tells the Vulcan Science Council to “Live long and prosper” when he clearly means the exact opposite. Simon Pegg brings his comic talents to a slightly goofier Montgomery Scott, but he’s a pleasure to watch in the role. John Cho adds the appropriate Sulu humor and muscle to his performance. Zoe Saldana is as smart and sexy as we expect Uhura to be, and she has a few surprising scenes in the film that show just how confident and strong she is. The poorest performances were Anton Yelchin as an overzealous Pavel Chekov, the new space nerd, catering to stereotypes; and Eric “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” Bana. He doesn’t have much to do though aside from grimace and jump around some, and it’s a shame because this film needed a stronger villain to challenge what will soon become the finest crew in Starfleet.

From the first scene of the film, we know this is going to be about death, how you face it and how you move on after a terrible loss. The conflict between Kirk and Spock isn’t only about their differences in logic versus emotion, but in how they accept death. Spock, who comes from a culture that reveres death and practices, in a sense, immortality, is a proponent of admitting defeat when there’s no hope for survival. Kirk, on the other hand, has lived in the shadow of death since the day he was born, when his father was killed in the line of duty, sacrificing his life so that others might live. Kirk is willing to fight long after logic dictates he should give up; he’s determined to cheat death. Spock faces it for the first time when he loses the people that mean the most to him and he doesn’t deal with the pressure well. There’s a lot of death in this film, but despite that, it still ends on a high note, filled with hope. Many of the previous films ended with the death of a character or the destruction of a ship named Enterprise; this one is probably closest to the end of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: there’s a brand new ship and its crew is exactly where they want to be, with the belief that some good can still come of all the pain they’ve suffered.

For all the weighty issues, the film fairly skims over the implications where another movie might have dwelled on them to the point of depression. At its core, this is an action movie, a summer blockbuster with its requisite amount of plot holes if you’re looking for them. This is also a very J.J. Abrams movie. Fans of his shows Alias, Lost, and Fringe might cringe at the CGI lettering of the on-screen text, perk up at the mention of Slusho, or groan at the Cloverfield-like monsters chasing Kirk on Delta Vega. (By the way, did anyone notice that the giant ball of “red matter” closely resembles Rambaldi’s Mueller device on Alias?) But Abrams knows how to direct amazing action sequences while focusing on his characters, and this film shows a sophistication in direction that makes it look like a film instead of a TV show on a big screen.

Like many Trekkies, the unraveling continuity of TOS and all that follow (while leaving the background established by Enterprise intact) doesn’t sit well with me. But as with any book-to-film adaptation, I can view this new series of films as its own thing, an offshoot akin to the Romulans spliting from Vulcan. I can continue watching DVDs of the old shows as much as I want, but they’ll always be reruns to me. I’ve seen those stories over and over again, so I’m excited that there’s now a new Trek out there that can reawaken the sense of wonder and fun that I’ve always sought in the franchise.

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Kage Baker
1. kagebaker
I went yesterday, sat through it once, and afterward had the strongest compulsion to march right out and buy another ticket in the lobby and go back in to see it again.

It worked for me. I even thought Chekov was cute (and I didn't in 1967, when I was the target audience for Walter Koenig's Monkees vibe). The science is mushy? The science was always mushy.

It's still brilliant. It works. More, please!
jazz tigan
2. tredeger
It will be interesting to see how well this movie holds up over time. I definitely had a blast in the theater - it was a hoot - but I was also aware that I was forgiving small things because the overall good so out weighted the bad. But there were small flaws which over time might come to loom large and annoy or become charming little things to enjoy as camp and goofy a la the original star wars.

It was star trek treated as fantasy more than sci-fi which is what made the original star wars work. but it also means that the science was abysmal (standard kurtzman/orci fare) and there were plot holes you can punch a starship through.

The score was truly unworthy of a Trek film - not at all memorable (though not too on the nose to make one cringe).

And did every single frame need to be shot on the dutch and on the move? It was a cool look but I do wonder if it will hold up over time. Just as I wonder if the new Enterprise will look dated in a few years - was she built in a shipyard or purchased from an Apple store? And one small quibble - why the hell was a ship being built in an Iowa field? You build those puppies in zero G.

But all in all, this Star Trek 90210 has so much more to love than to hate, so yea!
jazz tigan
3. tredeger
Oh, and I should mention that all the references to old movies and TOS were achieved with great skill. They came across as clear homages to those in the know but were organic to the flow - in a lot of other films these things tend to bring the film to a halt for the brief aside with big wink winks all over the place. From the villain's "Khan"-like "Spock! Spock!" scream to all of Bone's catch phrases, they were all just enjoyable little morsels of dialog to enjoy and smile at.
Eric Scharf
4. EricScharf
I want to see this film, and so does my son, who has seen exactly one (1) TOS episode and no other ST series or films.  If I take my son to see this film without first exposing him to, say, "the best of the ST universe" (which would take months or years), would he be mis-imprinted and fractured into a parallel nerd-universe forever out of phase with mine?
Eugene Myers
5. ecmyers
@ 1

I wanted to see it again right away too, which happens so rarely. I will see it again in theaters at least once more, hopefully on IMAX.

@ 3

Much agreed on the nostalgic references. I laughed out loud when Pike broke up the bar fight with a piercing whistle, because it sounded like the old boatswain's whistle from the communication system on the Enterprise. But I was the only one laughing, so maybe I was wrong.
Dave Thompson
6. DKT

I thought that whistle sounded familiar, too! Now I know why :)

I loved the new version. It was loads of fun. I took my dad to see it - he was the big Trek fan in our family. When it was over, he said they "nailed it" and "The enterprise never looked so good."

It's the first time in a long time that I'm seriously considering going back to the theaters for Round 2.
Bill Siegel
7. ubxs113
I've seen it twice now and I think I may finally have figured it out. We're all thrilled with the movie because they nailed the characters and the Enterprise so well. But we're all reeling from the retcon/reboot and because like you said, it's a blockbuster. The idea that - SPOILER - Vulcan is gone is hard to swallow and the fact that it has more in common with Star Wars than with TOS is tough too. All in all I really enjoyed it but this is not the same Star Trek I watched as reruns after school everyday. Maybe they can capture the same sense of exploration and feeling of loneliness, with the more philosophical and progressive view of the future in another movie or series, but I think maybe those days are gone.

EDIT - Go read Torie's review, she nails what I'm trying to say.
j p
8. sps49
I'm glad it seems to be a worthwhile Star Trek movie.

DS9, Voyager and Enterprise mostly suffered because they were being run by someone who really didn't care, similar to the Jon Peters vision for Superman (to which Abrams was also attached to, temporarily).

I mean, in the first 20 years of Star Trek, you could identify the people who never watched it because they thought the series and vessel were called Star Trek Enterprise (and featured Dr. Spock). Naming the last TV series Star Trek: Enterprise was an early giveaway to poor stewardship.
9. AMLau
I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I was never really much of a Trek fan, but this movie has turned me into one.

Which is the point of the reboot I suppose.
10. Hatgirl
The poorest performances were Anton Yelchin as an overzealous Pavel Chekov, the new space nerd, catering to stereotypes;

Really have to disagree with you about that. I thought he was fantastic!
11. trekkiechick
I thought the new movie was great. Fun and exciting and sad and touching. Loved most of the characters, especially McCoy. Karl Urban did such a great job of being the McCoy we all know and love. I did think it was screwed up that they destroyed Vulcan and didn't try to fix it. What happens to all the things that Vulcans did after that time? Guess they are all gone now. But maybe that will be the plot of the next movie--bringing Vulcan back to life! And I did not like that there was no mention of Kirk's brother. I mean, Sam is older than Jim, so his birth would not have been affected by the time change, but he was just not there. But other than that, I really enjoyed it. Best Trek movie I've seen in a long time.
Sandi Kallas
12. Sandikal
This movie brought the FUN back to Trek. I thought it was a lot of fun and I want to see more. Wasn't that the goal?
Jeff Soules
13. DeepThought
@ECMyers #5 --

I laughed out loud when Pike broke up the bar fight with a piercing whistle, because it sounded like the old boatswain's whistle from the communication system on theEnterprise.

I caught that too -- though I didn't think it was a joke; I assumed he was calling off the cadets with an official military whistle...
14. TrekBoy
An insightful review. I agree with your assessment 100%. What a pleasure to revisit Kirk, Bones and Spock again. The dynamic between those three characters is the essence of Trek.
15. Michael GReenhut
I thought it was good, not great, but maybe I'll like it more when I see it again. That tends to happen sometimes.

One major issue: Did Kirk even win a single fistfight? Shatner could beat up Khan, for crying out loud, but here he gets his cheeks handed to him in just about every fight scene.
16. Michael S. Schiffer
tredeger @2

I prefer my giant spaceships built in space too. But IIRC, it was canon in TNG that the Enterprise-D was built on Mars, so planetary surface construction wasn't unprecedented.

The Star Trek universe has gravity control, and the ships are built to take far higher than 1G acceleration while doing no worse than hurling the occasional ensign over a railing-- structurally, gravity shouldn't be much of a problem. Likewise, given the presumed energy costs of interstellar travel, the halfway-to-anywhere nature of starting in orbit doesn't really apply. Given that, it might be easier to let workers operate in shirtsleeves in Iowa and deal with the inconveniences of gravity than to have them have to be suited up all the time. (Or build a pressurized drydock to obviate that necessity.)

But basically the movie was fun enough that I'm inclined to give it a pass, handwaving where necessary. :-)
Eugene Myers
17. ecmyers
@ 15

He hasn't learned all his signature fight moves yet: the double-fisted punch, jumping down on his opponents, and grabbing onto something with his hands so he can kick with both feet. Though his dossier at the movie website claims he was an "assistant instructor in hand-to-hand combat," which makes his defeats even more embarassing.
Rajan Khanna
18. rajanyk
I thought the same thing when I saw the Red Matter. I wonder if JJ Abrams has dreams of floating red goop.
19. Matt Kressel
I thought the Red Matter looked a lot like a lava lamp from the 70s. Who knew they could form black holes?

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