Sunday, May 10, 2009

Movie Review: Star Trek


It is traditional that every review of this film starts with the writer's history with Star Trek, so here's mine.

I've always been a Trek fan, though nowhere near the obsessive level - many of the original episodes are exercises in kitsch - saying more about the sixties than they do about the future, and the later series, while technically superior were always slightly more political than exciting and verged on camp excess at the best of times.

Still, as a fun way to spend an hour as a child I loved it - starting with The Next Generation, which I watched in its entirety, and the later spin off Deep Space Nine which upped the politics at the expense of space battles. And there were always the original episodes repeated occasionally.

So you could say I know my subject to some extent, having a casual fan's experience, and after the hideous examples made by the most recent movies under the old "canon" (like Star Trek: Insurrection)the idea of a reboot (a very popular move since Batman Begins) came as a pleasant surprise.

Oh and for the true die hard fans, my favourite Star Trek Movie is VI: The Undiscovered Country, in case you're wanting to know. And it still is.

Maybe, for those not poisoned by the Trek bug, I should explain the word "canon" here, because we'll be talking about it later. It's simply the word used to cover the "official" timeline of events through all the shows and movies, adhered to reasonably well and protected by legions of fans who will scream at any new material violating the precious central throughlines (preventing, say, Kirk being a twin or something).

Sometimes in movie franchises (I'm looking at you, George Lucas) this can get a little confused and is subject to what is known as "retrospective continuity"; like Han Solo shooting first, or all the different versions of Bruce Wayne's family getting killed. These are done retrospectively to serve the new, updated, purposes of the filmmakers.

When done badly it really grates with folk - my personal favourite gripe is with Lucas' rejigging of Return Of The Jedi, so the Anakin we see is Hayden Christiansen rather than the old guy originally seen. The problem with that being that Hayden Christiansen is the same age he was in Episode III, raising more questions than we supposedly answered.

Anyhow, suffice to say that any Trek movie that alters the "canon" would be viewed very badly in the eyes of the series' fans. In fact, the fan effect could poison all the other pre-existing franchises if done really badly (those Trekkies/Trekkers can bite!)

Now, onto the order of the day - the new movie. It is directed by one J.J. Abrams, the world ruling creator of LOST, a series that is now onto its umptweenth mind bending season and the producer/brains behind Cloverfield - the neo monster movie from a coupla years back.

It concerns the early years at Starfleet for James T. Kirk, Spock and all the rest as they fly their very first mission aboard the new flagship Enterprise.

So the first thing that hits you when you see such a thing announced is the casting - Zachary Quinto as Spock is perfect, hitting the right note of barely concealed emotion while equally having a cocky, aloof bearing caused by his perceived superiority over the more emotional species.

Uhura is less so, being a little two dimensional despite the obvious burden of being the only meaningful female character present. Suffering, no doubt, from the fallout of the strange blind spot Trek has when it comes to the equality of gender. I will paraphrase my good friend Dave here, since he puts it well - while the federation is supposed to stand for equality amongst all race, creeds and species, it still forces its female officers to wear minidresses (especially the nurses uniforms!) and reduces them to little more than set dressing for Kirk to gawk at.

Ah yes, Kirk. Now, The Shat (that's William Shatner) is not an acting giant. In fact, his range is roughly the same of a water pistol filled with golden syrup, but he has something you cannot buy - that's charisma. My jury is very much out on his replacement, Chris Pine, who is reminiscent of nothing so much as the frat boy who thinks drinking is the pinnacle of civilisation - even after he's cleaned up a bit.

In fact, while Scotty's presence is a godsend and while he is played by one of my favourite comedy actors (the great Simon Pegg) the really great bit of castingis that of McCoy, for whom Karl Urban - Eomer in Lord Of The Rings and a massive Trek fan - really gets to show off an impression.

But the film isn't, and shouldn't be all about recreating the original series in mind numbing detail. What this film is about, is totally restarting everything from scratch - and it does so in a more impressive and final way than you could ever imagine, unless like me you take great pleasure in imagining the plots that could most upset the true obsessives. And this one is a fine example of that!

Now, that's a little unfair perhaps, since noone is trying to upset anyone here, but the destruction of a certain, shall we say crucial, planet is such a bold move it had to be applauded and drives home the very important message;

We are starting with a blank slate.

With this in mind, from the very first moment of the movie it is clear that history is being rewritten, and in such a way that the new canon fits the old one fine. This timeline can coexist with the pre-existing ones without either taking damage.

An audacious and successful move!

OK, so far so good, but is the experience any fun? Well, yes, frankly. In the past few weeks, those funny chaps at the Onion released THIS little gem on their site. It's a funny fake news story, but the central theme holds true - this film is "fun (and) watchable".

The CGI is excellently done and battles are exhilarating and played out in believable fashion. It helps that The Enterprise herself is a gorgeous design concept, still managing to look modern despite the passing of time since its design. What they are up against is very unfavourable odds, given where (and when) their opposition originated and I liked the way they had to avoid confrontation as much as possible.

Technobabble, always a curse of the series, has been reduced to a minimum except that required for the occasional joke or major plot development - Star Trek has always been the industry leader in Deus Ex Machina plot devices and this is no different.

In-jokes i am less comfortable with since they are in the "pandering to fans" bracket, but I had a chuckle at the arrival of a "redshirt" and his inevitable fate - I smiled at "I'm a doctor, not a physicist" and "I'm giving all she's got Captain" with the rest of 'em.

I just found myself wishing, screaming, for a single female character. Uhura being just an object (come on, there's extended scenes of her undressing, for god's sake!) in this one and being crowbarred into a bizarre out of nowhere relationship which for the sake of obsessive Trek fan and occasionally disturbing twitterer "Mrs Picard" I will describe in these terms: U/S WTF OMG!!!

Other than her we've just got the Spock's mum, played by Winona Ryder - perfectly servicable character but hardly the sort of "strong female" we really require here. Plus her aging appearsto have been done wth a CGI algorithym that constantly shifts about, causing wrinkles and lines to both appear and disappear as her face moves - a most distracting state of affairs.

Oh, and I must mention Captain Pike - played here by Bruce Greenwood. He is the original captain of The Enterprise and a cult figure amonst Trek fans (he was really in just one episode - the unaired pilot or the later one using footage from it) so it was great to see him here and with such a fine actor in place to play him.

I think this film is going to do what it set out to. The series will be rebooted successfully (and a sequel is already in pre-production) and they have probably won many new fans who have never seen any Star Trek or given it a moments thought before.

That being said, I don't think people who have tried Trek out and disliked it will be converted - while it adds several new ideas and tears up many old ones it is still Star Trek, and as such will still leave many cold. Fair play, not every movie is for everyone.

For me, I really enjoyed it - though it suffers undoubtedly from "first in a series" syndrome, and the Kirk driving a car as a kid bit was appallingly trite. Other problems include the usual plot shortcuts in all Sci-Fi (chiefly why did they drop Kirk off at exactly the most useful planet) and some very much "trying too hard" moralising from the bad guy, who incidentally could be any villain from any film ever, so dull is he.

Still, I think it's worth seeing, and has enough spectacle and backstory for the new, while scratching the itches of many old fans, me included.

Worth seeing then, is all.



  1. it would seem that Chris Pine's Capt. Kirk encapsulates all that Capt. Kirk was meant to be more than William Shatner's version

  2. What are you basing "it would seem" on?

    I'm interested in your view.


  3. Saw it last night - liked it immensely.

    I agree that it would be nice to see any other women on the Enterprise at all, but maybe, having established the 'new' circumstances under which new characters can now be added, they will begin to introduce more women in the next one.

    Given that they had to introduce and utilise all 6(?) of the main characters, plus having something resembling a plot, within the space of one movie it's probably not really fair to expect too much more this time round!