Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Now Playing: Star Trek

They finally did it. But first a quickie history:

"Star Trek" began in the 1960s, ran for three years, was subsequently canned despite solid ratings (an imprecise science back then), then brought back to great fanfare as "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" in the late 1970s. The film was meant to be the rebirth of "Star Trek." Yet for all the money hurled at it, and director Robert Wise's misguided, though bold, idea to make the film a genuine science fiction picture, the result is best summed up by comic writer Harlan Ellison's derisive dubbing of it, "The Motionless Picture."

A few years later, gold was struck. The budget was considerable slashed for the sequel, sets and effects were all reused, but it didn't matter. What mattered was the greatest villain of the series, Khan, was brought back and Ricardo Montalban delivered one of the single most legendary performances to grace cinema. Good villains are a dime a dozen but the great ones are near mythic in their infrequency. Khan was such a villain and that set the stage for the rest of the film series. There would be highs (parts IV and VI) and lows (part V and some of part III), and of course there would be new shows.

I wasn't as big a fan of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" as my friends were because I understood, even if I lacked the proper TV lingo, what a "reset button" was. Every episode would do something drastic then by the end everything was fine and on their merry way the crew went. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. But then came "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and suddenly "Star Trek" was dangerous again.

For the record, the show did not start well. It took a season and a half for them to find their footing despite some stellar one-offs mixed in. But once the show figured out what it wanted, it never looked back and by the end of it primary characters were dead, worlds left in waste, and half the Federation starfleet was decimated by a war that was so large it took two (almost three) seasons to cover. The show demonstrated that creator Gene Roddenberry's vision of a Utopian human society could be achieved while still bringing some awesome drama. Unfortunately, the staggering amount of lexicon developed over the preceding decades peaked here and all subsequent shows relied more and more on tech-speak and less on drama.

The less said about the "TNG" movies, "Voyager," and "Enterprise" the better.

JJ Abrams must have said "Screw all that!" because the first thing he did with his brilliant resurrection of the franchise is ensure that it is first and foremost a "Star Trek" for everyone. This new film is confident, swaggering, and filled with so much energy and passion and rich, rich emotional drama that I can scarcely believe I saw just one film instead of five. It brings back the original characters fans grew up with and reinvigorates them with an mission sorely lacking from the most recent shows.

In short, this film is filled with win front to back and I can't wait to see it again.

It kicks off with an event that brought My Fair Lady to tears - an attack on the USS Kelvin. Through an act of selflessness, the newly minted captain goes down with the ship in a last ditch effort to at least hurt their unknown attackers. The survivors include his wife who managed to give birth and leave enough time for the captain to participate in the naming of their son - James Tiberius Kirk.

That this singular event is what changes the whole of the "Trek" universe is genius. In the original storyline, Kirk's dad was his inspiration for boldly going through the Academy. So what happens if you remove the inspiration for someone whose actions later in life would literally shape the future of a galaxy? What sort of future would you be left with?

Oh by the way, this is indeed a time travel film in the sense that time travel is involved. That it opens with a game changer and throws another one at you roughly every 15 minutes or so is par for the course. You never know what to expect here and any film that can keep viewers this on their toes deserves all the accolades one can lavish upon it.

I loved the introduction of the characters (especially the hilarious throw-away line that describes where McCoy gets his future nickname). I loved how Uhura gets more lines in the film than the original did in the entire series. I love the awful and hilarious fate of the red shirt, as well as the entire setup for the joke. I love that Christopher Pike is not just in this film, but is a key player. I love that we get to see the test by which Kirk made his name, and it is every bit as hilarious as we'd hoped for with a punchline that left me howling. I love the advanced-yet-retro feel for the equipment and the costumes. And most of all I loved the way the cast absolutely nailed their characters.

Chris Pine is going to be the next Brad Pitt, albeit with more range. I think Pitt does brooding and crazy well, but the in between is where he repeats himself. Pine has the looks for sure, but he simply oozes confidence throughout which is exactly what he has to do as one of the biggest alpha males Hollywood has ever come up with. He's not playing Shatner either. He's playing James T. Kirk and he is note-perfect. Ignore how rapid his ascension to the captain's chair is for a moment, and stand in awe at how wonderfully Pine plays it. He's also got rock solid comic timing. All of this bodes well for future installments.

Zach Quinto has the toughest job in the film. Not only does he have to play a more emotionally conflicted Spock, he has to do it up against the actual Spock. Taking on a legendary character is one thing but doing so while the original actor is in that same character has to be terrifying, but Quinto is perfect. He even has the vocal mannerisms down pat, despite lacking the timber Leonard Nimoy adds to words like "fascinating."

Karl Urban has never left much of an impression on me other than "hey, it's that guy." But he resurrects the great DeForrest Kelly and gives us Dr. McCoy anew. He's older, been beaten down by life, and Starfleet is his only recourse. His banter with both Kirk and Spock is classic and I can't wait to see this trio continue.

The other actors do what they can, but they're limited in this installment. My one major beef is that Scotty shows up over an hour into the film and he's barely given enough time to breathe. That being said, when he's on screen he kills and the way he fits into this universe is perfect. Of course, the only question regarding Simon Pegg as how funny he would make Scotty and the answer is "very." Oh, and of course he uses one of Scotty's catch-phrases at exactly the right moment.

Despite a few things worth nitpicking (the entire sequence on the ice planet, for starters, may as well have been labeled "insert exposition sequences here") this film is so filled with goodies for movie lovers that it is worth seeing again and again. I haven't even spoken about the villain (who is functional but not memorable), or the references to past "Star Trek" lore, or the way there is no sound in space, or the genius of the entire space diving sequence, or the way this film fundamentally changes the universe and keeps going at the end.

They finally did it. They finally made a "Star Trek" film the eshews the problems that plagued the various shows. They finally made a "Star Trek" with an insane budget where every cent appears on screen. They finally made a "Star Trek" that my non-Trek fan wife can't wait to see a second time. The finally made a "Star Trek" with real danger and real consequences that pulls no punches and sets the stage where anything is possible.

They finally made a "Star Trek" for everyone and it is GLORIOUS.

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