Friday, May 8, 2009

Star Trek: Exciting new voyages

Star Trek (2009) • View trailer for Star Trek
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.8.09
Buy DVD: Star Trek • Buy Blu-Ray: Star Trek (Three-Disc Edition) [Blu-ray]

As the camera pulled away from those on the bridge, shifting to an exterior shot of the Enterprise preparing to warp into deep space, Michael Giacchino's operatic underscore segued to those oh-so-familiar soft opening notes of Alexander Courage's main theme from TV's original Star Trek ... and Wednesday evening's Sacramento preview audience erupted in applause, many folks making it a standing ovation.

They spoke for us all: It had been a helluva great ride.
Things may be dire for the Federation, but a youthful A-team is about to
demonstrate its valor: from left, Chekov (Anton Yelchin), James T. Kirk (Chris
Pine), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho) and
Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Rest assured, the off-camera Spock also has an important
role to play.

I wish Gene Roddenberry still were around to have witnessed the box-office sensation that this new film is destined to be. He'd have been so proud.

Call this the age of the re-boot: It worked for James Bond, and it certainly works for Star Trek. TV franchise creator J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost, Fringe), having also demonstrated his big-screen chops by helming Mission: Impossible III, has revived the Trek franchise with a bravura thrill-ride that should please longtime fans while also attracting plenty of newbies.

Considerable credit also goes to screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who've concocted a universe-threatening peril while also finding time for plenty of the character dynamics that made the original 1960s show  and its many successors  so entertaining, for so many people, and for so long.

Orci and Kurtzman obviously studied the 1960s Kirk/Spock/McCoy triumvirate, because  even though these are new and younger actors, speaking entirely different lines  we can close our eyes and imagine, just for a moment, that William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley have returned to the screen. At times, it's positively spooky.

None of which really matters to the film and story at hand, of course; such echoes merely are the cherry on top of a fresh, richly fulfilling confection that viewers will devour.

This new Star Trek answers the speculation surrounding any longtime literary or movie property that began "in the midst," as it were: Where did these characters come from, originally, and how did they meet?

Orci and Kurtzman answer such questions, and quite cleverly, while delivering the best big-screen Trek adventure since 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Things begin with a heart-stopping wallop, as a Federation starship unexpectedly encounters a massive Romulan mining vessel helmed by a revenge-fueled maniac named Nero (Eric Bana, suitably nasty); within minutes, the starship captain is no more, and his second  George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth)  lives just long enough to supervise and protect a shuttlecraft evacuation that includes his very pregnant wife.

Nero remains behind, triumphant, and consumed by a mission we don't yet know.

Flash-forward a few decades where, back on Earth, James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) has grown into a delinquent tearaway: an Iowa farm boy who frequents the local bar hoping to pick fights with Starfleet Academy recruits. One evening, he encounters a beautiful linguist named Uhura (Zoe Saldana), winds up in another fight, and then has a telling conversation with Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood).

Pike, who knew and admired Kirk's father, issues a challenge: Join the Academy, and you could be on a starship in four years.

Kirk, when he shows up the following morning, arrogantly promises to complete his courses in three years. En route to the San Francisco Starfleet campus, he immediately bonds with old-style "country doctor" Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban).

Elsewhere, on planet Vulcan, the only son of ambassador Sarek (Ben Cross) and his Earth wife, Amanda (Winona Ryder), has grown up tortured by the conflicting inner battle between his father's cold logic and his mother's undisguised emotions. Spock (Zachary Quinto), persecuted by his peers for being a "half-breed" and also regarded with condescension or even contempt by Vulcan elders, eventually seeks a career in Starfleet: a path that sends him to the same San Francisco Academy.

Kirk and Spock eventually meet and clash over the former's unorthodox "solution" to a training exercise designed by the latter  and longtime Trek fans will smile with recognition as we watch Kirk's third attempt at this Kobayashi Maru test  but such theoretical sessions are derailed by an emergency distress call from Vulcan.

Although technically on suspension, Kirk is smuggled onboard the starship Enterprise by a helpful McCoy, where both join a crew commanded by Pike that includes Spock, Uhura, a helmsman named Sulu (John Cho) and a 17-year-old whiz kid named Chekov (Anton Yelchin, utterly adorable), whose Russian accent is so thick that he frequently has trouble with computer voice-scan recognition protocols.

The Enterprise joins half a dozen other starships for an emergency trip to Vulcan ... while Kirk, intuitively piecing together several bits of relevant information, realizes that something is very, very wrong.

Unfortunately, his reputation having preceded him so conspicuously, Kirk is the last person to be believed by Pike or his second, Spock. Indeed, the latter has absolutely no respect for Kirk, and the feeling is mutual.

Pine is simply perfect as the swaggering, boyishly insolent Kirk: The young actor manages the impressive feat of turning impulsive rule-breaking into a virtue, while also displaying the intrinsic charisma that makes a born leader. Pine is a rogue to the core, but a lucky, perceptive and intelligent one.

He's also blessed with a sensual leer that mentally undresses every woman he encounters  with little regard for planetary species  and we can see him maturing into the career Lothario that Shatner made the older Kirk.

But if Pine has Kirk's essential attitudes down perfectly, Quinto does him one better: He sounds, behaves and looks like a dead ringer for the younger Vulcan who eventually will become Nimoy's Spock. The one change  quite reasonable, given Spock's youth  is that Quinto's version hasn't yet mastered his emotions; wounded pride and exasperation frequently are evident, and he's soon to face a crisis that would challenge even the most stoic aged Vulcan.

Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman cleverly layer the subsequent action, balancing cosmos-shattering events with more compressed  and therefore more easily understood  "minor" challenges: a harrowing skirmish on an unusual drilling platform, which gives Sulu a chance to shine; or Kirk's unexpected detour to the icy planet Delta Vega, where he encounters two otherworldly creatures ... one merely terrifying, the other far worse.

Planet Vega also introduces the final key player in this drama: Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (Simon Pegg), a crack engineer and physicist who has been banished to this remote Federation outpost for a stunt involving a long-range transporter and a superior officer's pet dog.

In a way, it was smart of Abrams to delay Scotty's appearance, because the irrepressible Pegg steals every scene he's in from that point forward. He's not merely comic relief; he lightens the increasingly tense mood of a story that has become, by now, quite grim.

Scott Chambliss' production design is sensational, whether dealing with unique planetary environments  Earth, Vulcan, Delta Vega  or the differing architecture present in Federation starships or the huge Romulan mining vessel. Some sequences are delightful throwaways, as with our glimpse of the Enterprise engine room, where Scotty's close encounter with a cooling pipe actually was filmed at a Budweiser beer plant.

The enormous Romulan vessel, chillingly dubbed the Narada, is an inside-out nightmare based on Spanish architect Gaudi's arresting designs. It looks evil, from our first glimpse, much the way the planetary landscape in Alien  based on H.R. Giger's work  felt similarly malevolent.

Although Orci and Kurtzman acknowledge numerous classic Trek conventions  one cannot help but grin at Uhura's green-skinned Orion roomie, or groan with dismay when we meet a red-uniformed officer at a dire juncture  these writers also mess with established lore. One cannot, as a result, count on what we know about these characters in their "future," as revealed by decades of movies and TV episodes.

To put it another way, bad things will happen to some of these good characters.

Much of Giacchino's music is a bit too liturgical for my taste: appropriately moody and ominous as necessary, but rarely as exciting as one might hope, when events turn in our heroes' favor. I was surprised, given the wonderfully suspenseful score Giacchino delivered for The Incredibles. His work here needs more symphonic fanfares.

But if that's the only thing to kvetch about  and it is  I can hardly complain.

This new Star Trek rocks. May it live long, and prosper ... with numerous sequels.

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