Review: Star Trek 2009

Note: I’ve marked this as an “unearthed blog post,” but I’ve not yet had a chance to revise it. I’ll very likely do so in the near future, especially given that J.J. Abrams has since directed another Trek movie along with two Star Wars movies.

A resounding success.

I love how Abrams, in the lead-up to the release, said he made a Star Trek movie for people who didn’t like Star Trek, and then the movie we got was steeped in more Trek mythology than any of ’em. We got a look at Vulcan, at Romulans, at Starfleet Academy, the Kobayashi Maru exam, we got a reminder that Kirk’s from Iowa, we got the xenolinguistics stuff from Star Trek: Enterprise added to Uhura (a welcome addition to the comm officer’s duties), we got a mention of the Kolinar ceremony, and we got Pike, in a wheelchair and wearing the admiral’s uniform from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

But Abrams somehow made all this work by keeping the exposition largely offscreen. He never lingered on some random detail, instead trusting his audience to recognize the layered tapestry of the world that Trek has become. He trusted his audience to go along with the fun and not worry whether or not they could remember which stardate was which. Now, let’s get into specifics: • A great cast, across the board. I enjoyed seeing how the different lead actors chose to channel the characters they were assigned. To wit:

• Zachary Quinto. Pretty much the most on-the-nose casting choice. He didn’t have to stretch far to find the young Spock, and I was relieved to see that he avoided the trap that ensnared Nimoy in ST:TMP. In the original Trek movie, Nimoy decided to put Spock in a bad mood for the whole flick, and that – among other things – really derailed that movie. I knew that Abrams, et al, were going to present a conflicted, troubled Spock, and I was happy to see Quinto play Spock with the right amount of warmth.

• Karl Urban. Over the years, I’ve seen both Godfather and Godfather part 2. After I saw the first one, I asked a friend of mine if Robert De Niro looks like he’s doing an impression of Marlon Brando in part 2, and my friend replied, “Bob, De Niro is so good, he makes you think Brando was doing an impression of him.” We can debate the accuracy of that statement, but I think Urban captured the spirit of that approach. His performance came the closest to outright impression, and yet he was merely channeling the same soul that Kelley played for so many years – and Urban still gave it some touches to make it his own. Little did we know that Urban’s one of the best character actors working out there.

• Chris Pine. Wisely, Pine chose to approach his performance like a role from theater. Let me explain: In theater, there are countless iconic roles, but any actor who plays the part would never do an impression of another great performance – they’d just play the part. As far as I’m concerned, James T. Kirk is one of the great iconic characters from theater, and we finally got to see a new face in the role. A great performance.

• Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, Bruce Greenwood … and even Simon Pegg. I thought Saldana was a leeeetle weak, but besides her, I thought all these performances were top-notch, and what’s great about these roles is how all of these characters get to really flesh them out for the first time. (I can explain more about that later.) • Eric Bana. A surprising bust. More on this soon.

• Farhan Tahir. Don’t remember him? He played the captain of the Kelvin in the opening sequence. Let me explain why his performance is so crucial to this movie: In the annals of Trek, this was a standard, go-to opening we had seen many times – a disposable (“redshirted,” if you will) starship happens upon something scary in space and gets blown up.

But Abrams presented this opening with radically fresh imagery – the ship canted in at a weird, vertiginous angle while loads of aural input flooded our ears. It felt like we were on an attack sub and a space station at the same time. Moreover, Tahir had to deliver a lot of typical starship-captain mumbo-jumbo: “Polarize the viewscreen,” “Fire all phasers,” etc. If Tahir doesn’t come in and own that role, then the movie’s off to a bad start. But he nailed it. Moving on …

• No tricorders. Yes, yes, yes – we saw some medical tricorders, but this movie featured no scenes where the crew beamed in somewhere and started scanning with tricorders. A wise choice, as I imagine those are some of the most alienating, dense and hard-to-follow scenes for non-Trek-fans. • Like I said, Eric Bana was a bust. Too bad. He’s a fine actor, but he just sounded so goofy delivering his lines.

Furthermore, the movie really sagged in the middle, when we got Nero’s big, long expository scene followed by Spock Prime’s big, long expository scene. Don’t get me wrong – I liked the mind-meld, but I still thought the movie sagged in the middle. The torture imagery associated with Nero was also perfunctory and tired. As with many other Trek movies, we watched the villain gloat over the prone form of an imprisoned hero – in this case, Nero over Capt. Pike – and Nero tortured him with a creepy-crawly reminiscent of the earwigs from Wrath of Khan, but unlike the opening sequence, none of this felt fresh. It just felt tired and tried before. I have more to add, but that’s a start. Anyone care to comment?

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