Sunday, May 3, 2009

Guest Review: Star Trek (2009)

Note - this is a guest review, borrowed from one R.L. Shaffer of DVD Future and IGN. Basically, he's a friend of mine and I asked if I could borrow his review since family obligations will prevent me from attending Monday night's All-media IMAX screening (sincere apologies to Warren and Melissa, although they should have invited me to an earlier screening). Now I am free to wait until Thursday evening, when a friend and I will check out the Thursday 8:30pm showing like normal movie goers (in exchange, he poached my Wolverine review from last week). Since I wanted to avoid any and all spoilers, I am running it as written (according to Mr. Shaffer, it's pretty spoiler-free). So please enjoy an early peak courtesy of an old friend. -- Scott

Star Trek
126 minutes
Rated PG-13

About midway through Lost creator J.J. Abrams’ glossy Star Trek reboot, a wave of sadness erupted over me. It was during a pivotal, saddening moment between Uhura and Spock -- a pause immediately following a scene of grandiose sci-fi spectacle the "Star Trek" franchise had only previously dreamed of. In this moment, I thought of my uncle.

I was more or less introduced to Star Trek through my Uncle Mike. A few friends at school were big fans of "The Next Generation" series, which was still airing new episodes back then. I grew somewhat interested in finding out what this cult sci-fi series had to offer. But before I could really get into that series, my uncle instructed me to head back to the original classic series and start there, which I did. I watched as many classic "Trek" episodes as I could (whatever my local library had, anyway), then traipsed through the films (Star Trek VI had just been released in theaters).

By the time I got to the "Next Generation," my fondness for the old crew had grown quite intense and I didn’t fully connect to the "Next Gen" material in the same way my friends did. To this day, I still prefer the classic series to anything that followed, even though many of the "Next Generation" episodes and a few of the films are quite good. I still fondly recall watching "Trek" with my uncle, be it on TV at family gatherings or in theaters. Sadly, nearly ten years ago this May, my uncle passed away. Every time I watch something "Trek," I think of him.

As I watched this touching moment between Uhura and Spock, I grew upset not only because the scene was brilliantly layered with genuine heartfelt emotion and passion, but because my uncle did not live to see "Star Trek" in such grand, epic fashion. He would have been truly amazed by what J. J. Abrams and his cast and crew have accomplished with this film.

Despite some concern that Abrams’ reboot would blast "Trek" into the brainless doldrums of summer blockbusters, this "Trek" is, at its core, just as thick-headed and nerdy as ever -- it’s just realized on a scale both fans, and newcomers, have never seen. It’s almost cliché to say "this ain’t your father’s ‘Star Trek’," and thankfully, that statement can’t really be applied here. This IS your father’s "Star Trek," the way he dreamed it could be.

To avoid any intense spoilers, I’ll skim the plot covering only material that can be seen in the film’s trailers. Basically, a Romulan baddie named Nero (Eric Bana) travels back in time seeking vengeance on Spock. He arrives rather abruptly in the past and immediately attacks a ship, killing Kirk’s father in the process and altering the course of history. Instead of growing up through the ranks of Starfleet, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, fitting in nicely, but not quite capturing Shatner’s essence) grows up a country boy with no ambition, that is until a chance meeting with Captain Pike (the ever capable Bruce Greenwood) joggles his interest in Starfleet. Shoot three years later, everyone’s aboard the Enterprise and once again facing off against Nero, who’s still blindly out to kill Spock.

The story is fairly banal, treading well worn revenge territory and often borrowing a few too many plot devices from previous "Trek" entries. Some of the social awareness of the series is gone as well, though the film does attempt to say something slightly more universal about the nature of character and friendship. Unfortunately, the film’s villain, Nero, basically plays as a halfcocked, underused, two-dimensional version of Khan (the villain of Star Trek II) by way of Soran (the villain of Star Trek: Generations), and his henchman (played by Clifton Collins Jr.) plays a bit too much like Ron Perlman’s henchman baddie in Star Trek: Nemesis.

Thankfully, it’s the film’s heroic characters and sheer epic scale that catapult this feature to greatness. The heated, altered parallel-universe dynamic between Kirk and Spock drives the film and proves incredibly mesmerizing, lead by two solid performances and a token cameo from Leonard Nimoy playing a future version of Spock. These two men aren’t just imitating what’s been done in the past. They add a new dimension and give their respective roles far more weight than we’ve ever seen before. These aren’t just templates; they’re flesh and blood characters designed to fascinate both old audiences, and new.

As are the rest of the crew of the USS Enterprise.

Some actors play the roles a bit thinner than expected, particularly Anton Yelchin who makes his Chekov more of a caricature. Sadly, while Simon Pegg’s Scotty is a bona fide scene-stealer, his character is played for a few too many laughs -- laughs that will certainly grow stale by the time this film makes it to home video.

But others, particularly John Cho (Sulu), Karl Urban (McCoy), Bruce Greenwood (Captain Pike) and Zoe Saldana (Uhura) deliver brand new takes on classic characters, matching, and in the case of Sulu and Uhura, offering much more depth and character than their previous incarnations.

In between the film’s memorable characters is the picture’s complex and lavish production design, from several breathtaking action sequences to outstanding, Oscar worthy set design and costume design. The Enterprise itself is the film’s single best asset. The bridge, engineering room, teleport bay -- everything is absolutely jaw dropping, clean, pristine and given extraordinary life thanks to realistic backdrops that actually seem to have a purpose (unlike the original series). Again, this is "Trek" full realized and handled with care, mounted on a massive budget the likes of which most sci-fi franchises have never seen.

It’s hard to say whether or not Star Trek will appeal to the general masses. The story is certainly epic in scale, driven by numerous edge-of-your-seat moments, both character and action driven. But the film is still built upon "nerdy" concepts and conceits, some of which may divide audiences. For Trekkers however, particularly longtime fans who’s dreamed of a massive "Trek" adventure, this film is sure to please.

The story is riddled with entertaining in-jokes, most of which actually play well with newcomers (and don’t cheaply wink at the fans), and the film comes packed with the promise of bigger, better sequels, much like director Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins.

Star Trek is not a perfect film, but it’s an enormously entertaining adventure, surely better than any previous odd-numbered "Trek" feature. Hopefully this series will prove profitable, ushering in generations of new Trekkers. And maybe one day I can introduce my children (or my nieces and nephews) to the world of "Trek," just as my uncle did for me.

Grade: A-

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