Star Trek takes rebooting a franchise to new extremes with a time travel twist that lays the groundwork for unfettered expansion. It’s an interesting move for a franchise now riddled with history, and one that lets us play with beginnings in a way that answers potential conflicts.
Star Trek opens by laying the frame for our villain, establishing where we are in time, and confusing the hell out of Star Trek fans. It’s an opening the enlists investment to a surprising degree, but it’s followed by a movie that doesn’t quite live up to the pathos it predicts.
We jump to establishing scenes of James T. Kirk as young scamp, and though the scenes move outrageously toward the truly goofy side of things, they exist very purposefully. They could have been better, and we might have looked for a more provocative form of “being little rebel dude,” but the establishment of this James T. Kirk as the one altered by not having dad around is important, and well-played throughout the film.
The film plays out the backstories of our characters for a while, focusing mainly on Kirk and Spock, but also throwing in “Bones” McCoy as Kirk’s best friend. Here is where the theory of rebooting the franchise finds its footing, and shows itself a fine move. Much of what made the original series into a cult icon was its bold and crass flavor, which seeped out from Captain Kirk. A little bit Joey and a little bit James Bond, Kirk was a bit suave, in control, and could handle himself in a fight, but with a little, “How you doin?” thrown in as well. Whether the actors aged or not (we could recast for a new film without starting from scratch), the sensibility had long gone out of the franchise. Even the spin-off shows moved well into the realm of the thoroughly serious.
Chris Pine gives the best Kirk you could hope for, and considering the effort required to fill the shoes of any iconic role, that’s pretty high praise. Zachary Quinto makes a passable Spock, but to a degree falls for the popular view that acting like someone being logical and acting like an ass are more or less interchangeable. Nevertheless, the movie again goes back to its roots by truly utilizing the Spock character and his inner turmoil, rather than letting him rest as a mere gag with a neck pinch.
Soon the game is afoot, and we turn our attention back to the Romulan Nero (Eric Bana) and his apparent attempt to destroy everything with a Federation marking. Somewhat new to the franchise (with the exception of the Borg, I suppose) is the dizzying one-sidedness of the situation. If we change the perspective when the two vessels meet, you would hardly be able to notice the speck that is the Enterprise. Performing under impossible odds becomes a theme of the film, as does the discrepancy of viewpoints when confronting those odds. Much of the philosophical underpinnings are buried under admittedly cool space battles and/or completely unnecessary snow monsters, but it is there. There is an interesting dynamic presented when Spock nails himself to logic come what may for the entire film, but throws reason out the window when it comes time to rescue his parents. Whether that act proves or discredits his theory about performance under impossible odds is unclear and unexplored.
In the end, the movie is quite solid. What failings and nitpicks there may be are countered by a superior effort, a solidly “summer” script, and a legitimate attempt at infusing some character back into things. While a great deal of credit has to go to J.J. Abrams for a fine directing showpiece, I suspect that what keeps this film from going that one notch further rests on his shoulders as well. Abrams does a lot of things quite well, but as witnessed in his other efforts, he doesn’t fully understand character analysis. While character analysis rather necessarily involves looking at characters, it doesn’t end there. Nor (witness Lost in general and several key scenes here) does doing some really traumatic and/or just plain weird shit to a character and then staring at them for over a minute while they run through expressions suddenly become character study. I have the impression that when it comes to digging into a character, Abrams tries to do what great directors have done, without being very clear on the thought process behind doing it. The result is that the audience understands what they’re supposed to learn or feel, but they don’t actually learn or feel it.
Still, it’s a near miss, and it is one hell of a good time. The supporting crew members we know and love all show up with fine results, and the overall arc works, even if it does move us a little toward the odd and shlocky. Our misguidedly evil villain is only a half-shot of menacing, because we almost feel for him a bit, and it’s trickier to wrap your dislike around crazy evil, but it all functions. There are certain reservations, but if you can’t suspend disbelief to a pretty heavy degree upon entering something called “Star Trek,” it isn’t the movie’s problem.
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