Saturday, May 09, 2009

REVIEW: Star Trek is a Winner

Warning: if you don't like spoilers, don't read this. True Trek fans don't mind the spoilers.

I'm a Star Trek fan from Day One. I vividly remember watching the Man Trap episode on Sep 8, 1966. I was only 4 years old at the time, and it was the most terrifying thing I'd seen up to that date. Today I know enough not to confuse it with hard science fiction, but I'm willing to set aside physics for Star Trek. As a hard-core fan, I'm of the opinion that you do not under any circumstances EVER mess with the original characters.

This is one of the reasons I love Star Trek Phase II, where James Cawley and a host of volunteers have not only accurately mimicked the look and feel of the original series, but have managed to bridge the gap between it and the original cast movies. So it was with not a little trepidation that I heard that J.J. Abrams was going to "reboot" Trek. Then I saw the leaked photos, like this monstrous parody of the Enterprise:
Remember what I said about not messing with the cast? It goes triple for the Enterprise. Looking at this re-design, and the horrible and cramped styling salon that passes for a bridge, I felt sure that Montgomery Scott himself would slingshot himself to 2009 and personally kick J.J. Abrams ass.
That's not the bridge of the Enterprise... it's an Apple store.

So my expectations going into this movie were basically, "this is going to suck."

Well, now I've seen the new Star Trek movie, and contrary to my expectations, it didn't suck. It didn't just entertain. It rocked! Now for the spoilers.

It's a re-boot alright. A very pissed off Romulan (Nero, played by Eric Bana), goes back in time after the destruction of Romulus. His intent is to destroy Vulcan and the Federation, thus pre-emptively avenging his homeworld. His first act: he destroys the ship on which George Kirk, father of James T. Kirk, is serving. Growing up fatherless, Jim Kirk doesn't rush off at the first possible opportunity to follow his father into Starfleet, choosing instead to be the dysfunctional "rebel without a cause". Nevertheless, he's talked into Starfleet by Christopher Pike, years after he would have otherwise joined. There he meets the crew we've all known.

Now, you can already see a departure from the original Trek universe... and it makes perfect sense. Kirk is no longer the "stack of books with legs" described by Gary Mitchell. In fact, Mitchell doesn't appear at all, having graduated in an earlier class. Kirk's assignment on the Farragut never happens, as he spent it riding motorcycles, chasing skirts, and getting drunk.

Even the design changes to the ship make sense. Here's my theory... a brilliant young engineer (let's call him "Ensign Matt Jeffries") was aboard the USS Kelvin when Nero destroyed it. Thus he was never assigned to the engineering design section of Starfleet, and all of the influences that he would have had on the design of the Enterprise were missing. Thus we have the squat, pipe-laden thing of the movie rather than something much cooler, like this:
Along the way, we discover why Spock turned down assignment to the Vulcan Science Academy, earning Sarek's ire for all those years in the original series. But a major, yet necessary, departure from the original canon prevents the same rift from forming in the new continuity. We learn why McCoy is called "Bones" (it's not short for "sawbones"). And we see Uhura and Chekov more competent than we've ever seen them before. We also get to see a bit of where Montgomery Scott may have wound up without a Captain Jim Kirk to request his posting to the Enterprise.

The casting is excellent. I had doubts about some of the choices until I saw them doing their jobs. Chris Pine is not the Kirk we remember, but he can't be, given the significant differences in their backgrounds. But over the course of the film he becomes Captain James T. Kirk, and in the final scene he is most assuredly the same officer that William Shatner brought to life. Zachary Quinto is excellent as Spock. Again, this is not exactly the Spock we remember, nor in this case does he become that Spock. This is as it should be, given the events of the film. Never mind, Leonard Nimoy as the old Spock is still around to provide continuity and step into a mentoring role. Tossing aside the calendar and considering only his personal timeline, he winds up being quite possibly the oldest Vulcan in the galaxy. Karl Urban probably provides the best characterization. He has nailed McCoy. You won't see this as an impression of DeForest Kelley, but you can't help but watch Urban and say, "Yes! THAT is McCoy!" (though I still think that physically he's a dead ringer for the original "Gary Mitchell", Gary Lockwood) Zoe Saldana will have an entirely new generation drooling over Uhura. Anton Yelchin is far removed from Walter Koenig; nevertheless, he brings the right mix of youthful exhuberance and over-achievement to the role of Pavel Chekov... if anything, the accent is thicker, but it's more authentic. John Cho doesn't have a lot to do as Sulu but be Asian and athletic, but he does both naturally. Long known to be a fencing enthusiast, in this movie Sulu has a folding katana that everybody is going to want). But my personal favorite has to be Simon Pegg as Montgomery Scott. He simply steals every scene he's in just by being there. Scotty has always been my favorite character, and having one of my favorite actors portray him was a nice extra. And while Pegg's home in Gloucester isn't exactly Glasgow, Pegg does a much more believable Scots accent than Jimmy Doohan. (I spent enough time living in the UK to appreciate the difference.) Everybody really did a first-rate job.

There are some things in here just for us Trekkers: just about every word out of McCoy's mouth; Captain Pike in a wheelchair; the way Kirk bites the apple during the Kobayashi Maru test; the Alexander Courage theme music; mention of Admiral Archer's prize beagle.

That's it for the gushing. There were a few things I think could have been subdued or done without... there's a scene in Engineering that could have been stolen from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When I saw it I couldn't help but think they were channeling Galaxy Quest. Let me just say that there's no reason for giant chompey things, and there's no reason for what's in the new Engineering, either. Perhaps it's useful to tie the Star Trek universe to the present day, but I could probably do without the product placement, as well.... although knowing that Nokia will be around in the 23rd century should put investors' minds at ease (except for that "no money in the future" thing, of course).

And here's my hard-core Trekker's complaint. There's one thing in the movie that can't be explained away with retcon or alternate timeline. At one point, Kirk is stranded on "Delta Vega", which we know from the second TV pilot as a dry, deserted world that's home to a an automated lithium cracking plant. It's located on the very edge of the Galaxy. We know it as the world where Gary Mitchell died. It's hell and gone from Vulcan. And yet in this movie it's a frozen wasteland with the planet Vulcan looming large in its sky. Rather than Delta Vega, this can only be another moon of T'Khut. They could have called it almost anything but Delta Vega and gotten away with it. But this is a minor quibble, which I'm going to put down as a bug in the Federation database.

But all in all, this movie gets two thumbs up from this Trek enthusiast.
I just wish they'd fix the ship. Maybe it'll grow on me.

Now, here's something interesting from the parallel universes department. Compare the new movie's plot with Tim Russ' Of Gods and Men (available for free download on the Internet). In OGAM, Charlie Evans goes back in time to kill Jim Kirk, removing him from the timeline and severely changing the Federation. It's worth a watch.

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