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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: Star Trek

Directed by J.J. Abrams

Spoiler warning: This review contains some minor spoilers.

Did we really need another Star Trek movie? I confess that when I first heard about this planned reboot of the Star Trek franchise, I was unconvinced. What more could there possibly be to explore about Kirk, Spock and the old Star Trek gang? Weren’t the last couple of attempts at Trek films enough to convince anyone in their right mind that the series has had its day, and it’s past time to move on?

Having seen the new Star Trek now, I must admit that I was wrong, because J.J. Abrams, boldly going where others have gone before (and frequently failed), successfully reboots the franchise in this action-packed tweaking of the Trek universe.

In the process of making everything old new again and opening the door for more exploration of characters many of us saw very little reason to take another look at, Abrams ably accomplishes what was surely the mission of the new Star Trek — which is less a prequel than a re-set: a re-imagining of an alternate path for the original characters that would allow for continued exploration of Kirk and crew without retreading the same paths.

For the most part, it works. The script plays around with ideas of time travel to create an alternate lifeline for James T. Kirk (William Shatner in the original series, reimagined here by Chris Pine) — one in which his father died minutes after baby Kirk was born, thus altering the trajectory of Kirk’s life. Once things get rolling, all the old familiar Star Trek crew come into play, played by a new set of actors who generally do a solid job breathing new life into old characters.

This is the biggest weakness of the storyline (and, not coincidentally, with any story that mucks around with the murky ideas of time travel and parallel universes): if we’re now in an alternate timeline because of the events that conspired to eliminate Kirk’s dad just as Kirk is being born, it’s reasonable to argue that any premise that still puts all the old familiar names — Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, Chekov and Uhura — back together with Kirk on the bridge of the Enterprise must be overtly contrived.

The screenwriters take the most sensible approach to this conundrum: up to the point that Kirk enters the Academy, there’s no reason to assume that everyone else’s life paths would have been affected by Kirk’s father dying — in fact, what we see of young Spock in scenes that alternate with young Kirk is actually prequel and not reboot, because Spock’s story doesn’t get the shift that changes his own storyline until later in the film.

Ergo, all that’s left to do is make sure Kirk ends up in the Academy at the same time as everyone else, and trust in the serendipity of the Universe to bring them all together. The writers handle that bit by putting the rowdy Kirk in a bar full of Starfleet Academy students and starting a fight that has to be broken up by an officer, who in turn goads Kirk into taking up the Starfleet gauntlet by invoking the ghost of his father.

It would have been interesting to see the screenplay draw more on the differences between this Kirk, who lost his father, and old Kirk, who did not, but then again, Abrams and the writing team were also trying to walk the line between attracting new fans and not pissing off the Old Guard too much, and it’s reasonable to expect they didn’t want to muck about too much with established personalities.

At any rate, we never get to see any real conflict from Kirk around why he resents the idea of going into Starfleet, other than (we assume) his resentment of Starfleet taking his father from him and this, too, weakens the story, though I’ll hold out hope that future sequels will better explore those possibilities.

I actually liked the casting of the new actors in old parts very much. I realize this will be seen as blasphemy by some old Star Trek fans, but I never much cared for William Shatner‘s Kirk; I’m much more a fan of Patrick Stewart‘s Jean-Luc Picard. So it’s perhaps not surprising that within a very few minutes of screen time, I already liked Chris Pine‘s take on the Horatio Hornblower-inspired future starship captain.

Pine plays Kirk as a young man shadowed by his father’s death within moments of his own birth, and the inevitable sense of guilt the young Kirk must have grown up with knowing that his father died, in part, to allow him and his mother to survive. There’s still much there of the original Kirk in how Pine plays him, but this Kirk is less the cocky would-be hero and more reckless rebel without a cause  — at least until he finds, through Starfleet,  a more constructive path to follow than wrecking his stepdad’s classic car. Pine has great leading-man charisma, and he smartly chooses not to play Kirk as an imitation of Shatner, but to give the character his own stamp and style. And it works.

Zachary Quinto makes a believable conflicted young Spock, and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman draw on the emotional conflict in the half human-half Vulcan, using schoolyard bullying and the contrast between Spock’s demonstrative, loving human mother Amanda (here, played by Winona Ryder) and his cooly logical ambassador father Sarek (Ben Cross) to build the tension in Spock to an explosive and emotional moment in the third act.

The implications of this storyline for Spock are intriguing, in particular how the earlier loss of his mother will affect his desire to be more Vulcan than human. It’s going to be interesting to see how this plot point plays out in affecting the character of Spock over time. Will this new Spock be more willing to embrace his emotional human side than the old Spock, who was driven largely by his complicated relationship with his father? Time will tell, but the possibilities are delicious to ponder.

As for the rest of the old Trek gang, Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) shows great comedic timing as Scotty (though I could have done without his dorky alien friend, to be honest), and Karl UrbanJohn Cho and Anton Yelchin —  as Bones McCoy, Sulu and the excitable Chekov, respectively, nail their parts. Leonard Nimoy even gets a chance to reappear, as the older Spock from the future.

My one complaint around the characters has to do with Zoe Saldana as Uhura — since we’re rebooting the series and all, and given that the story is set in this idealized version of the future and not, say, the early 1960s, couldn’t we give a chick as smart as Uhura more to do? Yes, she’s presented here as a very smart female character and she’s promoted quickly in a crisis because she knows several dialects of Romulan, but she still spends half the movie making cow eyes at Spock while Kirk pines for her.

I like Spock and all, and I get the dramatic tension of a romantic triangle, but can’t we have a strong female character in a Trek film who doesn’t spend half her time mooning after some guy? Maybe down the road they can find a way to use the time travel device to bring in Ensign Ro from ST:TNG to kick some ass here and there, because one thing this Star Trek still lacks is some tough-as-nails female characters.

The script sets Kirk and Spock at odds with each other, creating a level of conflict that often felt missing from the original series, set as it was in a Utopian future world where hunger and poverty have been eliminated and we are all one. Even the conflicts and debates between McCoy and Spock on the old series served more to allow the characters to serve as dueling sides of Kirk’s conscience, rather than feeling character-driven in and of themselves. I like the Trek ideal — it’s one of the things that’s always drawn me to the series — but I also like having the main characters have this conflict between them that becomes what almost gets in the way of saving the day.

Eric Bana rocks as the bad-ass Romulan Nero, who’s become so consumed by pain and anger over lost love that he can’t see anything but revenge. Is Nero rational? Of course not. Is he right to do what he does? No. But revenge as a dramatic device is seldom purely rational, driven as it is by unfettered emotion, and the writers use this to good effect both in driving Nero as the bad guy who keeps coming back and, in a nice play on the ongoing intellectual-emotional conflict between the Romulans and Vulcans, using Nero’s hunger for revenge as the reason he targets the  cooly logical Vulcans — one of whom he blames for the searing pain that burns his soul — in the most hot-headed and irrational of ways.

Star Trek looks and sounds great, both in the bigger, shoot-’em-up battles and the tighter hand-to-hand combat sequences. No, the bridge of the Enterprise doesn’t look like it did on the old series. It looks better. And complaints about Abrams filming too close to the action aside, the action sequences are pretty damn stunning. The battle sequences in the first seven or so minutes of opening sequence, with Kirk’s mother laboring to bring him into the world while his father fights to buy enough time to save everyone, are worth the price of admission alone.

If I sound more enthused about the possibilities this reboot creates for future Trek films than for this film in and of itself, that’s largely because this particular story, much as it’s positioned to be about Kirk and Spock, doesn’t quite dare to think through the implications of alternate realities enough to delve deeply into the inherent issues of personality and character development that the time-travel storyline offered, instead opting to focus on battle scenes and special effects. And those are all cool, and fun, and it’s an enjoyable movie overall, but I’m more excited about how a new series of Trek movies picking up from this point could explore those ideas — if they’ll go there.

This Star Trek does, at least, reinvent these familiar characters and open the door to following them down paths previously uncharted; Abrams has done a good job in setting the stage, and I’m willing to bet that a lot of old Trek fans, along with new ones picked up by this film, will be eager to follow the adventures of this new Kirk, Spock and crew. Bring on the sequels.

-by Kim Voynar

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