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FILMEDGE.NET'S MISSION: TREK 2009 REVIEW OF J.J. ABRAMS' STAR TREK OPENING IN THEATERS MAY 7th

STAR TREK The Original Series - Season One on Blu-ray
Review by Scott Weitz        May 3, 2009      4 stars  (4 1/2 stars)

STAR TREK one-sheet poster

ABRAMS CHARTS A NEW AND EXCITING DESTINY FOR STAR TREK

As the young crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise blasts into theaters worldwide later this week, they face a challenge to forge their own destinies in the galaxy and STAR TREK proves they are more than ready for action.  Director J.J. Abrams with his script lieutenants Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have indeed charted a new destiny for Paramount's venerable sci-fi franchise, incorporating the best of classic Trek yet exploring new worlds with a new cast who have claimed the universe for themselves.

While the action barrels forward at full throttle, the characters give the motion meaning as Jim Kirk and Spock's personality friction ignites the drama which fuels STAR TREK's cultural and franchise relevance.  The Orci/Kurtzman script deftly shuffles up the introduction of these iconic crewmates across the board, but always with story in mind, then Abrams masters their mix like Scotty keeps a warp core humming. The result is a brash sci-fi adventure battling a dangerous villain who threatens the peace and future of the galaxy.

This maiden voyage of the new Enterprise hits many familiar notes (subtly and boldly) which should please established Trekkers, while the journey will engage summer audiences aiming for new frontiers.  The key to Abrams' film is the blurring of lines between classic and 21st century TREK: he and his crew have made their indelible stamp on the franchise's destiny but without sacrificing all that the William Shatner era wrought forty years ago.  Same universe, very similar characters but the safety setting of endless reruns is now off, along with all bets on how familiar events will now play out with this new crew. 

Credit to Paramount, who saw Abrams dealt them a strong film and the studio played it perfectly by delaying its release from late 2008 to this May: STAR TREK may not be a perfect film but, like Captain Pike implores Kirk, it dares this summer's films to do better.


Karl Urban as Leonard "Bones" McCoy Chris Pine as James T. Kirk Zachary Quinto as Spock

As before when the series first aired in the late 1960s, STAR TREK derives its dramatic power from the troika of leading characters, in this voyage Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, Chris Pine as James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock.  While Urban may get less screen time than the other two, arguably he does the best job translating the character DeForest Kelley originated while investing his own skilled spin on the cantankerous medic.  Urban's introductory scene with Pine aboard a Starfleet shuttle nails the attitude of the curmudgeonly doctor while laying the groundwork for future McCoy rants and rile ups in missions to come.  The actor also exhibits great comic timing with Pine which successfully establishes his physician/confidant relationship with the Captain to-be-named Kirk, an origin tale barely hinted at in the classic television series by creator Gene Roddenberry and his writers.  Never an impersonation and always a talented tribute, Karl Urban nearly steals the show from his shipmates and salutations are rightfully earned.

Surprisingly and delightfully, it's the cross-purpose personality clash between Quinto's Spock and Pine's Kirk which form the dramatic spine of Abrams' bold venture into previously uncharted Trek mythology. The construction of their relationship (and eventual destinies) mirrors the mega-scaled fabrication of the Enterprise in Riverside, Iowa which pre-cadet Kirk witnesses before taking responsibility for his own future.  Orci and Kurtzman's script gives young Kirk plenty of cocky attitude backed up by a daring bravura (as ably and briefly demonstrated by Jimmy Bennett).  Pine wisely avoids the beloved and bemoaned Shatnerisms first seen in the role, and instead wears the mantle of Jim Kirk's swagger as comfortably as his gold captain's tunic, both of which fit the actor well.  Like his much admired and heroic father George Kirk (a nice turn by Chris Hemsworth), Pine elevates James Kirk with his unique signature — not the classic model we've grown to love, but rather a new captain leading us into the fifth decade of STAR TREK lore, and expect audiences to follow gladly.

Yet a new Kirk would be a one-note harmony without watching Spock tormented by his half-human genetics evolve into a challenging compatriot as they meet and compete in Starfleet.  Young Spock (impressive Jacob Kogan) cannot escape his internal battle between logic and emotion on Vulcan, and his matured embracing of this conflict delivers STAR TREK's boldest twist on franchise mythology.  Quinto, like his 1960s predecessor and senior self Leonard Nimoy, skillfully walks a fine line between icy intellect and simmering humanity, containing and combining the two warring traits like the matter/anti-matter power source of the Enterprise itself.  As with the Federation flagship, this fusion reaction will provide endless fuel for Quinto to explore new frontiers in the role now that Nimoy has nobly passed Spock's torch to his successor.

Bruce Greenwood as Christopher Pike John Cho as Hikaru Sulu Simon Pegg as Montgomery Scott Zoe Saldana as Nyota Uhura Anton Yelchin as Pavel Chekov

STAR TREK enjoys a wealth of solid characterizations enlivened by the remaining crewmates who all stamp their roles with distinctive work.  Bruce Greenwood lends gravitas to Captain Christopher Pike as James Kirk's mentor and pseudo-father figure, urging the fearless and aimless young man to fulfill his boundless potential.  Well-versed Trekkers will enjoy the symmetry of Pike's own destiny, along with Greenwood's performance.  John Cho demonstrates a nice arc of development in helmsman Sulu, earning his captain's trust and gaining a valuable ally in Kirk when the mission goal is at stake.  It's only slightly disappointing that Simon Pegg enters halfway through the film, given his enjoyable, humorous if truncated work as engineering miracle worker, Montgomery Scott.  Pegg's Scots accent is dead-on perfect, which prompts a smile considering the original Scotty, Canadian actor James Doohan, affected his dialect for the role in the first place.  More importantly, Pegg and the script only hint at the Trekking potential for his Scott with relatively little screen time which extends the actor's comedic skills more than it tests the engineer's mettle aboard the Enterprise.  Clearly there are higher gears for Pegg and TREK to exploit in the character, and expect a shift-up next time.

In another smart and bold move, Orci and Kurtzman give Zoë Saldana a key part in STAR TREK's rebirth, standing strong as the ship's communications expert just as Nichelle Nichols did four decades ago.  Likewise, Uhura interacts with Kirk and Spock on both plot and dramatic levels, enabling the humor and emotion mined from the script and plausibly putting both on their feet.  In one way, Saldana may make the most seamless transition in overall character history from the classic TV show across ten films and now emerging into a new era.  She, like Nichols before her, contributes an important factor into the Enterprise bridge equation which pays off handsomely in new dramatic angles worth extending in sequels.  Anton Yelchin's late-teen prodigy Pavel Chekov is the thinnest drawn character on deck, but then again the film packs an enormous amount of plot into 126 minutes and there's only so much screen time and space available in this ambitious reboot.  Chekov's theek-like-borscht Russian accent is actually more dense than Walter Koenig's version, but that's where the similarity ends as the Soviet student fills plot functions which imply more technical expertise than the story illustrates.  Yelchin should have more elbow room in a next voyage, but the young actor has a busy 2009 summer with a larger role in TERMINATOR:SALVATION due in three weeks, so don't feel sorry for him.

Eric Bana serves STAR TREK well as the renegade Romulan villain, Nero, although his undermined but genuine motivation for being the new baddie is undeniably the one weak link in the script.  Having reviewed the Orci/Kurtzman inspired Star Trek:Countdown prequel comic series for MISSION:TREK 's coverage, I have a better understanding of Nero's relevant backstory but such reading shouldn't be as necessary to grasping the film's plot as the screenwriters left it in two expository scenes of flashback.  Understanding less about Nero's rage and irrational hunger for revenge weakens his status as a meaty TREK villain, through no fault of Bana's work.  Granted, Nero lacks the famous backstory which the late Ricardo Montalban enjoyed in his TV stint as Khan, later reprised in 1982's THE WRATH OF KHAN, so it's unfair to compare the two directly. But Abrams' TREK would have gained even more strength from investing added emotional punch behind Nero's galactic threat.  Kudos to Clifton Collins Jr., the always enjoyable and here underutilized actor who plays Ayel, Nero's menacing second officer.  It's tough to carve out enough screen time for the entire cast in such an epic film, but Collins makes the best of a supporting role on the dark side of space.

The Enterprise engages the enemy Two shining strengths of the production arise from Industrial Light & Magic's superb visual effects, which add gritty realism to Abrams' eye-boggling action set pieces, all enhanced by composer Michael Giacchino's symphonic, engaging original score.  These two invaluable contributors join forces with unexpected emotional impact in the exciting opening sequence of George Kirk's command of the U.S.S. Kelvin.  While the starship battle with an invading enemy rages on amid the sterile lethality of space, Giacchino's music brings the fight straight to the heart of viewers, adding resonant depth to what would be slam-bang action fodder in lesser filmmakers' hands.

Accordingly, kudos to director J.J. Abrams for starting his TREK in the right and smart direction, raising it above mindless summer distraction and mapping out a rich future for this once-tired franchise.  UPDATE: I've now reviewed Michael Giacchino's STAR TREK score in its entirety, but suffice it to say the composer delivers his musical artistry from stem to stern, and his rendition of the classic TV series theme by Alexander Courage pleases every pointed ear in the theater.

Newcomers to the adventures of the Enterprise will find sustenance from the meat and potatoes of this space-faring maiden voyage with Abrams at the helm — in the best of terms, a new STAR TREK built to attract and inspire a new generation.  The long-standing faithful, from casual fan to die-hard devotee, will savor the multiple layers of old and new mythology that enriches this TREK, which neither erases the franchise history nor is it shackled by nit-picking canon rules which earn ire in a few but amount to unimportant trivia in the grander picture.  Indeed, it is a grander motion picture which Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman have painted for STAR TREK: wider in scope, richer in budget, faster paced in action, more clever in character and more promising in its future than the franchise as enjoyed in twenty years. 

Buckle up and enjoy this new mission of the starship Enterprise which explores a new and promising destiny for STAR TREK along an exciting, unpredictable path into the future.  This is a brave start for a renewed journey among the stars, and happily I can report there is nothing final about this science fiction frontier.  Boldly go back to the theater a second time to appreciate all this trek explores.

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