J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Movie
Can J.J. Abrams Go Boldly Where No Star Trek Movie Has Gone Before?
Saturday, May 9, 2009
J.J. Abrams has built a following based on his TV work as the creator of such hits as Felicity, Alias and Lost. His film work, however, has been more dicey. He wrote screenplays for Armageddon, Gone Fishing' and Joyride. Nothing to brag about there. And he's directed Mission Impossible III and produced Cloverfield. Again, nothing to brag about. So when he decided to tackle the origin film for Star Trek, some people – like me -- were concerned. I enjoy Star Trek (the original series and Next Generation, and The Wrath of Khan movie) but I'm by no means a Trekkie or a Trekker and the fact that I don't know the difference proves that I'm only a casual fan. (I'm still not sure what the difference is but you can get some amusement by checking this out.) When I saw Abrams at the WonderCon panel for Star Trek, I grew more suspicious about whether or not he was the right person for the job. He admitted that he was not a fan of the original series and that he only became a fan afterwards. Hmmm? But after seeing the film, I have to admit that I had a great time and thought he created an effective reboot of a franchise that had been growing stale. Much like Casino Royale had done with James Bond
Now I must add that the reason I think this new Star Trek works has less to do with Abrams being the director and more to do with a genuinely smart script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Orci was at the WonderCon panel too and he impressed me with his grasp of what made the series so popular and what the film needed to do to dovetail off of that. The script is smart because it finds a clever way to relaunch the franchise by opening up new possibilities. It employs a gimmick – all I will say is that it creates an alternate universe – that allows the film to open the door to just about anything without invoking fan retribution but at the same time allowing it to tap into many of things that made the original series popular. What Orci and Kurtzman do is nothing short of marketing genius with a touch of creative cleverness. Or as Spock says "our destinies have changed" so your expectations will have to change accordingly.
The writers know the show well enough to find the right tonal blend of humor, mockery and drama. They know what to poke fun at, what to have fun with and what to pay reverence to. So as they introduce each character, they deliver something fresh as well as something familiar. At the preview screening I attended – which included fans in costume – the audience would cheer when each character made their first appearance or when Spock or Bones delivered familiar lines. The audience response signaled that Orci and Kurtzman knew what lines would work and would tap into the Star Trek traditions. Like when the logical Spock notes that "the complexities of human pranks escape me."
I won't go into the plot much but suffice it to say that the film begins with Kirk's birth and an encounter with Romulans that leaves Kirk's father dead. The important piece of info here is when the Romulans ask what Star date it is. Then we get some background on the childhoods of both Kirk and Spock. Next we pick up with Kirk being recruited as a Starfleet cadet and joining up – somewhat reluctantly – with Spock and Uhura. They along with the rest of the familiar characters, are thrown into a conflict involving some time-traveling Romulans and a big chunk of plot exposition. That's all I have to say about the plot.
Abrams for his part, keeps the action moving swiftly. He packs more action and effects into this Star Trek than any previous ones have boasted. But what he and the writers do fall short on is substance. They are so concerned with moving quickly and introducing all the familiar elements that they never have time for a real story that conveys any of the thoughtful ideas that creator Gene Roddenberry made such an integral part of the original series. Roddenberry made his sci-fi fantasy an allegory for the problems besetting 1960s America, everything from racism to the Cold War to the environment. Abram's Star Trek is no allegory; it's an action flick (a point made hilarious in the Onion's mock review of the film). If this were the only Star Trek film or show to exist it's unlikely to have created such a devout cult following or to be looked upon as something akin to a religion. But as a new edition to the existing canon of work, it is a fun, fresh piece of entertainment.
But I still have my doubts about Abrams' skill as a director. At one point Kirk goads Spock by using the phrase "acting captain," with a mocking inflection on the word "acting" as if he wasn't fully assuming the duties of commander but rather playacting the role. I feel that Abrams is someone who is playacting as director; he seems to rely more on the skills of those around him than on delivering the goods himself. His approach here just seems to be just keep things moving -- whether it's action within the frame, the camera itself or just pushing the story forward -- he is all about forward momentum. And that's not altogether bad but it's not exactly inspired wither. Since I didn't have the privilege of being on the set when he was directing I have no way to verify the way I feel so maybe it's just my bias based upon the fact that I haven't been impressed by or able to warm up to any of Abrams' other works. But based on his "performance" at the WonderCon panel, Abrams seems to be someone who struts around like a director in a manner that Hollywood loves yet nothing he said impressed me that he actually had the skill set to be a great director. He seems competent and when given a solid script like this one he can deliver the goods with slick appeal.
For the most part the effects are well done. But a scene on an icy planet (anyone remember Hoth?) is cheesy with the lobster-like creature being almost laughable. I mean what's a bright red creature (even if it is an undersea crustacean) doing in an all-white environment?
The film does benefit from good, smart casting, using people who have some familiarity for audiences but not a well-defined star persona. In the leads, Chris Pine as Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock look convincingly like younger versions of William Shatner (who does not appear in the film) and Leonard Nimoy (who not only appears but delivers Shatner's classic opening lines from the series about "boldly going" with the gender neutral adjustment of "where no one has gone before"). They provide us with all the makings for the characters that we have already grown to know and they provide us with some interesting young quirks as well. Pine plays Kirk like a rebel hero, something like a young Brando with a chip on his shoulder and a big ego to boot. Zoe Saldana makes a smart, attractive Uhura although she lacks Nichelle Nicolls' elegance. Karl Urban channels Leonard Bones McCoy well but I never remember Bones being sexy and Urban definitely brings that quality to the character. The film waits far too long to bring in Simon Pegg in as Scotty. He's a hoot and I wish he had entered the film far earlier. Less impressive are John Cho as Sulu and Anton Yelchin as Chekov (boasting silly hair and a self-conscious accent that might be overdone on purpose but I'm not sure). There is also the odd casting of Tyler Perry (the writer-director famous for playing Aunt Madea) as a Starfleet council member. He seems to be cast to tap into his loyal African American film going public.
Star Trek (rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, and brief sexual content) does a far better job of delivering an origin tale than the recently released X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Star Trek delivers a more substantial story as it provides the back-story for a familiar franchise. You don't leave the theater feeling cheated like you do with Wolverine; you feel like you have been given the foundation for the beginning of a new set of adventures.
Companion viewing: Batman Begins, Casino Royale, Star Trek: Wrath of Khan