Sunday, June 21, 2009

Review - Star Trek

What happened to original movies? When did we, the mass cinemagoing public, stop seeking out the new and different, and start being satisfied with the endless regurgitation of stories and characters, year after year? The summer release schedules have become the time of sequels and prequels, remakes and reboots, comic-book adaptations and TV show spinoffs. This year, we have been offered the chance to see how Wolverine became Wolverine, Michael Bay has returned to pummel our senses with his giant robots, Ron Howard and Tom Hanks are still rummaging around some dusty tombs in search of a plot, and someone (or something) called McG is trying to prove that the
Terminator series can survive without James Cameron or Arnold Schwarzenegger. As such, I have avoided most of the big releases this year; I simply couldn't muster up the enthusiasm to see something that already felt so familiar. But a few days ago, finding myself with some hours to kill in the West End, I succumbed, and broke my 2009 blockbuster duck with JJ Abrams' Star Trek.

Star Trek is not a sequel or a prequel. It's a reboot, the term used for a long series of films which has worn itself out, slipped into self-parody or irrelevance, and is now being rescued with a new beginning. The past few years have seen Batman and James Bond undergoing the reboot treatment, and with ten films and numerous TV series already under its belt, Star Trek would appear to be a perfect candidate for a similarly fresh start. Abrams' film features all of the characters from the much-loved original series, but he's taking us back to their younger days, to see how they first came together as the Enterprise's crew. In fact, he's taking us back even further than that, opening the film with a prologue set moments before the birth of James T. Kirk.

The captain of the ship at this time is Kirk's father George (Chris Hemsworth), and we join him just as his vessel, the USS Kelvin, has come under enemy fire from a vast Romulan ship, piloted by the vengeful Nero (Eric Bana, although you'd be forgiven for not recognising him). Nero's superior firepower cripples the Kelvin, and George orders the whole crew – including his heavily pregnant wife – to evacuate, while he remains on board, sacrificing his life for theirs. Such heroism sets quite a standard for a son to live up to, and when Abrams jumps forward a few years, we can see that young James Kirk doesn't really care about living up to his father's legacy. As played by Chris Pine, he's an obnoxious, arrogant jerk who is offered an unexpected opportunity to sign up for Starfleet after Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) sees him sparking a barroom brawl. Pike clearly thinks this kid has the right stuff. Personally, I'm not so sure.

The problem with Pine's characterisation of Kirk is that he's such a cocksure, unlikable figure for most of the film, it's hard to see him displaying the leadership qualities required to take command of the enterprise, and that's clearly a view shared by Zachary Quinto's Spock. The simmering tension between Spock and Kirk is Star Trek's central conflict. The logic-driven Vulcan disapproves of Kirk's brash, do-or-die attitude, and the scenes in which they clash with each other are among the film's best, with Quinto giving a note-perfect portrayal of the young Spock. It's quite a challenge for these actors, to step into roles already so well established, and for the most part, they handle the burden of expectation well. Some of them excel, such as Karl Urban, who is brilliant as 'Bones' McCoy, while others fail to make much of an impact, like Simon Pegg who is simply an irritant as Scotty. A few members of the cast might have made more of an impression had their parts been given a little more substance. As the sole significant female character, Zoƫ Saldana's Uhura should have been asked to do more than simply look sexy in a miniskirt and comfort her male colleagues every now and then, while Nero is an extraordinarily dull villain, and a dreadful waste of Eric Bana. You could have asked any actor in Hollywood to sit there shouting under all that makeup, and it wouldn't have made the slightest difference.

In general, though, the cast do a commendable job, and the blame for
Star Trek's ultimate failure cannot be laid at their feet. Instead, we must look at Abrams and the screenwriting duo Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who have based Star Trek's narrative around a ludicrous time-travel plot device. The motive for Nero's villainy – he has come back in time for Young Spock, because of a disaster Old Spock failed to prevent – is stupid on a number of levels, and this approach simply opens up a huge number of gaping plot holes. Why did they go with this ridiculous story? One suspects it was simply to allow the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, to make a cameo, but if that's the case then they really shouldn't have bothered. He mumbles his expository dialogue in stiff and dull manner, and the whole scene in which he appears – which also involves Kirk being chased by an alien monster – feels like an unnecessary sidetrack. The film is equally ill-served by Abrams' direction, which is relentlessly hectic, and it turns too many scenes into an incoherent blur of movement. He's guilty of doing far too much, of never allowing the film to settle, to breathe, and the distracting lens flare effect that half of the film seems to be affected by is more evidence of a picture that has been horribly over-directed.

Are these flaws critical? Not really, the film scrapes a pass on the charm of its cast and the enjoyment offered by some individual sequences, most of which occur in the picture's first half, before it gets bogged down in narrative complications. I was never a huge fan of
Star Trek in any of its earlier guises, so I haven't come to this film with the emotional attachment that many will feel, and for me it feels like just another blockbuster – slick, shallow and moderately entertaining. As a starting point for a franchise, one has to say it has plenty of potential to develop now it has negotiated the notoriously tricky origin story, and with this fresh-faced cast, it looks like the new Star Trek series is going to run and run. That is, until the time comes to rip it up and start all over again.