J.J. Abrams's Star Trek Makes Us Believe in the Future Again (Film Review)

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Note : I'll be sharing a series of posts about Star Trek this month to celebrate the release of the new movie, Star Trek Into Darkness. The following is my unaltered (with updated links and images) May 2009 review of J.J. Abrams's first Star Trek film, originally published on a now defunct website. Keep in mind I wrote this way before learning the lessons of effective writing, so forgive me for my fanboy hyperboles. Check out my current thoughts on this film at the end of this post.       


SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't seen Star Trek (2009) yet, raise shields and engage evasive maneuvers!

I used to think Star Trek was a boring show for nerds who were obsessed with space. Then in 1991, my brother took me to see Star Trek VI. The movie was a fast-paced who-done-it murder-mystery action adventure about racism, espionage, and the end of cold war. It broke all the stereotypes I had for the franchise. In the proceeding months, I devoured everything Star Trek. I’ve been a Trekkie every since and it’s changed my life.

Star Trek instilled in me a curiosity about science, energized a love of learning, and nurtured hope and optimism about the future. It made me value other cultures and beliefs. It is the primary reason I sought an education and it set me down the path that I am on now.

Years later, Star Trek died. As Entertainment Weekly put it, “...Star Trek made the classic business blunder of the 1990s - it overexpanded.” After years of being saturated by recycled stories, the franchise lost its audience. In 2005, Paramount finally pulled the plug on the waning franchise and canceled the fifth and final Star Trek TV series.

I expected Star Trek to be shelved away for at least a decade. Yet, just a year later, it was announced that J.J. Abrams (producer of Felicity, Alias, and Lost) was hired to create a new Star Trek film. While Abrams was more than capable of producing a compelling sci-fi film (see Lost season 1), if it wasn’t done right (see Lost season 2) it would completely bury the franchise.

Since Star Trek is already the highest grossing film of the year, it’s safe to say Abrams has successfully rebooted the franchise. I think the film is fantastic, and here’s why.

Story

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The genius lies in the decision of the screenwriters (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) to set the story in an alternate timeline. By doing so, the writers freed themselves from the previous 600 hours of established Star Trek canon. Most prequels fail because we know who will live, who will die, and how the story will end (see Star Wars Episodes I, II, III). Here, everything is back up for grabs (like the genocide of the Vulcan people). At the same time, the film honors what has come before, directly through Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and indirectly through numerous Star Trek easter eggs (e.g. red shirt, Admiral Archer’s beagle, Pike in the wheelchair, mind-altering slug, Kobayashi Maru, Kolinahr, etc).

Cast

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I was surprised at how much I believed Chris Pine as Kirk. He had the toughest job - filling William Shatner’s enormous shoes. But Pine played the character with just enough bravado, confidence, and sex appeal to be endearing but not douchey. Zachary Quinto was perfect as a conflicted and emotional Spock. Karl Urban’s portrayal of Dr. “Bones” McCoy was largely an imitation, but it worked because the character is so likable. Simon Pegg captured Scotty’s zest and humor. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, with her mixture of confidence and warmth, was the breakout performance of the film. It’s hard to judge John Cho’s Sulu (he didn’t do much beyond the fight scene). Anton Yelchin’s Chekov was a little heavy on the Russian accent, but I loved his eagerness. I wanted to see much more of both Bruce Greenwood’s Captain Pike and Faran Tahir’s Captain Robau. Eric Bana’s performance as Nero was menacing, layered, and tragic. Leonard Nimoy was so flawless as Spock that he nearly overshadowed the rest of the cast.

Direction

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Abrams’ direction in Star Trek is light-years ahead of his first film, Mission Impossible: III. Star Trek’s battles are epic and the character moments intimate. The editing moves at warp speed, keeping you glued to the screen. Major kudos for adding engine trails to the warp engines, changing the phasers to bullets instead of lasers, making engineering look like engineering, turning the viewscreen into a functional tool, and adding silence to space. Next time, ease up on the lens flares. They became pretty distracting during bridge sequences.

Special Effects

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Finally, we get to see what the Star Trek universe looks like on a Star Wars budget! Industrial Light and Magic really outdid themselves. Sound effects supervisor Ben Burtt (of Star Wars fame) also deserves special mention for integrating old 1960s Trek sounds with modern effects (e.g. classic sounds on the bridge, revamped transporter and warp effects). Both Burtt and ILM made this universe come alive in a way we’ve never seen or heard before and both deserve Academy-Awards for their work on Star Trek.

Score

Photo via Scoring Sessions.

Photo via Scoring Sessions.

Michael Giacchino (Lost, The Incredibles, Ratatouille), would not have been my first pick to score this film. While I love most of his work, I didn’t think he could pull off a Jerry Goldsmith or James Horner styled space opera score. And he didn’t, his score sounds more like a superhero film score. I really want to hate it, but I can’t - the themes just fit the feel of the movie. Spock’s theme is the clear standout for me, beautifully capturing the wonder, elegance, and tragedy of the Vulcans. The original Star Trek theme song (appearing during the end credits) is also memorable. Like the rest of the film, it’s brilliantly updated and fresh.

The movie is not without its faults. It asks you to take a big leap of faith regarding Kirk. In the span of hours, Kirk goes from suspended cadet, to stowaway, first officer, and ultimately captain of the Federation’s most powerful ship. It’s not plausible and worse, it changes the character from a guy who earned his position through hard work to a guy with a destiny (a la Anakin Skywalker). I know the writers didn’t want it to take three movies for Kirk to become Kirk (a la Anakin Skywalker), but I don’t like this explanation and it doesn’t feel consistent with the rest of the Star Trek universe.

That being said, I’m a very big fan of this movie. It’s greatest accomplishment is in making Star Trek fun, exciting, and relevant again. The movie cuts across all demographics, including Trekkie/non-Trekkie, and offers something for everyone.

To quote Captain Pike, Star Trek “is important.” It was envisioned in a period of social, economic, and political unrest. Star Trek created a venue to discuss the issues of our time and gave us hope that we would not only get through our global crises, but we will grow as a species. Now, the world is a mess again. Our economies have failed, Americans are polarized on gay marriage, extremism threatens us domestically and abroad, and the climate is changing each year. I can’t think of a better time for Star Trek’s bright and optimistic vision of our future to be with us again.

Rating: 9/10

Revised Star Trek movie rankings (best to worst): ST6, ST8, ST11, ST4, ST2, ST3.....ST9, ST10...ST7, ST1, ST5.  


May 1st, 2013 Addendum:

I'm surprised at how much I agree with my original review - watching 2009's Star Trek is still a lot of fun and makes me excited about the future of the franchise. 

However, I don't know what I was thinking when I said Nero was "menacing, layered, and tragic" - the character was pretty one dimensional (though he's more fleshed out in the Countdown comic prequel). 

I also forgot how conflicted I was about Giacchino scoring the movie. Since he's become one of my favorite composers, it seems silly to question his attachment to Star Trek

I still don't like Kirk's rise to power (though it seems like there will be repercussions for that in Star Trek Into Darkness) or the use of lens flares (especially after all the excessive ones in Super 8). 

A lot of fans were upset that this film "felt like any other action movie" and that it was light on the social commentary. I get that, and this is definitely not the Star Trek I grew up with, but the "genocide of the Vulcan people" drew a parallel to September 11th and setup Star Trek Into Darkness's themes of terrorism. We'll get more social commentary in the sequel (I hope).