MOVIE REVIEW: STAR TREK
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life-forms and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.
If you’ve already read my History of Star Trek article, this is the future of the franchise, by returning to its past.
Let me get to the bottom line first: this is the best Star Trek movie ever. Indeed, it’s the best movie I’ve seen this year. Why?
This is the movie I’ve been waiting for 40 years, the first original episode of Star Trek: The Original Series since the show went off the air in 1969. As I mentioned in my earlier article, usually even-numbered movies are better than odd-numbered ones: but not with this eleventh movie — unless you want to call it what it really is, Star Trek 0.
Without giving away any plot details, this movie has action, drama, romance, humor, adventure, fisticuffs, and terrific space battles. $30 million were spent on special effects alone, of course by Industrial Light and Magic. The movie starts with a bang, with a truly emotional event, and keeps up the excitement right up to the end. The writing is both smart and lovingly detailed at times, and there are genuinely touching scenes of realization and revelation. And the ending, well, it brought a tear to my eye.
Yes, this is the prequel, as it were, of the original show — how the original crew met up at Starfleet Academy. This is essentially an origins story. It is also a reboot of the franchise, in the same way as Batman and James Bond have gotten a fresh start decades after the original movie series began. But this movie is accessible to non-fans as well.
Many Trekkies, Trekkers, and Trek junkies may bemoan the fact that this movie does not stick strictly to "Star Trek canon" — for example, this Spock raises his left eyebrow, not the canonical right one — but there is a reasonable explanation given for this. You’ll just have to go see the movie to find out.
Director J.J. Abrams had a difficult task of appealing to longtime fans, while attracting a new younger audience. He walked this tightrope well, mixing loving respect for the original while adding fresh and fun improvisations on the iconic characters for a post-modern age. Nostalgia and newness.
The music of Alexander Courage is peppered throughout the movie. He did the original score of the TV show and I had the privilege of seeing him in the Bay Area at a space music concert. The familiar 4-note introduction appears four times and makes chills run up one’s spine. But that’s not all, even the familiar bridge sounds are there for the old fans to relish.
Pay attention to catch a couple of prominent product placements in the movie.
Among many tributes paid to the original series — even a "red shirt" if you know what I mean — there were also lots of inside jokes and references made to other movie lines and famous TV sayings. Also, we see the use of Vasquez Rocks near Los Angeles. It was used as a popular exterior in several of the original TV show, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Voyager, Enterprise, and the movie Star Trek IV. It was featured in this film for the planet Vulcan. It’s been a filming location in many other TV shows like Bonanza, F-Troop, Have Gun Will Travel, The Big Valley, Maverick, Gunsmoke, Kung Fu, and The Wild, Wild, West.
Chris Pine, who you’ve seen in Smokin’ Aces and the delightful Bottle Shock plays James T. Kirk, cocky, brash, arrogant, confident, even foolhardy, but usually right in his hunches. He gives a remarkable performance, having some critics saying "a star is born." He does make it happen and is believable in the role. Like me, and George Takei (the original Sulu), and John Cho (the new Sulu), Pine went to school at the University of California, Berkeley — where we were all bitten by the acting bug.
Zachary Quinto, best known as the villain Syler in the popular TV series Heroes plays the part of the human-Vulcan Spock. His resemblance to the young Leonard Nimoy is uncanny. Quinto is a half-breed himself, half-Italian, half-Irish. And like Leonard Nimoy, his father used to cut hair. Having the opportunity to meet with and work with Leonard Nimoy, who approved his casting, he learned his mannerisms, like holding his hands behind his back, his erect and still posture, and his measured and stoic composure. Of all the cast, he most resembles the original character in appearance and carriage.
The New Zealand actor Karl Urban puts on a bit of a southern gentleman accent, like the original "just a country doctor" role DeForest Kelley did. I heard De Kelley at a Star Trek convention once challenge the audience with "You all think you know Star Trek so well, give me the name of any episode and I’ll quote a line from it." As people shouted out episode names, he confidently replied, "He’s dead, Jim." Urban gets to play this role with humor, something we don’t usually see from the man of action who played Eomer in The Lord of the Rings trilogy or Vaako in Chronicles of Riddick. While Urban does not quote that line in this movie, he does quote another of his iconic lines. And here, you learn (one possible) origin of the name "Bones."
Simon Pegg, the irrepressible English actor plays engineering genius Montgomery Scott. He effected a Glasgow accent for the role, believing that Scotty was originally from Linlithgow — a short train ride from Edinburgh — and the old castle there is the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. This is curious, as we all know from the episode "Wolf in the Fold" that Scotty was "an old Aberdeen pub crawler." In any event, since Pegg is an English actor — unlike the original James Doohan who is Canadian (and admitted to me that he loves to do accents) — at least he’s closer geographically. You’ve seen Pegg before in Shaun of the Dead, and many other movies he’s produced, directed, and starred in. He brings his unique sense of humor to the role, and what he says about the Enterprise’s nacelles, well, you just have to see it.
Anton Yelchin who plays Pavel Andreievich Checkov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, though he’s since lived in the United States since the year he was born. He brings remarkable energy an enthusiasm to the role. As the 17-year old Ensign, he lays on the Russian accent a bit thicker than Walter Koenig did in ST:TOS. Several years ago I had the opportunity to meet the actor Walter Koenig and in the course of conversation asked him how he developed his Russian accent.
“I have a good ear for accents.”
When I looked at him quizzically, he added.
“Both of my parents are Russian.”
The new USS Enterprise is a thing of beauty to behold. It looks like the BMW engineering team got a hold of the original and "pimped the ride." While not straying as far as the redesign in the first movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture this retains most of the original elements with a slightly more curved engineering section and more elegant warp nacelles. The use of weapon systems, including photon torpedoes and phasers is more developed in this design, as are greater uses of blue over the original red, but it works for me. I saw the original 11-foot filming model back in the mid-’70s before it was put on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum. Even before it was restored, it was a stunning piece of engineering.
The bridge looks like a white iPhone: shiny, new, clean, and not black. Rather than the old TV-sized monitors, we’ve got widescreen. Rather than the gooseneck lights on the helm and navigation consoles, we’ve got swing arm extensions. But, what’s with all the lens flare on the bridge?
The transporter room looks very much like the original show, with a two-person console and a display on the wall. And next to "Scotty" appears Christopher Doohan, the son of the original Engineer Scott, as an extra, as he had on Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Bruce Greenwood assumes the role of Captain Christopher Pike created in the very first pilot "The Cage" — rejected originally by NBC — filmed in 1965. He handles the role with maturity and grace.
Eric Bana plays a very different Romulan, unlike any we’ve seen before, an Aussie Captain Nero with an American accent and poor hygiene habits. It is ironic that he received an acting award for his lead in the 2007 Australian movie Romulus, My Father. You’ve seen him before in Munich, Troy, Black Hawk Down and the earlier version of Hulk.
John Cho had a unique challenge as he reprises the role created by George Takei, who is still an active actor, appearing in the recent TV series Heroes. In the same way Sulu fenced in the original episode "The Naked Time" so here John Cho fences — but with a samurai sword rather than the original foil. In the same way that the Chinese-American actor Garrett Wang plays the Korean Harry Kim, here Korean-American actor John Cho plays the Japanese Lt. Sulu. You’ve seen Cho before in the Harold and Kumar movies.
Zoe Saldana plays the role of the lovely Uhura, whose name means "Freedom" in Swahili. Given a larger role in this movie than in previous Star Trek movies, there is a bit of irony here. In the movie "The Terminal" she plays a Trekkie. But you’ve also seen her as Anamaria in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl."
Ben Cross, who played the character Harold Abrams in the 5-Academy Award-winning movie "Chariots of Fire" appears here as Spock’s father Sarek of Vulcan. He’s excellent in the role, and gets a chance to deliver amazing lines, some unexpected.
Winona Ryder is Amanda Grayson, the human Earthling mother of Spock, and wife of Sarek of Vulcan. Ironically, her name means "worthy of being loved."
Jennifer Morrison, from the TV show "House" has a brief role as James Kirk’s mother, and explains (another possible) reason for Kirk’s middle name.
Grade: A. Swing, hit, a home run.
You’ll like it if: action, humor, vitality and space are your final frontier
You won’t like it if: you’ve been on another planet for the last 40 years.
Trivia Question: There is one performer who has been in the original show, ST: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Enterprise, the animated series, and many of the movies — including this film as well. And is in this film’s dedication at the end. Who is it?
Yes, this is a deeply gratifying movie. I’ve already got tickets to see it again tomorrow!
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood Trek junkie