I took my Esteemed Colleague with me when I went to see the new Star Trek movie on Friday night.
Not physically, of course, as we now live in different states, but mentally, he was right there with me. I kept wondering what he would think of this movie that he dreaded so much. My own Trekkie credentials are out of date, so I doubt I would have been offended by anything they might have done with the property. The reviews were too glowing for me to think this would be anything but entertaining, but I wondered whether or not it would be true enough to Trek to satisfy the diehards.
I remembered, as a kid, when word got out that Spock was going to be killed in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Fans were in an uproar, but when the movie came out, those same fans wholeheartedly embraced the film. “It wasn’t about whether or not you killed him,” director Nicholas Meyer maintained. “It was about whether you killed him well.” That is to say, whether his death would matter, whether it would be true to the character, whether it would serve the larger story. It succeeded on all three counts, and the result was the finest piece of Trek ever committed to film.
I think it would be hard to argue that there would be a more respectful, intelligent way to reboot the Trek franchise than what JJ Abrams has done here.
Sure, you can quibble over details – Spock and Uhura? Say what? – but the tone, the feel, the theme of this thing is decidedly Trek. In addition, it’s done in a way that doesn’t negate everything that’s gone before – it’s not a cold restart, like Casino Royale or Batman Begins. That requires a lot of heavy narrative lifting, which by all rights should have felt convoluted, cluttered, and messy. It doesn’t. It makes the whole process look effortless, which is, I think, the film’s greatest accomplishment.
Minor spoilers in this paragraph: I was bugged by the out-of-nowhere steaminess between Spock and Uhura, especially since it’s been firmly established that Vulcan lovin’ only takes place during Pon Farr, once ever seven years. It also made no sense that a guy who’s spent his whole life trying to keep his emotions in check would engage in a PDA on the transporter pad. In addition, Nero’s convenient 25-year wait outside the newly-created black hole was pretty silly. Can you really keep white-hot, genocidal rage burning brightly while you’re sitting around for two and a half decades? Don’t you think someone would have talked him out of his insane revenge scheme while they were cooling their heels? How did they fill the time? Is there a bowling alley on that massive crab claw ship?
That said, I can’t think of much else that I didn’t like about this film. Mrs. Cornell got bugged every time I laughed inappropriately at a familiar piece of Trek dialogue that organically made its way into the story. Most of them came from Karl Urban’s spot-on DeForest Kelley imitation – i.e. pointy eared hobgoblin, are you out of your Vulcan mind? I also dug the fact that one of the guys who dies early on is the one decked out entirely in red. When the announce that the three people going on a death defying mission are Kirk, Sulu, and some no name in a red jumpsuit, you know full well which one isn’t going to be coming back.
Chris Pine now has a gig for life as Kirk, and he’s exactly the right choice, precisely because he’s not Shatnerian. He’s not William Shatner, so why try? He captured the tone of Kirk while still making the role his own. I don’t know how he did it, but like just about everything else in this movie, it felt seamless.
Not sure what to make of Zachary Quinto’s Spock, though. My biggest problem is that his voice is a tenor and Nimoy is a baritone, which wouldn’t have mattered if Nimoy hadn’t been in the pic, too, to provide a living comparison. (It was fun to see Nimoy, but I kept staring at his weirdly capped, eerily white teeth.) In my estimation, the only people who have played Vulcans effectively over the years have been Leonard Nimoy, Mark Lenard as Spock’s father Sarek, and Kirstie Alley as Saavik. Her replacement in the next two films was wretched, and Kim Cattrall as Valeris in VI was fairly lousy, too. The black guy on Voyager was just angry the whole time; the Enterprise chick was a dominatrix, and everyone else who’s played Vulcan background characters lacks the dramatic heft to make it work. Quinto seems similarly lightweight, but he didn’t embarrass himself. Ben Cross as Sarek worked much better, I think.
I would have liked to have had a more memorable score, too. When the original Alexander Courage theme plays at the end, it reminded me that I couldn’t remember a single note from anything in the previous two hours. I didn’t notice – it wasn’t distractingly awful like the Star Trek IV music, but it would have been nice to have something meatier than what we got.
The thing that really defined this version of Trek for me was the scale of the thing. It was massive, almost overwhelming, yet it still felt like a fully realized world that could actually be an extension of the one we’re living in. It had color and vibrancy, something that Bermanized Trek had lost completely. The movie was respectful of what had gone before without being reverential – it managed to honor the past without spending all of its time looking backwards.
It wasn’t perfect, no. But it was better than it had any right to be.