J.J. Abrams has accomplished his goal with Star Trek, providing an entertaining spectacle that should satisfy die hard Trek fans and newcomers alike. I'm going to preface this review with a reminder that one of my staff writers and I reviewed the first seven films here and here back in 2008 (I recommend you watch all those films and read the reviews if you've got a boring summer ahead), and say in summary that I really enjoyed the original crew of the Starship Enterprise. The fact that I respect almost all of J.J. Abrams' work, combined with my affection for Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, lead to my inevitable appreciation and admiration for his vision realized in Star Trek.
Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Zoe Saldana
I don't want to build your expectations too high for this movie, but it was definitely my favorite of the summer so far. [To be fair, the only other "summer" movies I've seen as of this posting have been Fast and Furious and Crank 2: High Voltage.] The best part about this film is that even if you have no idea what the heck Star Trek is about, you can appreciate it nearly as much as the Trek-initiated. Sure, there are some built in crowd pleasers for the Trekkies (Kobayashi Maru, etc), but writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (quickly approaching levels of celebrity not unequal to Abrams himself) have done their best to craft a popcorn summer action flick out of material considered sacred by its most intense fans and geeky by the casual observer. They largely succeed - I would say this is one of the best written projects the two have embarked on in recent years (beating out the rather weakly-written Eagle Eye and Transformers). Some film critics will undoubtedly rag on these guys, telling you that they write nothing but mindless crap and feed the corporate studio system by pumping out blockbuster content. While the latter has certainly been true in the past, the duo have proven themselves capable producers, writers, and television show creators ("Fringe" is their brain child, along with co-creator Abrams). And say what you will about their past work, but I really dug Mission Impossible: III and The Island even though those are not popular films to like in the movie reviewing world. The pacing in Star Trek was perfect for this type of movie - a great blend of character work for Kirk and Spock and wild space battles for those of you with ADD.
Speaking of Mission Impossible: III, that was the only feature film J.J. Abrams had to his name before this project hit theaters this past Thursday. That film, which had the highest budget of any film by a first-time director, was a movie that allowed Abrams to translate his visual skills cultivated in TV's "Alias" to the big screen. Star Trek, therefore, is the next logical step (pun intended) in his path to Hollywood domination. Given a substantial budget and a clean slate for Star Trek history thanks to a clever writing gimmick involving time travel and alternate realities, Abrams took the material and turned into a viable property again. The use of lens flares (bright shines of light directly into the camera lens) has been called excessive by some, but after reading his explanation of why he included so many, I wasn't distracted by them in a negative way during my experience watching the movie. The camera work was outstanding, with Abrams and Co. equally adept at filming huge space action and close-up oriented character moments. Many of the space shots, by the way, feature the snap zoom that was the call sign for Joss Whedon's Firefly (and subsequent Serenity).
As great as the CG was (and it was phenomenal at points), the acting was what really set the film apart for me. It reminded me of Iron Man in that regard, featuring some exceptional special effects but still relying heavily on character to carry us through the film so that we cared about what was happening on screen. Abrams and his casting team tried to replicate their success on Cloverfield by hiring relative unknowns for the crew of the Enterprise, and I think this was a great idea. That was a huge part of Cloverfield's success for me; we didn't recognize these actors and therefore could attach them directly to the characters they were supposed to be portraying. The cast of Star Trek wasn't quite as unknown as that of Cloverfield, but I found the tactic just as effective for most of the cast. It was hard to watch John Cho and not think of his cult role as Harold in the Harold and Kumar films, but he wasn't on screen enough for it to become a real problem for me. The only cast member I had a real problem with was Anton Yelchin (who I thought was great in Charlie Bartlett) - that kid did a horrible Walter Koenig impression (the original Chekov) that deserves a Razzie nomination for Worst Acting. Let's hope he doesn't come near that level of suckage as Kyle Reese in the next big blockbuster of Summer '09, Terminator Salvation.
Chris Pine, where the heck did you come from? After wallowing in Lindsay Lohan movies and TV shows over the past few years, this is without a doubt his breakout role and one that will shoot him to the top of casting directors' piles for the next few years. Look, taking on William Shatner's most iconic role is no easy task. Shatner's performances, while campy and cheesy at times, possessed both a bad ass brashness and a cool charm that is impossible to mimic. Luckily for Pine, he doesn't even try. He embodies James Tiberius Kirk with the cockiness, charm, intelligence, and wit that are necessary elements for my favorite types of film characters [see: Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone]. It's obvious the writers favored Kirk's character, giving Pine the best lines in the movie ("You are fine without it," "Go get more guys and then it'll be a fair fight.") But he deserves those lines, and as much as this film keeps up the pretense that it's about the ensemble cast, Kirk, as always, shines above the rest. Zachary Quinto, apparently from Heroes on NBC (of which I've only seen one episode), is a solid pick for young Spock, filling in adequately for Nimoy even when acting opposite the legend himself (yep, thanks to that alternate reality thing I mentioned).
The supporting cast (aside from Cho and Yelchin) was nicely chosen also, especially the sexy-but-not-sex-object-because-she's-smart-and-qualified communications officer Uhura, played by Zoe Saldana. (Side note: She's going to be in Cameron's Avatar coming out in December - I'm guessing her phone's about to blow up.) Simon Pegg, from Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, was funny and entertaining as Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, but I'm glad we weren't subjected to any more of his character than we were; I think he would have become annoying rather quickly in the confines of the story being told here (next time, Scotty). The other complaint I have is that there wasn't enough of Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, played very capably by Karl Urban. In the other Trek films, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy form a triumvirate - all parts are nearly equal to each other, and the characters form the central bond around which the Star Trek universe is based. In this incarnation, however, it seemed that Kirk and Spock had the forefront and all the other characters were relegated to the sidelines. Like I said - I'm thankful this is the case for some characters, but I thought Bones deserved a little more time in the spotlight. It was great seeing Bones and Jim hanging out briefly in Starfleet Academy, though. Urban delivered his lines with deadpan humor that surely would have pleased DeForest Kelley (RIP). The seeds were planted for the triumvirate - Bones and Spock had a little verbal sparring along the way - so I'm hoping we see those relationships develop quickly in the sequel(s).
Bruce Greenwood was a quality addition to the cast as Captain Christopher Pike, and gives a performance that I can't imagine coming from anyone else. His powerful presence added a commanding seriousness to the film that sorely needed a legitimate authority figure (even though he does basically turn into Captain Amazing from Mystery Men by the end). The depth of the cast kept getting more shocking as the film progressed. Was that Winona Ryder? Been awhile, ma'am. Tyler Perry? Is this a joke? No? All right, fine. And kudos to Eric Bana's makeup person, who managed to turn the relatively recognizable actor into a Romulan that I wouldn't have known was him had I not possessed previous knowledge of his casting before seeing the movie.
The score, by "LOST" composer Michael Giacchino, was both hugely epic and quietly personal at appropriate times, and accentuated Abrams visual flairs throughout the movie. Great filmmaking all around. The editing was pitch perfect - no frame lingered too long, no cutaway came too soon. The lighting was fantastic, especially in the villainous Romulan ship where a green tinge barely illuminated the faces of the bitter aliens.
I'm not going to go into the plot of the film here - you'll just have to see it if you're curious - but I will highly suggest that if you have any interest in science fiction or big summer action movies, to go see this in the theater. There are few movies worth paying exorbitant prices to see on the big screen, but in my opinion this is definitely one of them. Until next time...