Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Star Trek ***1/2
Director: J.J Abrams
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto
Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Bruce Greenwood
John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Eric Bana, Leonard Nimoy
Coming straight from planet Camp, the original "Star Trek" series exploded upon the world, and its living rooms, in the year 1966. More than forty years after its release it has spawned ten feature films, several multi-season TV incarnations, countless books and toys as well as a dedicated legion of fans for whom the Vulcan salute is nothing if not sacred.
The effects of the phenomenon are such, that even if you're not a Trekkie, you will at least know of the existence of Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Nimoy) and the USS Enterprise.
You also probably will have been subject to one of the many incarnations of "Star Trek" at least once in your life.
If none of the franchise's many options have sparked your interest in it, then director J.J. Abrams' glorious reinvention might just as well do it.
Setting his story years before the original series (although time traveling and positioning is something of a malleable element here) he takes us to discover the origins of Kirk, Spock and how they came together for the Enterprise's maiden voyage.
James Tiberius Kirk (Pine) is a young rebel who enrolls in the Starfleet to solve some daddy issues. His father died in the thrilling sequence before the credits, serving as a premonitory basis for the rest of the feature, while injecting you with an adrenaline rush the film will try to maintain throughout its running time.
Spock (Quinto) is a half human-half Vulcan genius who gave up emotions as part of his academic training and has battled all his life with keeping a balance between his both sides.
Upong meeting Kirk at Starfleet Academy they both dislike each other (one's volatile, the other's a Vulcan...) but have no time to work out their differences when Earth comes under the menace of Captain Nero (Bana); a psychotic Romulan who's set on destroying every planet in the Federation (the "United Nations" of sorts in the Trek universe).
Before you can say "beam me up", they find themselves aboard the Enterprise along with fellow cadets Dr. Leonard McCoy (Urban), communications officer Uhura (Saldana), helmsman Hikaru Sulu (Cho), navigator Pavel Chekov (Yelchin) and engineer Montgomery Scott (Pegg) all under the command of Captain Christopher Pike (a splendid Greenwood).
The masterful screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman then focuses on the central mission while establishing personalities and backstories for all the characters.
Those familiar with the series (who don't fall into conservative devotion and purism) will perhaps think "oh, so that's how this and this happened...", while people who have never seen a single episode will be engaged by what is essentially an adventure story where you give a damn about the people.
Great part of this is owed to one of the most inspiringly casted ensembles in recent film history. Most of them (like the original series' actors) are recognizable enough to be familiar, but not flashy as to take away from the plot being established.
Pine's Kirk is a wonderfully seductive combination of Han Solo and James Bond. He's capable of kicking enemy ass, while throwing around insultingly charming one liners (that would make Shatner proud) and he's got some serious chops as well (his anger and stamina scream "movie star").
Quinto is a revelation as Spock. Counting on more than his bone structure to fill his character's suit, he stands at a very difficult place in terms of how far to push (or not to push) his acting.
Spock is emotion-less and most of the time Quinto's work reminds us that it was a decision of his own making. The actor then suggests what might've taken someone to make this choice and in one particularly moving scene we see him restrain all signs of feeling, mixed with the quiet pride of thinking he made what's best for everyone else.
Saldana is sexy and bold, Urban is terribly magnetic, while Yelchin, Cho and particularly Pegg are bona fide scene stealers.
Bana, behind heavy makeup and tattoos makes for a fascinating villain mixing brutal violence with some sort of coherent purpose and Nimoy who makes an unexpected apperance brings gravitas and serenity (not to mention, ironically, a powerful sense of humanity) to something that might've been ridiculously cheesy.
For all the refreshing sense in this "Star Trek" there is also a very respectful approach that never borders on idolatry and is seen in every aspect of the production.
The costume design is simple and elegant, while Scott Chambliss' production design is breathtaking. His Enterprise is one part Ikea (think cool, approachable streamline) two parts futuristic airline.
Daniel Mindel's cinematography is highly efficient and evocative (despite an overuse of flare). His work in the action sequences (combined with Michael Giacchino's utterly majestic score) puts you right in the middle of the events and his smooth travelings in grounded scenes remind us of the ebbs and flows of time which is a recurrent theme in the plot.
And as usual it's perhaps Abrams' who makes the best impression of all. His devotion to every project he gets into is remarkable and "Star Trek" is no exception.
Abrams seems to live in the universe he's (re)-creating and maximum attention is put on every level. There are inside references for Trekkies (who will no doubt recite along in the electrifying conclusion) and enough fun sights (Gasps! Is that Winona Ryder?) for those who came to accompany them.
But what makes his film so marvelous is that he taps into what made "Star Trek" so popular to begin with. Abrams knows that the places and people here were never part of our universe. The events may be happening near or in planet Earth, but this one isn't in the Milky Way, it belongs in the universe of pop culture.
Therefore, like what will be the most controversial element of his reboot, Abrams travels back in time to make us feel exactly like the first people who saw "Star Trek" in the 60s; where despite the starting war, social revolutions and uncertainty there was hope.
Whether it was the possibility of setting foot on other planets or just getting this one in its place, there was a sense of unity and wonder that's very needed right now.
Abrams could've grounded himself on the premise of "realism" (and delivered some dark political message concentrating more on the fate of the planet Vulcan), but his particular brand of reality comes in the fact that he reminds us of the power for change that lies within each of us.
The twists and turns may not make physicists happy, but they remind us that both science and media entertainment were originally intended to make our lives better.
Who needs real science when there is so much fun to be had in this fiction?