Pure Summer Entertainment Lives on in J.J. Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’
CHICAGO – It will be a stunning surprise if the summer of 2009 produces another slice of movie entertainment as satisfying and well-made as J.J. Abrams rollicking “Star Trek” reboot, a film that not only delivers on high expectations but shatters them by clicking on every single level.
“Star Trek” features a character travelling through time (not a major spoiler…don’t write hate mail) and that’s exactly what writers Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman and director J.J. Abrams have done with their film, returning to the start but also injecting their own life into a dead franchise.
Chekov (Anton Yelchin), James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Bones (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho), and Uhura (Zoë Saldana) in "Star Trek."
Photo credit: Paramount
The film opens with an attack on a Federation ship that happens to have among its crew members the man who would be the father of the king of the Trekker world - Kirk. His son James Tiberius is born on an escape pod as his dad crashes into a gigantic Romulan vessel. Years later, a rebellious young Kirk (Chris Pine) is recruited for Starfleet Academy by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), a man who knew his father and sees the same leadership skills in the new cadet.
In the blink of an eye, Kirk is aboard the Enterprise and dealing with a universal crisis that could mean the end of Earth. I wouldn’t dare ruin the surprises of this clever script, but Kirk is, naturally, joined by Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekhov (Anton Yelchin), Bones (Karl Urban) and Scotty (Simon Pegg).
The crew is forced into an interstellar crisis at the hands of Nero (Eric Bana), a man with a tie to both Spock and Kirk’s past, present and future.
Like most film critics, I have vivid memories of the summer movies that thrilled me to my teenage core. With their overt intent to keep me as entertained as possible until I had to go back to school, summer movies were a major part of my formative years. I can still remember seeing Tim Burton’s “Batman” three days in row.
In recent summer seasons, that sense of wide-eyed entertainment and desire to ride a summer movie rollercoaster more than once has seriously dissipated. Sure, I’m older, but it also seems like summer movies have gone from entertainment to bloated, big-budget messes bursting at the seams with star salaries and CGI that looks dated by the time kids have to go back to school. “WALL-E” and “The Dark Knight” were the rare, ambitious exceptions, but even those films aren’t what you would call old-fashioned entertainment.
“Star Trek” shatters the recent trend and used its cinematic transporter room to shoot me back to the entertainment-loving movies of my youth. Perhaps the most succinct praise I can give “Star Trek” is this simple one - I see hundreds of movies a year for free in my role as a film critic and rarely have desire or time to see something more than once. After the “Star Trek,” the first thing I wanted to do was buy tickets to see it again.
What does “Star Trek” do right? Let’s start with the opposite question. The only minor, barely noticeable flaws are some odd casting at the fringe of the ensemble (Tyler Perry and Winona Ryder take small roles that would have been more effective and less distracting with unknowns in the roles) and one sequence that didn’t quite work for me, but I can’t reveal due to spoilers.
That’s it. What DOES work? Eveything else. The film is one of the most expertly made, acted, and designed thrill rides of not just the season or the year, but so far this decade. With visual effects, sound design, and a score that I highly doubt will be surpassed for a long time, the beauty of “Star Trek” is not just in the grand gestures but the little things.
Zoë Saldana (center) stars as Uhura in "Star Trek."
Photo credit: Paramount
Listen to the way composer Michael Giacchino’s gorgeous score (he also did “Ratatouille” and scores “Lost”) weaves in and out of the movie, like John Williams’ classic pieces from the ’80s escapist fare that thrilled a generation.
Look at the amazing visual effects, a design that actually adds gravity and weight to the CGI that I don’t think we’ve seen before. When the Enterprise speeds through space, you’ll believe it like you never have. The complexity of the CGI in “Star Trek” is so incredible that you barely even know it. Unlike most summer movies, it’s never showy, merely effective. The sound design perfectly matches it.
Of course, sound design and a great score are merely the backdrop, but the forefront is just as remarkable.
Orci & Kurtzman’s screenplay expertly plays to fan’s expectations by including key lines and movements familiar to fans of the original series but doesn’t over-do those elements. What truly elevates the script is the way it plays with what we know about these character’s personalities.
Spock (Zachary Quinto, left) and James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, right) in "Star Trek."
Photo credit: Paramount
Watching the Spock/Kirk dynamic develop is the highlight of a screenplay full of them. The central focus of the film is how the logical Spock learns to allow just the right amount of emotion into his universe-view and how the rebellious Kirk learns to allow just the right amount of logic.
Fans who recognize that this dynamic would be a major foundation of one of the most influential partnerships in TV or sci-fi history will love to watch it come to life. But it’s never overstated and neither is the development of the rest of the Enterprise crew. Orci & Kurtzman plant the seeds for these characters. They don’t just fill in the blanks like the “Star Wars” prequels or “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”.
Finally, there’s the cast. Quinto is incredible, Urban nearly steals the film, and Saldana is stunningly sexy, but this is Pine’s show all the way. He took the biggest risk of being compared to a legendary actor in a well-known role and he knocks it out of the park with his charisma. I particularly loved how he took on more Shatner-isms like his cocky swagger as his character developed through the film.
“Star Trek” is both a refreshing reminder of what summer entertainment should be and a new bar for what it can be in the future.