Saturday, May 25, 2013

"Star Trek (2009)": review repost

I had reviewed 2009's "Star Trek" back when I was on Facebook. I'm off Facebook now—have been for a few years, thankfully—but because I had emailed my review to Charles (who, in 2009, was as un-beFacebooked as he is now), I was able to dig it out of my email archives. Here, then, is what I'd written about JJ Abrams's "Star Trek" reboot at the time:

The new "Star Trek" was an effective reboot, and now we've got a universe without the planet Vulcan. I almost feel as if the 10,000 remaining Vulcans should form a ragtag, fugitive fleet and go on a quest for their Thirteenth Tribe, with Romulans replacing Cylons.

The movie's pace was brisk, and because it's an "ensemble" story, I suppose that certain sacrifices have to be made in terms of character. All the same, there were two major lacunae for me: (1) the relationship between Kirk and McCoy, and (2) the relationship between Spock and Uhura.

(1) was tantalizing because we got to see how Kirk and McCoy met on the shuttle going up to Spacedock, and we got to see that they were great friends at or near the end of their Starfleet Academy days, but we missed everything about how their friendship took shape over time. I did, however, think it was a nice touch to learn why McCoy's nickname is Bones-- and the reason turns out be unrelated to anything medical.

(2), as portrayed in the film, was frustrating because this was just a damn cool twist on the interpersonal dynamic of the Enterprise bridge crew, and it deserved further exploration. I can only hope that we'll see more Spock-Uhura action in the sequel, and I hope Uhura never succumbs to Kirk's charms. This would, in fact, be a nifty running joke-- an ongoing rivalry between Spock and Kirk for Uhura's affections. (Such a rivalry could, however, become a distraction in terms of story, if half the primary bridge crew were romantically entangled. Would Sulu and Chekov fall for each other? What about Scotty, all alone in the engine room?)

Uhura's character was doubly frustrating, though, because we still didn't get to hear her speaking different languages, something I'd missed way back in "ST6: The Undiscovered Country," where we see Uhura relying on a Klingon dictionary instead of speaking in fluent Klingon. I'd like to hear the new Uhura cussing out a Romulan-- in Romulan.

And in JJ Abrams's revamped "Trek" universe, it would have been nice for non-Federation aliens not to bow to the hegemony of English-- that, or the "Trek" universe should have become more like the "Star Wars" universe, in which every alien speaks his own language but is somehow understood by almost all interlocutors (in Lucas's fictional world, there was barely any need for interpreters... C-3PO acted as interpreter for organic life forms only twice, I think-- when dealing with the Ewoks, and in interpreting for Jabba the Hutt. Otherwise, his main job was rendering non-anglophone droids comprehensible to humans).

The black-hole physics didn't bother me-- first, because I don't really understand black-hole physics well enough to know what I'm seeing on screen, and second, because "red matter" is left unexplained, which makes it a kind of catch-all plot device immune to inconsistency and self-contradiction. So all of that was OK. I was, however, strongly reminded of the planet-collapsing "singularity grenades" that figure in Stephen R. Donaldson's "Gap" series. One of the most impressive visual moments in the new "Trek" film was the destruction of Vulcan.

Mr. Scott's beam-in to the Enterprise was funny, but his propulsion through the water pipe was a little too reminiscent of "The Addams Family."

I did, however, thoroughly enjoy the gritty look of the engine room, which presented an almost scary contrast to the whitewashed sterility of the Enterprise's bridge. That grunginess was reflective of a wider grittiness in Abrams's version of the "Trek" universe, and I definitely appreciated that change. On one level, I'd say that Abrams took his cue from BSG, but the sci-fi grunge look predates the new BSG: "Blade Runner" had the look, as did "Star Wars" before it. In any case, it's nice to see "Trek" get the same treatment. In particular, I was delighted by the weird plastic sheeting inside the shuttlecraft of both the USS Kelvin and the USS Enterprise. I enjoyed trying to figure out what such sheeting was for. Was it some sort of low-tech sterile field, or was it a threshold like that part of the supermarket where you see the heavy plastic separation between the customers' side of the store and the immense storage area in back?

The new look and feel of the viewscreens and phasers were also cool, but I take points off for the shape of the giant Romulan ship, which was obviously designed simply to look evil. Then again, that ship's design made the graceful, high-speed Vulcan spacecraft look all the cooler; the two ships together served as a nonverbal way of contrasting Vulcan and Romulan cultures.

re: actors and acting

Hats off to the entire cast. Despite the corniness sprinkled liberally throughout the script (e.g., neck injection jokes, and good lord-- they even blared out Alexander Courage's original theme during the ending credits!), the actors hit all notes about as perfectly as could be expected-- unlike, say, Marcus Chong, who was memorably awful as the character Tank in "The Matrix" (and who wasn't invited back for the sequels; it's pretty embarrassing to be known as an actor who is worse than Keanu Reeves).

The casting choices were all solid; I had a good laugh at the fact that the new McCoy's hairdo is a carbon copy of the original McCoy's coiffe. I did wonder, though, why Anton Yelchin was chosen to be Chekov. Yelchin is Russian-born, but he came to the US as a baby and is a native English-speaker. His Russian accent is therefore forced, and it continues the Walter Koenig tradition of Chekov's bizarre inability to pronounce the "v" sound, despite this phoneme's prominence in actual Russian ("Zdrastvuytye!" and "Privyet!" are standard greetings with "v"s in them, and the name "Chekov" itself contains a "v"). It would have been a nice touch-- if we insist on having a Chekov who speaks with an accent-- to see the role played by a Russian who is very much a non-native speaker of English.

It was good to see Leonard Nimoy back in the Spock role. Continuity. Maybe this makes up for Nimoy's conspicuous absence from that other "passing of the torch" Trek movie, "ST: Generations."

Kudos to Eric Bana as well, though I think his character should have spoken only in Romulan.

re: references to previous films and the TV series

The new film had quite a few references to earlier films and TV episodes. For one thing, the "red shirt" joke is alive and well. Yes, I caught this when the one guy landed wrong on the drilling platform and got fried by the energy beam.

Spock's quoting of Sherlock Holmes harks back to "Star Trek 6," the movie in which Spock speaks (indirectly) of Holmes as an ancestor.

The Vulcan testing/training facility for children was a reference to "Star Trek 4," in which Spock is briefly seen retraining his mind through a barrage of mathematical, logical, and philosophical questions.

When the old Spock meets the young Kirk on Delta Vega (itself apparently a surrogate for Rura Penthe in "Star Trek 6," at least in terms of look if not function), he says "I have been and always shall be your friend," a reference to ST2 and ST3. I have a feeling that, had our audience been larger, that would have been one of many applause lines in the film. (I still remember, as a kid in 1979, the audience's approving roar when Spock stepped into the new Enterprise with a crisp "Permission to come aboard.")

Kirk's goading of Spock into a violent rage (after Kirk and Scotty beam aboard) was strongly reminiscent of the TV episode, "This Side of Paradise."

Captain Pike's capture and subsequent violation by the alien slug struck me as an ST2 reference-- the Ceti eels that Khan gave Chekov and Terrell. I'm also guessing that the slug's munching on Pike's brain stem was at least partly responsible for Pike's ending up in a wheelchair. He was able to walk when Kirk rescued him (wasn't he?), but the slug would still have been in his head/neck when he and Kirk escaped the Romulan ship.

Green chick. Nerve pinch. Enough said.

The Kobayashi Maru simulation. I think scripter Roberto Orci owes a huge debt to Nicholas Meyer.

As usual, the bridge crew is first to leap into danger. This tendency has never been properly explained in any incarnation of "Trek."

Nimoy's voiceover coda: another ST2 reference.

re: new stuff

Spock can handle himself in hand-to-hand combat! "Fencing" for Sulu means something more than flailing a foil around. Woo-hoo!

Chekov struck me as more of a brainy stowaway than an actual crew member. The fact that he and Sulu were both senior in rank to Kirk (a cadet on academic probation), at least temporarily, was amusing.

In terms of atmospherics, I often had a "Starship Troopers meets Battlestar Galactica" vibe-- the young and vibrant actors, the handheld camera work, the movie's harried pace, the cramped Starfleet vessel interiors (shuttles + USS Kelvin), the almost-casual nature of many of the special effects (previous Trek movies have normally been self-conscious about this: many scenes scream, "This Is a Special Effects Scene!")-- these were all welcome changes. Federation starships finally seemed more Millennium Falcon than star destroyer.

Loved the Romulan guided missiles. Also loved the invisibility (and apparent ineffectiveness) of the Federation ships' shields-- something we also saw in "ST2: The Wrath of Khan." I never really liked the ellipsoidal shields of "The Next Generation." Mixed feelings on the Enterprise's new gun batteries.

Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura all had more to do in the new film than they'd had in many of the previous films and TV episodes. Chekov, in particular, seemed to have more to do. Koenig's Chekov was often just the token Russian who got kicked around a lot; he bordered on red-shirt status, even in movies like "ST4: The Voyage Home."

In the new film, McCoy tells Kirk at one point that he likes Spock. He might have been sarcastic, or this might be a hint that Abrams & Co. are planning a very different Kirk-Spock-McCoy dynamic.

The bizarre combination of retro and modern was also consistent with the sort of visual tropes we've seen on BSG. It's anachronism bordering on steampunk. Example: Abrams kept the bridge crew in pretty much the same outfits as those from the 60s TV show. The warp drive is engaged with a silver throttle. Cute.

The Vulcan "red matter" ship: very cool, at least aesthetically. Red matter seems to be the anti-Death Star: instead of exploding a planet, we can implode it.

re: ranking

Inevitably, it comes time for all Trek fans to rank the film. We'll note, first, that the new film definitely escaped the odd-numbered Trek curse. My own ranking of the films is this:

1. ST2: The Wrath of Khan (I can't see this ever being dethroned)
2. ST8: First Contact (one of the few truly bloody "Trek" films, plus great interaction between Picard and Lilly [Alfre Woodard], as well as between Data and the Borg Queen; also featured zero-gee combat)
3. ST11: Star Trek (great action, witty script, excellent and relentless pacing, but a wee bit lacking in characterization)
4. ST3: The Search for Spock (very character-driven; awesome Enterprise theft scene; Vulcan metaphysics; Reverend Jim/Doc Brown as the Klingon commander; plodding but uplifting conclusion)
5. ST4: The Voyage Home (humor, and the crew's teamwork is a plus)
6. ST6: The Undiscovered Country (good whodunit, but some questionable special effects and plot twists)
7. ST1: The Motion Picture (plodding pace, but had potential as a fantastic story... this film needs to have all its special effects remastered, needs to be re-edited for pacing, and needs a new, CGI version of Ilia, originally portrayed by the awful-- and late-- Persis Khambatta)
8. ST7: Generations (very milquetoast; the Nexus was a stupid plot device)
9. ST5: The Final Frontier (at least it had humor, but it was still pretty bad)
10. ST9: Insurrection (boring as hell)
11. ST10: Nemesis (fucking awful)

Oh, yeah-- I enjoyed Spock's Vulcan salute to himself. I was also unexpectedly touched by Spock's failed attempt to rescue his mother from death.



pitchfest said...

Wow, that's a good review. Going in reverse order, I quite liked Nemesis though, mainly because I like Data and Captain Picard doing anything. And I appreciate the scientific aspects as much as the storylines. RNA-based clone of Picard? Cool, because it makes sense in terms of the accelerated ageing and associated health problems. But my two favourites are First Contact and The Voyage Home.
I thought Star Trek (2009) was great. It's always the little things that get me. Like how in the beginning, when the cop is chasing the young Kirk telling him to pull over, his voice in the open air at high speed is crystal clear, as is the siren. I look forward to these future leaps in audio technology.
And my best guess for the plastic sheets is that they are microbial decontaminants or designed to block outside noise without hindering passage (maybe a local ion field). I vaguely remember that they zip up quite mechanically after someone walks through them.
And my favourite part is when Spock and Kirk get on the Vulcan ship. The dialogue between them is great. Kirk, after hearing the computer's announcement: "Hmm that's funny." Spock seems to suddenly realise that the ship is from the future ("I foresee a complication"), and it takes him all of a microsecond to take it in stride and focus on the task at hand.
And then my Number 1 question is: When Spock sits in the pilot seat, and is surprised when it slowly rotates, he says "Fascinating." What IS he referring to? Would love to know. Is it some kind of Vulcan meditative sound and revolving chair thingy that is designed to put the pilot's mind at ease?
And I think the plexiglass window behind him begins to bend as well. Why would the plexiglass need to bend? My guess is that it automatically customizes the field of vision for the characteristics of the pilot. But of course it's not plexiglass - most likely transparent aluminum.
And then Spock figures out how to fly an advanced spacecraft from the future by trial and error.
Great stuff. Looking forward to seeing Into Darkness, which I'll have to do before seeing your review.

Kevin Kim said...

I tried to avoid spoilers in writing my "Darkness" review. Not sure how well I succeeded, but I can say that I didn't give away anything more than other reviewers have done.