Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Star Trek: Warp Speed to $300 Million and Beyond

Apparently Star Trek is a big deal. The original series of 1966 paved the way for four additional live action series, an animated series, several movies, video games, comics, books, a new language, and I’m sure there’s more. Trekkies will have to forgive me. My exposure to the Star Trek universe is limited to fragments of the various series, and one prolonged exposure to Star Trek Voyager during a nine month stint where I was stranded on my brother’s couch with nothing but Spike TV to watch. I’m a fan of science-fiction, but I never was completely sold on Star Trek, so I approached J. J. Abrams' latest film with skepticism. Could it really be as great as all these reviews claim? After seeing the movie I think most critics are being a little too rewarding, but nonetheless, Star Trek is definitely a fun addition to the summer movie season. The film moves at brisk pace with lots of exciting sci-fi action, a beautiful presentation, and the gags you’d associate with a summer blockbuster.

Star Trek presents the origin story of the original crew of the starship Enterprise. There are seven crewmembers we follow, but the film stays closest to James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). The film moves at warp speed pretty much from the first scene, where we witness the dramatic conditions surrounding Kirk’s birth in space. The next few scenes parallelize the lives of Kirk and Spock as we see the development of a spontaneous and brash Kirk compared to the more subdued and logical entity that is Spock. It’s impossible for me to gauge how well Pine and Quinto’s characters stack up to the originals, but most of the Star Trek fans I know feel they did a good job. But from a story standpoint, Abrams’ ultimate goal is not to appease trekkies, but establish the polarity, rivalry, and eventual friendship between the two main characters. In that regard you have to acknowledge that they did a fine job, but the film ultimately serves the relationship of these two characters more than it does its story and conflict.

Eric Bana plays Nero, an alien obsessed with destroying The United Federation of Planets (this includes Earth) and seeking revenge against Spock for his failure to save his home planet. The circumstances surrounding this failure are unfortunate, but in my opinion don’t add up to match Nero’s hatred and motivation. Even if I were entirely comfortable with Nero’s desire for revenge against Spock, his desire to go on a planet destroying rampage is somewhat forceful. But hey, it’s a sci-fi movie, villains are allowed to be unreasonable. Sci-fi movie or not, a great antagonist will always feel locked to the protagonist emotionally and physically. There’s something about Nero that feels separate from James Kirk, even though Kirk was born in the wake of Nero’s destruction. The two characters weren’t even both aware of one another until the climax. For much of the movie Nero is fixated on Spock, and Kirk seems to inherit Nero as his greatest obstacle.

Star Trek is fortunate that its quick pace takes us from one action scene to the next before audiences can really get hung up on some logic problems and big coincidences in the story. Going into some of the coincidences could venture into spoiler territory, but from a screenwriting standpoint it’s the kind of stuff that every league member would have gotten called out for if we tried it in class. It’s hard to determine if screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were lazy. I have a hunch that the film has a ton of extras that didn’t make the final cut, some of which might have ironed out a few kinks. If I’m wrong then I would say that the screenwriters are guilty of writing what they needed to get from A to B, and not what the story needed.

The supporting characters aboard the Enterprise are introduced and come to their posts aboard the starship quickly. Treating it any differently would have involved slowing down the movie and cluttering it with more dialogue. To Abrams’ credit, Star Trek stuck with its desired pace over the course of a comfortable running time of just over two hours. Of the supporting characters I need to mention Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), the character that gets the fourth most development of the seven. She’s probably the only thing more pleasing to the eye other than the great visual effects the movie has to offer. Women are underrepresented in the film, and if Uhura is an indication of what women will be like in the future, unfortunately the best description would be intelligent harlots. Uhura shows promise in the early going. She’s smart, motivated, and one of the more qualified members aboard the Enterprise. All of my respect for her as a character went out the window with the way she throws herself at Spock. It made no sense to me. It was as if suddenly Abrams had to throw a bone to the thirteen year old boys in the audience who wanted to see her rub up on somebody. Where’s a Captain Janeway when you need one?

One could look at Star Trek as a two hour introduction that sets up the adventures to come. Abrams puts his pieces in place well and manages to mask most shortcomings by whisking us quickly from joke, to great visual, to action scene. We can expect the sequels to be equally entertaining, but viewers should demand a more rewarding story that has the capacity to engage the characters more thoroughly. A menacing and ever-present antagonist would be a great step in this direction. I wish I could comment more on how the film stacks up in the minds of true Star Trek finds, but I know you guys are out there. Chime in and let me know what you thought about the movie.