Released: 8 May 2009
Director: JJ Abrams
Screenwriters: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Eric Bana
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Running Time: 126 mins
In SciFiNow’s two-plus years of publication, we’ve never sat down to write a review of this size for a theatrical release. Then again, we’ve never invested so much coverage, passion, excitement and enthusiasm into a film like this before, and indeed, we can’t remember the last time that we anticipated one so highly. This film is, of course, the new Star Trek, helmed by JJ Abrams with a new cast for an old crew, a new story and a new universe for a familiar one, a reboot of something that is permanently etched into our cultural psyche. It’s a tall order, and the weight of responsibility on Abrams’s shoulders to deliver is clearly staggering.
But first, let’s get something out of the way right now. Star Trek is a good film. It has its plus points, its negative aspects and places that warrant discussion, but we want to assure you that if you go and see this film, you won’t leave disappointed. We suspect that die-hard guardians of canon will have realised that it’s not worth sharpening their Bat’telh’s by now, and that this won’t be the Star Trek that we grew up with – in many ways it isn’t. But that isn’t to say that it’s not worthy in its own right, something we’ll aim to elaborate on for the rest of this review.
The film starts with the arrival of Nero’s vessel in a region of space that the USS Kelvin is currently travelling through, a ship which has Kirk’s parents on board. After a frenetic firefight we learn that this Romulan vessel is from the future, and Kirk’s father has to sacrifice himself and the ship to save the fleeing crew, including his just-born son, Jim. A series of flashbacks that establish Kirk and Spock’s backgrounds ensue before we hit the film’s main timeline, which deals primarily with Kirk’s final moments of the Academy before he becomes a full-fledged officer, and the crucible through which he becomes the man that we all know. Nero is seeking revenge for the destruction of Romulus in the future, and he will stop at nothing to achieve that. Spock, who was also pulled back in time with Nero, aims to unite the nascent Enterprise crew to stop him.
The most immediately striking aspect of the film is the quality of the effects. This is expected of course, but ILM has outdone itself this time with an incredible use of colour and some of the most advanced visual wizardry we’ve seen in recent years on a live action film. A few tricks are borrowed from studios such as Zoic (Firefly, Battlestar Galactica) here and there, such as a lazy camera pan that snaps onto the action a fraction of a second later than normal, and a predilection towards shakiness at the right moments, but really, the film looks glossy, polished and realistic. There were also a few moments that appealed to the science geek in us – at the very beginning, a particularly shocking moment sees a crewmember being sucked out into space, with the sound of the initial explosion and rupture of the hull being almost deafening until the vacuum replaces it with silence. This has long been a criticism of Star Wars, Star Trek and the like, and it’s nice to see a little rejoinder from the effects crew here. Naturally, this leads us onto the space combat in the series. Many have been concerned that there would be too much of an influence from Star Wars in the battle sequences, and while there is certainly a strong flavour of it in there, it’s still quintessentially Trek. You get a very strong sense of two galleons blasting away at each other with their cannons at points, with the only thing that disrupts it being that all of the Federation’s vessels are significantly outgunned and dwarfed by the Romulan vessel. The feel, however, is far more visceral than in previous Trek entries. Rather than a few sparks flying from a bridge console to denote damage, sections of hull plating are sheared away, chunks are blown out of bulkheads, personnel are thrown across the room and don’t get up again. It’s almost brutal in places, and this in itself signifies a move away from the almost clinical nature of Star Trek in the past, the feeling that it was all at a remove. Here, you get the very real sense that the only thing separating you from space is a few metres of plating, and it’s terrifying.
Star Trek also redefines the traditional routines that films from the franchise have gone through before. For instance, how many times have you seen an away team beam into a hostile situation and come under attack immediately? These are exciting moments, and they’re a big part of the reason for why we watch Trek, but let us ask you this: how many times have you seen an away team get assembled with the captain asking for people trained in advanced hand to hand combat, then shot out of a shuttle craft in the upper stratosphere, before dropping onto a platform thousands of metres below? It’s a different ballgame entirely, and in the context of this film’s tone and pace, it works.
“An elegiac send-off”
What we were equally interested and nervous about however, aside from the action, was the performances of the cast. You don’t need to worry about the big three – Kirk, McCoy, and Spock. Pine, Urban and Quinto nail the performances, and at points it’s almost hard to believe that anybody else could have played these roles as well as they do. Kirk is cocky, brash, masculine and flawed, but intelligent and with a strong sense of duty and purpose. McCoy is curmudgeonly and cynical already (one particular scene where he meets Kirk for the first time has him complaining that his recently divorced wife has left him with nothing but his ‘bones’), while Spock is deeply conflicted, torn between his love for his mother and his sense of heritage from his Vulcan father. There aren’t any points where you can really criticise what the actors have done here, they’ve clearly done their research, but more importantly, have had the guts to put their own stamp on the characters. They aren’t as developed as we would have liked, of course, but that’s because this is an establishing film, and they aren’t even in the first half-hour. The other roles are performed admirably by the actors in question. Simon Pegg isn’t annoying as Scotty, despite some rather ill-advised portrayals in the trailers, although he does drop his accent once or twice. Zoe Saldana is assured and confident as Uhura (who in turn has a rather interesting relationship with our very own Commander Spock), John Cho is very modern-day Takei as Sulu, and Yelchin is infectiously likeable as Chekov. Nimoy, as always, is superb as Spock, the character that has defined his career as an actor, and it’s a pleasure to see him on the big screen again in what will likely be his last appearance as Kirk’s right-hand man. It’s an elegiac send-off for the character, once replete with respect and affection, and it is quite simply a joy to watch.
The story deserves a huge amount of credit here. Orci and Kurtzman have crafted a decent Trek yarn that retains much of the series’ spirit, a little political subtext, some edge-of-the-seat moments and a real density to the fabric of their new universe. They have resisted typical Trek tropes with time travel, and their bravery in not giving in to the temptation to hit the reset button at the end deserves the highest praise. We won’t tell you what happens, but rest assured, they have set a course on a new heading for the Trek franchise and the series could be all the better for it. The decision to make Nero into a conflicted villain was a good one as well – he’s not a soldier, not a dictator, he’s not even a captain. He’s a miner who has seen his home destroyed, and as a result, he’s gone off the deep end, consumed and twisted by his despair and desire for revenge, the grief for the loss of his family overwhelming his dignity. The similarities between Spock and Nero are unnerving, and the often repeated line that you choose your own destiny is very pertinent here.
What we enjoyed the most by the end, however, was the relationship between Kirk and Spock. This really is the central point of the film, and it’s handled well throughout, leading to the final showdown sequences when they learn to get along and work together. It’s hard not to feel a thrill of excitement when they fight side by side and begin working as the team we’ve known for 40 years, and we can’t wait to see what Orci and Kurtzman do with them in the future.
We could write another four pages praising things about this film, small details such as the new phasers, the nods and winks, the mannerisms of Chris Pine’s Kirk, but we do have to say that it isn’t a perfect film. The initial half-hour, while it starts off exceptionally strongly in the first ten minutes, quickly becomes akin to a clip show. It’s almost as if Abrams had produced a series of vignettes intended to broadcast as webisodes and slapped them on the beginning of the film. Time jumps from the Kelvin incident to when Kirk and Spock are kids, forwards to the beginning of the Academy and then three years on. There’s no fleshing out whatsoever for what happens, no real explanation for Kirk channelling James Dean – we’re just supposed to accept it, and it grates against the whole idea of establishing a new universe with new takes on the characters. The fact that they entirely excised the Academy years is also a real letdown, and it left us feeling slightly cheated when it happened.
In other critical points, the score fails to live up to its potential. Star Trek has always been noted for its dramatic, orchestral music, but this effort from Michael Giacchino never quite hits the mark. It dips in tempo when it should increase, notes go higher when they feel like they should go lower, crashes and instrumentals occur at odd times, while the audio overlay of the sequence where Kirk is born and his father dies is, quite simply, rather peculiar. If you don’t really care too much about scores then this may be a minor point for you, but for us it’s an integral part of the cinematic experience, and we felt disappointed by the end.
Other points of contention include some of the sets, which look more like Battersea Power Station crossed with Thorpe Park at points rather than a technologically sophisticated starship, but to be fair, the design on the whole is superb. Really, our main gripe is that the film is too short for the scope it attempts to undertake. It could easily have done with another 30-45 minutes and eliminated the schizophrenic pace of the first act, while investing a more time into the characters’ reactions following the momentous events of the midsection. It’s for this reason that we can’t, in good conscience, award Star Trek five stars, although we’d have loved to. It really is a good film that will, in our view, bring an entirely new generation of Star Trek fans into the fold, and the film is made for them, make no mistake about it. While it includes many, many small details to keep longtime fans happy, this really is a film for people who haven’t invested in the franchise before. But you know what? It works, and we were very, very happy with what we saw. You will be too.