Sunday, May 10, 2009
That's roughly the amount of Star Trek hours produced between the time the original show premiered in fall of '66 and the last spin-off, Enterprise, left the air in '05, including five TV series, one cartoon show, and ten features. Some were exceptional, some were execrable, and many lay somewhere in between. Nonetheless, it was and remains an impressive achievement, and the property's enduring value to Paramount meant that it had long since become, to borrow a phrase from the current lexicon, too big to fail.
Of course, the flipside was that because of the sheer volume of material -- at best unmanageable and worst insurmountable -- it had become impossible for it to succeed. After Voyager, after Insurrection, after Nemesis, one could be forgiven for thinking there simply weren't anymore worlds left to explore, strange or otherwise, and that all the new life and civilizations had already been sought out.
In order for Star Trek to ever reclaim a place of pop culture prominence, it needed to be made palatable to a wider audience while at the same time embracing the totality of everything that had come before (and the fan loyalty that went along with it). This was the situation into which producer/writer JJ Abrams entered, racing in where angels fear to tread, when agreeing to pick up the franchise's reins. An impossible aim, perhaps, but then Star Trek and no-win scenarios have always gone well together.
Tasked with finding a way to move the brand forward, the filmmakers made perhaps the only choice they could, boldly going into the past and taking Star Trek back to its most iconic era, the 23rd century milieu of Kirk, Spock, Bones, et al. Part sequel and part reboot, Abrams' Trek shows a faithful adherence to both the spirit and canon of everything that's been laid down for the past forty years, while also being joyfully unencumbered by the same old, same old way of doing business that ended up putting the franchise into a deep freeze.
In reviving these near-mythic characters for the big screen after being absent since the early '90s, Abrams and his writers Roberto Orci & Alex Kurzman (who also penned Transformers and its upcoming sequel) have gone back to before the beginning, showing how a group of disparate people and personalities were able to come together and become the stars of the fleet. Like the very best that Star Trek (the franchise) has to offer, Star Trek (the movie) excels by foregrounding the idea that even in the face of amazing technological and personal advancement, these characters remain unmistakeably human (or half human, as it were).
Beginning with a gripping and powerful prologue depicting simultaneously the birth of legendary space hero James Tiberius Kirk and the heroic death of his father, George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth), while defending his starship from an enemy incursion, Star Trek immediately establishes a tone of danger and drama before we're even introduced to the new faces who will become this generation's Trek stars.
Cut to twenty years later, and young Jim Kirk is a gifted-but-shiftless ne'er-do-well (played by Chris Pine with just the right amount of that Shatner swagger) prodded by Captain Christopher Pike (the always-terrific Bruce Greenwood, inheriting the one-shot role played by Jeffrey Hunter on the original show) to join up with Starfleet, the "peacekeeping and humanitarian armada" that will allow him to put his full potential to use.
Playing in parallel to this is the story of Spock (Zachary Quinto, blessed with being a near-doppleganger for his pointy-eared predecessor), born to Vulcan father (Ben Cross) and human mother (Winona Ryder), and wracked by uncertainty over which part of his heritage truly defines him. Kirk and Spock are a study in contrasts, which leads to the inevitable fireworks when the two initially cross paths at the Academy.
When the same menace responsible for his father's death manifests once again, Kirk and Spock are forced together under Captain Pike's command despite their initial differences. In the process, the Enterprise crew we first met in the "The Man Trap" in 1966 comes together for the first time, including Karl Urban as McCoy, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Simon Pegg as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as Chekov (well, okay, we technically didn't meet Chekov until 1967, but you know what I mean).
While the usual space battles and explosions galore populate the proceedings, amped up to heretofore unseen degrees thanks to Abrams' energetic, hyperactive camerawork, the relationship between Kirk and Spock is the center of gravity for the entire movie. In detailing how the two progress from heated rivalry to hard-won friendship, it shows how the bond between the eventual captain and eventual first officer is so deep and abiding that even wholesale changes to the time-space continuum can't undermine it.
And speaking of wholesale changes to time and space, that's where Leonard "Original Spock" Nimoy comes in, holding the string that connects this Star Trek to his Star Trek (not to mention to every iteration that came after). The why-and-wherefores are things that are best discovered on one's own, but Nimoy's presence, as well as that of the villainous Nero, the Romulan captain played by Eric Bana, is the solution arrived at by Team Abrams (putting all their Lost-trained time tripping skills to use) to freely blaze their own path while also being fully inclusive of the reams of extant material already out there.
There's high adventure, high stakes, and high energy here that reminds us what had gradually been drained away during the years subsequent to The Undiscovered Country. As articulated in my thoughts on Nemesis, there was a sense of safeness, an unwillingness to upset the applecart, that had infested the franchise and left each subsequent entry just a little bit more lifeless. In moving his pieces around the chessboard to set up the new status quo, Abrams has re-infused the brand with the spirit of exploration (of the self, if not space just yet).
The cast, faced with the daunting prospect of giving renewed life to parts that had been the sole property of their original owners up to now, measure up admirably, evoking the characters without descending to the level of abject mimicry. Of these, in addition to Pine and Quinto doing a fine job taking point, Urban does the late De Kelley proud with his take on the cantankerous McCoy, and Saldana and Cho get to do more in their one movie than their predecessors managed in a quarter-century (well, by the end Sulu was a captain...).
If there is a point of contention, it's that the new, tricked-out USS Enterprise is a little too busy, both inside and out. We never get a chance to really appreciate the ship as a character in its own right. There are also some elements of coincidence that come dangerously close to straining even our hoary sci-fi honed sensibilities, such as a series of chance encounters had by li'l Kirk (on a planet seemingly borrowed from The Empire Strikes Back) that require us to just roll with it and accept that some things are meant to be.
And in what's become something of a recurring critique with these movies, the villain is left largely undeveloped. While his motivation is given a little more flesh than the last few Trek movie baddies, it's still mostly left to Eric Bana to imbue Nero with both pathos and menace. It doesn't always work, and the Romulan's ending is particuarly anti-climactic, but he gets points for at least giving it a go.
Credit JJ Abrams for wanting his take on Star Trek to build on the franchise's rich history rather than simply overwriting it. They could just as easily have wiped the slate clean by hitting the big red "reboot" button previously used by Bond, Batman, Battlestar, etc., and the rest of the world would simply have shrugged its collective shoulders while die hard Trekkers would either piss and moan, or piss and moan then fall in line. Instead, Abrams took the more circuitous route towards the same end, rooting Trek '09 directly in the same legacy that has continued since the 1960s.
Here's me playing prophet on the occasion of Enterprise's finale back in 2005:
While it's safe to say, in the greatest of Samuel Clemens traditions, that rumors of Trek's demise are greatly exaggerated, the end of Enterprise is nevertheless momentous in many ways. Whatever form Star Trek assumes in its next iteration, there seems little doubt that it will be vastly different from the franchise that ran for the better part of the past two decades.Right on both counts, thankfully. The 2009 model Star Trek is laced with the fresh thrill of discovery. This is a movie aimed not only at those who'd forgotten the fun, adventure, and yes, humor that Trek used to be about, but also those who never knew it. It's pointedly not aimed at those who look at this movie and see only the Enterprise being built in the wrong location, or Spock wearing the wrong-colored tunic.
As the film comes to an end, with Leonard Nimoy's reprise of the series' famous opening narration to send us on our way (accompanied by Abrams' longtime composer Michael Giacchino's own reprise of the Alexander Courage Trek fanfare), the original crew of the Enterprise is ready to begin their voyages anew. Wherever their next adventure ends up taking them, here's hoping they go just as boldly. A