J.J. Abrams reboot of the much beloved "Star Trek
" franchise is reminiscent of the films that came before, but not the best of them. Like the other odd-numbered disappointments, this entry, number 11, works best when concentrating on character, but falls flat due to a dull villain with nothing to do other than act as a macguffin
. After a splendid first hour expertly sets up and re-introduces the characters, the second half turns as derivative as a video game with superb special effects supporting poorly choreographed and frantically edited action sequences that carry no suspense because the outcome is obvious and the personal human drama missing.
"Trek" opens with what turns out to be its best scene and one of the best in the franchise; the circumstances around the birth of James Tiberius Kirk. Our hero is well-served here with an imaginative and exciting mythology that shows the filmmakers understand the unique importance of the character. This sequence is also effective in setting up our villain, the Romulan Nero (an almost unrecognizable Eric Bana
), who's leaping about in time hell-bent on the worst kind of revenge against the Federation for something yet to happen.
The narrative then efficiently moves to Iowa and one of the worst scenes, an unimaginative sequence that has wild child Kirk looking for thrills in a stolen Corvette. Set to a blistering heavy metal score that screams "demographic bait," young Kirk, who can barely see over the steering wheel, expertly outruns police and drives off a cliff leaving you to wonder why the writers resorted to a show-don't-tell used so many times before to inform us we have a reckless, adrenaline junkie on our hands.
The contrast between young Kirk and Spock couldn't be stronger. Whereas Kirk grows into an aimless young man with little interest beyond beer and girls, on the planet Vulcan, Spock is a serious, studious and ambitious individual who knows what he wants and where he intends to go. Or does he?
Though they've yet to meet, Kirk and Spock do share an unresolved conflict, a pull towards a destiny neither is quite sure they want. Spock's half human and never allowed to forget it. The prejudice he faces builds both resentment and the bitter knowledge that he'll never really belong on Vulcan. Starfleet not only offers him a place, but in a fine character moment, the satisfaction of thumbing his nose at those who have marginalized him.
The uniformity of an organization like Starfleet, however, doesn't fit well with Kirk's rebellious streak and reactionary distrust of authority, but the legacy of his father hangs over the young man, as does the unspoken acknowledgement of his own potential for greatness. A chance run-in with Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) turns into a "Top Gun-ish" motorcycle moment and so we're off and running.
Here the narrative hits a strong stride, smartly and quickly bringing our crew together, offering fans fast but welcome character touchstones and establishing the familiar relationship dynamics. But the heavy plot demands of putting Kirk in the captain's chair for his first saving of the universe slowly overwhelm what was working so well and it isn't long before an engrossing story breeds indifference as the narrative goes through unspectacular motions.
Abrams not only reboots the franchise but almost completely frees himself from what came before in the opening scene when Nero emerges from the future and in both big and small ways alters everyone's destiny. Using the classic "Trek" questions of time travel and destiny to throw off a burdensome mythology built up over 70-plus television episodes, 7 feature films and a library of books, is clever and very well executed. Not only do you buy it, but because who the characters are and how they interact doesn't change, the rest feels unimportant. One major misstep, though, is a very odd and out of place love affair between two crewmembers. There's no universe alternate enough to make these moments work. This relationship is wildly out of character, especially the lack of discretion.
As Kirk, Chris Pine
has big shoes to fill and only rises to the level of promising in his debut. He's got the swagger but lacks the simmering passion that so defined Shatner's immortal creation. Zoe Saldana's Uhura brings the smarts, but why replace the voluptuous Nichelle Nichols with just another skinny supermodel? But if that's the worst physical replacement, in the personality department Simon Pegg's
Scotty misses by a country mile reducing the competent and dutiful Starship Engineer into a mouthy, exasperated Disney cartoon sidekick.
as Sulu and Anton Yelchin
as Chekov both have their moments to shine but Zachary Quinto's
Spock and Karl Urban's
Dr. McCoy are as perfect a fit as any fan could hope for.
Ultimately, what brings the film down is the emotional disconnect between Nero and our protagonists. There's no personal engagement between them. Nero's driven by hatred for Spock but he might as well be angry at a houseplant. When "this time it's personal" is a one-way street the impression given is that like an angry spouse smashing increasingly valuable things, a rise out of Spock would be enough to satisfy Nero and make him go away.
Sure, the stakes are high enough with billions of lives in the balance, but they always are. With little doubt our heroes will survive, something bigger has to be added to the action stew above and beyond get-to-the-thing-before-the-thing-explodes, but there isn't. Pike's unfortunate circumstance in all this could have been exploited to great effect, but we never come to care about his character much and are allowed to forget his predicament.
For the most the part, the action scenes are a mess of jittery camera work, quick cuts, and pointless close ups. Some of the space sequences are spectacular but again and again I wanted to yell at the filmmakers to get out of the stylized-way so I could see what the hell was going on. This gets progressively worse as the film rolls on until you just sit there numbed by the frenzy.
In the plus column is a refreshing lack of moralizing and politics and a new cast with some life in them. This bodes well for the already greenlit sequel, but make no mistake, there's still that lingering "Bugsy Malone
" feel of it all to overcome.
"Star Trek" qualifies as a promising start. Not a disappointment, but not exactly memorable.