Sunday, May 10, 2009


Review: Star Trek
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

I am no Trekkie. To me, William Shatner is not Captain Kirk, but Denny Crane; Patrick Stewart is not Captain Jean-Luc Picard, but Professor X; and George Takei is not Mr. Sulu, but that Japanese guy who made coming out of the closet more middle age-friendly. Be it the original '60s TV series, the films, or “The Next Generation,” for whatever reason (generation gap? Klingon aversion?), my geek feelers never sensed to follow any of the paths of the U.S.S. Enterprise. But even if your “Trek” knowledge, like mine, basically begins and ends with societally ingrained phrases like “beam me up, Scotty” and “live long and prosper,” you should still, like I did, have an absolute blast watching director J.J. Abrams's smart, accessible and highly energetic re-imagining of creator Gene Roddenberry's classic story and characters. And while I can't say for sure, I'd imagine that those with a penchant for pointy ears, crowded convention halls and slightly awkward hand gestures will be very pleased as well.

Abrams, as most people know, is the Emmy-winning creator of “Lost” (another pop culture phenomenon for which I missed the proverbial boat). While his name may always be synonymous with television (he's also the man behind popular shows like “Felicity,” “Alias” and, more recently, “Fringe”), Abrams reveals himself to be a world-class action movie maker with “Star Trek,” a superior sci-fi extravaganza that's light years beyond his previous directorial effort, 2006's Tom Cruise vehicle, “Mission: Impossible III.” Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (“Transformers,” “The Island”) falter a bit with a hammy opening prologue but, from there, the crackerjack team's franchise retread takes off like a rocket, chronicling the early days of the famous Enterprise crew in a style that is at once intelligent and ceaselessly action-packed.

Set about a decade before the original series (though time is certainly bendable here), it introduces the audience to slightly younger, significantly prettier versions of the Starfleet Academy graduates that so many viewers already know and love. There's James Kirk (Chris Pine of “Smokin' Aces”), a hotheaded womanizer from Iowa who's destined to follow in his father's footsteps and become a hero of the outer space-exploring Federation. Then there's Spock (Zachary Quinto of NBC's “Heroes”), a half-human, half-Vulcan genius from the other side of the galaxy who's got his own familial issues and who's the first of his kind to be accepted into Starfleet. The initial rivalry and eventual camaraderie of these two opposing characters is appropriately and effectively the film's leading dramatic focus; however, due attention is also paid to the familiar cadets who join them on the Enterprise's maiden voyage. We meet Uhura (Zoe Saldana of “Vantage Point”), a beautiful and brainy communications officer who's hit on by Kirk but only has mascara-lined eyes for Spock; Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban of “The Lord of the Rings” films), Kirk's medical officer buddy with a strong conscience and a deadpan delivery; young Russian officer Chekhov (Anton Yelchin of “Charlie Bartlett”), who's aces in a tight spot; Enterprise helmsman Sulu (John Cho of “Harold and Kumar” fame), who's surprisingly skilled in hand-to-hand combat; and, of course, Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Simon Pegg of “Hot Fuzz”), the ship's chief engineer who knows a thing or two about teleportation.

Assembled by veteran captain Christopher Pike (veteran actor Bruce Greenwood), these diverse personalities must band together to save the universe from Nero (Eric Bana of “Munich”), a tattooed, serpent-like Romulan with a personal vendetta and a powerful weapon that can vanquish entire planets in the blink of an eye. There's plenty more contained within this exciting story, such as time travel and a seamless guest appearance by fan favorite Leonard Nimoy, but I'll leave the rest of the plot details to the adventurous moviegoers. More important are the ways in which Abrams and company have crafted, piece by thrilling piece, a savvy summer movie for everyone. I found myself continuously impressed by how well this film balances strong storytelling, fine acting and quick-witted dialogue with nearly non-stop action and mind-blowing special effects. Like “The West Wing” meets “Starship Troopers,” it communicates its intricate exposition amidst its eye-popping sequences, rarely compromising one for the other and emerging as that scarce genre film that's as clever as it is cool. Though mildly mystifying at times, the convoluted exchanges between characters are not nerdy and pretentious (as I had feared), but erudite, articulate and exceedingly well played by every member of this inordinately talented cast. With their physical likenesses to the original actors as mere gravy, Pine, Saldana, Urban and Quinto, especially, reach high above what one would expect to find here, creating genuine tension and characterization in an arena that's notoriously susceptible to flat, weightless fluff. It's safe to assume that each of these stars will soon see their careers ascend with warp speed in and outside of this series.

No expense is spared in the look of “Star Trek,” as Abrams also proves himself an adroit orchestrator of intense visual fascination. The detailed environments, production design and CGI call to mind the work of James Cameron and Peter Jackson, providing engaging imagery that's as much a living part of the film as the actors. The sharply-cut setpieces are first-rate as well, namely a spectacular segment that takes place within the planet Vulcan's atmosphere and includes skydiving, sword fighting, and some serious flame-throwing. Toss in Daniel Mindel's tireless, scenery-scanning camera work and Michael Giacchino's rousing, retro score, and you've got one awesome sensory experience. Even the neat, normally reprehensible bow that Abrams wraps his movie up with seems such a note-perfect nod to the “Trek” legacy that die-hard fans may very well weep. So am I a Trekkie after all? I wouldn't go that far. But with the inevitable sequels on the horizon, you can bet I'll boldly go wherever this cast and crew are headed.

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