Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek (2009, JJ Abrams)

Superficially speaking, Star Trek seems to have everything one could ask for from a summer blockbuster: likable stars, snazzy effects, and lots of explosions, all given a high-gloss sheen. And in this respect, the movie delivers what it promises- the response so far has been almost totally positive (its current Metacritic score is 84), and it should prove to be a big hit. Yet despite all this, Star Trek left me strangely cold. As a fan of the original series and the majority of the movies it spawned, I’m no doubt biased toward the first incarnation of Trek, and judging by the enthusiasm that many non-fans have for the film, my response is hardly typical. But I suppose that this is part of my problem with the movie- that Paramount and director JJ Abrams have made such an effort to appeal to non-Trek fans that they’ve lost some of what made the original series really feel like Star Trek to me.

One thing that really stood out for me (and not in a good way) was Abrams’ restless camera, which contrasts pretty decisively from the stationary setups of old-school Trek. Abrams hails from the world of television, and indeed this style of camerawork has become a TV staple ever since shows like Homicide and ER began using it extensively in the nineties. But while Abrams uses this device as a means to liven up the action, particularly in the scenes on the Enterprise bridge, it was mostly a distraction for me. What’s more, by trying to heighten the tension of every scene on the ship, the movie’s actual action and suspense scenes make less of an impact, since almost everything is pitched at the same momentum. Maybe it’s just that old-fashioned stately squareness is one of the things I find most endearing about old-school Trek- it was never about high-octane action or “cool,” and while the market may demand a Star Trek that’s half Joe Camel and a third Fonzarelli, I don’t have to like it.

That said, I enjoyed the movie more than I thought I would, and it’s certainly not the “Star Trek Babies”-esque spinoff I’d originally feared. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Abrams is less interested in a traditional prequel than a full-scale reboot- less Phantom Menace, more Batman Begins. And while some scenes seemed wrong to me (particularly the stuff between Spock and Uhura), I didn’t have much trouble accepted most of what happened in the movie. Similarly, the new cast isn’t Shatner and company, but nor do they try to be, and most of them find their own takes on the characters while remaining true to their original natures. Chris Pine’s Kirk has his own kind of devil-may-care approach, Zachary Quinto’s Spock is more hard-nosed than Nimoy’s (of course, he’s younger too), and Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy is a blast- who knew this guy had it in him? If only Abrams can settle down a little prior to the inevitable sequel (but what will it be called?), this new Trek franchise could very well have its own Wrath of Khan-caliber installment. Of course, that’s a pretty big “if,” and judging by the applause after my screening last weekend, newly-converted fans will be craving more of the same. Oh well… Rating: 5 out of 10.