Click here for Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's review.
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OK, here's the short version for the uninitiated: J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" is thus far the most entertaining movie I've seen this year, and the best "Trek" film since "The Voyage Home" in 1986. (That's the one with the whales.) Zachary Quinto is perfect as Spock, the first hour is great, and the first ten minutes are tremendous. You don't have to be a Trekkie to enjoy it.
And now, the long version for the hardcores:
I have never been a fan of the original "Star Trek" series, but I have always loved the big-screen adventures of the USS Enterprise. The ten features that lead up to this week's bold reboot of the franchise certainly have a checkered reputation, but I think there are only two or three real stinkers in the bunch. ("Final Frontier"? Certainly. "Nemesis"? Yep. But I do have a certain regard for "Insurrection," despite its obvious faults.) It seems to be Nerd Law that we must all acknowledge "The Wrath of Khan" as the finest in the series, but I've always gravitated toward the downright loopy "Voyage Home," which turns the crew into a wise-cracking band of time-traveling hippies and reaffirms our love for the characters.
As far as the TV series go, "The Next Generation" is easily my favorite. Data may have been conceived simply as Spock with even fewer emotions, but he became a distinct, powerful presence of his own, and my favorite of all "Trek" characters. Pity, then, what happened to him in his cast's films. Does it get any more embarrassing or cringe-inducing than Data's experiments with humor in "Star Trek: Generations"?
The "TNG" crew could overcome pretty much anything, except the combined forces of Rick Berman and Brannon Braga. These are the men who drove "Star Trek" into the ground with all that forced humor and just plain idiotic storytelling. Braga works on "24" now, which goes a long way toward explaining the forehead-slap-inducing developments in the later part of that show's current season.
The last "Trek" film, "Nemesis," landed with a thud at the box office and pretty much killed any enthusiasm the moviegoing public had left for the continuing voyages of the Starship Enterprise. So J.J. Abrams, who delivered what the Paramount suits (and I myself) considered to be the best of the "Mission: Impossible" flicks, was given the task of revitalizing this once-great vessel that had been lost at sea.
It's clear in the film's opening sequence that he has done it.
The first ten minutes of "Star Trek" look more professional, more epic, and just plain more expensive than all of the "TNG" flicks combined. And what happens in these first ten minutes changes the entire "Trek" universe as we know it.
In this opening sequence, a thrilling space battle ends with a moment of personal sacrifice that plays out much like a similar scene would on "Lost," the show Abrams helped create, and which "Trek" producer Damon Lindelof is in charge of. As the scene ups the suspense, Abrams drowns out all of his sound effects and lets Michael Giacchino's music do all the talking. The visuals are astonishing and the emotions run high; not since Spock's death in "Wrath of Khan" have I been so moved by "Star Trek," and this is the first ten minutes of the movie. When the tragedy plays out, the screen goes black until we see the words "STAR TREK" fill the entire screen. There was applause at the late-night screening I attended.
From there we meet Kirk and Spock, played by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in ways that don't mimic William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. The same can't be said for Karl Urban and Anton Yelchin, whose attempts at aping DeForest Kelley and Walter Koenig are mildly amusing at best and downright wrong at worst. (One hopes that these things will be ironed out in the next film, sort of like how Halle Berry dropped the stupid accent in the second "X-Men" movie.)
If this movie doesn't make Quinto a bona fide star, it will cement his immortality as a cult hero. Quinto is awesome as Spock, giving him new emotional depth and a sense of danger that I never felt from Leonard Nimoy. He is still a perfect foil for Kirk, but their interplay has a different feel here. This is the beginning of their friendship, and there is a sense of competition between them -- especially since, in this version of "Star Trek," Spock is apparently doing the Vulcan Genital Meld with Uhura, played nicely by Zoe Saldana.
There are lots of different things about this "Star Trek," and that is made possible by the film's plot which, once again, involves time travel. A rogue Romulan named Nero has come back in time thanks to an accident with a black hole, and his vengeful ways change the entire course of the "Star Trek" universe. The particulars of how and why this happens are pretty weak, and the exposition required to explain them produces the worst scene in the movie. (In fact, that scene brings the movie to a dead halt for about ten minutes. Making matters worse is that Leonard Nimoy, playing an alternate Spock from the future, is the one saddled with this exposition. Until then, "Star Trek" is one of the fastest-moving pictures I've seen in a long time.)
But the how and the why ultimately don't matter because the result is an almost completely blank canvas for Abrams or whoever continues the franchise from here. This iteration of "Star Trek" won't be bound to the canon that Trekkies hold so dear, so sacred, and the storytelling possibilities are endless.
That doesn't mean that this new "Trek" world is completely unfamiliar. No, alien races still build vast spaceships with walkways that have no hand rails, so people can easily be thrown to their deaths. Yes, Scotty (Simon Pegg, awesome) still says that he's givin' her all she's got, and Bones still says "dammit" a whole lot. Jim still wants to bang green babes, Sulu still knows how to wield a sword, and Vulcans still look kind of lame.
The worst tradition that "Star Trek" upholds? Disappointing villains. Eric Bana gives it his all as the evil Romulan captain, but there's just not much to give to. He doesn't leave much of an impression on the audience, but one wonders if that was the point -- why should the villain steal the show from these new incarnations of the characters we know and love?
The film's action climax seems to be cobbled together from parts of "Wrath of Khan," "Insurrection" and "Nemesis," and is pretty underwhelming, but it does hit the required action beats that a general moviegoing audience will be expecting. The epilogue that follows is far more satisfying, culminating in the film's first use of Alexander Courage's theme from the original TV series.
Many will rail against this film for its mainstream appeal, and for a script from Robert Orci and Robert Kurtzman ("Fringe," "Transformers") that relies on coincidence, and which doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel. More will cringe when they hear a young Kirk listening to the Beastie Boys after answering his Nokia phone, or when they see Uhura order a "Budweiser Classic" at a bar.
But most of us will have far too much fun to care about those things, and we'll be excited by the possibility this movie presents: More "Star Trek" movies.
Now let's just hope enough paying customers come out this weekend to make this franchise live longer, and prosper even more.