Sunday 13 December 2009

Star Trek (2009)

Sunday 13 December 2009

The wonderful thing about J.J Abrams' reboot of the venerable Star Trek franchise is how astutely he handles everything, particularly under such weight of expectation. Abrams barely puts a foot wrong as he redresses the '60s television series in big-budget attire: fans will be happy it recaptures the original's spirit and vibrant retro-futurism; while newcomers blessed only with a tincture of Trek knowledge won't feel, ahem, alienated. It's a tricky task to please both camps, but Abrams and his team manage it with aplomb, crafting the most accomplished reboot of a popular franchise since Batman Begins.

James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is a bar-brawlin' ladies man and waster, whiling away his youth on terra firma, later persuaded by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) to enlist in Starfleet and seize the alluring adventure that's offered him. Already born during his late-father's kamikaze attack on a mysterious Romulan ship that appeared out of nowhere to destroy the U.S.S Kelvin, Kirk's destiny clearly lies amongst the stars. Having agreed to become a cadet and turn his life around, he meets irascible divorcee "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban), develops a playful relationship with sexy polyglot Uhura (Zoë Saldana), and infamously beats the "unbeatable" Kobayashi Maru simulation created by Academy graduate Spock (Zachary Quinto).

It's not long before the Romulan ship responsible for the death of Kirk's father, commanded by vengeful despot Nero (Eric Bana), resurfaces in Kirk's future and again puts Federation ships and the planet Vulcan in jeopardy. Kirk and Spock are aboard the U.S.S Enterprise with Pike at the time, quickly promoted through the ranks when the danger becomes clear, to lock horns over the best course of action. Kirk's the tempestuous red-blooded human with the fighting attitude; Spock's the serene green-blooded Vulcan with a rational approach to problems. Needless to say, separated they're flawed, together they can accomplish anything.

The powerful thing about Star Trek '09 isn't the lavish FX (which impress with vivacity and realism now), the gorgeous set designs (sleek, glassy curves and twinkling panels), the wonderful soundmix (Star Wars' Ben Burtt updates the '60s-era chirping tweets and bleeps), or the excellent make-up (no bumpy forehead makeup, we get digitally-augmented humanoids -- and a big monster!), but instead its attention to character and emphasis on pure fun and action.

Undoubtedly taking some cues from the original Star Wars trilogy (it's no coincidence the formal command of "engage" has been replaced by Han Solo's "punch it" when activating warp speed), this version of Trek is far more humourous and accessible than Trek's been since early Next Generation -- or maybe the one with the whales? There's admittedly less emphasis on the science that's always been Trek's torch to bear, but there's also less of the consequent "technobabble" that became both a straightjacket and barrier for newcomers since the mid-'90s. The sprightly script even shrugs off constraints of prequels by having events play out in a parallel universe, in a manner that's both plot-relevant and perfectly acceptable. Consequently, this prequel series is free to ignore Trek canon (a significant planet is already obliterated here) and carve a fresh, divergent path.

This Trek is more interested in big emotional themes, captivating characters, retina-razzing action, and simple-but-effective storytelling than ever before. And boy does it all combine into a glorious, giddily enjoyable whole. Certainly it's a factor I've been a lifelong Trekker, but I can't think of any other recent blockbuster that gave me a lump in my throat before the damn title had even appeared -- using ancillary characters! But Star Trek managed it, purely because what the characters do transcended the screen and toucheds my heart. A father sacrifices himself for his wife and newborn child, a mother is lost in tragic circumstances amidst apocalyptic disaster, a great friendship is foretold by a pop-culture TV icon, even the villain's motivation comes from a place of familial grief.

The casting proves to be a true masterstroke, and I was surprised that even the so-called "weak links" didn't disappoint. For me, it's Pine who's the standout surprise and delight; an actor that truly inhabits the spirit of cocksure Kirk, without simply copying William Shatner, but still sneaks in a few mannerisms and vocal cadences that are pure "Shat". Quinto performs a similar trick in being able to evoke the great Leonard Nimoy (although God helped with the face), while giving us an interpretation that's more emotive and sweet than expected. Pine and Quinto have strong chemistry and their slowly defrosting friendship is one of the film's many highlights.

The supporting cast are just as capable, if inevitably given less screen time: Urban does a great approximation of DeForrest Kelly's grumpy doc without it feeling like a dull impression; Cho makes for a likeable Sulu, given a swashbuckling moment; Saldana has more to do here as Uhura than Nichelle Nichols ever achieved (I particularly like the decision to give her a romance with Spock); Anton Yelchin admittedly plays Chekov as broad comic relief who can't pronounce his w's, but it's such an exuberant performance I didn't feel he was undignified; and Simon Pegg completely redoes "Scotty" as a cheeky genius, which is an avenue with more possibilities than James Doohan's grumbler.

Overall, while it jettisons the cerebral quality that differentiates Star Trek from more superficial space operas, the lack of brains is replaced by heart. That's not to say this reboot is lobotomized "Trek-lite", just notably geared towards pleasing the masses and making fans of those for whom Trek means V-fingered salutes and pointy ears. There's every chance nu-Trek will start weaving in compelling sci-fi for the sequels, now everyone's primed for more of Gene Roddenberry's inspiring vision and enduring legacy.

SCREENWRITERS: Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman

CAST: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban, Zoë Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho & Anton Yelchin.

RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes BUDGET: $140 million