This Is Not Your Father's Star Trek - Reflections On The Series And On JJ Abrams' New Film

[While this review is spoiler-free, please assume the comments section is not]

For me, the release of a new Star Trek film is an emotional event. As a longtime fan of the show, I still remember my theatergoing experience in 2002, when I saw Stuart Baird's Star Trek: Nemesis during its initial release. Trek, as a theatrical franchise, had been flagging; while First Contact (the 8th Star Trek film) had raked in almost $100 million domestically, its follow-up, Insurrection, had barely mustered $70 million and many thought of the latter as merely a 90-minute Trek TV episode.

Nemesis, the 10th and last Star Trek film until Abrams' reboot, was a failure both artistically and financially; not only did it completely lack any of the drama, suspense, and sci-fi elements that made Trek great (Baird was a disastrous choice), the film only managed to crawl its way to a tepid $43 million domestic take. Baird had essentially killed off Trek as a viable film franchise, forcing Trek fans like myself to subsist off the scraps of television's  Star Trek: Enterprise. It was a difficult torch to carry, and let's be honest, that show did it poorly. Enterprise flamed out of existence in May 2005 and Star Trek has barely been heard from since.

Until now.

In popular culture, Trek is probably best known for helping to spawn the image of the modern geek. Star Trek fans were the ones who dressed up in elaborate costumes when they went to conventions, who had philosophical conversations in the Klingon language; who argued about whether or not Kirk or Picard was a superior captain; who debated endlessly on newsgroups about whether episode #27, which took place on Stardate 3087.6, violated the show's continuity. But setting aside the idiosyncrasies of this crowd, which epitomized the very concept of "nerd" (and a crowd with which I proudly associate myself), I still am convinced that Star Trek, at its best, didn't simply unite a group of disparate, lonely geeks. In our culture, where fictional depictions of the future are often still rife with post-apocalyptic, dystopian overtones, Star Trek was far more optimistic, giving us a version of the future that saw humanity coalesce under a common vision. Despite its flaws, the fictional United Federation of Planets was always depicted as a welcoming body, open to people of all races, creeds, and even species. Humanity, the series seemed to say, could transcend its ephemeral squabbles and latch onto more noble ideals. And while these ideas were rarely made explicit, they were always lurking in the background.

This is why to see the series go out back in 2002, not with a spectacular bang, but with a disappointing whimper in the atrocity that was Star Trek Nemesis, was doubly disappointing: Not only were we witnessing the death of the beloved characters and sci-fi concepts we had once cherished, but in some way, we were also witnessing the death of Roddenberry's ideals, which had grounded the series for so long. For awhile it seemed that all that Star Trek stood for was going to be consigned only to our memories forever. That is why it gives me great pleasure to tell you that JJ Abrams' new Star Trek film is not only a thrilling sci-fi actioner, but also a film that gives the series the shot in the arm it needs to re-enter the mainstream consciousness. Perhaps most importantly, it shows hints of the moral complexity and the geeky intellectualism that once made Star Trek great.

I'll start very simply by saying that JJ Abrams' Star Trek is the reason why many of us go to the movies: We go for the spectacle, for a simple story of good overcoming evil, for the charismatic charms of a strong leading man, and for the visceral thrill of an all-out assault on our visual and aural senses. In this regard, Star Trek is an unbridled success. I've often mentioned how Abrams has a really good sense of pacing the action scenes and set pieces in his films, and he continues to demonstrate it here. Just when you're starting to get restless after you've just been given a hefty scene of exposition, you'll hear a tense music cue from Michael Giacchino's great score and Abrams will somehow find a way to deliver a spectacularly shot suspenseful action sequence (occasionally, the randomness of these scenes even works to the film's detriment!).

Exciting, thrilling, action-packed...These are not the sensations that are typically evoked when we think of Star Trek, but they are certainly Abrams' calling cards. I don't necessarily think the new film is, in some fundamental way, incompatible with the ideas from the shows and older films. But Abrams isn't limited by a shoestring budget, nor the directorial shortcomings of Stuart Baird. In my opinion, Trek always had potential for great action, just not the propensity for it. In any case, for a casual movie-watcher, let alone a sci-fi nut or a Trek fan, the sheer momentum of the film enough to grab you and keep you thrilled through the very end.

But how does Star Trek function as part of the Trek universe? I'm constantly torn about my feelings on Trek screenwriters Kurtzman and Orci; while they are very good at what they do with genre writing, their dialogue rarely feels well-constructed, nor does it usually resonate with me emotionally. This is essentially how I feel about their work on the new Trek film. I was impressed with the inventive concept they came up with to frame the film, allowing it to "reboot" the franchise in the truest sense of the word (Without giving too much away, I can say that it involves time travel). The character arcs also feel satisfying overall, but many elements of the script feel clumsy to me and, had they been in the hands of better screenwriters, might have made a great summer film into a true masterpiece.

Nonetheless, Star Trek does what any Trek fan could hope for: It gives you younger, sexier versions of classic, beloved characters and makes them fresh and exciting again. There's a geeky thrill that I hope any Trek fan can feel from seeing these crew members, who we've come to know and love over the past few decades, come together for the very first time. What I also loved is how many references and nods to the original series and films were thrown into the mix (My favorite one? The appearance of an old, familiar friend). Even better, the references all feel organic, as though they were expertly crafted by someone with a deep love for the franchise, not as last-second, distracting throwaways.

Regardless of how much they resemble those of their forebearers, the performances in the film are a joy to watch. A couple of the actors do merely great impressions: Anton Yelchin does an impeccable Pavel Chekov accent and Karl Urban is mysteriously able to channel DeForest Kelley's Bones with irresistable aplomb. But it's Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine who really steal the show. Quinto, who I didn't have great expectations for going into this film, truly embodies Spock as a creature constantly struggling to strike the right balance between logic and emotion. His line deliveries make him a quintessential Vulcan but he also has some great character moments as well, and I think he really pulls them off. Chris Pine as Kirk is a revelation. Rebellious, intelligent, funny, and capable, Pine's Kirk is one who has the potential to take the USS Enterprise, and the franchise as a whole, into the future. I didn't see much of Shatner's Kirk in Pine's performance, but it's a testament to Pine that this doesn't even matter. Pine's Kirk is cocky, arrogant, yet still manages to be irresistible. Overall, it feels like everyone is having a blast making this film, and that enthusiasm is infectious.

The way the characters are reinvigorated is also reflected in how the film appropriates old Trek concepts and ideas and tweaks them for the 21st century, while still maintaining their integrity. When a ship goes into warp, it now looks and sounds incredibly satisfying. Hand-held phasers operate more like blasters from Star Wars, with more thrilling results. The Enterprise's Sick Bay actually looks like a state of the art medical center. Weapons on a Federation ship now have a surprising grittiness and realism to them. To a Trek purist, these things might be blasphemy, but to me, they are huge opportunities to geek out.

Visually, the film is absolutely astonishing. Abrams' continues his fruitful love affair with ILM in this film and the results are dazzling. I'm not going to give away too many of these sequences, since they are best experienced for the first time in the theaters, but I will say that after my initial viewing of the film, I watched the trailer again and again, eagerly anticipating my second viewing of the film:

[flv: 470 192]

[If there's one flaw with how the film looks, it's with the excessive use of lens flares. You can tell even from the trailer that for some reason, there are lights pointed at the camera in virtually every scene in the film, even scenes where you would not expect it. While I'm a fan of the occasional lens flare, its use in this film is gratuitous and bordering on ridiculous.  There is more bloom lighting in this film than in Halo 3.]

Some shots are so beautiful, so memorable, so well-composed that after seeing them on the big screen, they lingered in my mind for weeks afterwards. Abrams knows how to hit all the right Trek beats and milk them for what they're worth. Hell, even the way a brief scene at Starfleet Academy is filmed, with its sweeping camerawork amidst a sea of cadets, is impressive.  There's also a shot in the film when our intrepid crew members first are exposed to the sight of the USS Enterprise. Combined with Giacchino's new Enterprise theme, which is pitch-perfect, I actually got chills. Here's a clip from that track:

Perhaps the film's most impressive achievement is its depiction of space. In a scene early on in the film, Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy opines, "Space is disease and danger, wrapped in darkness and silence." The film aptly captures the endlessness and terror of life in outer space, especially in its terrific battle sequences. But it also captures the grandeur of space, the excitement of exploration, and the thrill of navigating through celestial bodies. This rendering of the unknown is the essence of the Star Trek franchise, and that's what makes this film so beautiful.

As a sci-fi fan, a Star Trek fan, even a regular filmgoer, there are a wealth of nits I could pick in this film (and probably will at some point, either on slashfilm's podcast or in a separate article). But despite all that, I love this movie. It does honor to the Star Trek universe while appealing to mainstream audiences. It capitalizes on our knowledge of long-loved characters, while making meaningful contributions to their mythologies. It is a non-stop thrill ride, and I can't wait to see it again.

/Film rating: 9 out of 10David Chen can be reached at davechensemail(AT)gmail(DOT)com. You can also follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.

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