Saturday, May 23, 2009

In Theaters: "Star Trek"

I’ll admit it: I had resisted the new “reboot” of Star Trek. First and foremost, I’ve sort of had it with this idea that a studio can run a franchise into the ground with a series of increasingly poor sequels (or, in the cast of Hulk/The Incredible Hulk, a studio can stumble a potential franchise with a tentpole movie that doesn’t land as well as they’d like it to) and then just say, “Hey, never mind all those shitty movies that we made, we’d now like to take your money again by starting all over.” Don’t get me wrong, the process has produced some good pictures, but “reboot” has become the new mass media catch-all phrase that somehow allows major studios total forgiveness for sins past, which is irritating. And I wasn’t crazy about the initial trailers, either; the idea of reimagining Jim Kirk as a dreamy, motorcycle-riding, tough guy rebel without a clue seemed a poor notion at best, an ill-advised mating of Star Trek and a WB teen drama.

So it gives me great pleasure to report that the reviews and the breathless word-of-mouth are correct, and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek is a fast-paced, slickly enjoyable summer entertainment. It basic concept of creating an “origin story” for these by-now-iconic characters is a good one; it also allows Abrams (and his writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, whose work here is almost good enough to forgive them for penning the Transformers movies) to flesh out the supporting characters beyond the on-deck United Nations construct that they seldom transcended in the original series and films. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is intoxicatingly bright and fiercely sexy, Anton Yelchin’s Chekov has gee-whiz enthusiasm that’s infectious, and John Cho’s Sulu turns out to have some fight in him; the screenplay is clever enough to give him a line that plays like a punchline (“fencing”) and then spin it to his advantage.

That’s part of why the movie plays—God bless it, it’s got a sense of humor (certainly more than the series did, or any of the films since The Voyage Home). A midway sequence, in which Kirk tries to save the ship while suffering an increasing series of allergic reactions, is notable for its crackerjack comic playing, and his jokey byplay with Bones (played by the capable Karl Urban) is charming. The filmmakers manage to negotiate the fine line between humor and send-up, however, keeping the proceedings from getting too ridiculous and only occasionally succumbing to the temptations of nerd-pandering, sniggery in-jokes (which is not to say that I expected, or even wanted, for the film to ignore its roots; in fact, the specific manner in which Leonard Nimoy is used is pure genius).

The stunt casting also works surprisingly well; Simon Pegg’s mere appearance pulls a laugh, and he gets off some good lines, while it’s something of a pleasant surprise to see Tyler Perry (briefly) in a movie that doesn’t blow (he’s not half-bad either, presumably since he’s saying dialogue written by someone other than himself). And the leading performances, by Chris Pine (as Kirk) and Zachary Quinto (as Spock), are just spot-on. In the primary villain role, Eric Bana doesn’t fare so well—his character (and his motivations) aren’t terribly compelling. Some sequences don’t work (the scene where Kirk is chased by a series of snow monsters is just kind of silly) and there are occasional glitches in the filmmaking—Pike’s last line to Kirk is vital, but delivered off-screen, which means the scene was either poorly covered or it was dubbed in during post (either way, it robs poor Bruce Greenwood of a good moment).

Those complaints aside, Abrams’ direction is slick, sturdy, and playful—he’s having a good time with his jaunty angles and zippy camerawork (even if his predilection for lens flares gets a little tiresome by the film’s end). He also has a real eye for conventional frame composition, and a rare gift (among directors today, anyway) for arranging large groups in an exciting way, as in the late scene (pictured above) where the reassembled crew has to brainstorm a solution on the fly. The movie’s got a terrific energy to it; Abrams spits out one good action sequence after another, and in fact his smartest breakthrough may have been the decision to treat the whole thing as an action movie first and a sci-fi movie second (which isn’t to say that there’s a shortage of science fiction in it—indeed, the twisty plot is one of its many pleasures). He knows how to go to work on an audience; he juggles the impressive effects without letting them overwhelm the narrative, and the various threads of the big, multi-pronged climax are masterfully crosscut.

The rare summer blockbuster that entertains without insulting the intelligence of its audience is always worth singling out and praising. At its best, Abrams’ new, faster, sleeker Star Trek approaches bubblegum Pop Art. And even at its worst, it’s still a first-class popcorn entertainment.

"Star Trek" is currently playing in theaters, as if you didn't know.

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