Thursday, May 21, 2009

Star Trek (Bad Robot/Spyglass Entertainment/Paramount, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 2009 Star Trek movie is actually quite a good action film in the modern manner. The credit goes mainly to director J. J. Abrams and his writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who have come up with a story that mostly stays faithful to the Star Trek mythos while legitimately extending it — much like the better Sherlock Holmes pastiches. It’s essentially a prequel to the 1960’s TV show, opening with the birth of James Tiberius Kirk inside a shuttlecraft that is evacuating his mother Winona (Jennifer Morrison) from the starship U.S.S. Kelvin while it’s under attack from a renegade Romulan vessel commanded by Nero (Eric Bana), seeking to avenge the destruction of Romulus by a supernova and the failure of the Federation to save his planet by destroying the Federation and in particular incinerating its two most important planets, Earth and Vulcan.

Nero demands that the Kelvin’s captain, Robau (Faran Tahir), come aboard his vessel, leaving George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) in charge of the Kelvin for about 10 minutes — he attempts to incinerate the ship inside the Romulan vessel and thereby blow it up, first evacuating all the crew members in a series of shuttlecraft (just what the point of the shuttlecraft was was a part of the Star Trek mythos I never quite figured out, since their transporter system would seem to be capable of moving just about any people or equipment anywhere they wanted them, but in this film there are several scenes in which the Romulan ship puts out a force field of some sort that renders the transporters inoperable) — though the gesture fails because we see Nero and his ship (an appealingly abstract concept that looks like the Watts Towers in space) in a sequence taking place 25 years later.

In the meantime the film cuts back and forth between Vulcan and Iowa — where James T. Kirk steals his stepfather’s antique Corvette (the idea that a 20th century car would still be operable four centuries later is one of the weirdest parts of the movie, and Duncan Shepherd wondered in his review where they would get the fossil fuel to power it) and drives it off a cliff, barely reaching safety himself when he’s apprehended by a police officer in a sort of hovercraft motorcycle that’s one of the coolest conveyances in the film. Eventually Kirk grows up to adulthood (and to be played by Chris Pine, who looks surprisingly credible as someone we can imagine as a younger version of William Shatner), at least chronologically — psychologically he’s a big, spoiled boy who’s drawn so much like the Tom Cruise character in Top Gun I joked that this movie could have been called Top Phaser — and on a dare from Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), he enters Starfleet Academy and nearly washes out when he hacks into the computerized training program and screws up a test situation Spock (Zachary Quinto) had written to be unsolvable.

Spock has his own interesting backstory; as all Star Trek devotees know, he’s the product of a Vulcan father, Sarek (Ben Cross) — though his name is never used in the actual script — and a human mother, Amanda Grayson (Winona Ryder, of all people). Though he’s grown up as a Vulcan he’s remained torn between both worlds, teased by his all-Vulcan peers as a half-breed and finally admitted into the Vulcan Academy of Sciences — only to resign his commission there when the head of the admitting board makes a hatefully patronizing comment about how far he’d risen “despite your handicap” — a bit of interplanetary racism which decides Spock to tell the Vulcan Academy of Sciences to go hang and enlist in Starfleet instead.

Kirk is about to be washed out of the service on Spock’s recommendation when Starfleet (whose headquarters are in San Francisco — and, interestingly, the Golden Gate Bridge still exists in this vision of the future) receives word of a natural disaster threatening Vulcan and orders seven starships to travel there. Only it’s not a natural disaster; it’s Nero, destroying Vulcan by sending a probe into the planet’s core containing “red matter,” which creates an artificial black hole and sucks the planet into it. On board the Enterprise, Spock is able to rescue a handful of Vulcans — including his dad — but his mom doesn’t make it to the transporter coordinate in time and gets killed along with the rest of the six billion Vulcans. Kirk, who sneaked aboard the Enterprise without authorization but then redeemed himself by correctly assessing the situation and the danger Vulcan was up against, is nonetheless ordered off the ship by Spock and ends up on the planet Delta Vega 4, an icebound world in which he’s menaced by various picturesque monsters that look like higher-tech versions of the one on the Japanese Ultra-Man kids’ TV show; fleeing from them, he dashes into a convenient cave and there meets … Leonard Nimoy, ending his career as a science-fiction star where he began it 57 years ago in Zombies of the Stratosphere.

Nimoy is playing an older, leather-skinned version of Spock — called “Spock Prime” in the credits — as a visitor from the future who explains that he was supposed to destroy the supernova that annihilated the planet Romulus 129 years in the future, only he failed in the mission and therefore the recent destruction of Vulcan is all his fault even though Nero is exacting revenge for something that hasn’t happened yet (are you getting all this?). Though Zachary Quinto isn’t at all a bad Spock, Nimoy’s appearance has an inevitable air of “step aside, kid, and let the old pro show you how it’s done” about it. Anyway, the old time-traveling Spock explains to Kirk that his destiny is to command the Enterprise with the young Spock as his second-in-command — and, realizing that now that Nero has annihilated Vulcan his next target is Earth, Kirk gets back on board the Enterprise and the crew finally makes it there, with Kirk eventually assuming command after he tricks Spock into showing too much of an emotional investment in the goings-on surrounding the death of his home world, and the good guys finally destroying the bad guys so the movie can end.

Star Trek is actually a quite well constructed modern-day action movie — it runs 127 minutes, enough so that you feel you got your money’s worth but not so long that it starts to drag — and the plot portions are obviously there just to set up the action but don’t have that almost porn-movie uselessness you sense in so many other modern-day blockbusters. For the most part, the film is faithful to the old Star Trek mythos, except in two particulars that really jarred me: the bizarre flirtation between Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana), much to the displeasure of Kirk, who’s after her himself — why she would throw herself at Spock is a mystery and why he would reciprocate is an even bigger one (it actually reminded me of Sean Ono Lennon, who like his father fell in love with a Japanese woman and co-founded a band with her) — and the total destruction of the planet Vulcan, which was alive and well in the TV episode “Amok Time.” Much is made — more than in the TV series — of Spock’s mixed-race heritage, half-human and half-Vulcan (perhaps inevitably in the age of Obama!) — though somehow more got said about Spock’s mixed heritage in the simple exchange in “Amok Time,” when Celia Lovsky (the widow of Peter Lorre) as the high priestess of Vulcan asked Spock, “Are ye Terran or Vulcan?,” and he answered, “Vulcan,” than in all 127 minutes of this movie.

Indeed, what’s really missing from this movie is the social commentary of the original Star Trek, the ways Gene Roddenberry and his writers were able to make oblique political statements without actually offending either side in a time (the late 1960’s) that was, if anything, even more highly charged ideologically than our own. Without that aspect, the new Star Trek is great entertainment but little more, with the obligatory nods to other movies — Top Gun in the cocksure aspects of the young Kirk’s character and the way he’s redeemed in action; 2001: A Space Odyssey in a quite remarkable scene of Kirk, Sulu (John Cho) and Olsen (one of the so-called “redshirt” characters brought on only to be killed almost immediately) doing a space jump to land on the Romulan drill mechanism and disable it so the Enterprise’s communicators and transporters will work again (the drill emits some sort of wave which jams them) — and as they fall through the air you hear some Kubrickian heavy breathing from inside their spacesuits; and Star Wars all over the place, from the Starfleet bar in San Francisco in which Kirk starts a fight to the scene towards the end in which Kirk and Spock are piloting a shuttlecraft into the bowels of the Romulan ship and they’re so unsure of where they’re going one’s tempted to yell at them, “Use the Force, Jim!”

Much is made of the history of Vulcan and in particular of the device that Vulcan was once nearly torn apart by wars, and its inhabitants learned to suppress their emotions and accept the discipline of logic to learn to survive and live each other in peace — actually a contribution of Leonard Nimoy; the original conception of Vulcanis (to use the first name it had) was as a planet where the people simply lacked emotions naturally, and when Nimoy wrote an analysis of the character of Spock he invented the backstory of Vulcan’s history of destructive wars and their people’s adoption of logic as a way to avoid them — and ever since then the Star Trek writers have run with that and made Vulcan’s emotional past a key element in story after story. Also somewhat disappointing is Eric Bana’s casting as Nero; like the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, he’s overqualified for a villain role; an actor whose stock in trade is wrenching conflicts within his own conscience can’t really be effective as an unmotivated (or undermotivated) psychopath. The 2009 Star Trek is a first-rate movie for what it is, and quite better than most of the big-budget blockbusters getting fired at the popcorn audience these days, and I don’t suppose it’s fair to expect it to have more of the quality of a TV series made in a very different era and for a very different set of audience expectations.