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Friday, May 8, 2009

Star Trek: The IMAX Experience (****)

"I like this ship! It's exciting!"

In all the years I've been following the adventures of the Starship Enterprise and the greater universe it explores, Star Trek is the most unnerving Star Trek experience I've ever had. Unnerving in the most surprising, wonderful way. Star Trek acknowledges its roots, its history, its beloved, sacred canon, and then throws the entire rulebook out the window and starts anew. We meet Captain James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, Lt. Uhura, Mr. Sulu, Mr. Chekov, and Scotty all over again. They're familiar, but different. It's them, all right, but not really. They're something else, something old but new. Director JJ Abrams and his team don't re-imagine Star Trek - they reset it. Star Trek is a whole new, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants joyride aboard the Starship Enterprise. From here on in, anything goes.

I loved the new origin of Jim Kirk. With the sacrifice of his father aboard the USS Kelvin, Kirk was literally born into life among the stars, his destiny set as the Captain of the Enterprise. It's mythic. I lost count of how many guys beat Kirk up in this movie, but it happened as often as Kirk found himself hanging from a precipice by his fingertips. Chris Pine's Kirk isn't a mirror image of William Shatner's Kirk; Pine is much more flawed and rough-hewn. But still heroic, still every bit the man Jim Kirk is supposed to be... or will yet be. In time. When a defeated Nero rebuffed Kirk's offer of aid at the end, preferring a horrible death, Kirk's reply, "You got it!", made me want to stand up and cheer. I also liked how Kirk kept finding ways to sit on the captain's chair until it was finally his. Getting to see Kirk beat the Kobayashi Maru test was a nice treat for Wrath of Khan lovers like me. 

Zachary Quinto as Spock was a bit of a harder sell. Spock is a difficult role to get right. Not quite helping Quinto's cause was the wizened presence of the beloved Leonard Nimoy, also playing Spock from the 24th century, representing the Star Trek continuity as we used to know it. The key was to not compare what Quinto was doing to Nimoy - easier said than done - and embrace Quinto's textured, almost volcanic take on the Spock character. This is, after all, not the fully-formed, mature Spock who died to save his friends, was resurrected, and learned that "logic is the beginning of wisdom... not the end." By the end, I bought into Quinto as Spock, believed his burgeoning camraderie with Kirk. And if the characters themselves didn't, there was Nimoy nudging them both along towards each other: "Guys, trust me, you're gonna love each other. It's a bromance written in the stars."

If there's an MVP for me, it's Karl Urban as Leonard "Bones" McCoy, complete with the cantankerous attitude and disarming country charm that DeForest Kelley originated in the role. Urban was note-perfect as McCoy; by far the closest in tone and spirit to the original character. Urban's McCoy put me at ease right away. His friendship with Kirk, enabling him to be in the position to embrace his destiny, and his first-ever arguing and name-calling of Spock were exactly what they needed to be. I also loved his penchant for chasing Kirk around the Enterprise and injecting meds into his neck.

For the rest of the cast, the most radical revamp was for Zoe Saldana's Uhura, sexier and more brilliant than her predecessor Nichelle Nichols. The movie's biggest eyebrow-raiser is her romance with Spock, much to Kirk's chagrin. Never saw that coming. They sucked face so much, Spock's pointed ears were in danger of drooping. John Cho captured the offbeat kookiness of George Takei's original Sulu while Simon Pegg as Scotty showed up late but worked extra hard to squeeze as much comic relief as he could power from the Enterprise's engines. The most awkward of the main Enterprise crewmembers was Anton Yelchin as Chekov, but who knew Chekov was a 17 year old boy genius and not just the guy with the funny Russian accent? Bruce Greenwood as Captain Christopher Pike was fine casting. Though it seems now that Pike will never go to Talos IV, he still ended up in a wheelchair. Although it seems the wheelchairs with the light that blinks once for yes and twice for no haven't been invented yet. 

Eric Bana as the villain Nero was the weak link. Nero was less a diabolical villain than a plot device. His motivations for destroying the Federation in the past were explained adequately, but we didn't feel his villainy, his desperation, his madness. Bana snarled sufficiently, but the character just didn't seem there on the page. Nero was a bit of a missed opportunity to create a memorable new Star Trek villain. Ricardo Montalban's Khan remains the unchallenged greatest heavy in Star Trek movie history. (Speaking of Khan, elder Spock should probably have warned young Kirk and Spock that if they ever run across the SS Botany Bay floating in space, don't ask questions, don't look, just fire photon torpedoes at it. Seriously, you'll be doing yourselves a favor.) 

Star Trek boldly changed the rules and the game. Vulcan was destroyed, as was Romulus in the 24th century, though it still exists in the 23rd. The destruction of Vulcan was a real shocker. It's gone for good. As for the history of the future, it seems everything prior to the USS Kelvin incident happened. Star Trek: Enterprise remains canon, and there's even an amusing shout out to Scott Bakula's Admiral Archer and his beagle Porthos. Everything after Nero destroyed the USS Kelvin is up in the air. An alternate history has been created and that is the history of the new Star Trek. Kirk is not the man he was before because Shatner's Kirk grew up with a father, enlisted in Starfleet properly, and had all his adventures before dying in Star Trek Generations. Chris Pine's Kirk has a clean slate to write his own destiny. Khan is still out there, V'Ger and the Probe will still arrive decades from now, there are still the Klingons to meet, and what the 24th century will look like is anyone's guess.

It was total chaos on board the spanking new Starship Enterprise. Within the space of time between traveling from the doomed Vulcan to Earth, the Enterprise had a musical captain's chair with no less than three captains taking command. The only adult, Captain Pike, left the ship and the kids were left with the keys to the car. How absurd yet fitting that under these conditions, James T. Kirk was able to finally lead the Enterprise into defeating Nero and saving the Earth. After a Starfleet Academy career where he cheated on the Kobayashi Maru (no commendation for original thinking this time), stowed away on board the Enterprise twice, and brawled with the acting captain on the bridge to trick him into surrendering command of the ship, Kirk is rewarded for managing to save Earth by being granted command of the flagship of the Federation. But why quibble, why fight the illogic? Commanding a starship is Kirk's first, best destiny. Anything else is a waste of material.

It's a bizarre choice to have the elder Spock remain in the 23rd century, but what can you do with Spock? Killing him again on screen would be out of the question - there is no way to top his death in Wrath of Khan. Instead Nimoy's Spock is set loose in a time he lived through once before, but is very different from what he remembers. He's not above meddling with the new timeline, be it outright telling Spock and Kirk what they're destined to do, or giving Scotty the codes for transwarp teleportation that Scotty hasn't invented yet (and now will never need to invent because it was already handed to him). The temptation to use Nimoy in the sequels will be great, but it would be a mistake to rely on Nimoy as resident Vulcan-ex-machina. Though at the very least, Nimoy's Spock should probably look into finding a couple of humpback whales somewhere in the galaxy before that Probe shows up and the new kids will have to go back to 1986 San Francisco all over again.

One of the best things about Star Trek is how it wholeheartedly embraces the retro look and feel of the classic series. The starship, hair, and costume designs, right down to mini-skirts worn by female starship officers, are just as they were in the 1960s, but updated to look sleeker and cooler. This is the swinging 60's vision of the future lovingly brought up to speed for the 21st century. Even the classic theme song from the Star Trek television series by Alexander Courage triumphantly returns over the closing credits. As does the famous introduction: "Space, the final frontier..." If I have a quibble with that, it's with the choice to have Leonard Nimoy recite the lines as he did at the end of Wrath of Khan. By the end of Star Trek, the new crew of the Enterprise has established themselves as worthy successors to the originals. I think Pine's Kirk should have taken ownership of the mission statement as he has the Enterprise. I hope he recites the famous lines in the sequels.

When it's all said and done, the good news is Star Trek is back. The 24th century is yesterday's Enterprise. The characters we know and loved are alive and well in the 23rd century; their intelligence, wit, and charm intact, but bursting with the vitality of youth. The new frontier of Star Trek isn't so much unexplored regions of space as the potential for adrenaline-fueled adventure limited only by the filmmakers' imaginations. In a novel, necessary way, Star Trek has been unshackled from its continuity and set free again to explore strange new worlds. They can boldly go anywhere now, do anything. Five card stud, nothing wild, and the sky's the limit. Sign me up for a five sequel mission.

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