Dir. J.J. Abrams
(2009, PG-13, 127 min)
★ ★ ½
I’m a Trekkie — er, Trekker — or whatever we’re calling ourselves these days. Trek-American? But as the series entered a fifth cycle on television in 2001 and a ninth sequel in theaters in 2002, it was clear that the franchise needed a significant reboot; there are only so many stories you can generate from following a captain and his crew through space on variations of the same ship, and I think the makeup department was running out of ideas for alien species. So I was excited when I learned that J.J. Abrams, geek-auteur of the television gems Alias and Lost, would take the reins. I’m no purist. When new ideas are needed, I’ll take them from all comers; imagine how much better the Star Wars prequels might have been if George Lucas had collaborated with Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, or Ronald D. Moore, who triumphantly re-imagined another beloved science fiction antiquity: Battlestar Galactica.
If only Abrams had written the screenplay — or Whedon or Moore. That job went instead to frequent Abrams collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who wrote the passable Mission: Impossible III for the director, as well as Michael Bay’s The Island and Transformers and the TV series Fringe, of which I am not a fan. Their Trek script, which brings the franchise back to its birthplace, onboard the original Enterprise with Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and company, has met with critical acclaim and commercial success: a whopping score of 83 on Metacritic and an opening weekend gross that nearly doubled the entire domestic take of the previous Trek film, Nemesis. But I’m not sure what the fuss is about.
Orci and Kurtzman’s script is effective, frequently clever, gets the job done in a workmanlike sort of way, but it’s short on imagination — it doesn’t boldly go anywhere we haven’t been already. This new version of Kirk, played by Chris Pine, is even cockier and more flamboyant than William Shatner’s version, but he’s an archetype of devil-may-care heroism we’ve seen a thousand times before. There are action set pieces that owe no small credit to the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. And the principal villain is the evil Romulan Nero (Eric Bana), who is hellbent on a familiar brand of revenge.
The plot is founded on a time-travel premise, but it’s a clever one. I’ll describe precious little of it, lest I reveal crucial details, but it involves Nero, Spock (Zachary Quinto), and a black hole. Nero possesses something called “Red Matter,” which produces spontaneous black holes. It takes the form of a suspended red orb of liquid, which may be a nod to a similar object Abrams created for Alias; the previous orb produced zombies, not black holes, but I suppose in this economy floating red orbs need to diversify.
We meet the crew, though the film only leaves itself enough time to loosely sketch them and reference their former personas: Dr. McCoy says, “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a physicist!” and engineer Scotty repeats his catchphrase, “Ah’m givin’ her all she’s got, cap’n!” But we get a sense of the actors in their new roles. The wonderful comic actor Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) is a joy as Scotty, while Karl Urban’s McCoy and Anton Yelchin’s Chekhov in their limited screen-time are restricted to gimmicky character quirks; their performances play more like impressions, though I’ll confess a laugh when the ship’s computer failed to recognize Chekhov’s Russian-accented English.
The production values are a mixed bag. The visual effects have been upgraded to 21st Century specs, but Abrams shoots in that irritating way where incessant edits and shaky cameras make the action all but unintelligible; why do filmmakers throw so much money at the screen only to make it impossible to appreciate? The production design by Scott Chambliss is a curious blend of the futuristic and the retro: Engineering, with its orange, man-sized hydro-tubes, looks like a water park designed by Willy Wonka. Michael Kaplan’s costume design is troubling: while Abrams was updating the franchise, he should have swapped out those undignified women’s uniforms for something with pants.
Every once and a while, the camera slows down enough to enchant us. When Kirk and McCoy approach the Enterprise on a transport vessel, they look through the window at a beautifully designed space dock: a spherical station branching out into satellites. I wanted to spend time on the station, find out how it runs. What is the day-to-day life of these 24th Century people as Abrams envisions them? I wanted more of the human detail that distinguished the director’s television work — and while we’re at it, a Steadicam wouldn’t hurt.