Saturday, May 9, 2009

Reel To Reel: Star Trek

Ahead Mr. Sulu, warp speed.

Going Rate: Worth full price for everybody, not just Trekkers.
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence (low blood), Language (low), Some brief sexuality (Kirk getting romantic with some green shapely alien)

NBC rejected the original pilot for the Star Trek TV series, calling it "too cerebral." Producers submitted a second one with more action and phasers and William Shatner, which began a mediocre run on the network. The show didn't blossom into a hit until re-runs, spawning a film franchise that started out strong but flamed out into a tedious, cerebral series of pictures even Trekkers -- don't call them Trekkies -- disliked.

So Paramount had little to lose by turning the captain's chair over to J.J. Abrams and a young cast who pull off the impossible: making Star Trek cool again.

The introduces us to the classic Trek crew through a series of anecdotal backstories starting with the birth of Captain Kirk (Pine) during a Romulan attack, where his father saves hundreds of lives by going down with the ship. Mr. Spock (Quinto) is a half-breed of human and Vulcan, who as a boy must endure pointy-eared bullies while struggling to reconcile reason with the emotions others in his race lack. Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) is a cantankerous old man as a young body. Mr. Sulu handles a sword quite well, to our surpise. Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) makes a sassy communicator in a short skirt. Checkov (Anton Yelchin) has a gamer's instinct with a Russian accent thick enough to fool voice-recognition systems, and Scotty (Simon Pegg) is that Scottish antimatter gearhead who can tell you exactly what's wrong with the warp drive.

Kirk is an intrepid off-the-cuff skirt chaser when we see him as a teenager in Iowa, not far from Starfleet Academy. Capt. Christopher Pike (Greenwood) finds him after he gets into a barfight with several cadets over a lady. Pike remembers Kirk's father and challenges the son to put his bold DNA to better use. Three years of Academy, and Kirk's craftiness gets him into trouble when he's accused of rigging the dreaded "Kobayashi Maru" simulation, the leadership test designed by Spock to test command abilities during no-win situations. Yes, Trekkers, we know it's the same one Savvik failed at the beginning of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Before the Academy can throw him out, the cadets are summoned to defend Vulcan from a Romulan attack led by Nero, a miner who has bent the time-space continnum through black holes as he seeks revenge for the destruction of his planet, which was supposed to be saved by -- follow me here -- Spock (Leonard Nimoy) of the future. Instead, Old Spock is exiled on an ice planet to watch the destruction of his home, but when he meets up with Kirk, he holds information that could save Earth.

The new Trek's time-travel plot is a bit messy, but you don't have much time to worry about it because the film runs at warp speed, jumping along a convoy of intense action sequences. The plot doesn't climax because it's all climax. It rarely has time to catch its breath, but when it does, it's economical and effective. As a bonus, Nimoy's Spock shows a fascinating emotional depth as he recounts his failed mission, bringing something more to the table than just a peace offering for the Trekkers. Watching him reminded me of the late Desmond Llewelyn as "Q" in the James Bond movies, in that Spock's presence brings a stability and continuity to an ever-changing franchise.

The original Star Trek was a series of morality plays set in space. But director J.J. Abrams is savvy (or is that Savvik?) enough to know that's exactly what weighed it down. Hardcore Trekkers are going to complain this film is too much like Star Wars, whose prequels suffered when they got too heady and wordy. I wonder with Abrams could've done with those pictures had George Lucas turned him loose.

Star Trek is already racking up huge box office business. No doubt Paramount suits want to talk to Abrams about a sequel, and after this re-start, I want to see it.

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