“Space, the final frontier…”
It’s hard to convey the depth of feeling those words actually meant to this 8-year-old in 1969, but they meant just about everything. The original Star Trek series appeared on British TV just four days before the Eagle landed, symbolically fusing together man’s real endeavour with fantasy journeys to strange new worlds. As I recall it was an immensely optimistic time; if we could land on the moon then anything was just about possible.
Therefore, the seminal adventures of the Starship Enterprise and the radical science fiction concepts they presented found a willing and receptive audience. We all wanted to ‘go boldly’ and the strengths of the characters and ideals made this a future we all wanted to be part of.
Messing with that creative heritage, I’d suggest, is akin to redesigning Mickey Mouse. How dangerous that ground might be was reflected in how long Paramount had allowed both the TV and film versions of the franchise to wane by before considering a complete revamp. It was a significant gamble on their part to allow anyone to return to the original characters and themes; they were almost untouchable.
The problem they handed to director J.J. Abrams (Alias, MI3) was to reset Star Trek successfully in the manner Batman had been reworked under Christopher Nolan. Orders don’t get much taller than that. The goal was to introduce a whole new generation to the physiological triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and Bones and their world aboard the majestic USS Enterprise.
I therefore came to this eleventh Star Trek movie with a degree of scepticism. Would J.J. trample on my childhood memories or respect them with the deference I so baldy wanted?
But my fear was greater than that. I didn’t want my view of the original series sullied in the fashion that the Star Wars prequels did to the original trilogy in my mind.
I’m therefore completely ecstatic to report that this is not the case here. Star Trek manages the astonishingly tricky balancing act of delivering an entirely fresh, yet wholly familiar, slice of Trekdom. But more than that; it’s really entertaining on so many different levels.
To achieve that there is, however, a nettle to grasp, and one we’re presented early on, and even has some exposition in the middle of the movie to underline. It’s this: anything that we previously knew about the fate of any character, race or consequential events is effectively erased. Therefore, from this point onwards these adventures of the USS Enterprise and her crew are not tied in any fashion to those previously presented in the five TV series and ten films (or animated series).
That’s a big leap of faith, and might upset some Trek fans. But I’ve concludedthat to make this film more than just jumping through pre-defined hoops, it was really necessary. Therefore, there are events that happen in this movie that are both shocking and contrary to those we’ve come to know and love, but they give this Star Trek an unpredictable edge that it would have otherwise lacked.
You may have also just realised that I’m not going to spoil this movie for you by talking about those events. Other reviewers might feel comfortable doing that, but the joy that this one got watching this movie, I don’t feel I have the right to diminish for anyone else.
What I do want to talk about is the visual style, dynamic action sequences and characterisation, all of which are exceptional in their own ways. J.J. Abrams has always had a knack with delivering spectacle, but from the first scene that pits the poor USS Kelvin against a vessel fifty times its scale you know he’s not holding back.
This is a very noisy, highly granular universe, where the energies unleashed in space combat cause star ships to shatter into a billion pieces. In this opening scene there is even a subtle sequence that shows that, while incredibly noisy inside a ship, the vacuum of space is entirely silent. It’s beautifully conceived and executed, and at many times during the movie the visuals exceeded my wildest expectations.
My only complaint about any aspect of these combat sequences is that sometimes they’re so frenetic it’s difficult to work out exactly what’s happening. It doesn’t help that the protagonists’ ship is so complicated in design that it’s difficult to recognise any part from any other, even if it is a magnificently impressive concept.
In comparison, the new Enterprise design is immediately recognisable, sleek and imposing while providing the classic profile. The outside of the Enterprise is much as we remember, but inside it’s radical different. The bridge is a curiously bright environment, full of the sorts of visual distractions I think you’d practically avoid. That’s just semantics, I’ve decided, but the engine room area is more of an issue as it resembles a location shoot inside a power station. If I’d ask for any changes for the inevitable sequel, then give Scotty a proper engine room with some recognisable anti-matter facility, please.
But I’m getting hooked up on the ship and visuals, and this franchise is actually about the characters and their relationships, which is actually where Star Trek really shines.
For this to work you need to accept Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and I loved what each of the actors chosen for these roles brought to them respectively. Following Shatner into the big chair is a daunting prospect, but Chris Pine does it with some very Kirk-like bravado. Thankfully, he never actually resorts to fist clenching, or staccato presentation, or any other Shatner mannerisms to sell the idea that he’s Jim Kirk. Instead he concentrates on that air of superiority he created so well, embodying the essence of Kirk in the way he presents himself and even sits in the big chair. At first you’re drawn to conclude he’s an idiot, but how his character grows on the audience is one of the masterstrokes of the movie.
And then we have the equally poisoned chalice of Spock, grasped firmly in both hands by Heroes‘ Sylar himself, Zachary Quinto. He’s great if a little more emotional than I was expecting, but in the context of how things are subtly altered I was fine with that. He doesn’t really master the ‘eyebrow’ thing as such, but the physicality of Spock he entirely owns.
There’s a scene where he beams down to Vulcan, partly seen in the trailers, where for one moment he is Leonard Nimoy snatched out of a temporal rift 40 years ago. But as they say, accept no substitutes, and the real Nimoy appears as old Spock for you to ponder the differences directly.
But curiously the stand-out performance from the three key personalities goes to Karl Urban, who almost channels DeForest Kelley as Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy. He’s slightly less mint julep and a dash more Kentucky bourbon, but his remonstrations with Spock and others are perfectly pitched. My only disappointment was that he doesn’t get more screen time, as the amount given to both Kirk and Spock outweigh McCoy’s substantially.
This point hints at the bigger logistical problem that the film has: fitting all the recognisable elements in without being cursory or flippant to any of them. As such we get to meet Scotty, Uhura, Chekov and Sulu – but they sensibly left out the likes of Janice Rand and other more peripheral personalities.
Simon Pegg is especially good as Scotty, who goes around in a constant state of wonderment about the technology around him. He also gets some of the funniest lines, in what at times is a very amusing movie. I’d even go as far to say that there are scenes in Star Trek that are so hilarious that they actually made me laugh more than the last movie I saw that pertained to be a comedy. Some of the hilarity pokes fun at Trek conventions, others at the situation, but it never actually distracts from the narrative flow and serves to introduce some welcome breaks in the intensity of the unfolding drama.
In narrative terms, this is a standard three act form, where we’re presented with the problem, learn from our failings and then go on to succeed. In retrospect, acts one and two fit together very well, and it’s only as we enter the final third where the beautifully shaped jigsaw pieces of story that J.J. Abrams beautifully fashioned are assaulted with a hammer to fit flush. I felt like an extra five or ten minutes might have allowed the narrative the room it needed to progress more naturally, but I can also see the imperative to wrap things up at that point.
How could it have been better as a movie? I don’t think the music is especially memorable, and some of the alien make-up effects didn’t do much for me, but beyond that I was both relieved and satisfied in equal measures.
At the end of my press screening the 500 or so people attending applauded, which, given the hard-bitten nature of hacks, is the sort of emotional response I’ve rarely experienced.
I wondered how best to end this review, but there is only one way that embodies my satisfaction with how Star Trek worked out.
“These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise, it’s continuing mission to explore a strange new world, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Pickavance out. One to beam up.
Star Trek opens in the UK on the 8th of May.