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Star Trek 2009 review

Star Trek 2009 posterI wanted to like it.

Honest. I like Star Trek. Not so much the original series, but the movies, Next Generation, and DS9, at least. And I at least have an appreciation for the original series, what with William Shatner, cheesy makeup, and nifty 60s sci-fi.

So when the prequel/remake came out this summer, I felt like I should see it. It certainly looked exciting, and received generally positive reviews. But somehow, I just couldn’t motivate myself to go to the theatre. It’s probably JJ Abrams’ fault: Alias bored me, Lost annoyed me, and most of his other work completely failed to capture my attention. He seems to wallow in a geek/kitsch/nostalgia field that doesn’t appeal to me at all.

My curiosity got the better of me at the video store, and I figured the film was at least worth a rental. And hey, sometimes low expectations are the best expectations to have – it’s easy to be pleasantly surprised that way.

But I was still ready to turn it off after the first half-hour.

For a “reboot”, Star Trek wallows in nostalgia and gets weighed down by convoluted continuity. Because it’s not really a reboot, you see: In the regular, old-Kirk-and-Spock timeline, Spock accidentally contributes to the destruction of Romulus with a black-hole-cum-time-warp. An angry Romulan miner gets sucked in and transported to the day of James Kirk’s birth and vows revenge on Spock, who soon follows through the time warp, and sets about destroying those who destroyed his world, thereby creating a new parallel time line.

That was about the point I started swearing at the television.  Batman Begins didn’t have an alternate timeline. Casino Royale didn’t try to explain why George Lazenby never existed. So why did Abrams have to make a movie about why he had to make a new movie?

Even without the time travel plot, Trek is far too concerned with nostalgia. Green-skinned women, red-shirted deaths, “Damn it Jim, I’m a Doctor…” lines all nod and wink to the audience like a mime with a facial tic. And yet Abrams and co. still introduce every character with big flashing lights that announce They Are Very Important, as though they’re not making a film for people that know who everyone is.

That said, things do pick up once the story gets moving, provided you forget about the stupid story. Chris Pine makes a good Kirk; he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and has the casual action hero thing down. Zachary Quinto is about as interesting as a Vulcan can be, and I oddly enjoyed Karl Urban’s Doctor McCoy, as occasionally over-the-top as it can be. Simon Pegg’s Scotty is ridiculous, but pleasantly so.

On the other hand, Frank Cho’s Sulu doesn’t have much to do, and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov is fairly silly and useless – which, I suppose, is much the same as the original. Zoë Saldana’s Uhura is supposed to be a beautiful, intelligent, and charismatic love interest, but very little personality shines through.

Of course, this is the problem with translating a relatively large cast of significant characters to a two-hour movie: There’s just not enough time for everyone, particularly if you want to focus on the Kirk/Spock relationship (which is the strongest dynamic in the film anyway). But Abrams wants to give everyone their time in the spotlight, so everyone gets a moment to shine before fading back into the anonymity of the ensemble. Really, aside from “This is Star Trek”, is there any reason for Chekov, Sulu, or Uhura to be in this movie?

We’re not talking about Magnolia here – there’s not nearly enough time or space to develop multiple characters in between explosions.

Some of those explosions are interesting, at least. The skydiving-parachute-fight sequence on the upper-atmosphere drill is outstanding, and there’s a nifty snow moster. But the final showdown with the angry Romulan miner (dear god that’s a terrible thing to have to write repeatedly) is formulaic, and “Young Kirk Steals a Car” took way too long.

On the bright side, the movie looks great. It successfully updates the aesthetics of the original series without losing the general style and charm; it feels like this is how the future is supposed to look. And the Romulan mining ship, all jagged ends and pointy machinery, is a nice departure from the typically sleek ships of the Trek universe.

Star Trek could have been great entertainment, with all the pieces necessary to update and revitalize a flagging franchise. But Abrams seems to have been more interested in making a Star Trek movie to do that, too in love with the characters and the stories to risk disrespecting the material or angering any fans. Perhaps a sequel could improve on the film’s faults, but I’m afraid there will still be a “Why Chekov is useful” scene and some tribute to Frank Gorshin and a bunch of Tribbles weighing things down.