In 1994, Paramount transitioned the Star Trek movie franchise from the the Original Series cast to the Next Generation cast in Generations, which conveniently served its purpose. Not a great film, but it worked. Captain Picard and his crew followed up with the huge home run First Contact in 1996, but then killed the franchise with the two yawners that were Insurrection (1998) and Nemesis (2002). Trek fans then had little to embrace other than the under appreciated television series Enterprise which lasted until 2005.
The franchise was to be reborn in 2008, but the writer’s strike kept anxious fans waiting another six months. On May 8. 2009, the highly anticipated re-tooling of the Original Series hit the big screen courtesy of Paramount and Hollywood wonderboy J.J. Abrams. Much like Generations, Star Trek (2009) certainly serves its purpose in launching the film franchise in a new direction, but unlike Generations, this film tends to be a bit over produced.
Star Trek reintroduces us to the original characters from the 1966 television series, in relative infancy in their respective Starfleet careers, as they set out to stop a rogue Romulan ship from destroying the planet Vulcan. Most of the new cast takes their own interpretation on the roles, with the exception of Karl Urban who steals every scene he is in with a dead on portrayal of DeForest Kelly’s Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy.
The other six lead characters tend to be hit and miss as they attempt to settle into these iconic roles. Chris Pine shows enough untamed energy to make his Kirk work and has a more obvious sense of humor than that which Shatner displayed. Zachary Quinto may need another film or two to figure out how he wants to play Spock, as the half-human, half-Vulcan complexities may have been a bit out of his range. The experienced comedic actor Simon Pegg makes some very strong character choices as Scotty, but it will remain to be seen if the comedic portrayal of the Chief Engineer will be as endearing in future endeavors.
Making safer choices with their interpretations are Zoe Saldana as Uhura and John Cho as Sulu. Both performances are adequate. Neither attempts an impression of their predecessors and both bring some slight new dimensions to the characters. Anyone who has seen Star Trek alum Garrett Wang do his Sulu impression must wonder why he was not considered for the role. Anton Yelchin rounds out the cast as Chekov, and his accent adds some early smiles, but his painfully slow delivery eventually bogs down many scenes.
J.J. Abrams displays an ambitious style in his direction of a story by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, but, as clearly shown in the scene where Kirk is being chased by ridiculous CGI creatures, just because you can create something, does not mean you should. Some of the special effects, such as the previously mentioned creatures, simply look awful and are well below the standards set by previous sci-fi fare.
Abrams need for extreme close ups of his actors becomes increasingly distracting as the film progresses and detracts from many action scenes. An action sequence, such as the barroom fight between Kirk and some Starfleet cadet goons, has not been ruined this bad by poor directorial choices since the foot chase scene with Keanu Reeves pursuing Patrick Swayze in Point Break.
The only thing more distracting than some of the directorial choices is the heavy-handed musical score by Michael Giacchino, who often appears to be trying to create excitement or drama that simply is not there, and in some case shouldn’t be.
Star Trek works when it keeps things simple. There are some wonderful dialogue-driven moments, and Trekkies will be all smiles as gems such as where the nickname “Bones” stems from, how Christopher Pike (played with subtle brilliance by Bruce Greenwood) ended up in a wheelchair, or Kirk in bed with a green Orion slave woman (though some may say that scene ignores facts revealed in an Enterprise episode).
A solid villain is always key to the success of such endeavors and Star Trek does not disappoint on this front as Eric Bana’s psychotic, revenge-seeking Nero definitely leaves the audience wanting more. Unfortunately, Nero is piloting a huge mass of jagged metal pieces that we never see all of, nor is its weaponry ever clearly defined, and the battle between Kirk and Nero on a platform within the ship looks far too similar to a scene from another sci-fi franchise, that may have fans waiting for Nero to announce that he is Kirk’s father.
Recommendation: There are enough shout-outs to the Trek faithful in the first half of the film to keep them smiling through what is essentially a weak story. There is certainly enough action to leave the non-Trekkies satisfied as well. Nonetheless, time travel as a solution is tired, the story has too many holes, the direction and score are too heavy handed, some of the special effects are weak, and more of the characters would have been better. As Star Trek films go, this one will be hard pressed to crack the top three.
Obviously more liberties can be taken in future outings now that we are on a new timeline, but let’s hope that writers will keep it simple and focus more on dialogue and the characters that fans want to see, know, and love.