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maryann johanson, striking from a hidden base

Star Trek (review)

Reboot to the Ass

Oh, J.J. Abrams! Dude! You sneak, you! Can I have your geek babies? Here you are, going around telling everyone you’re no Trekkie, and you’re a liar! You must be a Trekkie, because you have pulled a trick worthy of James Tiberius Kirk here. You — and yes, absolutely, your screenwriters, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, too — have pulled a Kobayashi Maru. You have taken a no-win situation — “Reboot the Star Trek movie franchise,” Paramount told you — and you cheated. You cheated. In the same way that Kirk cheated that can’t-win Starfleet test. Don’t tell me that wasn’t deliberate. Don’t tell me you didn’t do that so that when some Trekkies complain — and some will, though I cannot fathom it at all, except I know fans, and fans can sometimes be incomprehensible — you can say, “Eh, wait a minute, Kirk did the same damn thing, and you worship him for it.”

Because, look: Abrams (Lost creator and Cloverfield producer) found the perfect, and perfectly science-fictional way, to do a reboot that no one can honestly bitch about, the perfect way to have his geek and his “Bite me,” too. Everything that happens here, in the gorgeously, simply entitled Star Trek (no roman numerals, no qualifiers), happens in an alternate universe, an alternate timeline, an alternate reality. If ya still wants yer Shatner-esque Kirk and your obscenely miniskirted female-officer eye candy and yer Puerto Ricans-in-gold-lamé Klingons and all that, it’s still there, waiting to be capitalized on and played with by whoever wants to do so. None of that is negated by what happens here — everything here is merely occurring alongside.

And this next thing I’m going to say is no spoiler: it’s an aspect of the sheer, ingenious perfection of this movie. There is no reset button at the end. There is nothing that goes, “Yeah, we were only fooling, and everything is going back to normal.” For all the many times the Trek franchise, in all its many incarnations, has futzed around with time travel — and I say this as a devoted fan, but one with a low tolerance for bullshit — this is the most honorable, the most defensible usage of that narrative trick. Abrams’ Star Trek does not use it as a way to goof around with tossing difficult, complicated, life-changing things at his characters only to take it all back after he’s had his fun. This Trek has the courage of its convictions.

And if that sets up the narrative space for a whole new series of movies? Woo-hoo!

What happens is this: From the distant futuristic reaches of the post-Next Generation narrative we’re familiar with comes a Romulan ship, captained by Eric Bana (The Other Boleyn Girl, Lucky You) with Maori tattoos, to seek vengeance for a Bad Thing that happened in the future. It arrives in the past almost precisely at the moment of James T. Kirk’s birth on the Starship Kelvin, when his father, George (Chris Hemsworth), a lieutenant, is forced to take command of the ship in the ensuing Romulan attack. I’m astonished to say that I found myself in tears by the end of this sequence, griefstricken for characters I’d never met before and knew nothing about, except that — as Abrams presents this extraordinary opening gambit to us — it gives us dedicated, brave, authentic folk doing a job they believe in so deeply that you believe right along with them.

And then that extends to the rest of this utterly faultless movie: these are real people we meet here again for the first time. It nods to the past history of the Trekiverse without being slavish to it, and part of that is letting the characters unfurl in ways that make sense in this alt-reality, and part of that is letting the wonderful cast give the characters their own spin. It’s actually amazing, in fact, how Chris Pine (Bottle Shock, Smokin’ Aces) as Kirk, Zachary Quinto (Heroes) as Spock, and Zoe Saldana (Vantage Point, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) as Uhuru — they feature the most prominently among the characters we already love — are both reminiscent of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Nichelle Nichols and completely their own creations. It’s sort of bizarre, actually, how in a Schrödinger’s cat kind of way, you both do and don’t see the mannerisms and the characteristics we’re so familiar with in their performances. I don’t know how the actors did that, or how Abrams inspired that in them, but, my god, it thrills this girl-geek down deep. Quinto, for instance, makes “Live long and prosper” sound snarky and insulting, when the moment calls for it. Orci and Kurtzman (who jointly wrote Transformers and Mission: Impossible III), for example, create relationships among the characters that aren’t anything we’re expecting but feel completely real, and even more real because of their slow reveals. (You will go back and reinterpret an early exchange between two characters in light of what you learn later, and just the fact that the writers could surprise you like that will delight you.)

I’m not sure I can express how much absolutely everything about this movie sends me into spasms of geekish ecstasy. I mean, yes, Star Trek is among the triumvirate that includes Star Wars and Doctor Who in making me the utter dork I am today — can I tell you how hearing those Enterprise-ish computer beeps made my heart skip a beat or two? But it’s more than that: Just as a movie, Abrams’ Star Trek is a huge step forward for the genre. There may be only a selective nod to the reality that there can be no sound in the vacuum of space, but that reality is put to work to great effect here, and it points to the moment, which is coming soon, when an SF FX flick will finally acknowledge that explosions and laser blasts cannot actually be heard in space, even if we’re not quite there yet. (Yes, I know: Serenity. But I don’t want to think about how that movie failed to engage audiences while this one will soar.) There is no up and down in space here, and that’s how you do space battles in the 21st century: you acknowledge, you know, reality and physics and stuff. The aliens are real(ish): not just primates with funny foreheads but holy-crap real(ish) aliens. (Three words: ice planet wildlife.) You do stuff like have characters parachute from orbit onto a platform sitting on a space tether — okay, SF literature broached these things 20 years ago, but the movies are always 20 years behind the literature. And yet, Abrams treats these things like he discovered them, and he infects us with that sense of discovery: maybe we serious fans have read about this kind of stuff, but we’ve never seen it before. And wow, is it cool and exciting and awesome.

But all of that geek stuff? It ain’t why Star Trek works. It works because its tale — of green cadets weathering their first encounter with the life-or-death job they signed up for — is a tale of people, not technology, a tale in which even the aliens are people (as they should be). Human nature here has not changed — as sometimes Trek, particularly The Next Generation, seemed to require to have happened for we upright apes in the span of a few hundred years. The bar fight sequence early on (yes, with Kirk at its center), for instance, becomes not so much an eye-rolling example of male testosterone at play but an acceptance of reality: peoples is peoples. It makes the words of Captain Pike, who recruits the at-odds young Kirk into Starfleet, seem less contradictory: Pike describes Starfleet as a “peacekeeping and humanitarian armada,” which seems, to me, like a contradiction: an “armada” devoted to gentle purposes? But here it becomes an indication, perhaps, that humanity is trying to change, and hasn’t quite figured out how to describe the effort yet. (And can I say? Among all the excellent casting, Bruce Greenwood [National Treasure: Book of Secrets, I’m Not There] as Pike is the one that made my fangirl toes curl and say, “Oh, yes.” Though Quinto’s Spock is a very close second.)

I have two nitpicks: one is tiny but surprising, considering the film’s relative dedication to scientific realism, and the other I fully expect to have rectified in Abrams’ second Trek flick. First: Why are they building starships at the bottom of a gravity well? Starships should be built in orbit, not on the Earth’s surface, from which you’d have to lift them into space. Second: I was expecting to see a lot more of Karl Urban (Pathfinder, The Bourne Supremacy) as Bones and Simon Pegg (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Run, Fat Boy, Run) as Scotty, but I trust that this will be the case in the next movie.

Other things make my geek gland salivate. The massive Iowan rift that the preteen Kirk sends his stolen classic sportscar into in an early sequence of the flick… It looks artificial (there’s no Grand Canyon in Iowa today, at least), and in fact it looks very much like the remnants of the Xindi attack that played out in the series Enterprise (which remains in the “real” history of both the alternative universe of this film and the primary universe of the original Trek timeline)… except in the story we saw in Enterprise, that rift started in Florida and headed south. Did the Xindi attack again in the interim, and will we learn more about that in a future film? I can’t wait to find out. And I can’t wait for the DVD on this one, because, man, some of it is clearly designed to be freeze-framed and savored over, like the signage at that Earth-surface shipyard, which Abrams pans over so quickly and so enticingly that you know he did it to tease us. And you have to know that that one bit, the one that makes you go, “Ooo, that first scratch on your new starship is always the worst!” is precisely the reaction Abrams was hoping to evoke from you, perhaps the last generation who will savor the joy of being the owner of new car.

Mostly, though, what makes me adore this movie is that — as much as I embrace the snark — Star Trek is earnest, and not snarky. Oh, it’s humorous, in places, but it treats the geek with the sincerity that only we, we Gen X geeks, can believe it deserves to be treated with. Sure, there’s wibbly-wobbly, timey-whimey-ness here that makes me think Abrams has been watching Doctor Who, and there’s bits like how Vulcan looks like Khazad-dûm that makes me sure that Abrams is fully aware of the all-encompassing geekiness that the best and most stirring blockbusters movies are all about these days, what with Xers in charge of making movies and our geek-brainwashed children the primary consumers of them.

But I think nongeeks may well enjoy Star Trek, too, because it’s got heart, and soul, and sweetness, and an optimism that hasn’t been this pure since, well, that first 1966 episode of the original TV series. It’s not so caught up in itself that it forgets that that’s the most important thing about Star Trek, and always has been.


MPAA: rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, and brief sexual content

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