I grew up at a rare time – when Star Trek: The Next Generation was airing new episodes. And it was a very, very cool show, not adored just by Trekkies/Trekkers/Trekkoes but by the general populace as well; more than anything, it was responsible for the eventual crossover success of sci-fi from the ghetto. This meant that everybody at school watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is something that didn’t really happen with any of the other Trek shows. I remember that 60,000 people crowded the Skydome (sorry, “Rogers Centre”) here in Toronto to watch the finale. As revered as a Battlestar Galactica or a Lost might be, they’re just not going to match that.
All of this is prelude to me saying that because I grew up at that time, Star Trek holds a special place in my heart (although not one of blind loyalty, because everything since DS9 has been frankly crap). Which is why it pleases me so much to say this:
The new Star Trek movie is only matched by The Wrath of Khan for the title of “best Star Trek movie ever made.”
Spoilers after the cut.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that the new Star Trek (hereafter “NuTrek“) is one that works both for complete newbies to Trek and veteran fans alike. The plot and script have been designed expertly to work for both audiences, in a manner reminiscent of nothing so much as how Pixar films successfully work as both kid-friendly entertainment and adult-savvy commentary on primal human issues. I saw the film with one Trek nut and two total non-Trekkers, and all four of us came out enthralled. (As did the rest of the audience.)
However, unlike a Pixar film, Abrams and company use this tension between the two levels of interest to do something I genuinely didn’t expect: create surprise. Rather than pander to the existing crowd by simply making a few hammy references (although there are a couple of those, of course, but they’re really not that hammy for the most part), they take another route and use the expectations people have of Star Trek to create surprise by subverting them. Things happen in this movie that I genuinely did not expect to happen, and those things do not feel forced; they flow naturally out of the story and characterization, and it is only the “wait, that can’t happen in Trek” instinct that turns them into surprises for the veteran. (The newbie, meanwhile, will just enjoy the awesome movie for itself.)
Visually, the movie’s aesthetic owes more to vintage Star Wars than anything – and by that I mean not direct homages but rather the sense, present throughout the film, that this is a future that looks and feels built; enough people have remarked on the Applesque appearance of the bridge already but what’s gone pointedly unmentioned is that the bridge of the Enterprise is obviously meant to look that way. It serves as contrast to the engine room, which is awesomely realistic-looking (no plush carpets in this engine room), or the rest of the ship generally, or the various Starfleet installations; they feel lived-in and realistic, and it furthers the sense that the imaginary individuals who designed the bridge of the ship wanted it to look glorious and smooth for their own reasons. The various aliens scattered throughout the movie mostly aren’t showy, they’re just treated as everyday occurrences – which they would be, in that future – and that treatment just furthers this tone.
Chris Pine fucking owns the role of Kirk. Like most people, when the cast was announced, my reaction was “who?” But Pine absolutely commands the role and makes it his own, becoming Kirk without ever doing something as hamfisted as a Shatner homage or impersonation. His Kirk is exactly what the character should be: an impetuous daredevil, a genius with a wild streak, and an instantly loyal friend – and he’s what Kirk should be without Pine shoving it in your face. (And Pine isn’t afraid, as Shatner was similarly not afraid, to look ridiculous at times for the purpose of getting a laugh.) It feels completely natural. Similarly, Zachary Quinto’s Spock goes beyond simply being a Leonard Nimoy riff (although Quinto’s resemblance to a young Nimoy cannot go unnoticed) to become a new meditation on Spock and the complexities inherent in the character – Quinto’s work to let the viewer see when Spock is beset by emotion and controlling it is honestly just excellent.
The rest of the cast are all just as good. I would have liked to see John Cho get a little more screentime as Sulu – the one fight scene he gets is decently exciting but Sulu doesn’t get as much presence in it as I would have liked – but I can’t complain and I suspect it’s one of the vagaries of the editing process rather than any decision to slight the character. Zoe Saldana doesn’t get a Big Heroic Moment as Uhura (although she does get a lot of screentime and a reasonable amount of character-building), but she’s consistently good at realizing the character beyond the glorified sexy-secretary that Uhura was back in the day. Anton Yelchin is great fun as Chekov (unsurprisingly in the comic relief position most of the time thanks to his outrageous accent). And Simon Pegg and Karl Urban are very nearly as successful as Pine and Quinto at taking Scotty and Bones and making them their own without abandoning the essentials of the characters.
And yes, Leonard Nimoy gets to play Original Spock one more time. And he brings depth to the film, not just continuity to the old series but also its abiding emotional centre once more. It’s an incredibly graceful performance and a delight to watch. Nimoy obviously enjoys the hell out of what is, let’s be honest, very likely his last performance as Spock.
The one sour note in all of this is Eric Bana’s work as Nero, the villain. And I should clarify, because Bana isn’t actively bad or anything. He’s just kind of okay; a mostly one-note glowering presence with a plausible reason to be villainous. Again, this is an area where I think NuTrek‘s relatively slim (for a blockbuster, anyway) two-hour running time does it a bit of an injustice; I can’t help but wonder why there isn’t that one moment that really lets us get into Nero’s head, and I can’t help but suspect that it’s on the cutting room floor. It’s why I think Wrath of Khan juuuuuust edges out NuTrek for best overall Trek flick; Nero only works as a force of nature, and given the extremely high standard set by practically everything else about this movie it’s not quite enough.
Nerds will of course find things to quibble about – people are already bitching about the movie’s use of singularities in ways that defy the laws of physics. (To which I say that the “red matter” invented by the movie is story fiat enough to explain it all away, so shut up.) But as I’ve been comparing NuTrek to other movies, let me compare it to one more; it’s reminiscent of Iron Man in that it aspires to be as excellently constructed a sci-fi blockbuster as humanly possible, but it surpasses Iron Man in that it has more heart and more vision.
So, you know – boldly go.
Top comment: You just implied that Wrath of Kahn is better than The Voyage Home. So now we must dance fight. — NCallahan