Star Trek: The First Frontier

Gut reaction: I came to Star Trek very guarded. After all, the much-celebrated J.J. Abrams’ first attempt at film theatricality was the tedious and prosaic Mission: Impossible III, and his first role as producer was the emetic Cloverfield. The guy is a television entity with a television mind who thinks movies are merely television on a larger vertical plane.

All flaws aside (and they are numerous in Star Trek) I had a great time watching this film. I suspect, however, that one’s enjoyment of it is directly proportional to one’s knowledge of the characters’ prior incarnations and exploits. Anyone coming to this movie with zero knowledge of the source material may feel there are large gaps in the narrative. This is particularly troubling for an origin story as this presumably is the wellspring from which all subsequent adventures are meant to flow.

Telling tales: If I could have just one wish for a Star Trek movie, it’s that time travel is never again allowed to be used as a crutch… um, plot device, especially when the intention is to cram older actors into a new storyline or with a new cast. This is the fourth time this shiftless ploy has been used in the Star Trek movies alone. Give it a rest, Paramount. As science-fiction concepts go, this one is as stale as centuries-old bread. In the scope of this series, it also serves to upset established canon. This may have been the point, to negate everything that is previously known and start anew unfettered. Then again, if that be the case why call it Star Trek? Don’t even get me started on the many ways time travel theory in this movie is completely unsound. That’s probably a more philosophical discussion for another day (and includes movies like Back to the Future and The Terminator).

The write track: The script is fairly routine, little more than a amalgam of archetypal dialogue and situations, compositing primarily Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek: Generations. Most of the time it works, as that’s what most have come to witness. Some coy nods to the former film, most notably the Kobayashi Maru scenario, are especially delightful for fans of what is arguably the reigning king of Star Trek films.

Character witness: In preceding Star Trek adventures, the cast was rarely used beyond the treasured trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. That is still mostly the case here, although each of the remaining members is given at least one moment to shine. Sulu, in particular, has a fairly delightful moment. During one rather riveting sequence, Kirk asks the young Mr. Sulu what kind of combat training he’s had. The young pilot impassively replies, “fencing,” and proceeds to demonstrate his prowess directly. Most of the other characters are given similar winks and nods, with the exception of poor Uhura. Apparently believing that being an accomplished linguist and radio operator is simply not very interesting, she is declassed to the Enterprise‘s resident sex object, little more than one more thing for Kirk and Spock to do. It’s quite insulting for such a ground-breaking character. Meanwhile, Scotty serves as the ship’s class clown. He is assumedly a brilliant engineer, yet at the moment he’s most needed ( “I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain!”) he’s just running aimlessly around engineering, not actually doing anything. Chekov can be annoyingly cute at times but his youthful naivete has always been on display throughout the series, and his personal moment of glory is entertaining.

Star Trek Crew
The new crew of the starship Enterprise.

Sadly, the one character we get far too little of is the one that has endured through three television series and 11 movies. Understanding that the good ship Enterprise has been fawned over excessively in Star Trek: The Motion Picture as well as a few of the other films, she’s nevertheless as much a part of the crew as anyone else, and to neglect her in what is ostensibly her first outing is inexcusable.

Photographic memory: As I expected, the cinematography is absolutely abysmal. I don’t know what it is about today’s action-movie directors that they have an absolute terror of keeping the camera steady. Are they really so jaded that they believe a simple pan, zoom or (god forbid) static shot will drive viewers out of the theatre in hordes? Anyone who got their pulse racing at the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, or recent action hits like the X-Men movies and Iron Man will observe that excitement can be generated by some well-planned photography. This truly horrible trend has even infiltrated artificial environments and special effects. Now even space battles have to be rendered as if they were shot by a spider-monkey in the throes of heroin withdrawal. Leaving aside the obvious aesthetic contempt I have for this photographic folly, it is also tremendously trite.

Settling the score: Michael Giacchino’s score didn’t really stand out much to me. I seem to recall it being very operatic, which more or less worked. It gave the film an added sense of grandiosity that one would expect from the big screen experience. Yet it’s nothing compared to the Hans Zimmer-inspired trailer score by Two Steps From Hell.

Following directions: Abrams has admitted to pushing Star Trek across the border into the Star Wars universe and it shows rather conspicuously. The space battles and weaponry, in particular, are less “Star Trekky” than those to which audiences have been previously exposed. Gone are the nice clean lines of laser light cutting through space to slice a fissure into the hull of some luckless starship. Here we are treated to laser “bullets” that rat-a-tat from their gun barrels and bombard their targets in a military maelstrom. Whereas in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan combat was an awesome, lumbering affair between two hulking behemoths commanded by men of wiles and guile, in the newest Star Trek universe gung-ho brawn and warp-speed wits rule the day. No longer can we ponder the meaning of existence or revel in the thrill of discovery. There’s no time. Ships are exploding. Worlds are imploding. Characters are running. Uhura is undressing.

Surprisingly, it all works. Star Trek hasn’t had this level of excitement in decades. The fast-paced action and elbow-nudge allusions keep the enjoyment and energy level high. There’s a reason Star Wars was so popular and Abrams pirates Lucas effectively. Witness our blonde hero stumble away from a monster in a snowstorm to seek refuge in a styrofoam ice cavern.

Production line: Scott Chambliss does a nice job of keeping the familiar look intact, even drawing on some of the designs from Star Trek: The Next Generation for inspiration. Yet, as in Star Wars, the villains perpetuate the incredibly stupid habit of building narrow, chasm-spanning platforms with no safety railings. It’s also a little ridiculous to put the brooding villains in a dark and dreary spaceship (metaphor much?) while our heroes are using enough candle-power to light Las Vegas.

Costume drama: While it’s cute to return to the swinging-sixties go-go boots and mini-skirts, the dreadfully tailored Starfleet blouses just look ill-fitting and cut-rate. Again, if one had no prior knowledge of the show, this would not seem to make sense.

Acting class: This is where the movie really shines. This cast had an impossible task. On the one hand, they could simply mimic their thespian predecessors, which isn’t so much acting as impersonation. On the other hand, they could try to imbue the characters with a life of their own, in which case the formidable Star Trek fan base would throw a collective hissy fit. Most of the cast does the former, and it works. Karl Urban as McCoy is especially a hoot. He hits those classic McCoy moments with just the right dose of sincerity and parody, and his introduction is priceless. Anton Yelchin is perhaps the weakest element, laying his accent on a bit too thick in his desperate struggle to be misunderstood. John Cho and Zachary Quinto are perhaps the best elements of the film. Each manages to most effectively bridge the gap between performance and mimicry, creating a fully developed character all their own. Quinto’s singular scene with Nimoy only serves to highlight this. It’s difficult to see his Spock growing up to become the one with whom we are familiar, for Spock’s Vulcan/Human conflict is examined in more depth here than ever before. Chris Pine, having the toughest job of the entire cast, is perhaps a bit too excitable as Kirk. When William Shatner’s Kirk lost his cool it was such fun to watch precisely because he was so in control the rest of the time. Pine’s Kirk seems always on the edge of frantic. Yet he does have his moments, most notably his cocky apple-munching during the Kobayashi Maru scene, and his delivery of the line “Bones” at the end could give one chills at the way he seems to channel Shatner. Finally, Bruce Greenwood once again demonstrates how woefully underused he’s been his entire career. His confident and charismatic Captain Pike fairly cuts the legs out from Pine’s Kirk. If only this had been cast in Greenwood’s heyday.

Wrap party: The most fun I’ve had at a movie in some time. Still, now that the new cast has settled into being the old crew, gimmickry will no longer sustain and the stories will have to return to classic Star Trek themes.