Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

The 2009 reinvention of Star Trek found both its perfect and most obvious filmmaking “captain,” J.J. Abrams, of Felicity, Fringe, Alias and Lost fame, who seems like the natural ambassador for the world—and exponent of the merits—of television in the world of cinema. Abrams' work has that glossy, slick patina of high-budgeted television; he certainly has a mind in which screenwriting class lessons have long marinated, and his grasp of basic storytelling probably means he can maximize his keen talents in television in a way that film cannot afford. Television is a visual experience—compared to the radio—but its primary function has consisted in telling the viewer stories, week and after week, and in the last decade, the serialized drama has dominated. The public has voted: Law and Order and CSI in their sundry manifestations are pleasing in their refusal to hold an audience hostage for over an hour—the story is self-isolated and wholly accessible like an old Perry Mason yarn—but sprawling, expansive “arcs” and multitudinous forms of cliffhangers leading into the next telecast make for the spiciest, most riveting recipe. With that kind of repetitious application of his talent for ornamented-with-sexy-stars-and-puzzling-plot-points storytelling, it is little wonder television is Abrams' natural habitat.

Now that he has broken through to the other side, and worked his streamlining magic in cinema, Abrams allows his undying embrace of his first love to be seen by all. His first directorial work was a sequel to a Tom Cruise franchise of movies based on a 1960s television show. His second, a “relaunching” of a dormant movie franchise inspired by a 1960s television show. Abrams' terminological mastery of televisized potboiler storytelling—every episodes' Act I leads into Act II, at the end of which Act III is afforded greater importance until each hour-long piece leads into the next hour-long piece—both serves him well and arguably diminishes his filmic screenwriting. Mission: Impossible 3 featured a fierce Cruise performance, and it was entertaining in the moment, but the picture was too burdened by its enslavement to formula and genre to stand out, something the film itself seemed to know in its concluding moments, openly making fun of its own plot “set-up” which was naturally the “Macguffin.” Abrams' work behind the camera was never less than acceptable, though some of his choices—a shaky camera to convey chaos being one of the more bluntly perspicuous—were often mundane and appeared outdated.

Visually, Abrams has progressed. His Star Trek may not be a riveting optical specimen, but it is not a slouch in its consistency of leitmotifs, providing an agreeable ocular descant of sorts for much of the action one would expect from such a film. Tony Scott and others love angularly pushing and pulling their camera about in order to stimulate tension; Abrams, however, aided by cinematographer Daniel Mindel and composer Michael Giacchino, appears to have watched several submarine thrillers such as Scott's own Crimson Tide and possibly Das Boot among others. Abrams realizes he is crafting a naval war picture, and the film's visual schema aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise confirms it. Before there was dazzle for dazzle sake; in Star Trek, iterations of submarine tropes are plentiful in their abundance (from a mutinous sequence to naturally the suffocating sensation of feeling as though one is being hunted) and Abrams' handling of such are noteworthy for their effectiveness. As the camera slices downward against James Tiberius Kirk's countenance, the imagery buttresses Abrams' origins tale with resonant credibility as a film which seems to actually be informed by cinema.

Star Trek, 2009 is populated by a cast of young, “hip” actors. The actor who stands out is Chris Pine. As a brash, rebellious Kirk, he is more Harrison Ford's Han Solo than the comparatively timid William Shatner. There is an energy to Pine's performance that simply burns—because it seems like a star is born, which fits Abrams' story like a glove, so the turn has an interesting dual existence all by itself, displaying that a hungry, confident actor is usually best-suited to play a hungry, confident character. Pine's eyes radiate cocksure conceit and insolence. Finally a Star Trek film treats its audience to the young, ill-tempered Kirk who one could certainly picture outmaneuvering the much-vaunted Kobayashi Maru test by “thinking outside the box.”

Kirk's machismo has always played well in Star Trek and the occasional intellectual paralysis of Spock has aided in underscoring the need for a man of action. Yet Spock's mind was extremely sharp and focused on the matters at hand. If President Obama is Spock in the White House, at least with Spock cable news television did not broadcast hour-long, mind-numbing press conferences from the Enterprise. Here Spock is played by Zachary Quinto. Quinto tries his best to emulate Leonard Nimoy, and it is a valiant effort, but Quinto's performance is at times a little forced in its subservience to the past. Quinto, bless him, was simply not gifted with the kind of mellifluous voice of Nimoy's, the kind of voice one would not mind hearing read from a phone book or teleprompter. At least Obama has that. Quinto, however, does rally in several tender scenes, particularly when teamed with Zoe Saldana's Uhura.

Nimoy is given a supporting part in the film, but he is reduced to a loudspeaker for the screenplay's most cumbersome, illogical and far-fetched exposition. This sabotages what could have been the film's dramatic peak. There is a great deal of banter about “red matter” and time travel, and as with other incarnations of Star Trek, the screenplay (by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) seems determined to look as though it is only over-thinking its sci-fi-inspired conundrums, but it is a taxing experience. Some of this must be laid at the doorstep of Abrams, whose plot-driven focus has a way of smothering the very characters being followed throughout the course of said plot. When the focus finally shifts back to the picture's villain, intriguingly named Nero (a one-dimensional Eric Bana), Orci and Kurtzman supply their rapacious Romulan with the motivations of past mass-murdering, butchering lunatics, a feature stemming from Gene Roddenberry's series which began before man truly landed on the moon through the films. The first half of the twentieth century was playtime for the nascent bullies whose existence was born out of legitimate grudges, and Bana's Nero is an extension of that theme. His people were casualties to the failings of the Federation, and most directly Spock himself, and so now he will destroy whole planets to blow off some steam.

Abrams' Star Trek is not what would be classified as “great cinema.” Many “Trekkies” despise it; others adore it. This writer's lack of connection to the charged, aforementioned group neither detracts nor adds to the picture's charms and flaws for him. Abrams has made some fairly impressive strides as a director with only his second picture—his economical manner of unfurling engaging, one-two-three linear tales is sure to make him a permanent feature of television and popular film for as long as he wishes to remain in the fields. Star Trek as a film is appealing because it fits comfortably. Unlike the preposterously bloated Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, Star Trek is just long enough to feel “epic” but not grueling; unlike superhero movies of various merits such as Superman Returns and The Dark Knight, it only takes itself seriously enough to matter to its audience; unlike Iron Man, the film is actually dabbling in some important themes without shirking away, and unlike that and so many other summer extravaganzas, one can remember the film in its entire form over two and a half months after seeing it. It has its problems, and certainly is less for its limitations. Star Trek is like one large slice of chocolate cake; it is sweet, velvety and leaves one feeling strangely empty from lack of nutrition and protein. But it tastes good.


barney raper said...

theres something on the wing.......................some............thing
u r illogical

Sam Juliano said...

Fair enough Alexander, and as usual brilliantly written, but for me this is the finest of all the STAR TREK films, and I dare say it's one of the year's best films, period, to rank alongside SUMMER HOURS, TIME IN THE CITY, UP, SERAPHONE, THE HURT LOCKER, TOKYO SONATA, EVERLASTING DELIGHTS and a few others. It connects beautifully with the humanity of characters that are ingrained in our culture, it's time-travel story is exhilarating and the new actors have chemistry. There is a reason why the film has a 96% rating at RT, not that I always agree, but it illustrates how many have been bowled over by it. I will concede that a deep and abiding love for the original series will bring the maximum positive assessment though.

Again, tremendous review.

Joel E said...

I'm still trying to figure out what I missed so pointedly about this film when I saw it. Effects? Great. Cast? Mostly great. Everything else to me was fairly derivative or worse, clunky and unengaging.

I don't want to pick a fight with Sam, but Star Trek is one of the more forgettable movies I've seen this year. It was fun for 45 minutes then slowly began testing my patience until it finally ended. Maybe the version I saw was missing a reel or something?

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the thorough comment as always, Sam. I suppose a deeper affinity for the original television series and/or series of movies would have impacted the way I felt about Abrams' picture, but not having that, I was left to largely analyze it on its own.

For what it is worth, I do enjoy The Wrath of Khan very much, especially for its Shakespearean performance by Ricardo Montalban; the rest of the films consisting of the "original crew" are largely a blur to me these days. I should probably take another look at them in the near future. Thank you for the kind words, though, Sam, as always they are very appreciated.

Joel: I understand where you are coming from as well. The screenplay is terribly uneven, I'm afraid; for every excellent, fairly brave beat, there is something to remind us that we're watching something belonging in summer... That isn't to say there is something inherently wrong with fundamentally escapist summer fun, but it seemed like there were moments which illustrated that this film could have been so much more and it simply chafed under the screenplay.

As an origins tale, it works for me; it's a better look at how the crew "got together" like a platoon or a band than some films, and at least it didn't reduce the scope and grandeur of its universe the way the Star Wars prequels did to cram in as many beloved characters and creatures from the original series. But that is one of the matters that could open up another debate, which is that as my concluding paragraph states, it is a film that benefits from comparison to many of its contemporaries, but is it by itself great?

Thank you for the comment, however, Joel. I'll be sure to answer your Public Enemies one now, too!

The Filmist said...

For my money, I've always been a fan of "The Undiscovered Country." Which is another reason I'm kind of apprehensive about this new series.

Joel E said...

The writer's strike has definitely left its mark on 2009, of which I'd assert Star Trek is a victim. Here's hoping that its disastrous effects don't linger into Fall and Winter.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the comment, Filmist. So you haven't seen the 2009 Star Trek yet?

Joel, I suspect you are right on the money.

Sam Juliano said...

Joel, I respect your position, and I have close friends who agree with you. I got tired of fighting with them. LOL!!!

sean said...


Alexander Coleman said...

Now, now, let's all play nice here, haha. Being in the middle on these discussions is never much fun. :(

christian said...

Sam, how can a copy of the best of previous Treks be the finest of the series? I thought this big dumb summer fun but a lousy TREK and worse sci-fi. It's a TV script, replete with a pile-on of coinky-dinks that are the hallmark of the soap opera need that Abrams is enslaved too.

You can't have a great Trek film with such a lame villain as Bana, nor without any underlying sense of awe and wonder at the universe, which was Roddenberry's unique POV.

And that stupid scene with Bones repeatedly injecting Kirk is the worst of the modern-day JACKASS advertising sops to the audience...

IMHO the new TREK has little to do with the themes or ideas of the original series. The Beastie Boys?!

Chuck said...

what christian said.

Sam Juliano said...

Christian, I ask you this: Why did 96% of America's film critics including nearly all of our best feel this was the best of all the STAR TREK movies? Do you think a few bloggers, who have issues will manage to spoil all the fun? I am not in some tiny minority here, rather I am with an overwhelmingly majority.

As far as this here:

Sam, how can a copy of the best of previous Treks be the finest of the series? I thought this big dumb summer fun but a lousy TREK and worse sci-fi. It's a TV script, replete with a pile-on of coinky-dinks that are the hallmark of the soap opera need that Abrams is enslaved too.

I do not agree at all. If this is a TV script, well then so are all of the film's predesessors. I'm sorry the film didn't work for you, but for me it was an exhilarating and emotionally satisfying film with very good acting and an engaging time-travel story. As Ia lifelong ST fan, i am proud of this film, and happily nearly every professional critic in America is on board.

I respect you Christian, as I do Chuck, but I am simply not looking at this film with the same pair of eyes that you are.

Dumb? No dumber than any other series entry, nor any other single television episode, STTNG's THE INNER LIGHT aside. The name of the game with this film is entertainment, and this film delivers in spades.

Sam Juliano said...

anyway, here was my take on it at WitD:


Moses Hernandez said...

It's this year's IRON MAN. Fun and amusing in the moment but totally forgotten by August.

But this one is different cuz of the Trekkies.

By the way I agree with you AC. Chris Pine pretty much held my attention even when the script had him doing really stupid stuff.

Sam Juliano said...

Moses: It is August now, and why isn't it forgotten?

The ones who will forget it will be the ones who didnt connect with it in the first place!

IRON MAN was pyrotechnic trash, STAR TREK showcased characters that have been venerated by millions for decades. America's professional film critics aren't forgetting the film by a long shot, only a few bloggers.

Sam Juliano said...

Christian, Chuck and Moses:

Please tell me we are still friends. Please. That's way important than STAR TREK, even if I do love it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Watch out, guys, Sam has his phaser set beyond stun now. (Just kidding, Sam.)

Chuck said...

Nothing personal Sam. And we've, of course, been over this earlier. I chimed in again (kinda) because Christian phrased my apprehension well, and I didn't understand the critical hugs it got.

I don't put the same emphasis on mass critic reception that you do though. I feel that many of the critics, even the big guys, seem pretty vulnerable to what's shiny and hip and new, even if they might put a prettier spin on it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, many critics do unfortunately tend to travel in herds, don't they?

There is another story here to the Rotten Tomatoes rating, which is that if one were to judge my review it would probably receive a red tomato, but that doesn't mean I think it's Citizen Kane, Les enfants du paradis or Psycho. :)

Sam Juliano said...

Chuck (and Alexander) I do agree that Rotten Tomatoes is a joke in more ways than one. However, one can not easily dismiss the stunning '86' rating (Universal Acclaim) that STAR TREK received at Meta Critic, which is a far more formidable site. Chuck, I agree I use the critics as part of my defense, but you must understand that the charges by Christian that the filmis 'dumb' and is a 'retread' has not remotely been corroborated by the professionals. It's OK to dislike the film, but these scathing perceptions are not the general position by a long shot.

As far as the critics having some kind of an 'agenda' I can say the same about the bloggers. Why are their opinions any better? Why aren't some of us suseptible to what's hip and new? Among my close friends, colleagues and film associates the film has been embraced.

Sam Juliano said...

In other words: To each his own. It is more comforting to know that the vast majority is on my side than against me. Because the overwhelming majority of the professional critics loved STAR TREK, does not mean that some dubious agenda is in place. Perhaps..just maybe....they REALLY liked the film, no?

Converesely, when I didn't like LOST IN TRANSLATION, which virtually every critic adored, it always bothered me and made me think I was missing something even if repeated viewing failed to unearth that failing.

christian said...

Sam, I am and always will be, your friend...

But that's a classic line that doesn't have any parallax in the new TREK. I know everybody loved it, but not everybody, and the critical over-praise comes off to me like a need to over-praise. Because it is definitely smarter than all the other big studio films out there.

But you really believe this film has more emotional or thematic frisson than WRATH OF KHAN? Or better writing or directing?

Was the useless scene with Scotty trapped in a watertube funny or exciting? Or that silly TV sit com scene with Kirk hiding in Uhura's roommates room? That scene is the epitome of TV writing.

And the need to overstate Spock's emotions so much that his only lesson from old Spock is to embrace his human side. We GET it. That said, Nimoy brings a weight to the film that makes it suddenly feel like Trek to me. As do moments with Pine, but again, Bana was forgettable which is a serious imbalance here. And those flares!

That said, I give J.J. props for having some of the best integrated spfx work I've seen in a long time.


Sam Juliano said...

Christian: Thanks for that opening there!!! Yes, i will always be your friend.

I will admit I am with you on the flares. They were bothersome, but I managed to blot them out of my consciousness, as difficult as that was to do.

And, likewise that Scotty scene you make mention of was a weak moment, even if the Kirk sit com moment was harmless.

THE WRATH OF KAHN? Well, you did choose there the one film that practically equals this new one. In fact they may be equal. I have always loved that film and agree with Alexander when he likens Montelbalm's role as Shakespearean. Something about Pine and Quinto's performances rang true within the Star Trek stratosphere. I know Alexander says th elatter is "too subseviant to the past" but that's really a contributing factor to our acceptance of him both as an actor and in the venerated character he plays.
I did enjoy the two appearances of Nimoy, and the time-travel story was super-engaging. But Christian, I agree that time will determine how thuis stands up. Thanks for being a sport.

Sam Juliano said...


I won't even go there!


Alexander Coleman said...

I'm simply overlooking this thread like the Emperor aboard the Death Star. "Good, good," bwahahaha...

Scotty in the water tube was one of the more tone deaf scenes I've seen this year.

But even when Pine was called upon to do something silly, like the green roommate scene, he made it fairly entertaining.

Bana's character was sadly under-nourished. Potential was there, and the backstory fit with the Star Trek template, but he was given so little with which to work. He had one decent scene with the older captain.

I'll say this--unlike others, I didn't mind the flares so much. They were occasionally distracting but to an extent it fit with J.J.'s submarine-inspired visual schema.

I still wish Nimoy's part wasn't Mr. Exposition. At least the exposition is beautifully voiced.

Hmm, I'm seeing a pattern here with this film and I.

Film-Book dot Com said...

"Abrams' Star Trek is not what would be classified."

Christ is that an understatement.

You give the filn some credit it does not deserve but you wiisely centered your review on the director and not the elements of the film like I did. I am aware that the director is an element, an important element in the film but I did not reallly like the third act of Mission Impossible III.

Your analogy at the end of your review is appropriate but if I am to have sci-fi cake, I would rather it be of the Event Horizon variety.

The Filmist said...

>> Thank you for the comment, Filmist. So you haven't seen the 2009 Star Trek yet?

*just happened upon this comment earlier*

Oh, I'd seen it. I was really just trying to throw a bit of wit around, because the film ostensibly moves into a totally divergent timeline. That, and "The Undiscovered Country" is such a fine film, but that goes without saying.

Guys, I think we may have lost Mr. Coleman. He's disappeared.

Stooge said...

Coleman is like James Bond, he always returns.

I bet he'll be back in the next week or so.

STAR TREK 2009 was a decent and entertaining movie. Had problems but I liked it ok.

Alexander Coleman said...

I am indeed back. Coleman, Alexander Coleman.

Haha, Stooge. :)