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.