The “Star Trek” film franchise, after 10 films, is about to hit maximum warp for the first time.
Yes, the new one is the best of them all, which (in my opinion) is actually faint praise. The movies have each been flawed, really, and while I do adore “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” this new film, pound for pound, is far superior. That’s all the more impressive when you consider the fact that this all-new crew ensemble can’t take emotional shortcuts with the audience.
I saw the new film last Friday and it’s fun, smart, sexy, sleek and action-packed. J.J. Abrams took plenty of lessons from the most recent trilogy of “Star Wars” films and their portrayal of alien cultures, space travel and frenetic battle scenes. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, meanwhile, have written a script that is infused with Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of unity, exploration and technological possibility. It seems to me this movie is this year’s “Iron Man,” the fully satisfying summer movie that feels fresh and buoyant despite all the heavy machinery taking flight on screen.
So here are seven things I loved (although there were plenty more) about “Star Trek,” which opens on May 8. NOTE: There are no MAJOR spoilers in here but I do talk about the setup and flavor of some scenes, some vague (but important) plot points and some of the fun, small moments, so if you prefer to walk into the theater cold, stop reading now! Otherwise, keep reading and prepare for warp-speed because, of course, this ship has no seat belts:
1. THE FREEDOM TO FAIL: The film has a time-travel plot (hence the presence of Leonard Nimoy as an aged Spock) which is no secret at this point, but until I saw the film I didn’t realize how pivotal that fact is in regard to the long-term health of this revival. As several of the trailers reveal, in this “Star Trek,” Kirk’s father dies just moments after his son is born; Nimoy’s Spock notes in the film that the Kirk he knew didn’t lose his father until he was already a Starfleet captain. There is also a character death in this version that does not match up with the mythology of the original series, but I won’t say more than that. This is all important because it frees up the franchise to go its own path in the upcoming films and face uncertainty, failure and peril. The filmmakers are not paralyzed by the canon and they are making that clear from the get-go.
2. KARL URBAN IS THE REAL McCOY: There are plenty of great performances in this movie. Chris Pine is charismatic and cocky and just right as a young Kirk (and thank goodness he didn’t slip into a William Shatner imitation, that would have been death for the film) and Zachary Quinto is pitch-perfect as the smoldering Spock, who is just barely keeping a clamp on those emotions. But I have to say the great revelation was New Zealand native Karl Urban who, more than the two main stars, does a full-on vocal imitation of his predecessor, DeForest Kelley, who was such an eccentric Southern sourpuss. I sat down with Pine for a pleasant lunch a few weeks and he gushed about Urban’s hilarious turn. “When people see what Karl Urban did with Dr. McCoy, they are going to freak out. It is DeForest Kelley, but it’s not. With my performance I had to go at it with a scalpel because Shatner’s work was unique and locked into memory. But, man, what Karl pulled off … ” I’m guessing that in the next film we see a lot more of Urban and his laughter-is-the-best-medicine approach to “Trek.”
3. THE KOBIYASHI MARU: Screenwriters Orci and Kurtzman have done the best work of their career with this film and it’s almost unfair how much fun they had in doing it. Orci in particular is a devout Trekkie and it’s clear from all the references both large and small to “Trek” lore. The over-eager Red Shirt, the mention of a Cardassian cocktail, the catch-phrases for individual crew members and, best of all, a re-visitation of the Kobiyashi Maru training exercise and Kirk’s, uh, creative way of passing the test. They also add a clever bit of plot-wiring that uses the exercise to create tension between Kirk and another character.
4. A SURPRISE CREW ROMANCE: There’s a bed romp between Captain Kirk and a curvy green lady (although she’s no Yvonne Craig), which is hardly a surprise, but there is a crew romance that is introduced in this film that is startling at first because it is so counter to the traditional portrayals of the original crew. But I think it was a fantastic move that will pay off in the next film. The crew’s dynamic will be intensely tested by having two people who must deal with the tugs of duty and heart and keeping each other safe and warm amid the cold dangers of space. I asked Nimoy what he thought of this jolting change and he lit up. “I thought it was fantastic to see them together. A great idea.”
5. “HEATHERS” IN SPACE: Winona Ryder portrays Spock’s mother, and although her screen time and her ambitions were a bit limited here (and she was doing her wavering, old-lady voice, the same one she did in the framing sequence of “Edward Scissorhands“), I’m just stoked because, when combined with Christian Slater’s cameo in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” there is now a “Heathers” reunion in Federation space. I also like the idea of Winona being a VILF. (It stands for “Vulcan Immigrant Looking Fine”…what were you thinking?)
6. J.J.’S JEDI MIND TRICK: J.J. Abrams told me months ago that he was dropping a “Star Wars” homage into the film but asked me not to write about it. I haven’t but now that it’s in the ads for the film, well, I guess it’s fair game. In one sequence, Kirk is marooned on a frosty planet that has quite a bit in common with Hoth from “The Empire Strikes Back.“ Kirk is also about to be offed by a local predator when he is saved by a mysterious elder — essentially it’s Spock in the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi from the first “Star Wars” film. And you know longtime Jedi fan Abrams smirked a bit when he added some Lucas mojo to the “Trek” experience.
7. “THE RIGHT STUFF” SENSIBILITY: Some Trekkies have been apoplectic because of the scene where Kirk, not yet in Starfleet, rides his motorcycle up to an Iowa field where a starship is being built. Why would you build a starship on the ground when in the past films they have been assembled in orbiting space stations? I suppose you could argue some tech reason to defend the depiction (maybe they have an anti-gravity well on site? Maybe they transport it into space? I don’t know … ) but why bother? What’s great about the scene is its evocation of a sort of “Field of Dreams” earnestness. The original “Trek” was so optimistic at its heart and in the Space Age era that it really felt like an extension of both NASA and the Peace Corps. There’s a lot of that in this new movie and that’s more important than nitpicking the science. Pine summed it up: “This movie will fail for die-hard fans if they go in expecting a museum piece that has to faithfully re-create everything that has come before. It’s a fresh perspective. There are things that are different.”
– Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED
Credit: “Star Trek” photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures. Anton Yelchin photo by Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times.