Saturday, May 02, 2009

Star Trek - The Real Motion Picture.

I have to start this review with a personal note, but it's pertinent to the new film Star Trek.

As many of you know, I've had a terrible week. Tuesday morning I was laid off from a job I've had for 33 years. I will not be hurting financially for a while, but I will find another job that will serve me better and let me serve humanity better. It's bleak out there on the employment front, as most of you probably know, but I shall persevere.

More than that, working for many years on an overnight-only shift, without seeing the sun and interacting with humanity, has warped me in ways I'm only beginning to understand. I will have to change much about my life, including things like exercise, diet, spending and other things I took for granted. So this week has been a very strange time for me.

When some friends invited me to a sneak preview of Star Trek, it was a blessing. And provided me with some insight. Producer J.J. Abrams (famous for the TV shows Alias and Lost, and the movie Cloverfield) was given an ailing, worn-out wreck of a concept and was told to make it new. Trek had to change, just as I am having to change.

The world of Star Trek has been put through the wringer. The last series, Star Trek: Enterprise, proved to be horribly unpopular. Even hard-core Trek fans couldn't take it. Abrams had to remake the show anew, without completely alienating the old fan base.

I can't say that all the Trek fans will be satisfied. Trying to please them has been a losing battle. But from the viewpoint of someone who does not own any Trek action figures and reads very few Trek novels, the movie Star Trek is a breath of spring air.

It alters the facts of the known Star Trek history. But the movie has a very simple explanation for that, that any real science fiction fan can accept. And I mean people who read and view more than just Trek or Star Wars or other genre movies, who read novels and novellas and other movies. And - the only clue I will give you - it will be familiar to comic book fans who've seen the various ways that the DC and Marvel universes have been rebooted. In fact, this "rebooting" makes up the central plot element of this movie.

Chris Pine doesn't play James Tiberius Kirk like Shatner. No one can. And he doesn't have to. His Kirk is a troublemaker, and a troubled kid. His rebelliousness is challenged by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and he is told he could become an officer in four years if he works hard. Kirk says "I'll do it in three."

That brings him up against Spock (Zachary Quinto), a relatively young Vulcan who is challenged by his half-human heritage. He is certainly not the head-slicing villain Sylar of Heroes here. Even playing a being whose emotions are screwed down tight, he is one of the best acting surprises in the movie. And that's saying a lot, since there are lots of surprises and worthy laughter in the film.

In this film, Spock designed the famous Kobayashi Maru scenario, the unbeatable training exercise that Kirk beats - by cheating. But before Starfleet Academy can boot the offender out, an emergency comes - a strange starship, with advanced weaponry and technology, is attacking Vulcan.

The villain is Nero, played by Eric Bana, whom you remember from the first miserable Hulk movie and the much better Munich. This Trek antagonist doesn't speak like Ming the Merciless or Count Dooku or in any other stilted "foreign" accent. His smooth, almost comfortable voice is scarier because it isn't "foreign."

You'll notice I'm talking about characters here. This film's great virtue is characters. This Kirk is brash and impetuous, but he doesn't always come out ahead. He damn near gets killed several times. And it takes the wisdom of Spock - this time, the original Spock, played by an incredibly old Leonard Nimoy - for Kirk to understand his destiny. And, frankly, for us to figure out the film's central riddle.

Simon Pegg, the protagonist of the horror comedy Shawn of the Dead, is fantastic as Scotty. Imagine, instead of James Doohan, the original Montgomery Scott had been played by Billy Connolly. I could talk forever about the others, but not now.

Because I must emphasize that this film also has strong action, that starts from the very beginning of the film. There is tension and violence that clearly indicates this isn't the staid world of Trek, where a starship always sits right-side-up when travelling. We are told early that anything can change, and it does.

You probably know that the sequel to this film has already been approved and the cast signed. The preview reaction was that positive. And it was positive among the audience I saw it with - with the exception of two hardcore Trek fans who bitched about changed details. I don't care, and the casual mass audience who will flock to this film won't care either. This is fully the spirit of Trek, and it is good.

I will spoil a surprise that comes at the end of the credits. It's no Easter egg or blooper. It's a simple text message remembering Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barrett Roddenberry (her computer voice recordings are her last performance before her death). A lot of hardcore fans didn't stay for that. I did. And the remaining people applauded. And I think, wherever their souls are, the Roddenberrys are applauding this film, which will make Trek live for a new generation.