STAR TREK, (2009, directed by J.J. Abrams, 126 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
No doubt about it, audiences are going to be purring like Tribbles as they step aboard this refitted Enterprise to go boldly back to the future to witness the formation of Captain Kirk’s legendary crew. Blessed with that rarest of qualities, CGI effects that actually dazzle, Star Trek‘s rebooted new voyage zips around with the giddy energy you wish had enlivened the last Star Wars trilogy. Amid all this energy (and surprisingly, scads of slapstick shtick) one can’t help but mourn the passing of the gauntlet from the late Gene Roddenberry to J.J. Abrams, replacing the series’ inquisitive humanitarian vision with a special effects-laden, horny action soap opera; an intergalactic sort of Star Trek 90210.
Abrams has been kicking around Hollywood since writing the script for the sentimental Harrison Ford enlightenment-through-brain-damage vehicle Regarding Henry, rising to major player after creating the prime time fantasy soap operas Lost and Alias. Right from the film’s introduction of the teenage wild seed James T. Kirk (listening to the Beastie Boys — huh? — while racing in “chickie run” right out of Rebel Without A Cause), Abrams’ Star Trek is off and running with a season’s worth of sudsy intrigue: expect rivalries, threats, challenges and sexy come-ones. It is like fan fiction writ large and much of the film’s spark comes from watching loopy scenarios like Kirk and Spock sparring over the alluring and ready Lt. Uhura.
And if intergalactic gossip is not your thing there is the action, which is among the best in the series, at least the best since Kirk fought the Gorn. Particularly effective is the sequence in which Kirk and Sulu (newly retrofitted with ninja powers) ‘space jump’ onto the giant planet-killing drill of super villain Nero (an unrecognizable Eric Bana). It’s Abrams hand that brings this momentum to the film, Star Trek never stops moving while never degenerating into action-addled incoherence.
Still, something feels awry here, something amiss at the heart of this much-beloved franchise. Missing among the breathless action and the personal revelations is the sort of social critique and moral conundrums that have been a part of the show in each of its permutations. Spock, who has been branded as a survivor of genocide after the destruction of planet Vulcan, is even congratulated for honoring his “human side” when he gives in to revenge. Abrams has placed us aboard an Enterprise that seems much more like a warship for the soldiers of Starfleet than a vessel of explorer/ambassadors, especially under the command of this new James T. Kirk.
Played by relative newcomer Chris Pine, it appears as if they’ve fashioned James Kirk in the image of George W. Bush. If this sounds like a stretch bear with me. The ne’er-do-well son of a national hero, Kirk wastes his talent carousing and brawling until he get the calling that his country needs him. Disdainful of tradition, rules and smarty-pants like that brainy Spock, Kirk rises to the top through family connections, bluster and out-and-out cheating. You might not see him as our 43rd President but his story could never be mistaken for that of the current resident of the White House. The audience is supposed to get chills when Kirk finally sits in the commander’s chair yet given the too-pretty Pine’s self-satisfied performance the moment carries the sour residue of privilege, a rank gained by inheritance more than achievement.
The same could be said for the movie itself, its chills originating as much from our history with these characters than by what’s actually on-screen. It is no surprise that the film carries the most gravitas not by showing Spock lose his mother (played by a surprisingly middle-aged looking Wynona Rider) but by having the wizened form of Leonard Nimoy appear (or as the credits define him, “Spock Prime”) to impart some vague Vulcan wisdom. Time will tell; as more voyages as certainly coming, I’ll be curious to see what goose bumps can be summoned by this new crew as they find their own footing, instead of basking in the achievements of their more original originators.