I remmeber sitting in a theater in 2001, watching Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring and thinking that even though I was watching the scene on screen for the first time, I was going to end up seeing it again and again throughout the rest of my life. It wasn't necessarily a personal investment in the movie -- I like Lord of the Rings, but I haven't watched it in a couple of years -- but just an automatic sense that the movie had the right kind of accessibility and skill that would allow it to endure as a true blockbuster. It will be decades before I know if I was really right or not, but I felt the same way watching J.J. Abrams' reboot of the Star Trek franchise, which is action-packed, relentlessly paced, reasonably character-driven, and won't alienate anyone who isn't a hardcore fan of the long-running series.
Such as, well, myself. Until I sat myself in a theater seat to see the new movie, I'd seen about ten minutes of anything Trek in my entire life. Perhaps I was subliminally worried that it'd stack unfavorably atop my already tragic movie-nerd status, but now I'm thinking I've got no choice: one of the best things about the movie, which follows the first voyage of the Enterprise and its intrepid crew, is how it cleverly blends the old with the new; you'll walk out wanting to go see the original series. Sure, the film's central plot device (which I won't ruin) is a catch-all, but the movie makes it feel organic. Fans will find things to nitpick about it (they always do, and, well, already have), but on the whole, it allows the new to be the new and the old to be the old in a way that should at least calm any fires of indignant fury even if it can't extinguish them.
If I had to pick something I was most pleased or impressed by, it was how well-defined the characters are. Obviously, 43 years of history will do that to a franchise, but it's still refreshing how much of the movie's development is aided by strongly defined characters. There are a lot of characters on the bridge, but you'll never confuse Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) with some incidental background character. Certainly, a lot of them cough up some catchphrases that have been burned into pop culture ("Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a scientist!" and "I'm giving it all she's got, Captain!", among others) to help give each one of them a unique stamp, but the story still gives each one of them a reasonably significant part to play that makes sense and doesn't require any excess exposition.
The most well-defined of them all are of course James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), whose competitive relationship is at the heart of the movie. Their performances are both impressive; despite this being both actors' first big movie, they're engaging and natural. It would be easy for the hotshot pilot and intelligent logician to become either annoying or comedic in their execution, and it could have been hard to reconcile their differences in a way that didn't feel necessitated by the mechanics of the movie, but you want to see them work together and become a team because you understand their relationship so well. The movie's opening includes scenes with the characters as children which are much less effective (and probably completely unnecessary -- you could have just cut them entirely and I wouldn't have missed them), which is another testament to Pine and Quinto's charisma.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. I particularly liked Bruce Greenwood as Captain Christopher Pike, who brings a noble, understated sense of strength to the character. It's more than easy to believe that not only is he a Starfleet Captain, but that even a hothead like Kirk would be willing to listen to him. I also came to enjoy Urban's performance as McCoy. At first, he seems a little goofy; his accent seems like one element too many, but as the movie goes on, he grows into it, and he makes a strong impression despite being less prominent in the movie's second half. Anton Yelchin is memorable as Chekov, especially when the character gets a heroic moment. I'd also like to see more of John Cho's Sulu and Simon Pegg's Scotty in future installments (I liked them because I liked the actors, but the characters don't get a lot of time to make an impression).
All this character doesn't make the movie slow, either; this film is wall-to-wall action. There are space battles, chases, bar fights, skydiving, hand-to-hand combat, shootouts and more, all packed efficiently into 126 minutes. Admittedly, Abrams still resorts to shaky-cam techniques every once in awhile (seriously -- I hear this complaint, and make it, about almost every action movie that comes out these days, and filmmakers still use it), but it's a blast nonetheless. It's all very well timed, too, thanks to expert editing by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey. I can't think of a movie I've seen in a long while that used its time more efficiently than Star Trek. Anyone directing summer movies for 2010 should take note.
I might get flak for saying this, and I hate to compare the two, but bear with me. Star Wars isn't a great film because you learn something about the human condition, the direction is groundbreaking or because it represents some sort of meticulous standard of fine art, but because it's universally entertaining, has memorable characters, and it leaves you wanting more. This new version of Star Trek may very well be that film for the new millennium, with a whole new dimension: that sense of respect and homage it has for the source as they take the franchise in new directions. Sure, it's not an absolutely perfect masterpiece -- depending on which you'd rather hear, the series' Wrath of Khan/Empire Strikes Back has yet to be made -- but it is a pretty flawless summer blast that will undoubtedly be revisited for years to come. As with Lord of the Rings, it will be a long time before I know if I'm right, but right now, I hear Leonard Nimoy speaking those classic lines: "Space: the final frontier", and I'm ready: ready to boldly go wherever Abrams and his crew want to go next.
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