Sunday, May 10, 2009

Abrams Seeks Out, Finds New Life

As previously mentioned, I went for the midnight showing of Star Trek on Thursday night...only to discover that midnight was not the first showing that night! Since the distinctiveness of that Witching Hour show was gone, my friends and I paid homage to yet another youthful tradition, and hopped over to another cinema for the 11:15. Rebels are we.

I was filled with trepidation, both for the sanctity of Star Trek in my heart, and for the seemingly impossible task of any film to live up to the hype which this one was generating. I left with both fears decisively put to rest.

Star Trek was one of the most satisfying SF films I have seen in a very long time. On nearly every level, it met if not surpassed the very high expectations I had placed on it, and did so with a deft and sure hand. Opening with a vertiginous shot of a starship coursing through the heavens (this production had some good sport with the relativity of "up" and "down" in space, an experience which I fear will be utterly lost to those bootleggers and downloaders who will experience this film on anything but a large screen in a dark room), the story handily dispenses with canon in a way which time-travel grumblers will find irritating, but the rest of us will accept as a license to take this story and the universe in which it unfolds on its own merits. That first sequence holds a very human and very tragic emotional resonance which has been all-too rare in Star Trek films. This is an experience which is repeated throughout the story; at every juncture where Trek fans would be justified in expecting some abstract, technological solution, or pat lip service to the struggle of imperfect beings trying to find answers in a dangerous universe, this film surprises. It takes chances and fires full phasers on more than one sacred cow. The changes it makes to the established Trek universe are far more than merely cosmetic. Big things happen. Relationships are fundamentally different..and yet fully recognizable and sensible within the new parameters which it sets.

Some reviews (look for my comment on this one) have decried the casting, whining about the lack of gravitas or derisively snorting drivel like "Star Trek: 90210" or somesuch. Nonsense. The actors in this film positively took ownership of their roles with neither slavish mimicry of their forebears, nor self consciously irreverent iconoclasty. They simply claim them, and shape them as recognizable but novel characters. Honorable mention, though, goes to Karl Urban's McCoy, where the late, lamented DeForest Kelley's voice shines through so vividly it all-but brought a tear to my eye. Zachary Quinto's Spock brings a vulnerability to the character which brought the half-human, half-Vulcan duality and struggle into high, sometimes tragic relief. For those who lament the lack of Nimoy's calm assurance, it is worth remembering that the early Spock was not as cool as he became in subsequent episodes of the original series. He was still a bit raw, and this is very much in evidence in the film. And Abrams' Spock has far bigger things to deal with than the familiar character from the "Trek Prime" timeline... Chris Pine's Kirk offers up a bruised and rebellious streak which Kirk Prime's life was too straight-edged to permit, and it is great fun to watch our familiar character begin to emerge from the formative experiences which this new James T. Kirk lives. He is a talented young man from whom we may expect great things to come.

I just wouldn't be me if I didn't take some time to talk about the visuals. Great gods on garlic bread, but they made me ache with hillocks of geeky squee! I was not a big fan of the new Enterprise design. I was skeptical of the hot rod warp engines and the shiny white bridge. I didn't think the thing would convey the necessary heft on the big screen. May I please have a side of curly fries with those words? ILM has reclaimed its throne with the visuals for this film; the space sequences were alive with spinning, Newtonian motion and a real sense of the scale of things. The new ship was a character which defied expectations as decisively as any of its crew. It just looked beautiful on screen, moving with a lumbering grace and real presence and mass. The sound design was yet another motive for the bittorrent crowd to bite the bullet and get out to a cinema: the sound in this film was concussive and crackling with power. Every time a ship went to warp, the theater rang with the massive thud of Einstein's brain dropping from a high place. Phaser fire ripped the air so violently you could practically smell the ozone. The whole 'sound in space' matter is dealt with in a reasonable way as well; when we the viewers are watching a space sequence, we hear explosions and such, but the fact that this is a convention for entertainment's sake is illustrated by the times when people in the film directly experience the awful silence of the vacuum. You'll see what I mean.

I want to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, so I'll keep this brief. Star Trek is a film which honors the spirit of the original with all due reverence, but strikes out in its own direction, and makes it thoroughly worth the trip. It is a smart, gripping, expertly-paced tale, which also happens to be startlingly funny without resorting to the cheeky, cheesy sort of humor which one has had so frequently to bear with an affectionate wince in previous Trek films. Is it perfect? Not at all. There are liberties taken with the science which took me out of the movie on more than one occasion (would somebody please read up on black holes and prepare a primer for future Star Trek writers?!). But if purity in science is what you are looking for, then you have long-since given up on Trek anyway, so that one kinda nulls out. There are obvious narrative short-cuts taken at times in order to position characters in their familiar spots. Again, of all the plot holes which have opened up in previous Trek films and shows, these are pretty minor and (IMHO) easily glossed over, given the overall quality of the film.

Abrams' Star Trek manages to keep the best of Trek safe and inviolate within my memory, while offering the chance to have altogether new adventures in a changed but familiar universe. Indeed, it was fun to look for the things which would tend to happen in familiar ways even given the altered initial conditions (and yes, I'm thinking attractor basins in the problem space). It simply works on so many levels that I find myself thanking Abrams' team for bringing a new vitality and energy to the franchise.

I can't wait to see where they go next.

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