Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue May 12, 2009 12:09 pm 
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Spunk meets Spock

What do you do with a franchise that has been milked dry? You stage a prequel, or, in other words, a childhood-and-youth-of-the-hero movie. J.J. Abrams' aim in this simply-titled entry is to show how James Kirk and Mr. Spock got to be running the spaceship Enterprise. The non-Trekkie must approach with trepidation this dramatic effort to freshen up the hallowed TV series and its not-so-successful movie avatars. Is it enough to say it's beautiful and entertaining, but lacks something?

What happens is a big battle to trounce an evil guy who's destroying whole planets, and some background on the young Spock and Kirk. The substance is simple: Spock's logical, alright, but he's also deeply emotional. Kirk's a testosterone-soaked bad boy, but he's got just the balance of smarts and derring-do to be a great leader.

Beyond that, this Star Trek reboot is a dazzlingly pretty audio-visual experience, maybe the closest a lot of moviegoers will ever come to abstract art. It's geometric abstraction: though we're whirling around the galaxies, mostly what we see is space ships with their angles and curves. The early sequences are well balanced and fun, despite an opening that follows the typical but inexplicable blockbuster theory that you should hit 'em with all you've got in the first ten minutes. This 25-years-older flashback showing how daddy Kirk was captain of the Enterprise for a few minutes and saved 800 people while his wife was giving birth on board to the future James Kirk, is ridiculously loud and impulsive and confusing, and when it is clear, it seems corny as all heck. Anyway, mile-a-minute openings' may grab the viewer, but you can never keep up to that level. The only reliable result is that you've numbed the audience.

The next scene, a nice contrast because it's back down on the flattest of earth surfaces, shows a pre-teen Jim junior--miraculously, since it's the 23rd century: where'd he get the fossil fuel?--racing a stolen Corvette across the desert a few lengths in front of a motorcycle cop, jumping out just before the 'vette pitches over a cliff and hanging there--a time-worn dramatic device that will be repeated again more than once. This tow-head smart-aleck is an annoying little cuss, but he's certainly got balls far beyond his years. He's ready to "boldly go."

I have never watched a whole Star Trek original episode, and if I've glimpsed any of the ten-odd movie spin-offs, I've forgotten. I can believe, however, that this is both one of the better ones--and missing certain essential elements in the interpretation of the original characters and in the way "issues" are brought up in the series as originally conceived. The only "issues" seemed to be to stop a bad guy bent on destroying the galaxy, and the conflict between the cold logic of Zachary Quinto's Spock and the obnoxious spunk (but creative initiative) of Chris Pine's Jim Kirk. The young Kirk, more or less the star, played by Chris Pine, is a bad-boy cutie. His pretty face is always bruised and scarred from a brawl, or maybe it's acne. Pine's Kirk bursts with boyish energy that's hard to resist. What's not so easy is to imagine how such an obstreperous twerp would be allowed on board the spaceship, let alone be rapidly moved to a leadership position in the highly regimented, not to say repressive and fascistic, intergalactic system.

It's also not quite clear how a nerdy character like the half-Klingon Spock would be so highly regarded, if Kirk's kind of, well, enterprise, were deeply valued. Are they just two sides of one person, maybe?

But mostly there's so much action going on in Star Trek that it's not important to ponder such questions. It primarily just gorgeous special effects.

There are some appealing secondary characters (not as much multi-galactic social color as in Star Wars, though, by a long sight). Simon Pegg the English actor plays Scotty with a real Scottish brogue and a peppy comical manner. Anton Yelchin who is really a young Russian-born actor but grew up here and speaks perfect English, does a funny but accurate Russian accent as the 17-year-old navigator, Chekhov. John Cho, who plays the Asian crew member Hikaru Sulu, is the quite amusing guy who plays Harold in the Harold and Kumar comedies, but he's not very amusing here. I was surprised to see Winona Rider was in the cast. I thought she might have been the green floozy, but she turns out to have played Spock's human mother. I know nothing about the guy who plays the young Spock. He is not interesting. But Leonard Nimoy himself, the original Spock, is on hand to play the old Spock, who returns from the future to help out. That is a lovely touch, though the writers have to get tangled up in a time warp to stage it.

Eric Bana as the evil leader Nero is fine, if you don't mind that all his cohorts look pretty much identical to him--all swarthy, shaven-headed, tattooed leathermen. The contrast with the bright-eyed dazzlingly-lit world of the Enterprise reminds me of the Drapes and Squares of my high school, or the Greasers and Soscs of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. How is it that the proper good-boy spaceships are by NASA out of Mies van der Rohe, while Nero's are like rough-hewn medieval sculpted weapons? You kind of have to like the originality of the Nero vessels, but they don't look very aerodynamic.

It seems to be the rule now that when a blockbuster is half decent, the flacks rush in with raves when it's barely out of the can. I'd side more with Anthony Lane ("This new Star Trek is nonsense, no question. . .but at least it's not boggy nonsense" or Roger Ebert ("you want space opera, you got it").

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