Friday, 8 May 2009

Stuff at the Movies....Set Phasers to Stunning....Star Trek!

So how do you go about resurrecting a tired, worn-out forty year old TV science-fiction franchise? Well, if you’re Russell T Davies, tasked with breathing new life into the legendary ‘Dr Who’ TV series, you throw away most of the old convoluted mythology of the series – the stuff the more intense fans ponder and worry about and try to make sense of – and start from scratch, retaining the core elements which made the series work first time around. And, it appears, if you’re JJ Abrams, the genius behind ‘Lost’ and ‘Cloverfield’, taking on the responsibility of teasing 1960s TV classic ‘Star Trek’ back into the affections of a public bored by the years of the creative abuse which led shows like ‘Voyager’ and ‘Enterprise’ to fizzle out unwatched and unloved by all but the most determined, you...well, you do much the same as Mr Davies. You go right back to basics – and beyond – throw out all the arcane trivia and ephemera and invite everyone into a world they might previously never had any interest in. And, like Mr Davies, you get it right. You get it very right. Abrams’ new ‘Star Trek’ movie is utterly brilliant.

Now I’ve generally been a bit ambivalent about the whole ‘Star Trek’ experience. I can do a bit of the ‘classic’ series but the films and the subsequent TV shows – ‘The Next Generation’, ‘Deep Space Nine’ – nope, not for me. All those bumpy foreheads. I admit to snorting derisorily and rolling my eyes a bit when I saw the first promo pics from the new movie – same old tunics, same old ‘Star Trek’. But I should have learned to never judge a book by its covers or, indeed, a film by its stills...

JJ Abrams, not a self-confessed ‘Star Trek’ fanatic, clearly realised very quickly that the best chance he had of getting a big, sci-fi wary audience to embrace perhaps the geekiest of sci-fi shows, was to reinvent the whole damned thing. But he needed the most recognisable icons; just as Davies kept the TARDIS, the Daleks, the Cybermen, Abrams kept – or rather revisited – Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Bones, Sulu and, of course, the Starship Enterprise. But this is ‘Star Trek’ all shiny and new, pre-Shatner, pre-Nimoy, pre-everything from the 1960s. His film is about how it all began, why it all began and, in an absolute masterstoke of storytelling, how it changes everything that purports to come after it.
In simple terms, ‘Star Trek’ is a breath-taking experience. It fairly pulsates across the screen, just as Abrams’ underrated ‘Mission Impossible 3’ did a few years back. This is a fast, powerful, modern film, full of vibrant action, slick dialogue, razorsharp characterisation and it absolutely achieves everything it sets out to do. When it ends you will want more and you will want it immediately. This is ‘Star Trek’ as a genuinely exciting creative thing, not just the latest tired offshoot of an idea well overdue a nice long rest. This film is the product of people who have thought about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and what they need to do to make it work.

‘Star Trek’ starts as it means to go on – all guns blazing in a thundering space battle sequence. James T Kirk is born in the shadow of the death of his father, murdered by Nero (Eric Bana), leader of a ragtag group of renegade Romulans who have cosmic vengeance in mind. Years later, cocky and arrogant, Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) is challenged by Federation Officer Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) to join the Federation, to make something of his life. We fast-forward three years and Kirk ingratiates himself aboard the newly-launched USS Enterprise as it and a fleet of other Starships warp across Space to offer assistance to the beleaguered planet Vulcan, under attack from the self-same Romulans and their planet-destroying energy weapon. But the Federation has been led into a trap, most of the Starships are destroyed, Pike is taken prisoner by the Romulans and, in conflict with the Enterprise’s default Vulcan Captain Spock (Zachary Quinto), Kirk finds himself shot out into space in a lifepod. He lands on the ice planet Delta Vega and is chased across its hostile terrain by a terrifying monster...until he’s saved by a familiar figure from a very different future...

‘Star Trek’ is pitch-perfect, it really is. The casting is spot-on; it’s fair to say that it’s tough to imagine Chris Pine developing into William Shatner but the new Kirk is smart-mouthed, out-spoken, wild, reckless and, like Kirk of old, oddly charismatic despite himself. But the real acting kudos go to Zachary Quinto who funnels his Spock directly from Leonard Nimoy himself (who also features in a pretty substantial and plot-significant cameo); Quinto looks like Nimoy, he sounds like all intents and purposes he is Nimoy. It’s an uncanny performance and while the love-hate relationship between Kirk and Spock is the very spine of the movie the snappy screenplay pays much more than lip service to the classic show’s supporting cast; everyone gets their moment to shine. Zoe Saldana plays communications officer Uhura and the film cleverly body-swerves the rather obvious Kirk/Uhura romantic angle it initially suggests is coming our way by having her mildly contemptuous of him and actually going on to enjoy a relationship with Spock. Didn’t see that coming! Elsewhere we have Karl Urban, stepping expertly into de Forrest Kelley’s shoes as Bones McCoy – who couldn’t smile as he utters the immortal “I’m a doctor not a physicist?” line? – the new Sulu gets to wield a sword in an edge-of-the-seat battle sequence on the platform of the Romulan’s killer drill and Chekhov amuses as a naive but enthusiastic seventeen year-old novice. Simon Pegg enters proceedings surprisingly late – in the last forty minutes or so – as Engineer Montgomery Scott,rescued from a forgotten Federation outpost on Delta Vega where he lives with a miniature alien with a face like a giant cornflake. Pegg brings a nice bit of comic relief to a film which already has a twinkle all its own but sometimes his performance threatens to topple into broad slapstick but I’m sure that’s something which the sequel (there must be one! Make it so!) will take care of.

Fans of the 'classic' 'Star Trek', who may find the relentlessness of the film and its sheer verve hard to come to terms with (they'll come round by the end of the movie) will love the nods to the past - old sounds FX and catchphrases abound - even I couldn't help feeling a little something at the first uttering of "Energise!" before the transporter is used and even "Live long and prosper" sounds like much more than just a glib turn of phrase when it's being spoken by the weather-beaten Leonard Nimoy. The film's production design is astonishing - the bridge of the Enterprise pulses and glows but there's no way the sequences in the engine room couldn't not look like what they were - scenes filmed in a clanking, hissing New York brewery but it's such a minor quibble as to be churlish. And really pretty much all criticism is pretty pointless. You might want to argue that the villains aren't all that; the Romulans are just snarling tattooed unshaven Anericans in brown robes but that's the point. Seeing Kirk and co battling leather-clad Klingons or some other TV creation with a bit of plasticine stuck unconvincingly to its forehead would have plunged the film spiralling back into the land of silly sci-fi and that's so clearly what's not required or attempted here. Besides, any alien threat is going to be undermined - to great comic effect - when its leader and spokesman appears on the Enterprise screen and says to Captain Pike "Hello Chris, it's Nero" with an off-handedness which belies the fact that the Romulans are on their way to turn the Earth into a black hole.

Really I could go on and on. I won't spoil the brilliant twist in the plot which frees Abrams from the shackles of the TV series and its clumsy history and I could rave for ages about the stunning score, the magnificent special effects and the sheer sense of joy in itself which permeates every frame - even the lens-flared ones Abrams is obviously so fond of. Reading this review is time better spent actually going to see 'Star Trek'. Just this once the fans and the critics have got it right and they seem to be pretty much of one voice; I've not read a bad word about this movie which, in this opinionated age, is pretty damnedh astonishing. Just like 'Star Trek'.

The summer blockbuster season is just beginning and there are lot of big budget extravaganzas out there ready at the starting blocks aiming for glory. I doubt we'll see one this year with the genius and effortless brilliance of 'Star Trek'. What are you waiting for? Boldly go and see it...

1 comment:

FRANK said...

You'll be delighted to know that Paramount green lit the sequel about a month or two ago. Bryan Burk, another member of Abrams' High Council is joining fellow writers Orci and Kurtzman for the script.

Paramount have had enormous faith in the film. It was originally to be a Christmas 2008 release but they saw its potential as a summer movie and I think they made the right call to hold the release till 2009.

A lovely, enthusiastic review and one which I am sure will persuade the doubters to go and see the film. There are rumblings from a few disappointed fans out there who see Abrams trashing the franchise. They simply haven't paid attention and don't get the brilliant conceit of the film.