Sunday, March 13, 2011

Revisit: Star Trek

Set phasers to fun.

Pine and Quinto looking suitably dramatic
Rewatching Star Trek XI, one thing that struck me is how few big budget blockbusters I've enjoyed over the last few years. Obviously the Christopher Nolan films have brought a real sense of intelligence and innovation back to Hollywood, although he's very much an abnormality in the system. Similarly, Pixar films are amongst the few films deservedly breaking box office records. But for the most part, the massive budget releases have been disappointing in recent times. Avatar and Tron: Legacy certainly looked and sounded like a few hundred million dollars, but the actual storytelling left a lot to be desired. The latest releases in the big franchises have been underwhelming too, like the weak sequel to Iron Man. Thinking back, it's been a long time since I've been won over by a big action film, and looking at the current batch and both critical / audience feedback, it's unlikely they're going to change the pattern.

Note: some spoilers for Star Trek XI follow

Star Trek was the last time I was truly sucked into the spectacle of Hollywood. On a third viewing in as many years, it remains a blistering good time. After the unusually enjoyable Mission: Impossible III and success of (early series, anyway) Alias and Lost it had become pretty clear J.J. Abrams was a director worth watching. Minus the unavoidable pratfalls of serialised storytelling, though, M:I III and Star Trek showed a director able to tell one hell of an entertaining story.

Of course the danger with Star Trek XI was the fact that it was simply a Star Trek film. While there have been strong entries in the franchise, the weight of having to please rabid fan expectations and casual viewers not as familiar with the characters and story was a frequently tricky balancing act. The obvious solution to decades of backstory was simple yet worrying: a reboot. It's a horrible, dirty word and with good cause in many cases. However, after Batman proved a fresh start wasn't always unwelcome, it seemed apt to introduce a Star Trek for a new generation. However, tackling such iconic characters and replacing actors who had owned their roles for so long was a huge risk.

Abrams and his writers Orci and Kurtzman came up with an ingenious solution: have a narrative justification for why everything has suddenly been reset. Trekkies - a particularly hard to please bunch - would inevitably have rebelled had the backstories of characters or planets or whatever changed significantly in the transition; but using the old reliable time-travel and alternative universe cheat Star Trek XI elegantly establishes a new, fresh time line. The mid-plot integration of the Star Trek of old and the new crew is an immensely satisfying way of getting a - if you'll excuse the pun - new generation onto the enterprise. While few of the cast are as instantly memorable as Shatner and Nimoy (barring, of course, Nimoy himself), the youngsters do a fine job of portraying iconic, beloved characters. Quinto is engagingly logical as Spock, Pine a likable and smart-assed Kirk. All the other crew members delightfully get their own moment in the sun: Zulu, McCoy, Chekov and Uhura all have stuff to do here, most resolving a major crisis or setpiece. Scotty is a bit of a weak point, as it's kind of just Simon Pegg being Simon Pegg, but again he's a likable, colourful character so it's hard to resent his casting either. Also of note is an unrecognisable Eric Bana as the main enemy, the disgruntled Romulan Nero - proving that a credible, motivated bad guy can add a significant layer of believability to a genre story such as this.

The set-pieces come thick and fast. The melodramatic, exciting opening is one of the finest prologues I've had the pleasure to experience, sucking the audience in straight off the bat. It's also an introduction to Michael Giacchino's dynamic and vibrant score, which is a perfect example of a thoughtful, energetic soundtrack doing wonders and adding an extra layer of excitement to the action. The film then takes time to introduce us to the characters, particularly Spock and Kirk, which is a major benefit later on. When you know characters, it's much easier to care for their actions and problems as the film progresses. They're not exactly psychologically complex, but the reluctant friendship that inevitably blossoms between the two characters is endearingly intense and believable. The fact that there are so many laughs and breathless action sequences helps of course - the sequence where Kirk tries to persuade Captain Pike that a trap awaits is a breathless mixture of slapstick comedy and real intensity, with a fantastic action payoff. It's also an extremely playful film, most notably in an ending sequence in which the alternate dimension Spocks meet face-to-face, joyfully discarding the complex time-travel mumbo jumbo old Spock himself used to trick Kirk earlier on.

The only niggling problem I have with this film is that Kirk's assent up the ranks from academic probation to captain all seems a bit convenient. Of course, it's also the main thematic focus of the film, but it's not exactly believable. But here, why the hell am I complaining about believability in a film so absurd and over the top? It's not enough of an issue to get worked up about. This is a film just to relax and enjoy the hell out of. It's the one Hollywood film of the last few years which has a genuine sense of fun, the kind vintage Spielberg or even the first Pirate of the Caribbean film are famed for. Sometimes that's all you want, and it's something distressingly absent in action cinema a lot of the time, where even the dreadful Expendables is embarrassingly po-faced. Star Trek XI is enjoyable from explosive opening to epic conclusion, and shows a confident director at the top of his game. Bring on Super 8.

No comments:

Post a Comment