Action-packed reboot of the beloved franchise boldly comes to DVD and Blu-Ray this week.
One of the biggest hits of last summer’s movie season – and a giant cause for relief among the franchise’s devoted fans – J.J. Abram’s (Lost, Mission: Impossible 3) re-energizing take on the Star Trek mythology arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray this week in a variety of single and multiple disc editions. It’s a hell of an action movie, and though explicit comparisons to rival franchise Star Wars aren’t entirely fair, this new Trek has the same sense of dizzying momentum. Maybe too much momentum, and possibly too much action for its own good.
The Star Trek TV series and films have never preoccupied themselves with stunts and pyrotechnics, often proudly wearing their cerebral ambitions on their form-fitting sleeves. While Abrams and company have jettisoned such a restrained attitude in favor of adventure, the new film’s bravado often sometimes drags it down or lets it skip over important plot clarification. Also noticeably missing is the Utopian optimism that, at its best, let the original series and its various children transcend their budgets as well as the usual pitfalls endemic to episodic science fiction.
The story’s basics are familiar but made vividly fresh by a crisp production design as well as Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s taut script. Centuries into the future, young James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, Bottle Shock) spends his childhood near the Iowa shipyards that construct massive starships used by the United Federation of Planets to bring stability to the galaxy. An orphan whose father died saving the U.S.S. Kelvin from an attack by the belligerent alien Romulans, young Kirk is recruited into Starfleet by veteran officer Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood, The Sweet Hereafter) on the strength of his natural aptitude and his father’s heroic legacy.
Jump ahead three years and Kirk has breezed through San Francisco’s Starfleet Academy, even rigging a no-win mission simulation test (which veteran Trek fans will recognize as the Kobayashi Maru from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan) in his favor. A disciplinary hearing, spearheaded by Academy instructor Spock (Zachary Quinto), is interrupted by a distress signal from Spock’s home planet of Vulcan. With the rest of Starfleet’s armada preoccupied elsewhere, it’s up to the cadets to respond in seven brand new starships including the venerable U.S.S. Enterprise. The Romulan craft that destroyed the Kelvin has returned again, and with help from his friend “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban, The Bourne Supremacy) Kirk stows away beneath Captain Pike’s notice to help out.
The action that follows includes time travel, black holes, the destruction of planets, parachuting from low-Earth orbit, and swashbuckling sword fights. It often seems as if frequent Abrams collaborators Orci and Kurtzman threw everything they could devise into the chain-of-set-pieces script, leaving no idea discarded. For the most part that damn-the-torpedoes strategy works. Other times, including a tedious man vs. monster chase sequence on an ice moon (itself too derivative by half of The Empire Strikes Back), all that action instead feels superfluous and distracting from the main story thread.
And it’s a very linear thread. One thing happens and then another, each sequence building on the one before rather than happening from circumstance. Abrams et. al. have a lot to accomplish in the film’s two hours, yet despite the diversions, repetitious stunts and sometimes glaring plot holes the story makes sense without seeming simplistic; it’s easy to see where everything might have dissolved into chaos instead. The stakes, thanks to the Romulan commander Nero (Eric Bana, Munich), are demonstrably high enough that the rapid pitch continuously seems justified. Add that to Kirk and company’s relative inexperience and you feel justified in believing the danger.
What’s missing most is backstory, and context. We are told that the Federation is a noble cause but not of its origins, or why Earth and other alien worlds remain devoted to its purpose. The time-travel elements are explained but not developed, so that depending on your familiarity with that trope’s mental contortions the ensuring plot details will seem opaque at best and frustrating at worst. Kirk’s childhood is given only the barest amount of explanation, likewise the motivations of bad guy Nero or the Romulans in general. Extant Trek continuity is apparently filled with details on almost all of the above (we’ve just scratched the surface ourselves), so there was no shortage of source material from which to draw. Maybe Abrams and company have deferred such embellishments until the already-announced sequel? Whatever the case, the story needed greater depth to bring the film’s setting into a completely coherent focus.
Luckily the cast is up to the script’s ambitious challenges. Pine, given the task of bringing the famously pre-politically correct Kirk to the modern age, finds his character not in the swagger but rather in the relentless self-confidence that made William Shatner’s Kirk legendary. Quinto, a talented actor not given much to do on Heroes anymore except beckon or arch his formidable eyebrows, builds Spock from barely restrained and (oddly enough) seething emotion. Urban is underused as the crusty Dr. McCoy, as is Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz) as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott. Playing the heavy, Bana makes the most of a perfunctory role. In origin movies like this it’s enough for the villain to simply be menacing, but thanks again to impeccable costuming and production design a large part of that work is already accomplished. Still, he makes the most of each line of dialogue allowed him.
Speaking of design, the new Enterprise vessel looks great most of the time. This latest interpretation of the classic shape is sleek and detailed, keeping the recognizable form while incorporating new elements including a dynamic new electrical effect to the warp nacelles. The bridge is a swirl of translucent display screens and fluorescent lights, selling the movie’s futuristic setting all by itself. Less impressive, unfortunately, are a generic-looking medical bay and an engineering section that’s exactly as anonymous as any petrochemical refinery. For such a classic and famous ship you’d expect a bold new vision of its engine room to be just as impressive and well-thought out. It’s something to consider as Abrams and his group boldly go into plans for the sequel.
- Michael Kabel
(Note: An earlier version of this review appeared for the film’s theatrical release.)