Thursday, May 7, 2009

'Star Trek' hurtles us back to the future

Ever a source of unintended irony, Hollywood once again has launched its search for new frontiers by looking backward. Case in point: "Star Trek," the 2009 edition from director J.J. Abrams, the wunderkind who helped create the "Lost" series on TV and who also brought significant wallop to "Mission: Impossible III."

Seeking to tell us how the original "Star Trek" crew entered the warp speeds of pop culture, Abrams makes the clock work for him. His "origins" story may be spiffier looking than anything we associate with early Star Trek; it may lack the dorm-room philosophizing we once craved from the series; and the actors don't all seem like possible predecessors to the characters we've long associated with the original, which ran on television from 1966 to 1969. But the movie works surprising well, extending what has been reprised on film and in subsequent television incarnations that reach into generations that I never even started tracking.

A click or three short of perfection, "Star Trek" manages to get the summer season off to a better start than "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Its story is swifter and the characters more engaging than those in "X-Men," and it's clear that Abrams has approached the project with an admirable mixture of respect and re-inventive spirit. I'm not sure the story -- how Capt. James Tiberius Kirk takes over the helm of the Enterprise -- is quite as strong as it might have been, but Abrams wisely glosses over confusion and gaps by moving as quickly as possible, and by building a solid base from which these ongoing -- and they will be -- characters can evolve or, perhaps more accurately, re-evolve.

The best discovery here may be Chris Pine, who portrays Kirk as a young man, a motorcycle-riding rebel whose father was killed in a clash with a Romulan vessel. Young James grows up in Iowa to be a butt-kicking, beer-drinking gold ole-teen with an aptitude for speed. He needs saving. Enter Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), a Starfleet commander who suggests that James swap bar brawling for a career of space exploration with the United Federation of Planets.

Kirk signs up, heads for the academy and is off and running -- straight into Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), as it turns out. The filmmakers imagine the young Spock, already an important Starfleet officer, to be deeply wary of Kirk's reliance on instinct, so much so that at one point he throws him off a ship, leaving the series' future hero to fend for himself on an ice-covered planet. Meanwhile, Spock himself is riven; he's constantly negotiating a tug of war between his Vulcan and human sides. To feel or not to feel? That's Spock's question, and the script seldom lets it rest.

Like guests at an eagerly awaited party, the rest of the crew receives proper introductions, as well. John Cho signs on as Sulu; Karl Urban assays Leonard "Bones" McCoy; Zoe Saldana brings Uhura back to life, and Anton Yelchin does the same for Checkov. Mr. Scott, a winning Simon Pegg, is introduced later.

Unless you live in some alternate universe, you know by now that Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance as an older Spock. It's great to see him even if this time-travel element of the script might be its weakest link. And, of course, there's a villain. Eric Bana plays Nero. We know he's the villain because he's covered himself with facial tattoos and because he's out for revenge, blaming Spock for the fate of his vanquished planet. Credit Bana with underplaying his role, a nice idea in a movie that has no shortage of theatrical bombast.

If you're looking for action, "Star Trek" shouldn't disappoint. There are leaps off tall objects, dizzying flights through space and pitched battles. The Romulan space ship -- which looks like something grown under the sea -- proves suitably ominous, a floating mass of tentacles that resembles some sort of intergalactic bottom-feeder.

Acting? Only two roles really count: Pine captures Kirk's youthful arrogance and his growing maturity, some of which he may have gleaned from William Shatner's original portrayal. I thought that Quinto lacked the spectral aloofness of the older Spock, but perhaps he'll grow into it. The rest are fine, although Urban's "Bones" doesn't show much of the crust that distinguished DeForest Kelley's trademark portrayal. And it was unclear to me why Winona Ryder, who may be able to make a new career out of not looking like herself, was cast as Spock's mom.

I make these as personal observations that don't necessarily matter much, but which are part of the fun of watching a movie such as "Star Trek." This is one time when the game of compare-and-contrast isn't strong enough to be distracting. Besides, it offers enough fodder to set off lively debates among aficionados. About those Trekkies. Paramount seems to be positioning "Star Trek" in that part of market space known as "crossover;" it's supposed to satisfy old hands while making a new generation of friends. I suppose we'll have to wait official word from the blogosphere or wherever it is that Trekkies congregate these days before knowing whether Paramount has reeled all the old hands on board.

Trekkies aside, "Star Trek" does its job. It relaunches the series, gives a sizable collection of its actors the opportunity to earn paychecks in the years to come and proves once again that for Hollywood, space is not the final frontier. It's television. And, yes, that means it's almost always behind the times, but we'll leave that story for another day.

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