|Spock and Kirk re-imagined by J.J. Abrams.|
In 2009, J.J. Abrams did the impossible. He re-imagined one of the most iconic of science fiction universes for the blockbuster screen triumph STAR TREK. He took a huge risk in recasting the characters we had all grown up with and millions had a fierce allegiance to: Captain James T. Kirk, First Officer Spock, Chief Medical Officer Leonard McCoy and the others of the crew of the starship Enterprise. But not only did the old fans love his new TREK, thousands of new fans flocked to his banner.
This weekend Abrams sets himself an even greater challenge with the opening of STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, the second in his re-envisioned series. With this film he’s forced to develop the characters he merely introduced in his first outing; he has to create a story that is fresh and relevant to our time, but which uses elements of the original series and movies; and he still has to please his divided audience of old and new fans.
I’m happy—no, I’m ecstatic—to say he’s succeeded by a lightyear! STID has no shortage of pulse-pounding action, eye-popping special effects, beautiful space shots, cool unidentifiable technology and random aliens. In fact, there is enough of those things to keep any SF geek happy sorting them out for years. But the real beauty of this film is in the emotion it so willingly offers as a legitimate part of the story. The heart of STAR TREK has always been the relationships between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and secondarily between them and Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov. This film understands that and doesn’t shy away from it at crucial moments.
The genius of Abrams’ approach to the new TREK was in developing the alternate universe concept from the very beginning of the story in his first movie. That allows for differences in history and slight differences in personality, but allows us to see that Kirk, Spock and the others retain the same basic character in this new timeline. Their reactions to their new situations are the same—they’d give their lives for each other, even if the outward circumstances are reversed, for example.
But Kirk and Spock are younger in this universe, and they have some growing to do. The process is fascinating. They misunderstand and lose faith in one another, have flashes of insight about each other, come to rely on each other and eventually bond in ways only brothers-in-arms can know. In the original series, McCoy was much more a part of this process and this film misses that a bit, but there will be other opportunities in the future to make up for it, I’m sure.
That Abrams (and his co-writers, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelhof) let us see this character growth is an indication of the respect they have for the TREK franchise and its fans. Abrams has admitted he is NOT a TREK fan (he’s a STAR WARS fan, and, back in the day, TREK and WARS fans just didn’t get along), but he has at least been wise enough to pay homage to the original in his work. This film, in particular, is full of references to TOS (as one reviewer said, scattered like Easter eggs throughout for fans to find).
|Things look bad for our side: the Enterprise falls to Earth!|
Even the story is drawn from an iconic episode of TOS. Unlike many reviewers, I refuse to give away the “secret” of the plot or the identity of the villain. I’ll talk about that in next week’s post, when more folks will have had a chance to see the film. The “reveal” is made well into the film and provides a distinctly “aahh!” moment, so I won’t be the one to ruin it for you. The wonderful thing about it is the way Abrams and his co-writers braid the elements of the old story into the new one, twisting the events of the old timeline to fit this new, alternate universe. (And because this is a new universe, there can be no endless arguing about, “Well, that didn’t happen in the original series”.) Not surprisingly for the creator of such intricate storylines as Lost and Fringe, foreshadowing is used to great effect here, with random scenes coming back to take on meaning as things come together later in the film.
If I have one criticism, it would be of Benedict Cumberbatch, who underplays his villain almost to the point of blandness. Chris Pine’s Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock are formidable acting opponents, filling the screen with charisma. And their crew members—Karl Urban as McCoy (perfect!), Simon Pegg as Scotty (hilarious!), John Cho as Sulu (a captain in the making), Zoe Soldana as Uhura (saving the day, while giving Spock hell) Anton Yelchin as Chekov—are no slouches, either. You need some big teeth to chew the scenery with that lot. But more about that next week, too.
After the mixed reaction to Tom Cruise’s OBLIVION, and the fun, but brainless, IRONMAN 3, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS leads off what looks to be a terrific summer science fiction movie season with a bang. Go! Go twice! Pay extra for 3D if you can tolerate it, but don’t wait for this to shrink to the size of your home screen. It’s too much big fun in outer space. And meet me here next week to talk about who that bad guy really is and what he’s up to!