Star Trekkin’: Doin’ It With (Lens) Flare

He's no Shatner, but he'll do just Pine. Ahahaha?

I like to think that I walk that fine line between “watching Star Trek” and “being a Trekkie”. So while I may glean a great amount of enjoyment out of watching even the worst episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, you’re not likely to see me debating the transwarp capabilities of a new kind of Borg vessel; I might be nerdy, but I’m not quite at “full-scale USS Enterprise reproduction in my living room” levels of geekdom. Star Trek, basically, for all of its intricately detailed mythology and universe, is impossible to take seriously as straight science fiction. It’s just far too ludicrous. And I suspect that Gene Rodenberry knew this better than anyone – the original series was played with a wink-and-nod mentality that was nowhere to be found in any of the subsequent iterations: for all of Jean-Luc Picard’s brilliance, he was far drier and stiffer than Kirk’s testosterone-driven, adventure-seeking philanderer. And the Treks‘ tolerability generally works in inverse proportionality to their seriousness: the original series was bundles of carboardy fun; The Next Generation was less so, especially when Troi did her “I sense anger in the bellowing alien” schtick; Deep Space Nine and Voyager were variable – sometimes fun, sometimes unbearably solemn; and Enterprise was the most misguided, stupid, flappy prequel series since, well, the Star Wars prequels.

So when I heard that Ray-Jay (JJ) Abrams was in the director’s chair for the canon-resetting prequel-sequel not-your-father’s how’s-your-father Star Trek movie, I was less than enthused – Abrams being a high-calibre “cuss-magnet” as far as quality narrative goes. Cloverfield was an effective enough monster movie, in that it had a pretty cool monster, but it also featured a cast of repugnant 20-something idiots, all of whom you wished would die within the first ten minutes of the movie. Lost was, and continues to be, a mystifying success, marrying incoherent plot to a cast of unsympathetic skanks – you have to believe that anyone who’s still watching it does so out of a morbid need for an ending that would somehow give meaning to the countless hours they’ve sank into watching and dissecting every last minute of footage that exists. The only thing Abrams has been attached to that I’ve even remotely enjoyed has been Alias, and that was only until it changed from a nonsense spy drama into a nonsense family drama. Was there even the slightest hope that Abrams could make a Star Trek movie that wasn’t the most incredibly awful thing ever?

Dawson's Creek... in SPAAAAAACCEEEEE!!!

Turns out: yes. It’s an absolutely, unapologetically fantastic movie.

Oh, there’s plenty wrong with it. It’s hokum, obviously. It’s ridiculous, and it’s nonsensical, and it’s laden with the kind of pseudo-scientific impossibilities that would have made Robby The Robot develop a new “incredulity” sub-routine. Time-travel via blackholes, supernovas that threaten entire galaxies, and all kinds of big-worded chicanery combine to make for an incomprehensible storyline. Actors like Simon Pegg and Eric Banana are given very little to work with – Banana’s villain in particular is criminally under-developed. But none of that ever matters. What matters is that they’ve made a Star Trek movie for someone other than die-hard, Seven of Nine-fancying Trekkies.

But what’s also important is that they haven’t excluded the die-hard, Seven of Nine-fancying Trekkies. This is probably one of, if not the only Star Trek movie that fans can enjoy, without requiring about thirteen hours’ dedicated study of starcharts and timelines for non-fans to truly appreciate it. Forget the stupid, focus-group-tested tagline of “Not your father’s Star Trek“. Here’s a new, better tagline that they should have used, but now they can’t, and it’s mine, all mine: “It’s Star Trek, Jim, but not as we know it.”

So, as the noisy, misrepresentative trailers give away, this is Kirk, Spock, Bones and co when they were bright-eyed, bushy-tailed youngsters, out to prove themselves worthy of captaining a starship/avenge the deaths of millions/defeat the rogue tyrant before he does something with the something that ruins something else for someone. Look, I’m not going to go into the storyline – not for fear of spoilers, but because the storyline isn’t the least bit important. What is important is the establishment and likability of the principal cast, and this is accomplished with style.

Dawson's Creek... in SPPAAAA- oh, right.

Granted, it takes a while to accustom yourself to someone other than Shatner sitting in the Enterprise’s captain chair (although Kirk doesn’t inhabit the chair much during the movie anyway), but Chris Pine does a stellar (eh? eh?) job of taking over the role, and once he’s gone through Starfleet Academy, you believe in him as Kirk. Zachary Quinto’s Spock is, quite simply, uncanny in its resemblance to Leonard Nimoy. It’s almost disconcerting. Quinto imbues Spock with a touch more humanity (as opposed Vulcan-ness) than Nimoy did, as necessitated by the plot, and his kiss-off to the Vulcan council as he leaves to join Starfleet is wonderful. It’s not long before we accept that the Enterprise’s bridge isn’t filled with familar actors, but it is filled with the familiar characters.

And beyond that, it’s simply a brilliant, fun adventure movie. Particular highlights include Kirk’s valiant last stab at passing the Kobayashi Maru test, and his Indy Jones-esque run from the ice monsters on Delta Vega; or the knowing wink with which Abrams introduces the obligatory Redshirt cadet; or the giddy glee of seeing Kirk and Spock working together to infiltrate an enemy ship. It’s a Saturday evening matinee flick par excellence.

Some problems do niggle, but they’re more problems with the movie form it adheres to than the movie itself: Eric Banana is given far too little to do, and his character is fairly two-dimensional, even if he is interdimensional. For a solitary bad guy with a single mining ship at his command, he sure manages to do a lot of damage to ordinance-heavy Starfleet space. Scotty is reduced to comic relief (albeit genuinely funny comic relief) and Uhura’s romantic dalliance with a certain bridge officer never really convinces. And the occasional swearing seems pointlessly “young adult”.

But it’s all forgiven, every last bit of it, the minute you see him on screen. Leonard Nimoy returns to the role that made him a household name years after he left it behind, and he does it with such conviction and joy that you manage to look past its obvious “passing the torch” connotations, and just look at it as an excellent cherry atop an already tasty sci-fi cake. Even better, the gravitas he effortlessly provides doesn’t come at the expense of the fun: he immediately becomes part of the warpspeed thrill-ride that’s short on brains but big on fun. (And despite my feelings previous to seeing the movie, I can now say that casting Shatner in the movie in any way would have been a mistake – it would have pushed things slightly too far towards parody.)

I still would, dammit.

There’s so much to praise. The immaculate, never-faltering pace; Bruce Greenwood’s Captain Pike (as played by a clean-cut Billy Bob Thornton); the entire Starfleet Academy sequence, pitched somewhere between Starship Troopers and a Star Wars spoof; the pretty much flawless casting decisions; the little Ewok-cum-Oompa-Loompa guy on Delta Vega… It’s all gold. It’s as much fun I’ve had at the cinema since National Treasure, and it’s that kind of old-fashioned, rollicking, silly adventure – it’s the first movie that’s actually had me pumping my fist (matron) in the theatre.

Go see it. No reservations, no excuses: I don’t care if you’ve never seen an episode of Star Trek, or if you’ve seen every last bit of every series. Even if you don’t enjoy it as much as some, I can all but guarantee you won’t regret seeing it – it’s a visual triumph (save for the excessive, seizure-inducing lens flare), and ironically, the least “Star Trek” Star Trek has been since, well, Star Trek.

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