Friday, May 8, 2009

Star Trek

I have this friend who -- rightfully, I think -- fears and despises all things remade, reinvented and rejiggered. Too often, that path leads to dismal failure. Witness, please, every horror film made in the last, oh, three or four years -- they're all awful, unnecessary remakes of *better films*, lacking the original's style, wit and verve in every sense.

Star Trek itself has been the victim of the reimagining/remaking syndrome over the years, and just about every attempt to retool the creaky old vessel has been met with resounding, painful failure. "Next Generation" started good but ended up in the realm of new-age fol-de-rol. "Deep Space Nine" was nifty, but got bogged down with political metaphor and over-seriousness. The less said about "Voyager" the better, and "Enterprise" was only interesting to the geekiest of fangeeks. That's not even to mention the movies -- there's a few ("Khan," of course, and "Undiscovered Country" surprisingly) that still hold up ten, twenty, thirty years down the line, but the rest seem dated, corny, ironic, and at worst, extremely stupid.

That's because along the way over-intellectualizing nerds missed the point of what the show was actually about. "It's about complex geopolitical metaphor," they'd say, or "it's wonderful how in the future, everybody gets along." As a result, there were far too many flakey plots about Big Wars, or Deanna Troi's feelings or how sad it was that Data couldn't express emotion. Meh. The truth is much simpler: the original Star Trek, though it was most certainly awash with metaphor (usually silly ones -- the "Yangs" and the "Komes?" Oh, Yankees and Communists, I get it!), was about two things: the awesome characters (mostly, though not confined to, Kirk, Spock and McCoy) and whipass, plain-and-simple fun. The latter is what's been sorely missing from every Trek movie since forever -- did you have any fun with "Insurrection?" It was more like dental surgery than anything else.

Which is why J.J. Abrams' new Trek film is such a wonder. Despite the fact that his studio, Paramount, hasn't made a decent movie in two hundred years, and is well known for colossally missing the fucking point just about every effort out of the gate, he's managed to distill Trek down to its basic essence. We get the characters -- mostly, though not confined to, Kirk, Spock and McCoy -- and they are, for the first time since Khan, vital, interesting, alive and REAL. And most importantly, we get pure, unmitigated, smile-all-the-way-through-the-film FUN.

The main reason this film works so well is that Abrams took his god-damn sweet ol' time casting this sucker, making sure every single character was not only adequately represented, they were the best possible actor for the role. Which, thankfully, meant that stunt casting was chucked out the window (did anybody really want to see Matt Damon as Kirk? Me neither) and a youthful, vigorous cast of relative unknowns were put in place, all of which somehow managed to drill straight to the heart of each character.

The movie really belongs to two of 'em -- Chris Pine, who plays Kirk the way you've always wanted to see him, as a rules-are-for-pussies maverick that likes to bed green women, and Heroes' Zachary Quinto, who correctly plays Spock as a man in torment, stuck between his feelings and his people. The film's main arc throws the two, intially, into conflict, then into a sort of forced alliance that evolves into a friendship, and it feels, oddly, real -- we've all been there, no? At work or whatever? That person you hate at first but reluctantly have to admit does a damn good job and eventually becomes your friend? Every beat of this feels right and non-forced, and it's really the heart of the Trek films, that Kirk/Spock fanslash friendship.

Of course, the troika wouldn't be complete without the good Doctor Leonard "Bones" McCoy, and a youthful DeForest Kelley plays him marvelously. Wait -- I mean Lord of the Rings' Karl Urban, who freakin' channels De Kelley from the grave. Seriously. He's not just doing an SNL impression, either -- he clearly gets the character, but he looks and sounds so much like De that you'll positively swoon when, at a crucial moment, he bellows at Spock, "are you out of your Vulcan mind?" in that gritty southern accent. Trixi and I agreed: Star Trek II better have a hell of a lot more Bones in it.

The other actors are damn fine, too -- special mention must be made of Zoe Saldana's Uhura, who is a) properly gorgeous, b) totally strong, and c) is deservedly a larger part of the plot than she ever was in maybe the entire series. Simon Pegg plays Scotty, as has been mentioned elsewhere, as a Scottish Simon Pegg, which is pretty much what you want to see (if you like Simon Pegg, that is -- I love the guy, and he's hilarious here). John Cho's Sulu swordfights, which rules, and Anton Yelchin's youthful Chekov is the boy genius that Walter Koenig's was supposed to be but wasn't. And there's been mixed emotions on the web about Eric Bana's workingman's villain, Nero -- I dug him, and I liked his "Hello, there, hi" greeting to the bridge crew, it felt like a miner who'd gone off his nut, and that's about what he was supposed to be.

And was it fun? Holy crap, yeah. It was more fun than I remember ever having at the Star Trek Cinema, and that includes "Wrath of Khan" which was good and thrilling but such a downer in the end that it didn't really feel like the kind of pure, unmitigated fun the best episodes of the O.G. Series were. This one's no downer -- it's thrilling from the git-go, completely optimistic in the end, and never, ever dull, not even for a moment. Does the plot make sense? I mean, yeah, if you kind of let them doubletalk you about the time-travel-ness and just accept that such things are possible, the rest of it makes a linear kind of three-act sense, if you view it more as a movie about Kirk's ascendancy and Spock's self-actualization than a Plot About Big Ideas.

I mean, and much like "Spiderman" or "Iron Man," there's a lot of setup involved here -- I can't wait for #2, when we'll get to see Actual Captain Kirk and Actual First Officer Spock in their familiar roles and uniforms kicking ass against someone, but for now, the "origin story" actually works because Abrams never lets the film get bogged down in overexplanation or mawkishness or maudlinity or whatever -- and he never lets it get stupid, either. Any fears about how dumb "Baby Kirk" or "Baby Spock" might be can be erased by the young Spock's snide remark to his Vulcan classmates: "I imagine that you have a new batch of insults for me today," or by Cadet Kirk calmly eating an apple during the Kobayashi Maru test (spoiler: he cheats, and beats the system. Big surprise, eh?)

This could have gone so wrong. I mean, so many people worried that it could become "pretty people in space" or "Trek 90210," and it so easily could have, in the wrong hands. This could have been shallow, hollow and extremely stupid, a reboot designed to draw in the teens but completely alienating anybody who actually gave a shit about Trek in the last forty years. But somehow, magically, Abrams has not only pulled it off but has made an actual good movie for people who dig exciting summer popcorn action films, maybe the best one since "Raiders of the Lost Ark," honestly. Let go your fears. Join with me. Become one. Go check it out. You won't regret it for even a moment.