Star Trek

May, 2009, Thriller

What’s big, noisy and middle-aged? The Star Trek franchise, nearly done to death by its various television and film incarnations and now pulled out of mothballs for another go at the box-office. In this “prequel”, all the characters found in the original version, (which debuted in 1966) are now mere cadets so the storyline can run them through their initial training before plunking them on the star ship Enterprise “to go where no man has gone before”…

Despite the continuing cross-generational appeal of this series and the near hysteria this version of the franchise has produced, (including unusually press coverage capped by Newsweek’s breathless cover story entitled “What Star Trek has taught us”) I’ve always been surprised that this premise, with its liberal/humanist values, plays so well in a society as religiously conservative as ours. Given that about 1/3rd of Americans still hold to a literal view of the Bible and remain suspicious of science in general and evolution in particular, why hasn’t the Star Trek saga produced the kind of religious opposition which seems to greet anything that undercuts creationism? Shouldn’t fundamentalists find Star Trek’s open-minded acceptance of alien cultures and religious pluralism a sacrilegious contradiction? Were Adam and Eve the progenitors of Vulcans and Klingons as well as Homo Sapiens?  

I must confess to being put off by the often pompous moralizing  found in the scripts of the original series…too often, Captain Kirk and Spock sound as though they’re issuing moral instruction straight from the Vatican…but in this jazzed-up episode, ethical hectoring gets shouldered aside by the type of macho pyrotechnics usually found in the summer’s opening blockbuster. Director J.J. Abrams (Mission Impossible III and much series television) gathers together a carload of fresh young thespians, surrounds them with spectacular sets and then launches them through one dizzying action sequence after another in tracing the formation of the high-minded esprit de corps for which the crew of The Enterprise has been known for over 4 decades. In the course of the movie’s lengthy running time, we experience the death of Captain Kirk’s father, the birth of Kirk himself, his rebellious youth and early bonding with Spock. After the destruction of a planet or two, (by dropping “red stuff” into a gigantic holes created by a huge drill bit suspended in space) the plot produces the inevitable climatic battle scene after which, (thanks to the plot’s deployment of an alternative universes and various inter-planetary time warps) Spock holds an interview with himself as an old man, a stratagem that permits the director to sneak in a cadaverous Leonard Nimoy to reprise the original Spock in a bit of cinematic déjà vu.

There’s much less focus on the moral implications of the characters’ actions here than in the original series; this one’s all about blood, thunder and daring-do, as befits the budget involved and the need to draw scads of kids to the nation’s ticket windows. On that score, Star Trek certainly delivers; the special effects are genuinely impressive, the costumes suitably exotic and the space craft’s functional innards possess a mechanical look that’s commendably authentic. But the results can’t match the impact of something as truly original the initial installment of Star Wars; nothing here will strike viewer as fresh or innovative. With all the dollars spent and technical wizardry deployed, this Star Treks remains an expensive exercise in remodeling something not all that inventive in the first place.

Veteran actors Bruce Greenwood, Ben Cross, Eric Bana and Winona Ryder are sprinkled among the 20-somethings who play the Enterprise’s crew, providing an occasional dose of gravitas to the proceedings and British comic Simon Pegg steals every scene he’s in as Scotty, the starship’s chief mechanic. Among the younger members of the cast, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, (as Kirk and Spock) bring some zip to their roles but as the final credits blanket the screen, it’s quite apparent that Abrams and his hugely competent technical support team have spent a great deal of time and money producing just another excuse to enjoy a bag of popcorn and some JuJu fruits while sitting in the dark.

The Verdict? Despite all the pre-release hype, this one’s a typical piece of thunderous summer escapism. Unless you have a particular fondness for Spock’s signature hand gesture of farewell, (or a desire to see him finally engage in some serious lip-suction with a curvaceous female crew member) you can safely sit this one out.

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