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An alternate Trek, posted by Enrique G

Having not posted in a while, and seeing Sam’s lukewarm recommendation of the new Trek, I thought I needed to break the silence and chime in with some thoughts, having now taken in the film twice.

It is a bit of a departure for me to dip my toes in the waters on this franchise.  Like Sam, I am not and never really have been a Trekkie/Trekkor of any sort.  I enjoyed the early films with the original cast, and had been known to enjoy an episode of “Next Generation” or two, though it wasn’t a show I actively sought out to watch on my own.  Because on my seemingly limitless capacity for useless bits of film trivia, I knew a fair bit of the more common touchstone points of Trek canon, though I never felt compelled to argue them in any way.  There just wasn’t  personal investment in the series for me.

Having little to no real TV interests, I’ve not really been familiar with anything JJ Abrams has done on the small screen.  I know of “Lost”, “Alias” and “Felicity” but can honestly say I’ve never seen a single episode, or even really a part of one.  My entire knowledge and appreciation of what Abrams has done is limited to Cloverfield, a film I was dying to see before release and had zero interest in revisiting afterwards.  The POV monster movie struck me as all style, no substance.  With that in mind, I shuddered at the potential for how seriously awful his reboot of the Trek franchise could have been.

Given that floor for where I think the movie could have gone, I imagine that you have to take my effusive enjoyment for the film with a grain of salt.  After all, when the bar has been set so low to begin with, everything has to look great by comparison, right?  But I feel like it was fundamentally something more involved than that, an element to the film that elevated my enjoyment of the movie to a level maybe beyond an big studio film I’ve seen in the last couple of years, save for The Dark Knight.  And no one is more surprised about what was the ultimate hook that drew me in more than me, given the things I hated most about Cloverfield.

JJ Abrams, along with screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman took characters I thought I knew everything about and made me seriously look at them in a completely different light.  Even more shockingly, he made me give a damn about them.

Sam hits on only a couple of things that really make the film work.  There is a fair bit of fan service for the hardcore fan base done in ways both subtle and not.  Whether it’s the familiar lines (“Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a ____” mad libs) or the little character details that may seem random to someone who’s not familiar with the original series but gave the old characters some flair (Sulu not just still having the familiarity with fencing but actually kicking some ass with a blade).

Kirk being on the worst end of some beatdowns is satisfying if only because it feels more realistic in how it plays.  It’s not an accident that Harold & Kumar’s John Cho looks more accomplished in a fight than Chris Pine’s Kirk.  Sulu is a trained swordsman.  Kirk starts bar brawls.  Brute force can only do so much, less when you’re physically less gifted than brothers from other planets.  And Pegg is spot-on as Montgomery Scott, from the attitude to the impeccable burr that flavors his lines.

But the best character in this movie to me wasn’t Scottie, Kirk or Spock.  Hands down, it has to be Karl Urban’s performance as Leonard “Bones” McCoy.

Maybe it’s just me, but Bones always wound up being sort of an afterthought when lined up against the Kirk/Spock dichotomy in the old series.  Yeah, he got some good lines every now and again, but beyond more developed comic relief than Chekov, Bones was an afterthought, particularly as the original cast degenerated into a running performance of Grumpy Old Starfleet Men.

Urban’s turn as Bones in this Trek still has the cheesy joke lines about what he is and what he isn’t.  But what he also gets to be is the perfect midway point between Spock’s cold, calculating logic and Kirk’s devil may care, take on the universe arrogance.  He has to have the textbook discipline of Spock to serve well as the ship’s chief medical officer, but he also has to occasionally give way to the emotional turbulence that Kirk lets run roughshod in order to be true to his oath as a doctor when making some of the tough decisions.  And the two roles are separate, though there’s considerable overlap involved.  Kirk and Spock may never directly heed the things Bones counsels them on, but he at least gets them pointed in the right direction enough that they can find their way there own their own terms.

Sam has it completely wrong in his take on Spock, I have to say.  You have an alien being who has an intellect with a capacity that far exceeds anything human minds can conceive of, and can (for the most part)  completely divorce himself of any emotional distractions that would otherwise potentially impede his judgment.  Of course he might seem like a douche to some.  That happens when you happen to be right more often than not by several orders of magnitude.  It is Spock’s ability to rise above it that sets him apart.  Much like my ability to discern Lady in the Water’s flaws in comparison to Sam and Derek’s troglodytic love for it.

(Oh come on, if you thought I wasn’t going to lob that particular spear every so often, you really don’t know me.)

In all seriousness, though, what makes Quinto’s turn as Spock so much more than Nimoy’s work early in the series and the first few films is a script that really attempts to let him show more of his human heritage than the series or the films ever did.  There’s a brilliant shot about 2/3 of the way in the film, when Spock has been laid low by hubris when Uhura (Zoe Saldana) goes to comfort him and he gives in to the comfort for just a second before stiffening up. 

In that moment, Uhura represents not just something that Spock wants, but also the very thing that’s led to his fall in the moments intervening.  When he walks away wordlessly, and she accepts that with simple understanding, so much more is communicated emotionally in that moment than any overwrought chunk of dialog could have.  It’s a really masterful filmmaking moment, something I don’t know the franchise has had since maybe Robert Wise helmed the first Star Trek film. 

Never mind what my expectations were going into the movie, that was such a genuine gem of a moment in this film I found myself emotionally invested in it.  Even moreso because it feels perfectly natural in the way the crew’s dynamic has been laid out in everything that went before.  The Enterprise crew always played out as a family dynamic in most of its iterations, even if that dynamic got more ludicrous as the franchise aged less than gracefully.

And in this new revitalized family, there has to be the one golden child, who exhibits a sense of entitlement, borne as much from place and privilege as much as from any talent the individual may have.  Shatner’s Kirk had that in excess in the days of the series, becoming a caricature of the character as the franchise wore on.  There’s no question that Christopher Pine as the new Kirk can convey that arrogance effectively.  A conversation I had with a friend who enjoyed the movie as much as I did afterwards went something along these lines: 

Her: Kirk was a serious douche.

Me: Well duh, he’s 25, he thinks he’s invincible and has the arrogance to prove it.

Her: Were you a douche like that at 25?

Me: …

Me: Have you spoken to my ex-wife?  God, the stories she’d tell you.

It’s true.  In your 20s, you may not have the first clue what the hell it is you’re going to do with your life, but if you have any natural talent, then by God you’re going to redefine whatever it is you do well.  Even if that repertoire is limited to what said ex-wife referred to as the East Texas triumvirate of drinking, fighting and fucking, then you will be the greatest drunk, fiercest fighter or most skilled lover anyone has ever seen.

And that’s what Pine’s Kirk is.  He stumbles into making positive things happen by accident more than half the time.  But dammit, he will make something happen.  There’s a brilliant stunt scene with Kirk and Sulu when Kirk just throws himself literally into a death defying situation, convinced he can save the day.  It’s a fantastic scene that really gets at what makes Kirk Kirk, more so than any scenery chewing Shatner could ever do.  And as a foil to Spock’s deliberate nature, the contrast is great great fun.

All of which is good, because the screenplay itself functions as little more than a two hour plot device to reacquaint us with familiar figures.  Eric Bana’s Romulan villain Nero is all glower and snarl, but largely forgettable.  The stakes presented that pose the threat to the Federation are pretty standard potboiler fare, similar to Wrath of Khan but more destructive.  And the twists that allow for Abrams to essentially rewrite canon are way too convenient on a number of levels, as is how the events all fit so neatly together.

But in the end, it’s not any more ridiculous than any previous Star Trek movie, and the characters are significantly more fun.  It actually plays like a straight up action movie, never taking itself too seriously.  It’s funny, but in not posting this until now, I got to see Sam’s follow up observation in the comments about how it wasn’t as great as seeing The Matrix the first time.  And if we’re measuring it purely by the “Oh wow!” reaction I had in the moments immediately after seeing it the first time, I’d probably have to say the same thing. 

But it’s how the movie will age where I think Abrams’ Trek is going to stand the test of time.  The pretentious tone of Matrix and its dialogue feels awfully cheesy just ten years after the fact, and especially in light of how full of themselves The Wachowskis got from that success and what they tried to do with the sequels.  As pulp sci-fi, Matrix seemed to forget what made it what it was.  By contrast, Abrams’ Trek is B-movie scripting with A-movie production value and some potential for an A+ cast.  To open up the summer film season, there’s really nothing more you can ask for.