Vulcan’s Peak

Movie review: Star Trek
(or, What’s old is new again)

May 8, 2009 2:43 pm

startrek-poster Pug and I went to see the new Star Trek movie last night, and I am declaring it a Good One.

And I’d say the Trek community was overdue for a Good One, so thank you, Great Bird of the Galaxy.

My biggest worry about this film was that the characters would seem like strangers.  That it wouldn’t feel like Star Trek and that the whole effect would be laughable.  But while there were a few moments when my suspension of disbelief was stretched a little far (space diving?  magic unfolding sword?), on the whole, I couldn’t be more pleased.

All our old friends were recognizable, despite having new faces, and they acted and spoke the way one expected them to.  Kirk is a reckless adventurer.  Spock is logical, conflicted, and is quickly developing a martyr complex.  McCoy doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with space travel.  And so forth.  The instant – but not unconditional – bond between Kirk and McCoy worked, and the gradual development of their relationship with Spock unfolded well.  None of it, mind you, quite the way I pictured it, but it worked and was consistent with the characters, and I liked it.

And I always love it when the other recurring characters get to come out of the shadows a bit.  Uhura got to show her chops at xenolinguistics.  Chekov has apparently become a boy genius – not too much of a stretch, since in the original series, he sometimes fills in for Spock at the science station.  (Although… I do want to know what a seventeen-year-old who isn’t Wesley Crusher is doing on the bridge of a starship.)  And Simon Pegg’s Scotty was a lot of fun, though I had trouble looking at him and thinking “Scotty” instead of “Simon Pegg.”

Some of the accents were a little… interesting.  Simon Pegg and Anton Yelchin probably had more authentic accents as Scotty and Chekov than their predecessors ever did, and though Chekov’s was a little strong, I thought the effect was charming.  McCoy’s accent seemed to come and go and never sounded quite right to me, but given that Karl Urban is a New Zealander, and was otherwise wonderful, I’m willing to give that a pass.

For those who would prefer to avoid spoilers, I’ll hide everything else behind the cut, but I do recommend reviews of the film from NPR and the New York Times, neither of which give away anything you won’t have gleaned from the trailers already.


Hie thee away spoiler-phobes, ’cause here we go.

In every interview I’ve read with the writers of this film, they’ve been coy about whether to call the movie a “reboot” of the franchise or a “prequel” or what, and now that I’ve seen it, I understand.  It’s neither.  I think what the movie does is to take the original timeline, acknowledge it (through the presence of Nimoy’s Spock), and then present a time travel story in which – shocker here – the aim is not to “fix” the timeline back into what it was before.  The aim is merely to keep the universe in recognizable condition and save as many lives as possible.  So it’s the same Star Trek, but not quite.  When Russell T. Davies brought back Doctor Who in 2005, his twist was that the Doctor now seems to be the last of his people.  J.J. Abrahms has brought back Star Trek, but has wiped out the planet Vulcan, and Amanda Grayson along with it.  New dynamics and new storytelling possibilities are ready to unfold.

So TOS episode “Journey to Babel” couldn’t happen in this universe – no Amanda (!!!), and no 18-year quarrel between Spock and Sarek.  “Balance of Terror,” which first introduced the Romulans, and in which it was a shock to find that they look like Vulcans, is also pretty much kaput.  But in a meta storytelling sense, who would want them to re-do all the old stories?  They all happened – they’re what made Nimoy’s Spock the man he is – we had no indication that changing his past was changing his memories.  They happened, and there’s room for more stories.  That’s good enough for me.

And it’s not that canon and continuity have been thrown out.  Kirk is still attracted to Orion chicks.  Sulu is the man you want in a sword fight.  Of course the guy unlucky enough to space jump in a red suit is the one who doesn’t come back.  Spock quotes Sherlock Holmes, Pike ends up in a wheelchair (though mercifully without becoming a quadriplegic), and all the familiar catchphrases are here, from “I’m a doctor” to “The engines canna take any more!” to “Set your phasers on stun” to “Fascinating.”

Happily, Abrahms and his team have added to the mythology of Star Trek as well as taking away.  It’s eminently fitting for Kirk, who never seems to feel comfortable except in space, to have been born in a shuttlepod, in the midst of the sort of space battle that will come to define his career.  And Spock, who, under the effects of a space virus in “The Naked Time,” wept for his mother, who had a son who could never say he loved her – what was the final straw that led young Spock to pummel the other boy?  Insulting his mother.  And just as we were presented with – have always been presented with – a Kirk and a Spock who are ying and yang, I loved seeing the contrast between the young conflicted Spock and the older Spock who has learned how to live in his skin.

And despite my distress over the fate of planet Vulcan and Amanda Grayson, they got the Vulcans right.  We heard about the control and mastery of emotion, not the absence or purging of it, and we were reminded that they do this in the first place because they know as a people how dangerous their strong emotions have been to them in the long-ago past.  And loss has clearly mellowed Sarek with a quickness:  his quarrel with Spock has either ended earlier in this universe, or it never happened.  I wasn’t crazy about Ben Cross as Sarek – I thought he didn’t have the gravitas Mark Leonard used to convey – but I did think the final scene between Spock and Sarek was lovely.  Controlling emotions never means one doesn’t have them.

Speaking of love, the relationship between Spock and Uhura was a little… weird.  I feel like I shouldn’t be okay with it, but  I think I mostly am.  Mostly, I’m vaguely shocked by the implication that Spock was breaking the usual taboo (and I assume such a rule would be in place at the Academy) about relationships between an instructor and a pupil.  But I’m also more than a little amused that Uhura chose Spock over Kirk (not an uncommon indication of being a geek girl).

It’s not a perfect movie.  There’s plenty of room for nitpicks.  I want to know why McCoy seemed to spend the same three years at Starfleet Academy that Kirk did – clearly, he had already gone to medical school, so was officer training taking three years?  (And if not, why was he still in the red cadet’s uniform?)  Pug wasn’t happy with the portrayal of the science of black holes.  If you want to find all the little holes and faults, you won’t be disappointed.  But I was pleased enough by the tone and feel of the movie, and happy enough that they got the characters right, that I’m willing to handwave some of the details.

The writing was good and the cast were note perfect.  I want them to go make sequels.  Or better yet, a new TV show.  Now, please?

12 Responses to “Movie review: Star Trek
(or, What’s old is new again)”

Tae wrote a comment on May 8, 2009

I’m more inclined to give it a chance now that I keep hearing good reviews- and from the geek sector. Especially now knowing you approve, I’m willing to give it a shot. :) I’ll have to prod Gremlin into seeing it next weekend. Or possibly the parentals.

Odette wrote a comment on May 8, 2009

Honored to be your litmus test, hon. ;)

JC wrote a comment on May 9, 2009

I liked Trek enough when I was younger, but I was always more of a Star Wars fan. This movie, though, feels like the Star Trek movie I’ve been waiting for (and I saw all of the old Trek movies). The new Star Wars movies were, excuse me, complete disasters. Lucas managed to ruin the Star Wars universe for me. Abrams, on the other hand, reinvented the Trek universe for me. I’m way more interested now in seeing what comes next out of Star Trek; Star Wars, I couldn’t care less about.

I think this is the biggest success of the film. It’s going to bring in tons of new fans.

Odette wrote a comment on May 9, 2009

I agree completely about the utter failure of the Star Wars prequels. I almost drew a parallel to the big fight between Anakin and Obi Wan in Episode III. It had been alluded to and we’d had all those years to imagine this fight over a volcano and Anakin’s fall… and I know I felt that what we got on screen just wasn’t satisfying at all.

The reason it doesn’t quite work as a parallel is that with Trek, there wasn’t a specific event that we were picturing; we were just left to imagine how everyone met each other in a general sort of way. I think I assumed that Kirk and Spock probably took a while to figure each other out and warm up to each other, but Abrahms had plenty of vagueness — and happily, he was able to use it to good advantage.

I do love a few of the old Trek movies (2, 4, and 6), but there is something awfully fun about having a cast who are full of youth and vigor!

P.S. If any of my regular readers are confused: the above poster isn’t the JC who is my husband; it’s another friend with the same initials.

Tae wrote a comment on May 11, 2009

I grew up on both equally- although the more ambigiousness gray of morality in Star Wars I find more satisfying than Trek verse.

I think possibly, no offense to Roddenberry- but the fact that he and his wife have both left for the final frontier may have given that room that Abrahams needed to play. I think Lucas is too close to his universe and a little too controlling. Seeing things through fresh eyes can help (as long as those fresh eyes don’t think themselves better simply for being ‘young and hip!’)

But I will probably babble more upon seeing the movie. ;)

Odette wrote a comment on May 12, 2009

God, yes. I don’t expect anything in the Star Wars universe to be worth watching until someone wrests control away from Lucas. (Again…)

I look forward to your babble!

Carmen wrote a comment on May 16, 2009

Whoops, I don’t know why I didn’t come to check here! D:

Last Sunday a bunch of us from work trekked down to Orlando to see it in IMAX! It was excellent. Then I saw it again here this week, and I want to watch it a third time. :D

All I wanted to see was the McCoy-Kirk-(Spock) relationship, and it delivered everything I hoped for. It’s always been a character-driven story, to me.

There were also dozens of nods to the original series, from the senseless death of the redshirt, to the tribble (watch for it!), to Chekov’s incorrect Russian accent (though one *could* argue that it’s an overcorrection issue, which you do see in some native Russians speaking English as a second language…). Half the audience kept roaring with laughter and confusing the rest of the audience. XD

I also LOVED the cinematography. I know that not everyone is keen on the “Star Trek: Lens Flare Edition”, but I really enjoyed it. It was lovely to watch.

Odette wrote a comment on May 16, 2009

Whee! I want to go see it again, too.

Re: Chekov’s accent, you might be amused by what the actor has to say about it.

Carmen wrote a comment on May 16, 2009

Haha, thanks for that link. You can bet I spent an obsessed hour or three last week looking for discussion boards with people having rather more working knowledge than I do of Slavs speaking English, to make it “okay” in my mind. It turns out that speakers of languages with either [v] or [w] but not both do sometimes overcorrect when speaking a language that has both, as they can have trouble telling *which* sound is supposed to appear in the word. “Willage” according to two accounts is fairly common among Russians (and apparently some Germans).

Additionally, apparently Lithuanian (a Baltic language, not Slavic, but still..) has [w] and not [v], and Walter Koenig’s parents were Lithuanian-Jewish. If Koenig modeled his accent off listening to his parents and other Lithuanians speak English, and if they constantly used the [w] that they were familiar with, I would find that a plausible explanation.

:D (The discussion that put me most at ease is at http://volokh.com/posts/1242082715.shtml . When are you going to give us a preview function so I can check my html? :3 )

Tae wrote a comment on May 17, 2009

Welll…..I still love the original cast better. If I hadn’t known anything about them prior to watching the new one, I’d be fine I think. I wasn’t overly disappointed. The clearest difference between the two casts- watching Old Spock and New Spock together. There’s a gravitas and, I hate to say it, magic to Nimoy. Wisdom even. And Spock daddy I hated. Bleh.

And my favorite character by far was Scotty, followed by Bones (sort of…definitely not Kelly but that scene with him going “I can fix that!” cracked me the hell up).

Did not like the Uhura/Spock thing. Was weird for me but I can see how they could want to toss things around.

So overall- not too bad but still not the originals for me. ;)

Elf wrote a comment on June 28, 2009

I is late, I fail to check blogs. I’m not really attached to TOS (or any other of the Trek franchises), so the movie didn’t fail me on a fannish scale. It just was moments of really bad science (you can’t even follow your own bad science continuity! A planet blows up with no time to save anyone, but you get ten minutes to taunt the Romulan? Seriously?) and the odd interpersonal comment or two that left me from going ‘that was a super-fun movie.’

I’d've been more okay with the Spock/Uhura thing if she hadn’t jumped his nonresponsive bones in an elevator directly after his planet exploded. (It creeped me out so much.) I can understand wanting to give him a hug of sympathy. Patting him down with kisses? Not so much. (The make out on the teleporter pad though? I was totally down with that. Especially the Kirk-Spock exchange directly after it. Hilarious.)

Odette wrote a comment on June 28, 2009

That Kirk-Spock exchange went a long way toward making me reasonably okay with the Spock-Uhura relationship in general!

As it happens, we went to see this again last night. Still good the second time. :D

Care to comment?