Friday, May 15, 2009

'Star Trek': A summer movie at its best

I am by no means a Trekkie, or a Trekker — the preferred term these days — but I have no qualms saying I loved the new “Star Trek” film. This is exactly what a summer movie should be: smart, fast and fun.

Director J.J. Abrams (creator of “Lost” and “Alias”) wastes no time with an opening that features George Kirk sacrificing himself in a space battle to save the crew of his ship. He does this all while his son, the future Captain James T. Kirk, is being born in an escape pod. This opening has more thrills and emotion than some whole movies and is one helluva hook.

Like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” this is an origin story where we get to see young versions of Captain Kirk, Spock, Dr. Bones McCoy and all the rest. This origin work is so much more than “Wolverine” because of how inclusive it is to fans and non-fans alike.

This new “Star Trek” is accessible to even those who have never watched a single episode of the original “Star Trek” series or any of the films, because Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have taken the time to create their own world while honoring what came before and to flesh out even the secondary characters.

Abrams has wisely not stuffed his cast with big names, but instead cast actors that perfectly fit their roles regardless of the size of their Hollywood star. It would be an overstatement to say it is a cast of unknowns as there are several familiar faces, but these actors aren’t household names.

Fans were concerned by the casting of Chris Pine as Kirk because his sparse resume featured a couple unremarkable teen films (“Princess Diaries 2” and “Just My Luck”), but Pine is excellent as Kirk. He emulates William Shatner cockiness, but without going the easy route of doing a direct impression. He’s a dynamic and charismatic lead.

Zackary Quinto of “Heroes” as Spock is equally well cast. Spock is half human and half Vulcan, an emotionless alien race. The emotions his human side gives him are seen as a disability by other Vulcans.

Spock’s human side has been touched upon before, but never quite to the extent here. Quinto captures the stoic, logical mind of Spock, but also hints at the emotions he is struggling to repress. They have a tendency of showing through in caustic remarks or subtle facial expressions.

Kirk and Spock’s relationship was always the center of the “Star Trek” movies, and here we get to see an alternate take where they aren’t the close friends that they will later become. There is a rivalry that is well played.

The plot of the film involves a vengeful Romulan named Nero (a fantastically creepy, but underused Eric Bana) who has come from the future to destroy Spock’s home planet because he wrongly believes Spock destroyed his.

This time-travel device allows for Leonard Nimoy, the original Spock, to reprise his role and play scenes against the young versions of Kirk and himself. Nimoy has much more than a mere wink-wink cameo, and his appearance adds a certain gravitas to the proceedings.

Other highlight of the cast include Simon Pegg (“Shaun of the Dead, “Hot Fuzz”) doing a hilarious scene-stealing turn as Scotty; Anton Yelchin (“Charlie Bartlett”) sporting an over-the-top Russian accent and youthful enthusiasm as genius whiz kid Pavel Chekov; Karl Urban doing a spot-on impersonation of DeForest Kelley's Dr. McCoy; and John Cho (“Harold and Kumar”) taking Sulu out of his seat for some fencing action.

Abrams keeps the film moving, and there are some spectacular action sequences, especially one involving a fight on a laser drill, and the digital effects are top notch. The visuals have a sense of place and base in reality that was lacking in George Lucas’ overly glossy and artificial looking “Star Wars” prequels.

As a director, Abrams is fond of shaky cam, quick editing and close-ups. This style of action is getting a bit tiresome, but Abrams does it better than most.

Above all else, the new “Star Trek” is funny — and that’s crucial to the film’s success. It is smart enough to take its characters and universe serious, but also realizes not to take itself too seriously. The humor and pitch-perfect cast make this a great time at the movies.

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