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Star Trek (J. J. Abrams, 2009)

     J. J. Abramsí hyperactive take on the Star Trek franchise broadens the appeal of its cult property, turning what was once strictly nerd fodder into a shaggy dog action movie. The change results in a film thatís surely more palatable for the masses, but in the makeover, Abrams jettisons much of the hard science and thoughtful thematic concerns that have defined the series to date. Furthermore, this entry bends over backward to restart the seriesí timeline through a time travel plot, thereby rendering all thatís come before moot. Less a reboot than a retcon, this Star Trek is at once coarser and slicker than the series has been in the past. Though the stunts and camerawork are more dynamic, much of the cheesy charm of the original films has been sacrificed in this more action-oriented entry. After viewing the film, die hard fans are likely to be left feeling an odd sense of nostalgia for a future that will now never happen.

     Whatever streamlining has been attempted, Abramsí film remains a lumpen thing. The abysmal opening sequences stand as testament to that fact. Offering three wisps of an origin story, these clumsy scenes prepare the viewer for the worst, with their mix of audience baiting sentiment and rah-rah rebelliousness. Thankfully after these bits, the likeable cast that will fill the rest of the movie show up, and Star Trek finds itself on surer footing. From this point on, Abrams attempts to serve many masters. This Trek must be a summer action movie spectacle, a complexly plotted science-fiction tale, and the introduction to a group of cadets who will make good company in the inevitable sequels. The results, perhaps not surprisingly, are not of a consistent quality, but the early critical and commercial success of the film suggests that they are more than adequate.

     There are scattered technical moments that impress. Soon after boarding the newly christened Enterprise, a single shot seamlessly follows Spock into an elevator, as it carries him from one floor to the next. Late in the game, with an explosion of so-called ďred matterĒ, a multitude of weightless red blobs are the only things left on screen, momentarily recalling both the beauty of abstract filmmaking and the blood in the zero-gravity murder at the start of Star Trek VI.  Star Trekís best scenes, however, recall Spielbergís Temple of Doom (for my money, the highpoint of the Indiana Jones series) in their conflation of screwball comedy and ludicrous action. In the moments between his space battles, Abrams focuses on his fledgling crew as they haplessly scurry about space stations, learning to work as a group. These comic bits, featuring exotic diseases and pesky alien sidekicks, easily trump the explosions (or, should I say, implosions) for sheer entertainment value.

     Such a focus on character is heartening, at least when one considers the long-term life of the franchise. To start from scratch with a series as well-established as Star Trek was surely a difficult task, and anyone with some personal fondness for the franchise will be willing to forgive at least some of Abramsí tonal inconsistencies, continuity errors, and indifference to nuance. Still, one canít help but hope that this louder, flashier entry is a something of an anomaly for the series. Instead of pondering the existence of God or artificial intelligence, Abramsí Trek settles for emo angst and crowd-pleasing underdog narratives. Of course, there are no rules that state that a new Star Trek movie canít be more focused on pyrotechnics than philosophy, but weíve already got Star Wars for that kind of thing.

 

57

Jeremy Heilman

05.15.2009