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Lost in Space: J. J. Abramsí Star Trek

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Paramount)

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Friday, May 08, 2009


Star Trek
Directed by J. J. Abrams
(Paramount)

Reviewed by Bruce Bennett

The history of the Star Trek movies is founded on the fundamental irony that Paramount Pictures, the corporate entity responsible for canceling the original television series in 1968, has taken great care to preserve and protect the big-screen franchise. Paramount has granted and revoked creative control of the films to a series of producer fiefdoms beginning with original series creator Gene Roddenberry. The initial big-screen Trek Roddenberry delivered, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), was both a nominal box office hit and a creative disaster that went substantially over budget and so behind schedule that it premiered months after its original release date.

Paramount cautiously greenlit a second Trek film only after Roddenberry’s responsibilities were backgrounded in favor of producer Harve Bennett. Under Bennett the next four Trek films streamlined production and retooled the Star Trek movies to include the ingratiating character chemistry and swashbuckling that Roddenberry described as “Horatio Hornblower in space” when he successfully pitched the series in the mid-Sixties. When Bennett’s instincts faltered and the William Shatner-directed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier bombed in 1989, the Trek franchise was passed along to the writing and producing team responsible for the small-screen series Star Trek: The Next Generation and its broadcast siblings.

Under the guidance of the Next Generation brain trust, the Trek films become increasingly insulated from the old show’s mythos in favor of detailing a heavy handed and frankly dulling future history of their own. Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) was so poorly received that the feature franchise has remained in mothballs for more than a half a decade. Enterprise, a dreadful small-screen prequel and last of the Next Generation spinoffs, was finally canceled in 2005 after four seasons.

The latest installment in the Trek franchise is the work of Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe co-creator J.J. Abrams and his frequent writing collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. The best of Abrams and company’s television work anchors bold-stroke genre storytelling doled out via slippery intertwined timelines, as character backstories depict messy emotional turmoil and formative family trauma. Anyone up to date on the current plot convolutions on Lost will nod in recognition upon hearing that Abrams’ Star Trek begins with a flashback depicting a time-travel accident and a parent’s tragic sacrifice. When we first meet young James T. Kirk — scarred by the death of a father he never knew and overshadowed by the interplanetary martyrdom that allowed him to survive — he is performing an arbitrary nihilistic act of symbolic sacrifice by totaling his stepfather’s vintage Corvette with a finality rivaling a Road Runner cartoon.

With his boyish grin, ready charm, and particular Shakespearean elocution, William Shatner’s Captain Kirk had a fantasy presidential quality that suggested young JFK commanding an interstellar PT-109. Abrams’s Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) is closer to a young John McCain or George W. Bush — joyriding, drinking, picking fights, gracelessly propositioning women, and granted enough second chances to get into Starfleet Academy and ultimately make his way onto to the bridge of the Enterprise on his father’s reputation as much as his own merit.

Pine nevertheless puts a lot of energy into portraying the future Captain of the Enterprise as a creature agreeably long on potential but short on patience and tact. Like his co-stars Zachary Quinto as Spock and Karl Urban as ships surgeon Leonard “Bones” McCoy, Pine sidesteps an actual impersonation and defines his character more by the script at hand rather than by three full seasons of television and half dozen movies worth of prior examples from a different cast.

Would that he and had been given more to work with. There’s very little that’s particularly bold in J.J. Abrams take on “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Eric Bana’s polite scenery-chewing as a time-traveling Romulan villain, the presence of original series regular (and two-time feature Star Trek director) Leonard Nimoy also in the role of Spock, and a not particularly coherent, engaging, or original revenge quest plot spanning centuries and involving black holes and planetary genocide, all curdle into an increasingly desperate attempt to both honor the original show and put distance between this supposed reboot and the forty-year-old TV program that spawned it. The fresh-faced new Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), and Ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin) do feel pleasantly familiar and alive with possibilities at times. But the familiarity of an ice planet, a digitally generated monster whose labial mouths split open on cue in the conventional Men In Black way, interchangeable space battle spectacles, perfunctory fight scenes, and lengthy explanations of what’s happening and why, ultimately turn Star Trek into a rather lazily imagined, though energetically executed pastiche of big screen sci-fi clichés seemingly appropriated at random from other films.

The one relatively promising addition that Orci and Kurtzman have installed in their first outing in the Trek universe is an audacious slate-cleaning time-travel conceit that effectively turns the increasingly threadbare continuity of Gene Roddenberry’s original creation and all the echoes and iterations that have followed on its pointy ear. As far as future installments go, the makers of Star Trek can now pretty much do as they please with the kinds of conventions and specifics that make hard-core fans apoplectic when they are trampled.

Paramount has already demonstrated enthusiasm for their newest Star Trek caretakers by inking a deal for a second Abrams Trek film before the first one was even released. In corporate entertainment a safe bet is often a bad sign. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek is exactly the kind of middle-of-the-road, impersonal multiplex fodder that gives production execs a peaceful night’s sleep.

 

 

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