Tonight was the world premiere of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek in Australia… or so everybody thought. Paramount actually secretly brought the film to the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, where a crowd had assembled for what they thought was a free screening of Wrath of Khan. When the show let out excited reactions hit Twitter; while I’ve been highly and vocally skeptical about this rebootquel, the responses – especially from a couple of other skeptics – have me heartened.
We don’t usually run reader reviews, but long time message board denizen Greg Clark is lucky enough to live in Austin and was double lucky enough to be there tonight. He sends in his thoughts:
The lovely bastards at the Drafthouse pulled a fast one on us tonight. Last week they announced a free screening of Star Trek II and baited us with a special 10 minute sneak preview of J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Trek reboot; since Wrath of Khan isn’t just my favorite Trek films but one of my favorite films period, I made sure I was there to see it on the big screen in the best theatre in the country. Well, turns out they got the times right but the programming got switched; we got the first ten minutes of Khan, and suddenly the film melted. Everyone’s panicked, Tim League, owner of the Drafthouse, looked pretty peeved. Suddenly, a tall figure enters the room, reveals himself to be none other than Leonard Fucking Nimoy (his full name, I believe), and asks us if we’d like to be the first audience in the world to see the new Trek film (the film is officially premiering in Sydney as I’m writing this, so we win that title by mere hours). “Um, sure,” the crowd responds. “Twist our arms on that one.” So, somewhat surreally, the lights go back down, and I’m suddenly becoming one of the first people to legally see one of this summer’s tentpole movies.
I enjoyed it. I’m still euphoric from the utter shock of Leonard Nimoy appearing right in fucking front of me (I was second row from the front, and was one of the first people to figure out who exactly this big lanky guy in the ballcap was), but the movie taken on its own…well, it doesn’t suck. Anyone who says it’s better than Wrath of Khan is talking out of their hyperbolic ass though. This one doesn’t nearly have as clear a thought out script as that one, easily one of the tightestly plotted films in any genre, and suffers from the same problem as that other Orci and Kurtzman collaboration, Transformers: it wants to be all things for all people at all times.
Before the movie, the writers said that they really looked at Khan and decided that they wanted to aim for that; they weren’t kidding. Khan was always more of a straight up action/adventure movie than a science fiction one, a true submarine naval thriller set in the stars, and this one is certainly trying for that. In that sense it succeeds in its goal; it is a very exciting picture. The film is definitely more concerned with action and a quick pace than it is in being a sci-fi film about exploring the galaxy. The setpieces are fun, they’re fast, and they keep you interested. All the actors do a fine job in varying degrees, most of the dialogue works, and it’s a very handsome looking film.
The problem I run into, though, is that it’s trying to do too many things. It wants to keep the hardcore fanbase happy, so we get a very laboriously explained tie into the old Trek continuity. And yet we have a new cast and a desire to get the mainstream back roped back into this universe, so the film stars off with massive explosions and a deafening sound mix. I really wish they had just started over from scratch, like a real reboot should, but surprisingly, the way they tie everything ends up working for the most part. Where it all falls down is that it takes so long to get the basic point of Bana’s villain across that the movie’s halfway through the second act before you really get a feel for what exactly his motivation is, and why we need to tie into the old Trek in the first place. It literally takes Leonard Nimoy showing up as Old Spock to get the plot to snap into making any sort of sense; instead of a tired “it’s all about REVENGE” motivation Nero could have just been a crazed Romulan looking to beat the competition (read: Vulcans/Federation) in order to show who had the bigger stick. The only thing that would’ve changed would have been Bana’s ship might not have resembled Sarrisus’ destroyer from Galaxy Quest so much, and it possibly could have given Bana something to do; the man’s trying but he’s basically roaring angrily for 80% of his screentime.
This leads to my biggest problem with the movie: they take the shorthand way out when this is supposed to be these character’s first big adventure. We’re just tossed into the fray and it’s full of assumed knowledge, like why the Romulans and Vulcans hate each other, or what the Federation stands for. Yeah, I know, if you’re reading this you know all these things, but look at it this way: the two most successful reboots, Batman Begins and Casino Royale, still explained the motivations of its characters. It didn’t just assume we knew everything about Bond or Batman, it let their origins play out. In fact, one could say the entire length of both those movies was entirely about what made these characters tick and lead them to become the iconic images we recognize (probably moreso in Casino Royale). Trek leans heavily on the iconography but skimps on the details, which makes for a fun, but ultimately very lightweight movie. It’s far more interested in keeping our heart racing than it is in exploring any real sci-fi themes about exploring the universe or the meaning of sacrificing oneself for a greater good, two of the cornerstones to the best episodes and films in the Trek canon. Again, going back to Khan, that film was about something. It explored themes and ideas about growing old, trying to hold on to youth and the past long after one’s prime, and what happens when that past comes back to haunt you. Kirk spends all of Khan trying to ignore death, cheat it, until it unavoidably hits him square in the face. This new Trek isn’t ABOUT anything, thematically; it bandies about talk of destiny and facing your fears, but it’s all lip service. And like I said, that makes it fun, a lot more fun than almost any other Trek film out there, but it’s full of sound and fury and little else.
Despite the first twenty minutes or so being dedicated to Spock and Kirk’s childhood/formative years and Academy days, we don’t get a good feel for what really makes them tick. It’s all quickly brushed broad strokes and archetypes, with again a nice handful of assumed knowledge and glossing over. Kirk’s childhood segment (the car chase in the trailer) really, really blows, and its soundtrack choice was so glaringly dumb (and pandering to the mainstream) and out of place that I became frightened that J.J. Abrams had fully transformed into Michael Bay. Let’s just say I happy when we were done with kids Kirk and Spock and moved onto the Academy days, because we got a healthy dose of fun in the form of Karl Urban’s McCoy. Yeah, he’s basically aping DeForrest Kelly for the most part, but it’s a very good imitation in that he makes it feel natural. While Urban will never win any acting awards, he does do doom and gloom pretty well, and when played for chuckles his cynicism makes the movie, well, fun in a more classic sense. So much of this movie is a very loud rollercoaster; I cherished the moments when it remembered that it could be fun by just letting the actors and their characters have a few moments to breathe.
This is mostly shown by how wonderful Simon Pegg is in here; it’s almost a crime that the film is halfway over before Scotty makes it into the movie. Chris Pine does the most surprising work when he shakes off any Shatnerisms that might feel required when playing Kirk and makes him a very familiar, yet fresh character. It didn’t take me long to accept him as Kirk; I was even more impressed when I saw flashes of what Shatner brought to the role that worked while ditching all the things that make him so mockable. I’m not too familiar with Pine, but I think he’s got a very good quality about him, and lets it show through the underneath Kirk’s cocky asshole exterior he has his moments where he fully realizes just how out of his depth he probably is. Quintano takes a lot more cues from Nimoy, but really, the man defined how to play a Vulcan, and while Quintano doesn’t quite get there as far as making being emotionless not mean being a prick, he does a much better job dealing with Spock’s internal struggle between his Vulcan sensibilities and his very real human emotions. John Cho has a moment to shine as Sulu and little else, while Zoë Saldana gets a few moments of requisite girl power before being relegated to very pretty window dressing. Anton Yelchin is basically an extended cameo as Chekov, and his bizarre Russian accent is some much welcome goofiness amidst such serious and intense (and loud. Did I mention this movie’s volume is ramped to 11 for most of the running time?) proceedings.
I really feel like I’m coming down on this movie hard, but that’s mainly because I want to give it a fair shake taken on its own, not just from the admittedly near euphoric atmosphere I saw it in. Premieres at the Drafthouse are exciting enough; a surprise one with a legendary actor ten feet away from you makes it all the harder to remain objective. And trust me that I’m not bullshitting when I say it’s a very exciting, very fun adventure movie; it most certainly is. Furthermore, they manage to work the way-too-convoluted-for-its-own-good time travel/old continuity bridge into a convincing new foundation for further adventures with the new cast, something that is in itself a small miracle (an achievement lessened when you consider that this juggling act could have been avoided altogether). The movie should easily become the biggest (and probably most popular with the mainstream) Trek film out there, and Paramount might have successfully turned this back into a cash cow. Let’s just hope the next time out we can get some real exploration based adventure, instead of spending half a running time figuring out what the point of the film is going to be. But overall, for now, I’ll say that Trek is back, and I’m eager to see the new crew take on what’s next. I’ll be honest, though: when the credits came up on this and the applause died down, I couldn’t help but shake the fact that I still wanted to watch Wrath of Khan on the big screen.