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Dustin Putman

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Star Trek  (2009)
3 Stars
Directed by J.J. Abrams.
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Eric Bana, Leonard Nimoy, Bruce Greenwood, Ben Cross, Winona Ryder, Jimmy Bennett, Jacob Kogan, Jennifer Morrison, Chris Hemsworth, Rachel Nichols, Spencer Daniels, Clifton Collins Jr., Tyler Perry, Deep Roy.
2009 – 127 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for action/violence and brief sexual contact).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 3, 2009.

J.J. Abrams, the multi-hyphenate talent behind TV's "Lost" and 2008's "Cloverfield," takes to the director's seat for the first time since 2006's "Mission: Impossible III" with "Star Trek," one of his most noteworthy career achievements. After the creative and financial failure of 2002's tedious "Star Trek: Nemesis," it was assumed that the long-enduring, decidedly cheesy science-fiction series had finally reached its death knell. However, anything old can suddenly seem new again if injected with some fresh blood, and that is what Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (2007's "Transformers") have done. One part prequel, another part reboot, "Star Trek" is a rejuvenating spectacle that succeeds at precisely what it sets out to do: update the story of James T. Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the USS Enterprise crew for modern audiences, introduce the franchise to younger viewers, and make certain that one can enjoy the film without necessarily being a fan of its many earlier incarnations. Abrams stays mostly true to what has come before, but has made a big enough overhaul to ensure it will never be confused with the 1979 motion picture of the same name, let alone the original 1966 television series.

In creating the new and, yes, improved "Star Trek," Abrams has wisely chosen to concentrate first and foremost on the initial adversarial nature and ultimate friendship between young, cocky earthling James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the rigid, emotionally tight-vested half-human/half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto). These two characters, one born from tragedy—Kirk's father (Chris Hemsworth) was killed aboard the USS Kelvin moments after his birth—and the other treated as an outsider on his home planet for being of mixed intergalactic race, are as different as two men can be. At the urging of Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), the rebellious Kirk follows in his dad's footsteps and heads to Starfleet Academy. Upon graduating, he finds himself on the USS Enterprise with fellow crew members Spock, best buddy Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban), foxy Uhura (Zoe Saldana), lighthearted Sulu (John Cho), and Russian-accented Chekov (Anton Yelchin). Their first mission: stop Romulan ruler Nero (Eric Bana) from decimating the Federated planets, most notably Earth and Vulcan. When Pike is kidnapped and Kirk clashes with newly appointed captain Spock, he is exiled as punishment to ice planet Delta Vega where he comes face to face with someone who might just be able to help save Earth's existence.

Pulsating with a life and fire that the former series entries never quite equaled, "Star Trek" serves well as an origin story—certainly superior than the recent lackluster "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"—and as a rousing summer blockbuster. From the prologue in which James T. Kirk is born to mother Winona (Jennifer Morrison) just as father George has no choice but to sacrifice his own life in a no-win battle against Nero, to a set-piece where native creatures chase James across the icy landscape of Delta Vega, to a breathless climax where San Francisco—nay, the entire planet—is very nearly destroyed, the film is one that will grip and enthrall viewers. Visual effects are top-of-the-line, not only in space scenes but also in those set on land, circa the twenty-third century. The image of planet Vulcan imploding upon itself before disappearing and taking everything and everyone with it is chilling to witness, and also provocative in its existential inference. Production design, art direction and costumes are also gorgeously reimagined, the tackiest elements of each from the earlier shows and movies replaced with hipper aesthetics. Editing is taut, if a little too judicious; at 127 minutes, the picture comes and goes in a wink. The characters and plot, though, could have afforded to slow down and breathe a little. Finally, the cinematography by Daniel Mindel (2005's "Domino") is classy and stylish, neither too darkly orchestrated nor too candy-colored to fit the grittiness of the narrative.

Technical attributes can only go so far, and "Star Trek" would be next to nothing without the committed performances of its cast, the inventively unpredictable turns in its plot, and the relationship between Kirk and Spock. Chris Pine (2008's "Bottle Shock"), roughing himself up enough to move beyond pretty-boy status as Kirk, and Zachary Quinto (TV's "Heroes"), a plausible dead-ringer for Leonard Nimoy as a young adult, disappear into their roles to the point where you scarcely even consider the actors playing them. Not only ideally cast, Pine and Quinto deliciously play off one another and share enormous chemistry even when they are bickering. Pine's journey from know-it-all kid to responsible, mature man runs parallel with the overly serious Spock's journey toward accepting the literal humanity inside himself. When, by the end, their roles on the Enterprise have reversed, one senses two very specific character arcs—and a lifelong friendship—converging. Meanwhile, original Spock Leonard Nimoy shows up as the older version of the sharp-eared Vulcan in an organic time-travel subplot. Not merely a cameo, Nimoy's authoritative return to the iconic character is greatly touching and very nearly chill-inducing. The elder Spock's cave-set discussion with Kirk about how quickly the important things we take for granted can be stolen from us is quietly, splendidly moving.

Supporting thespians do not get quite as much room to breathe within the confinements of their written parts. This, and a sorely needed moment of earthbound rumination at the end, are director J.J. Abrams' only major flaws. Zoe Saldana (2008's "Vantage Point") is vivacious as Uhura, involving herself in a romance with someone least expected, and Simon Pegg (2008's "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People") has obvious fun as engineer Scotty, but there is far too little development involved in exploring who they are as people.

With that said, there is even less to do for John Cho (2008's "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay"), as Sulu, and especially Anton Yelchin (2008's "Charlie Bartlett"), adopting an unpleasant Russian accent as Chekov. Mostly, they sit at their control stations and press buttons. As head villain Nero, Eric Bana (2008's "The Other Boleyn Girl") is appropriately snarling and evil, aided by facial tattoos that complete the character's conception. In even briefer roles, Jimmy Bennett (2007's "Evan Almighty") and Jacob Kogan (2009's "Lifelines") are memorable as the adolescent versions of Kirk and Spock—a shot where Bennett's Kirk narrowly avoids falling over the edge of a desert cliff is awe-inspiring and horrifying in equal measure—and Winona Ryder (2009's "The Informers") is sincere and soulful as Spock's advice-giving mother Amanda Grayson.

In its sprint toward the finish line, "Star Trek" lacks a final scene where James T. Kirk meditates, or even stops to consider, the enormity of the cataclysm he and his fellow crew members have aborted. This would have put the perfect bow on a motion picture that nevertheless is assured and smart enough to stop a decades-old sci-fi series from ending for good. So much is going on in each frame that one sits smiling for the duration, drinking in the images while yearning for a repeat viewing. That is the sign of a special filmmaker in command. Indeed, thanks to director J.J. Abrams, "Star Trek" should be around for many more years to come, living long and prospering.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman