Thursday, May 14, 2009

Popcorn Trek

JJ Abrams' giddy new Star Trek reboot is an occasionally exhilarating, cleverer than usual, summer popcorn spectacular, which is a nice way of saying it is easily digested and ultimately forgotten.  The story re-imagines the "origins" of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the Starship Enterprise.  When this became an obsession of the mainstream is beyond me, but it seems the studios believe that we have a tireless desire to learn more about how our icons became icons.  

Inevitably, this line of inquiry results in the revelation that sweet Jiminy, these guys are just like us!  The only problem is, I don't want to know that Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) was a shameless horn-dog, or that Spock (Zachary Quinto) was teased as a boy because of his "mixed" parentage.  These things are fair enough as entertainment goes, but I would rather face the mystery of how these men became who they are than have the explanation spoon-fed to me.  

I have never been a Trekkie, so maybe this is new ground broken.  Maybe I should just shut up and enjoy the eye-candy, but when I go to the movies I don't want cleverer than usual, I want genuine undeniable wit and originality.  Delivering this with a movie as heavily branded as Star Trek, isn't strictly necessary because it already has such a huge built-in audience, but I hoped for more based on the movie's reviews and J.J. Abram's prodigious reputation.  

As for the film itself, the story concerns an angry Romulan (Eric Bana), whose native planet was destroyed in a supernova.  Now he has figured out a way to travel back through time and enact his revenge on the starfleet -- who he blames for failing to save his dying people.  Circumstances bring Kirk and Spock together with Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scottie (Simon Pegg), Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) and Bones (Karl Urban) to combat this evil foe and defend the galaxy. 

The casting of these archetypal roles is spot on, although Uhura is underwritten as is commonplace for women in this genre.  She's basically a post-feminist woman, content to kick butt in go-go boots and not beyond shedding a tear or two -- but she isn't hard on the eyes so all is fair.  Bana's villain lacks potency and fades into the background of the busy plot.  The real show is Kirk and Spock, butting heads and yet hurtling towards an inevitable reconciliation.  This is the most winning ingredient of the movie and Pine and Quinto perfectly inhabit their parts.  

The movie has a slick, colorful, eye-popping aesthetic.  The opening scene is so effectively thrilling and heart-wrenching all at once, that I was reminded of vintage Spielberg, but then the picture settles into a more complacent rhythm.  Complacent in following the same overstuffed, over-manufactured mantra that drives the current crop of summer movies.  Abrams works hard to dazzle us and he succeeds for the most part, but the picture is too busy.  

The special effects are too loud and too frenetic to follow at times.  Like most modern blockbusters the action lacks a tactile quality and therefore overcompensates by trying to elicit a visceral jolt.  The effect is kind of like a Bourne film married with one of the recent Star Wars films.  It stirs us up well enough.  We just can't seem to remember everything we've seen -- particularly during the climactic jumble that passes for a third act.  

I feel obliged to point out that in spite of these flaws, the film is a fun ride and fun is a precious commodity that seems to be lacking in many of the other more morose and ponderous summer offerings.  Perhaps all this-nitpicking is ungrateful of me.  The movie happily delivers all of the key ingredients we look for in summer movies.  I more or less got what I paid for.  I just wish it hadn't seemed quite so familiar.