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The Re-up

Latest movie version of iconic sci-fi television brand gets everything just right


Chris Pine (seated) and Karl Urban (standing) take it to the bridge.

By Vincent Williams | Posted 5/6/2009

Star Trek fandom has good reason to be concerned about J.J. Abrams' upcoming movie revamping of the classic series. For almost four decades, Gene Roddenberry's depiction of a future where all of us get along, regardless of race, gender, or nationality, has been seen in six different television series and 10 different movies, but frankly, it is a story that has lost a little of its sheen as time has gone by. And after the lackluster performance of the last television series, Star Trek: Enterprise, as well as the last couple of movies, in fans' hearts we know that, if this movie doesn't work, it might be curtains for Star Trek. Fans are hoping that Abrams' Star Trek revitalizes the series, bringing in new fans and reminding old ones about what was so magical about it in the first place.

The new Battlestar Galactica and the current renaissance of James Bond are two examples of revampings that get it right. Unfortunately, the nature of Star Trek works against it when compared to both of those examples. As much as Battlestar Galactica has been critically acclaimed, the truth is, it barely resembles its source material and no one has really noticed because no one really watched the original series. In the case of Daniel Craig's James Bond, it's not really a case of revamping so much as it is returning to the character's roots. By downplaying the tuxedos and gadgets and focusing on Bond's borderline sociopathic aspects, as well as the murky gray areas of espionage morality that are in the forefront of author Ian Fleming's novels, both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace depict a James Bond that is decidedly modern.

The challenge in using this type of strategy with Star Trek is that, at its core, its message is "tomorrow is good because we'll all work together." And I would submit that this theme is part of the reason Star Trek has stumbled as the years have gone by. While showing the collaborative work of whites and blacks and Asians and Russians--who, in 1969, were in a special category of "dangerous white people"--as a good thing was impressively radical during the show's initial run, in 2009, well, y'know, black president. So Abrams' challenge is to find what resonates about Star Trek without leaning on this principle. And he has to do it in a manner in which he doesn't piss off the legions of hard-core fans who, if they don't number enough to keep the property viable on their own, certainly can make enough noise to bring bad publicity to the movie.

And Abrams nails it. Most importantly, for those of you trying to convince a spouse to go with you, Star Trek moves briskly. At a little over two hours, it's a summer blockbuster that manages to tell its story in a manner that won't confuse a Star Trek novice, fit in a few special-effects laden set pieces, and throw in a few Easter eggs for longtime fans without getting bogged down in the show's decades-long history. In fact, I thought the movie's rationale for the reboot was handled elegantly while being respectful and not invalidating the experiences of fans who have invested time watching the Star Trek brand for decades.

Cast-wise, Abrams handles the issue of representation by downplaying ethnicity and, instead, using the revolutionary method of actually focusing on character and giving them narrative reasons for being part of the main crew. Instead of Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov simply being "the black one," "the Asian one," and "the Russian one," here they are "career focused, serious linguist," "shy, low key, yet capable-of-swashbuckling-action pilot," an "exuberant, Doogie Howser-like prodigy." And Simon Pegg's Scotty seems like he's having more fun than the entire rest of the cast combined. Still, because the four of them have mainly been ciphers within the series, there wasn't that much pressure on the four new actors.

As far as the main trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy go, the movie's actors use different approaches. Most of Star Trek's pre-release publicity focused on Zachary Quinto's uncanny resemblance to Leonard Nimoy's Spock, but Karl Urban captures the cadence and rhythm of Deforest Kelley's Dr. McCoy just as perfectly. Chris Pine, however, wisely chose to not ape William Shatner's Kirk because, well, at this point, William Shatner can't do William Shatner without looking like a caricature. Yet, he still manages to convey a balance of confidence and cockiness that has made Captain Kirk an American icon.

All in all, Star Trek succeeds in doing what it was supposed to. By the end, J.J. Abrams has rebooted the series by crafting an action flick that both stands on its own while being respectful to what has come before. And, dare I say, he's established a franchise that is ready to boldly go.

E-mail Vincent Williams

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