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Star Trek (2009)

Flare and Balanced

For years, a debate has raged on in the geek community as to whether or not J.J. Abrams' big-screen re-launch of the Star Trek franchise qualifies as "Genuine Trek". Many fans of the 1960s television series, its feature-film incarnations, and the myriad TV reboots from the 80s and 90s can't wrap their heads around Abrams' flashy, snarky, guns-a-blazin' adaptation, and claim to know for a fact that series creator Gene Roddenberry wouldn't approve.

I understand where the dissenters are coming from, but I disagree. True, Abrams and writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci have taken the classic Enterprise crew in a ballsy new direction that hasn't yet aligned with our idea of what these stories "should" be. But they explain themselves quite well, and then set about the business of entertaining a broad audience (broadience?) for two-plus hours.

That may upset the purists, but think of how stunted our collective pop cultural growth would have been if the Internet had been around in 1981:

"How dare John Carpenter destroy Howard Hawks' vision of The Thing From Another World by defiling it with blood and guts! And why did the suits have to go and shorten the title? Must be to appease the stupid masses!"

And on and on.

The essential Star Trek elements are all here. In the twenty-third century, mankind has joined with a number of alien races to form the United Federation of Planets. Starships search the galaxy to discover life forms and find new places to boldly go. The most famous vessel, the Enterprise, is helmed by Captain Kirk and his close-knit crew of big personalities. Abrams' movie begins in the hours just prior to Kirk's birth, during which a cosmic storm ushers in a massive Romulan mining ship from the future.

Kirks' father, George (Chris Hemsworth), sacrifices himself by ramming the ship he's just inherited into the dangerous craft--thus altering the course of history by making the future pioneer an orphan. Steering the Romulan time-jumper is Nero (Eric Bana), a thug with a vendetta against the version of Kirk's first officer, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), from his timeline.

Got that? Good. 

This disruption allows Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman to play around with nearly fifty years of established canon. And thank God for that. In the Abramsverse, Kirk (Chris Pine) is a snotty scrapper who hasn't yet mastered the art of not getting punched repeatedly in the face. Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are a burgeoning couple, and the planet Vulcan...well, what happens there just plain sucks.

Despite nerd rage over "Dawson's Trek", I love the new series' direction. Abrams balances tear-jerking melodrama (the film's opener gets me every time) with cheeseball comedy that's, frankly, far less eye-rolling than some of the older Trek material (space hippies, anyone?). Not all of it works from a reaction standpoint, but narratively, the gags and gut-punches are mostly solid. Sure, seeing Kirk's hands swell up to cartoonish proportions after receiving a vaccine is ridiculous--as is the swollen-tongue Jar Jar moment he has a moment later--but there's a perfectly good reason for these things.

Abrams and company understand that building a show or a film around space exploration is going to necessitate weird situations that audiences inherently won't appreciate in the same way the characters will. For example, Nero is a really weak villain. Unless you read IDW Publishing's multi-part prequel comic-book series (and, really, why wouldn't you have?), you have every reason to be skeptical about his motivations. He comes across as grumpy, arrogant, and really dumb, but to the Enterprise crew, he's the maniac skipping across the universe in a nigh-invincible ship and wielding a weapon of mass destruction.

Fortunately, we don't spend too much time with him--because he's not the point of the movie. This film's job is to get Kirk and Spock on board the Enterprise and on board with each other. Everything else is superfluous. So, yeah, Scotty's (Simon Pegg) water-park ride through Engineering; the light-hearted rigging of the famous Kobayashi Maru test; and all the fly-throughs of CGI space wreckage are filler in service of giving our heroes something to react against while working out their complicated feelings towards each other.

The one bit of crap I'll give Abrams is the lens flare thing. I honestly didn't notice his over-use of bright, probing lights until recently, and thought the Internet had simply created another reason to hate on the director out of whole cloth. Nope. Turns out, if you even half-notice one, you won't be able to not see dozens more. It's really annoying, but I imagine you could make one hell of a drinking game out of spotting the flare-ups.

Other than that, I don't think one could have asked for a better re-introduction to characters who, to the majority of Americans, were recognizable but also wholly irrelevant. And, no, I don't think Star Trek was dumbed down to play to legions of drooling idiots. It's not 2001: A Space Odyssey, but neither is Star Wars. This is a fun, fierce re-imagining with a lot of heart and style to spare.

If you can't abide Abrams' vision for the series, you're well within your right to cling to the TV shows and movies of yesteryear. But don't ever badger me about the "spirit of Star Trek". To quote The Next Generation's Captain Jean-Luc Picard, "Our mission is to go forward."

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