Friday, October 15, 2010

Star Trek (2009)

And so it happened that Star Trek finally had to do what it had long avoided, had in fact, done everything to avoid, including the virtually unprecedented move of sticking with the same actors in their original roles for near-three decades, and pretty much two decades that amounted to four additional casts. After all that, the popular culture could stand nothing more from the franchise, nothing more, that is, than the reboot. And so, in the summer of 2009, that’s exactly what finally happened.

A funny thing occurred, too. The reboot actually made Star Trek popular. No, seriously. I’m not talking about a kind of grudging admittance, or even wide acceptance among niche audiences, but full-blown, mind-blowing success. It really wasn’t just the folks who had always liked Star Trek, or who might typically have been inclined to like it, who turned out to watch the new movie. What Star Trek did was become just another summer blockbuster success story.

As films like Batman Begins and Casino Royale had done before it, the reboot literally went back to the beginning, exploring the origins of James T. Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the familiar characters from the original series as the show and its six movie spin-offs had never been quite able to do, despite a fair number of allusions over the years. It opens, dramatically, with Kirk’s birth, actually, and even these glimpses of his mom and dad seem like an eternity of backstory. For those who considered themselves familiar enough with Spock, there’s plenty left to say about his upbringing as well. The movie spends much of its time exploring how much there is to say about the two characters, what kind of story is possible that builds itself around them.

What’s interesting is that, even while that is going on, the movie basically follows the same pattern, at least, of the four Next Generation films that precede it. A villain threatens to wreak all kinds of havoc, and by the end of the story, he basically needs to be blown up to resolve his threat. What’s different is the way all of it is presented. Freed up with new actors, all that struggle to make previous incarnations that have originated on television can truly embrace all of cinema’s possibilities. This is not to say that actors who first appear on television can’t fit easily into movies. Far from it. Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington, the list goes on of actors who previously made their mark on television who went on to become famous and lasting movie stars. But in terms of an entire cast, especially one that has spent some extended period of time doing things shot specifically for TV, there is always going to be a learning curve to figure out how to translate that dynamic to another medium. Arguably, The Motion Picture and First Contact represent the apex of two different generations of Star Trek actors doing that, and the results vary greatly.

The difference with Star Trek is that everything is freshly conceived to fit the big screen. What’s funny is that the director behind this vision has had most of his success on the small screen. Aside from his early career as a screenwriter and Mission: Impossible III, J.J. Abrams is best known for TV shows like Felicity, Alias, and Lost, which admittedly was conceived as something of a big screen project for television, which the ambitious (and expensive) pilot episode alone will demonstrate. His credentials, however, along with those of the frequent collaborators who will go unmentioned here, testify to an uncanny devotion to character, which is a key element of what has always been at the heart of Star Trek. Clearly, that’s what he focused on with this initial offering of the reboot of one of the most famous franchises in modern lore.

Recasting was probably among the biggest hurdles, and was long one of the favorite pastimes of armchair fans. Surely you recall the popular interest in Gary Sinese taking on the role of Bones McCoy. Yet one of the unexpected and great successes of Star Trek was casting Karl Urban, who was best known at that point for a minor role in the Lord of the Rings films, instead. Zachary Quinto, then known for his disconcerting role on Heroes, had been publicly campaigning for the role of Spock, so his casting was the least surprising. The most famous actors, John Cho and Simon Pegg, cast as Sulu and Scotty respectively, managed to blend in, and make the most of their limited scenes. Anton Yelchin, a young actor working to make a name for himself, achieved the impossible by replacing the beloved Andrew Koenig as the quirky Chekov. Zoe Saldana captured lightning in a bottle by appearing in Star Trek and Avatar in the same year.

Then there was Kirk. What would you say if I told you Chris Pine’s last starring role before Star Trek was with Lindsey Lohan? No, seriously. It was called Just My Luck. Sure, he was more memorable in Smokin’ Aces, and in the elongated wait (when Paramount actually determined, correctly, that Star Trek could hold its own in the summer season, and so delayed release for months), also took a turn in Bottle Shock (that’s him, as the long-haired rebel son). But Chris was basically unknown, the quintessential actor for such an important role. For every Tobey Maguire, you also have a Christian Bale or Daniel Craig, who don’t seem like obvious choices before they’re cast, but only because audiences just aren’t that familiar with them yet. Star Trek made Chris Pine a star.

It did the same for Chris Hemsworth, who plays his dad. For some other parts, name actors were easier to go with, such as Winona Ryder, Ben Cross, Bruce Greenwood, and Eric Bana, who replaced Russell Crowe as Nero. Either one was a considerable coup for the film. Granted, Crowe would have had more appeal for wider audiences, but Bana, who like Crowe is a personal favorite, still represents the kind of actor who probably would never have been available to Star Trek casting directors prior to this film. Then there was Leonard Nimoy, who represents the sole connection to any other incarnation of the franchise, and who just happens to be the most iconic face, reprising his role as Spock thanks to a time-twisting plot that plays fast and loose with everything that had come before. When the whole project plays everything as sacred, you can afford to treat it as nothing sacred, blowing up Vulcan and setting up a whole alternate reality that will serve as the new playground for subsequent films.

That’s what’s so interesting about this reboot. Clearly, for years, a lot of people became attached to the idea that Star Trek represented a continuing experience, even if each new incarnation dealt with new casts and scenarios. All of it tied together, as numerous guest appearances that cross-pollinated familiar faces continually attested. Even the maligned “These Are the Voyages…” managed to grant Enterprise, the first time the franchise attempted to look back instead of forward, this experience. Rather than starting from scratch, Star Trek’ bends the rules and keeps all the familiar experiences in play while also creating an entirely fresh starting point. All the familiar names are here, but they have different stories, just different enough that they speak to two different generations of fans, meeting somewhere in the middle.

As a fan who obviously had a lot of attachment to what had come before, I might have been seen either as an extremely easy mark for Star Trek, or as someone who should have hated the very idea of it. Personally, I hate both ideas. I don’t like each new incarnation simply because it seems I’m supposed to, but because I keep finding reasons to like them. On a certain level, yes, having a pre-existing interest does make it easier, but if a movie or a TV show rubs me the wrong way, then it rubs me the wrong way. Being a fan merely means that it’ll be that much more likely that I’ll eventually take another look, or however many it may take for me to change my initial opinions. Wrath of Khan, ironically, is especially indicative of that, in my experience.

Star Trek became one of my favorite movies from 2009 not merely because it was a new Star Trek film, but because it was a truly good film. (Granted, the number of times I saw it was definitely because it was a Star Trek film, but in 2008 and 2010, I saw certain Christopher Nolan movies frequently because they captured my imagination in similar ways, experiences I wanted to repeat, and often.) When whole sequences start to string together and I find it difficult to forget them, I know something has been particularly successful. And in Star Trek, pretty much everything works, without exception.

And so now we’re in another of those crossroads, a happy one, as it turns out. We get to wait for another Star Trek. Sometimes, that wait has been as little as a week, or even several times a week. There were four years between the end of Enterprise and the release of Star Trek, and seven years between Nemesis and Star Trek. There was a big gap between the original series and The Motion Picture, but some of it was mitigated by the animated series. For the first time since the original Kirk films, the franchise seems content to be a big screen experience, which is perhaps welcomed, after the constant succession of TV shows that represented the bulk of the backend from the last phase of Star Trek. It may play like safe to keep it in cinemas for the time being, but that feels pretty okay for now.

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