Star Trek XI (2009) Review
By Andre Kibbe
How well does director J.J. Abrams' Star Trek (2009) stack up against the rest of the series? How is the film in its own right?
Overall, I was entertained, but with reservations. If you don't insist on strict plot coherence, you'll probably have a great time. Hardcore Trekkies (or "Trekkers" if they really take themselves seriously) will more likely to have mixed feelings about it than regular moviegoers. One of the reviewers on Amazon put it best: "Excellent film. Bad Star Trek."
Star Trek 11: The Plot (Sort Of)
Most Star Trek films are narratively structured for feature-length, but Abrams' Star Trek is even more television-paced than any of the television shows. Star Trek may not surpass Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as the best Trek film of all time (something I think we can all agree on), but it's definitely the most action-packed. Abrams' breakneck pacing is what keeps viewers glued to their seats, distracted from the convoluted plot that would have otherwise unraveled the film.
It all starts with the USS Kelvin investigating a electrical discharge in space that we find out is actually a black hole. Out of the black hole, 129 years from the future, emerges the Romulan ship Narada, commanded by the vindictive Nero. Nero fires on and cripples the Kelvin, then demands that its captain be beamed aboard. Before handing himself over, the captain transfers command to George Kirk, whose pregnant wife is about to give birth to the legendary James T. Kirk at any moment. The senior Captain Kirk orders his wife and crew to escape the Kelvin in shuttles and pods, then single-handedly pilots the ship into a destruct course with the Narada. In the last moments of Kirk's life, his wife gives birth to their son.
James Kirk grows into an adroit but aimless juvenile offender (Jimmy Bennett in childhood, Chris Pine in adulthood) in Iowa, with misadventures ranging from joyriding his stepfather's antique Vette to waging fistfights with Star Fleet cadets before Captain Christopher Pike intervenes. Pike tries to convince Kirk that he's wasting the leadership aptitude suggested by his test scores. Pike presses the point that Kirk's father saved over 800 lives in only 12 minutes as a starship captain, and dares Kirk to live up to his father's legacy.
Across the universe, Kirk's contemporary, a young, half-Vulcan/half-Human Spock (Jacob Kogan) is tormented by his Vulcan classmates for his mixed heritage. He lashes back at them in a rage more characteristic of humans than Vulcans, and is criticized by his father for it. Years later, when Spock (Zachary Quinto) is old enough for the enter the prestigious Vulcan Science Academy, he declines the reluctant acceptance of the university's administrators, and instead enrolls in Star Fleet Academy, where he first crosses paths with Kirk.
Kirk and Spock immediately rub each other the wrong way when Kirk manages to pass a test simulation, the Kobayashi Maru, engineered by Spock. The Kobayashi Maru scenario was designed by its nature to be a no-win wargame, to test leadership skills in the face of certain death, so Spock suspects Kirk of gaming the system. He presses charges to have Kirk court-martialed, gathering evidence that Kirk has planted a subroutine in the simulation to make it possible to beat the test.
While Kirk is facing Spock on trial, the Federation gets a distress call that Vulcan is under attack. The trial is interrupted to assemble selected Star Fleet cadets to the USS Enterprise to for an intervention. Though Kirk is grounded, his new friend, Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), is able to bring him on board the Enterprise on medical grounds by making him temporarily sick beforehand.
The Enterprise travels to Vulcan to investigate the lightning storm in the planet's upper atmosphere. When Kirk hears about the lightning storm over the intercom, the stowaway is forced to reveal his presence to Captain Pike, pointing out that the ship is falling into a trap that replicates what happened to his father. Sure enough, when the Enterprise disengages its warp drive, falls under attack by the Narada.
The Plot Thickens
This is where the story's timeline and character motivations get muddled. 129 years later, Spock tries to save Romulus from a fast-approaching supernova by bringing of supply of "red matter" to the planet which, when ignited, would form a black hole that would take up all matter exploded from the supernova. Spock's journey to the planet gets disrupted by an exploding star in his trajectory.
Failing to save the Romulan planet, Spock's ship is intercepted by the Narada, with Nero blaming Spock for his brethren's destruction. The red matter, which Spock ejected from his ship, was ignited by the supernova, forming a black hole and distorting the space-time continuum. Before the Nero can finish off Spock, the block hole sweeps them both up and sends them through time separate points in the past: Nero his crew are sent back 25 years before Spock. Nero has been scheming and waiting to avenge himself on Spock, by this point a Star Fleet cadet, for 25 years.
I'll stop recounting the plot here. I've left out a bunch of subplots to convey the basic premise in order to address basic flaws. Why does Nero hate Spock again? For allowing an explosion to derail his attempt to save Romulans, nearly dying himself?
Nero takes his vengeance a couple of steps further. He has a vast drilling rig stationed in Vulcan's stratosphere to reach down and drill through the planet's crust to its core. The plan is to destroy Vulcan by depositing red matter into its core, turning the planet into a black hole. Nero also blames the Federation for not saving his people, so he decides to make Earth his next stop for black hole conversion. With Captain Pike in custody, Nero tortures him for the security codes to Earth's defense systems, as if one individual would be entrusted with that much information (even today's bank's don't give one manager the ability to open a vault without another employee).
The Good and Bad of Star Trek XI
Suspension of disbelief isn't my strong suit, but the plot holes (don't get me started on the "future Spock" in the film played by Leonard Nimoy) didn't keep me from having a good time.
While much of the acting lacked character with The Original Series (TOS) actors, the performances in their own right had enough energy and charisma to keep the audience engaged from start to finish.
A prime example is Chris Pine. I personally couldn't imagine landing the role of Kirk and not taking a shot at aping William Shatner's verbal pauses and gesticulations. Zachary Quinto leaves most of Nimoy's mannerisms behind, but does an excellent job of conveying the inner conflict between Vulcan reserve and human expression. The gorgeous Zoe Zaldana plays Uhura with virtually no reference to Nichelle Nichols' rendering, but she delivers her lines with a verve that makes up for the silly flirtation triangle between herself, Kirk and Spock never suggested by their total lack of mutual chemistry in the original show.
Eric Bana is saddled with a one-dimensional, mustache-twisting villain role that no amount of acting chops can salvage. The writers clearly modeled Nero's character after Star Trek II's Khan, but even the great Ricardo Montalban himself couldn't have made Nero believable.
Some of the actors, like Karl Urban and Simon Pegg, seem to have actually done their homework and studied the original performances. Karl Urban does a great Leonard "Bones" McCoy that pays homage to DeForest Kelly's version, mimicking Kelly's facial expressions and affectionately grumpy speech patterns. Simon Pegg follows suit, channeling more than a little of James Doohan's characterization of Montgomery "Scotty" Scott.
The production design was pretty astute. Anyone trying to maintain the look and feel of a 40-year-old franchise set in the future (especially a few years before the "original" future) has his work cut out for him. Abrams' team did a great job of keeping the uniforms and costuming more or less consistent with the original series. The USS Enterprise is cut very close to the mold of the original design, only adding a few contours to keep it from looking completely dated.
Does Star Trek 11 Deliver?
In the Fellini film 8 1/2, a character looking at the fictional director's over-the-top movie set remarks, "The prophet really lays it on thick," to which director responds, "You prefer films where nothing happens? In my films, I put in everything."
That's basically what Star Trek XI feels like: an attempt to pack every scrap of the Star Trek legacy (except for tribbles) into two hours. Sticklers will knock it for lacking substance - pretty accurate so far - but as spectacle, the movie scores big time. If you're willing to sacrifice intellectual stimulation for two hours of robust entertainment, this is one Enterprise worth boarding.