On tonight’s very special edition of Projected Realities, we salute the passing of Leonard Nimoy, an entertainment icon whose many roles spanned the likes of Dragnet, Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible, and of course Gene Roddenberry’s magnum opus.
Director J.J. Abrams’ take on Star Trek is a relentlessly exciting and accessible work that despite a few inside jokes requires no advance knowledge of the series or its ten earlier movies to enjoy. The simple story is given the finest presentation and its own continuity, thoroughly invigorating this long-standing franchise and making for a wonderfully engrossing watch.
Visceral yet polished
The starship U.S.S. Kelvin flies toward what looks like a lightning-spewing maelstrom in space, out of which comes a truly evil-looking vessel, the Narada. Abrams has learned well from another sci-fi epic, and this shot establishes a threat not through exposition or even carnage but simply through scale. Completely dwarfing its prey, the Narada opens fire without so much as a warning, devastating the innocent ship in a frantic, violent, and powerfully memorable display. There’s not a lot of dialogue or specific characterization, but this is storytelling distilled, where people become heroes or villains in the span of a few moments.
Deprived of one captain already, the Kelvin braces to lose another as George Kirk issues a ship-wide evacuation order before retaliating one last time against his aggressor. Bombs, lasers, and the doomed ship itself hardly scratch its destroyer, but Captain Kirk has bought precious time, saving hundreds of lives at the cost of his own, including his wife Winona and their unborn son, James.
Forced to give birth in an escape shuttle while physically watching her husband die (after barely getting to hear his new child’s voice and to name him), Winona’s emotions naturally run high as everything around her falls to pieces. Two themes recur throughout all of Star Trek–the significance of emotion, and bravery in the face of hopelessness–and they are used flawlessly: imagine the slow but unavoidable tragedy of the beginning to Pixar’s Up, then compress and intensely amplify it. The result, while upsetting, is absolutely astounding.
Cue title and excellent theme music. And Beastie Boys.
A captain cannot cheat death.
The mood shifts abruptly without feeling deceitful: now in Iowa, young Jim is busy making trouble in his new father’s Corvette, while on the planet Vulcan, the young all-business alien Spock is taking rapid-fire academic tests and being emotionally taunted by his peers. This works all too well, as one bully ends up being pummeled by his erstwhile victim. The latter’s father reprimands him simply through silence, following up with good advice: Control your feelings so they do not control you. Spock’s mother is human, a fact other Vulcans tend to think little of, and as he is now older, he must decide whether to purge all of his emotions or to embrace them for the sake of his mother. Naturally, she’ll love him either way.
Back in Iowa, Kirk is now an “adult,” at least technically, as he spends his evenings in a crowded bar, complete with aliens as well as women for James to flirt with. He isn’t a total fool, however: when his future colleague Uhura discusses her study of alien languages, Kirk surprises her by understanding (and her knowledge later comes in handy during Into Darkness). A young and burly white knight tries to defend Uhura and punches Kirk after one too many jokes; a brawl breaks out, and Jim, outnumbered, ends up in his own fight he can’t possibly win. Uhura also establishes herself as a peacemaker, or at the very least she tries, which is surely worth something.
Kirk, drunk and with grim prospects for his future, is given an invitation by one Captain Pike to enlist in Starfleet Academy for the sake of the Federation, a peacekeeping and humanitarian armada. Pike knew Jim’s father George, who accomplished more in his twelve minutes as captain than the younger Kirk has in his life to this point. The movie then shows where the Enterprise is being built, and it’s huge. The special effects in this movie are marvelous. Nothing ever looks “fake CG,” not even the most alien of the monsters, and the camera demonstrates ship-model sizes wonderfully.
Years later, Kirk steadily moves closer to completing his Starfleet education, while main villain Nero is shown to have waited decades to exact revenge for the destruction of his world. Our “hero” has some questionable values, engaging in foreplay with one alien but then hiding under her bed while her roommate (Uhura, of course) comes in and begins taking off her clothes–just before hearing some very suspicious mouth-breathing, giving the film one of its most earnest and least abrupt comedic moments. James T. Kirk, here, isn’t a deeply moral individual, but he is consummately interesting to watch, which definitely keeps the story moving even if other characters sometimes make his life–though not just his, as Uhura herself demonstrates–rather convenient.
I will say that some situations contrive themselves to allow James to avoid the consequences of his actions, as Into Darkness showed in stronger detail, but they come with enough of an audience payoff–before long, the planet of Vulcan issues a dire distress signal, and the Enterprise and other ships have no time to waste if they want to save countless lives. Just as importantly, James does demonstrate moral fortitude enough to stick to the truth of what he knows even when doing so is inconvenient, which nets him a very bittersweet reward. A disastrous first encounter with Nero leads to a hectic ‘away mission’, complete with space sequences where there’s no noise except for what can be heard from inside the mission team’s spacesuits–a very nice effect.
Despite not looking especially hospitable, Vulcan is rendered gorgeously, and its urban environments showcase a great deal of detail through their architecture alone. Moreover, an action scene taking place high above the planet’s surface is shot steadily enough to follow but quickly enough to remain tense and suspenseful even when there’s little doubt as to who will win. Many of Star Trek’s best moments are the same way, establishing what is at stake with little or no dialogue (my favorite being a scene of Kirk being forced to act quickly before another man is sucked into a turbine) and then playing out at a furious pace.
Nero, meanwhile, explains his simplistic but sufficient character motivations, which at the very least are more interesting than just a simple desire to take control. Chris Pine as James Kirk demonstrates some impeccable acting (cf. Unstoppable), as does Zachary Quinto as Spock, but one strange event leads to another, and eventually Kirk somehow runs into an old friend.
With age should come wisdom.
He is here.
Leonard Nimoy, the Spock from the original Star Trek series, plays a wonderful role here that’s difficult to explain without spoiling half the plot; even still, Nimoy brings a calm yet charismatic performance to the table, and in his own way he manages to teach young Kirk a great deal about friendship. He will need it. (On another note, there are some excellent creature designs in this part of the movie, and it is a bit of a shame to see them so lightly used. As far as character interactions go, much of the dialogue is funny and heartwarming, but some cause-and-effect relations risk making your head hurt.)
Much of the remainder of the film takes place onboard the Narada proper; with the story and character setup out of the way, Star Trek shifts over toward action and excels at it. The explosive and not-suitable-for-children battles range in scale from melee fights to ship combat, and while the Federation is established as being ideally peaceful, some villains simply refuse to back down and must be made to.
The movie overwhelms with sympathizable human emotions, not with technical jargon, and its de-emphasis on its story’s own science takes a big risk: do you cater to viewers who will analyze your work down to the smallest detail, or do you ignore this and focus on appealing to a wide audience that may not have a strong interest in science or physics? Even if the film’s appeal is more basic than technically intricate, it has a lot of appeal, and that is valuable enough on its own. The story isn’t that deep, but it’s told well enough to be consistently interesting. The characters aren’t very complex, but they feel distinct and create lots of engaging conflicts without coming across as obnoxious. There isn’t a huge emphasis on “setting” (we primarily see Earth, Vulcan, and a few ships), but the ones given make for excellent viewing. Star Trek 2009 doesn’t try to please everyone, but for those who are interested in the brand of action the movie has to offer, it should be more than enough of a worthy watch.
Conclusion: A child of two worlds
Director J.J. Abrams’ frenzied approach to this storied franchise evokes Michael Bay at times, to be sure, but the characters, the straightforward but compelling tale, and especially the music, pacing, acting, and camera work are all astounding. The movie makes for a stunning if often brutal introduction or reintroduction to an imagination-filled setting of heroes, villains, and foreign worlds, and if you like your science fiction with less of a focus on how and more on to what end, Star Trek comes as a particularly recommendation.
Now for the reason I am here–I couldn’t begin to sum up Leonard Nimoy’s life and extensive career in a few sentences and will make no attempt to do so. I don’t have the slightest comprehension of all that he accomplished throughout his many years, but there’s no telling just how much influence he and his fellows aboard the starship Enterprise have held throughout the decades. The movie’s directoral style makes clear that it wouldn’t exist without Star Wars, but that series may well owe a great deal to a ship and its fellows who happened to be on a planned five-year mission–and perhaps that goes both ways.
Godspeed to you, Mr. Nimoy, and to all who will follow in your footsteps. If there’s one thing Star Trek serves to teach us, it’s that within human interaction there is room both for rational intelligence and for heartfelt emotion. Each has its place, each has its limits, and neither will get far without the other. Above all, this eleventh film entry is a story that gains its power not from the complexity of its elements but from their conviction, and it shines in the big picture. I wish Leonard Nimoy’s friends and family the very best, and I hope that our own future gives this enduring franchise a legacy they can always be proud of.
Live long, and prosper.
Image credits (property of Paramount Pictures, Spyglass Entertainment, Bad Robot, and Mavrocine; many links contain spoilers)
– Movie poster – source
– Kelvin fighting Narada – source
– Narada, full – source
– Corvette – source
– Enterprise under construction – source
– Space dock – source
– Spock Prime – source
– Narada interior – source
– Vulcan salute – source