Directed By J.J. Abrams
Starring Chris Pine, Zachery Quinto, Simon Pegg, Carl Urban, Eric Bana
I’m an unabashed Trek fan, so much so that I actually like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan more than the Star Wars films. With that said Empire Strikes Back is better than the rest of the Trek films. I wouldn’t consider myself a “rivet counter” of the Trek series though. For example it makes no difference to me whether a new movie brings Checkov on the bridge at the same time as Sulu or if he comes along later like in the original series. The only reason I know that’s the case is because I have a friend who follows the mythology of the series to the finest detail.
I do however believe that there are certain parts of the Trek universe that are required to create a Trek film. There’s of course a look to the ships and uniforms, but even more important there are thematic elements and philosophy that make Trek what it is and not a Star Wars film.
J.J. Abrams had big shoes to fill by taking on this franchise. The fanbase is rabid and intensely critical of change to the franchise. At the same time those shoes were beat up by the last movie in the franchise. Star Trek Nemesis actually caused the demise of the franchise, at least temporarily. Insurrection was a good enough extended episode of the Next Generation TV series but not feature film worthy so the forces behind the franchise in those days had really hit a wall. So shutting down the franchise for a while was the best thing Paramount could have done.
J.J. Abrams is someone I always follow and I’m seldom disappointed. Admittedly I never watched his early television series Felicity but I did watch Alias and I’m obsessed with LOST. His installment of the Mission Impossible franchise was the best of those films also. Tom Cruise destroyed that franchise with all of his couch hopping antics. Last year Abrams produced a little film called Cloverfield that reinvented the Godzilla story in an exciting and innovative way too. Finally there’s his most recent TV project Fringe, which is also pretty great. So Abrams track record on TV and bringing a new vision to existing tropes has been really successful. When I first heard he was taking on the franchise I couldn’t have been more excited. Then the sound bites started hitting the web where he’d say things like “I never really liked the Star Trek franchise”. Those sorts of comments, even if true, were a mistake because they devalued a successful franchise that he was taking over and wanted the fanbase, and the mainstream audience to re-embrace. It actually felt like he didn’t care much for the hardcore fans but instead wanted to focus on mainstream movie goers. Granted, the mainstream is a larger audience but the Trek fanbase is large enough that they alone could make the film a success at the box office.
The film starts with a bang. From those first few minutes all the way to the end this film is action packed. After seeing the film in theaters I talked with a friend about it and he complained that there was so much action that the philosophy of the franchise never gets any screen time. He’s right that the film is action packed but aren’t they all? Didn’t we see the Enterprise crash and skip across the surface of a planet? With that said it would have been nice for Abrams to have integrated some of the thematic elements that make the franchise stand out into his launch film. The truth is that he may choose to change all of that. At this point we really don’t know. The bulk of the movie that isn’t action is focused on the introductions of the main characters. This is what Abrams is best at, building characters within unreal situations. He did it in the first few seasons of Alias and he continues to do it in LOST, with the help of some top notch writers of course. The back-story of these characters has radically been changed. Some of the iconic bits are still in place making the characters recognizable but how these characters came to the Federation for example is quite difference. Kirk is still a ladies’ man and rebellious, Spock still struggles with his human heritage, and Mr. Scott, brilliantly played by Simon Pegg, is still “giving her all she’s got!” Perhaps my favorite modernization of a classic character has to be Dr. McCoy played by Carl Urban. “Bones” was always hot headed and he still is but a reason for the way he acts is built into his character now; he’s completely neurotic. I have to give credit to Chris Pine too. He takes the Kirk role and makes it his own but he still embodies a lot of what Shatner brought to the role so many years ago. Fortunately he doesn’t attempt Shatner’s specific line delivery style but he does embody the bravado of the character that was so much fun in early films such as Wrath of Khan. Zachery Quinto does a fine job as Spock too. He’s not as much of a standout as Pine and Urban but he looks the part and he handles the character just fine. The one hiccup is Checkov played by Anton Yelchin. He’s more irritating than interesting. He’s supposed to be funny but Simon Pegg is much better at handling the comic relief.
The thing that is the most surprising about this film is just how much it honors the original series. There are lines taken right from Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country and used in such a way that the hardcore fans would recognize them and the uninitiated wouldn’t even catch the wink at the audience. The lines make perfect sense within the story. The original franchise is not only honored with winks though. It would have been easy for Abrams and crew to have just ignored everything that came before their film and start anew but instead they find a clever way to tie everything from the original series to this new film and make it all work. We old school fans have to except that the franchise must be updated and modernized but at least this film doesn’t render all of the past TV series and films unimportant. Without spoiling the film everything that has happened actually happened. That’s all I’ll say. It all still matters even if won’t happen again to these versions of the Trek characters and its all done using classic franchise tools.
The action is stunning and the character designs are all properly modernized yet still representative of what they once were. The main story is a bit simplistic with Eric Bana getting very little to do but that story is more of a tool to set up this new version of the Star Trek universe and for that it works great. With this film we don’t yet know how much of the philosophy of the original mythology is going to be important in this re-invention of the franchise but this film is focused on building the characters and giving them a new history. The closing seconds of the film just before the credits do hint that what made Star Trek what it was is important to the creators of the film so hopefully we’ll see more of what Rodenberry meant to do with the original story in future installments of the franchise. It requires mentioning that Abrams really wanted to leave a visual stamp on this film, more so than in other films he’s done. For example he shoots some close up bridge shots with a wide angle lens causing some shots to appear a bit stretched and more controversial was the decision to use tons of lens flares. The wide angle lens shots honestly don’t make a lot of sense other than making a few scenes appear a bit skewed. The lens flares make more sense even if they are overused. The flares make everything feel bright and vibrant which works on the bridge of the Enterprise but seems out of place in various other locations. There’s plenty in this film for the true Trek fan and the noob can jump in here and no nothing about the mythology. It’s a fun summer action movie reboot to the franchise. I can’t wait to see where it goes in the future.
This 1080p 2,40:1 AVC presentation here is quite gorgeous. It’s not completely flawless but it’s really close. Colors are crisp and vibrant and black levels are deep black and not the weird gray that can often be an issue on some transfers. Detail level is just a little inconsistent throughout the first half of the film with special fx scenes appearing a little lower res than scenes with no CG. The difference is minor but noticeable on larger screens. When they want to put the effort into it Paramount can do a good job with HD presentations and for this release they really put the effort in.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 presentation here is really well balanced so that you won’t have to ride the volume buttons on your remote. The mix is also clean with dialogue, score, and sound fx separated and clean. Dialogue is never muffled by heavy score or fx. The gorgeous score gets good attention here and there’s also nice low end usage of the sub woofer. There are plenty of directional sounds both in high action and in more subtle quieter scenes making the film extremely immersive. All of the classic Star trek sound effects that are in the mix were a nice touch. This is a top notch audio presentation.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The 3 disc set is presented in a slim amaray case. The artwork is isn’t very imaginative at all. The slip cover is white with the name of the film in huge letters on the front and on the back. The case art features a black and white close up of Kirk on the front and one of Spock on the back. Couldn’t we have gotten some art that was more representative of just how important this film is to the franchise?
The 3 disc set is a little misleading. This is really a 2 disc set with a digital copy included in the package. On the up side though there are tons of bonus features on the second disc. The first disc features the film and a feature length commentary with the producers and director of the film. There’s a lot of chatter from people with similar voices so it’s a little tough to tell who’s speaking sometimes. Fortunately J.J. Abrams voice stands out so it’s easy to make out his voice above everyone else’s. There’s good information throughout the commentary about the production that’s only repetitive to the featurettes a few times. This is a very informative listen.
To Boldly Go is a 17 minute featurette that focuses on Abrams and the gang’s plan to make Star trek cool again and all the work they did to try and make everyone happy, the hardcore fans and new fans alike. There are four additional videos that add an additional 9 minutes to the featurette. The most interesting of these extra videos is a brief discussion of why William Shatner didn’t end up in the film. The excuse was a bit on the lame side but it is what it is. It’s true that putting him in would have been challenging but the writers could have done it I believe.
Casting is a half hour look at the cast of the film and all of the challenges of having new actors recreate the iconic crew of the Enterprise. It all gets a little to marketing here and there but there’s still good information here.
Starships is 25 minutes on the ships of the film and all of the updating that was done for this modern version of the franchise. The featurette covers both the inside and outside of the ships and it focuses on all of the detail put into each of the ships and the locations utilized for the interiors of them. Good stuff here and an additional 10 minutes of short videos are also available to watch as part of the featurette too.
Aliens is a typical sort of alien design special fx featurette you’d see on a sci-fi or horror film. Many of the various alien designs are featured from simple Vulcan ears to full face masks augmented in post with CGI. It may be typical but for real fans it’s a must to see. This one’s 17 minutes long again with an additional 8 minutes that can be watched with the featurette or separately.
Planets is a total of 21 minutes long and it covers the various planetary locations of the film from a San Francisco of the future to the surface of Vulcan. There’s great information here about the actual production of the film along with the design of locations. Some of the additional footage covers the extras that worked on the film.
Prop and Costumes is 10 minutes about updating the phasers, the costumes, and more. It’s brief but definitely worth a watch. The additional minute of video shows off Klingon costumes that were deleted from the film.
Ben Burtt and the Sounds of Star Trek is a 12 minute featurette covering the sound fx of the film with the man in charge Ben Burtt showing off how some key sounds were created. He also discusses all the work put into recreating sounds from the original TV series.
Score is 7 minutes on the score of the film. Down and dirty, really short.
Gene Roddenberry’s Vision is a brief 9 minute tribute to the creator of the show and his vision for the future. It’s not especially deep but at least he gets a nod from this new team.
There are 15 minutes of deleted scenes that include a lot of visuals and characters that don’t even appear in the film including Klingons and the Klingon prison planet, Spock’s birth, and more. There’s a 7 minute gag reel with some funny stuff but it runs just a little long. Finally there are 4 minutes of trailers for the film.
The third disc features a digital copy of the movie and a demo for the video game.
There’s a lot of really great stuff here but it’s a little poorly executed. All of the short branching videos on the featurettes should have been cut into the featurettes. The featurettes are all really short so adding these brief additional videos wouldn’t have made the featurettes run too long. If I truly had my way though I’d have cut all of the featurettes into a really great feature length documentary. That didn’t happen because the list of bonus features wouldn’t have been substantial enough to please the marketing folks.
This is a fantastic reboot to one of Paramount’s flagship franchises that had previously lost its way. The challenge going forward is for Abrams and crew to find a way to truly differentiate their version of Trek from Star Wars. The film had a little too much Star Wars in it. In fact in the bonus features the writers mention that Abrams asked them “what can we learn from Star Wars?” Like it or not the two franchises are radically different and they should be. We need more than one big sci-fi franchise so hopefully in the next film we’ll see more of the elements that originally made Star Trek so popular. The bonus features here are pretty great but you can bet there’ll be a double dip where we’ll get more appropriate box art.
Overall (Not an average) 8.5/10
The Movie 8.5/10
The Video 9.5/10
The Audio 9.5/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 8/10
Overall (Not an Average) 8.5/10