erik lundegaard

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Star Trek (2009)

WARNING: EXCELSIOR-CLASS SPOILERS

You knew it wasn’t going to happen—just as, when Sulu’s life was imperiled, you knew he wasn’t going to die because they’re not going to kill Sulu. So even when the Romulans drilled into Planet Vulcan and prepared “the red matter”—which, we find out, will cause the planet to collapse upon itself in a matter of minutes—you just leaned back and waited for the deus ex machina. Because it’s the Planet Vulcan. That’d be like killing Sulu. Or like blowing up Earth. Ain’t gonna happen.

Then it does.

And you think, “Holy crap.” Pause. “Oh, they’re not gonna do one of those cheesey reverse-time things, are they? Where we wind up going back to this moment in order to reverse it? And everything’s the same? And fine?”

Nope.

It’s not until the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is talking about all of this, and Uhura says that these all-powerful Romulans, who are from the future, have created “an alternate reality,” that the other shoe drops.

This “Star Trek” movie isn’t just a reboot—a chance to update popular and still-lucrative characters with young stars and updated special effects. This is an alternate reality. A new reality. The new reality.

In other words, J.J. Abrams and friends have created a rationale for doing whatever the hell they want with these characters—blow up Vulcan, have Spock and Uhura get it on, give Scotty a sidekick—and the hardest-core Trekkie/Trekker can’t really object because it still plays within the rules of the “Star Trek” universe.

Abrams & friends can tell Trekkers: Look, your universe is fine—where the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise meet the salt creature and Mudd’s women and the Gorn and Finnegan and Joan Collins and Wyatt Earp and Abe Lincoln. That’s all still there. But that’s the alternate universe now. Or this one is. And this Capt. Kirk and this crew are on a different path and there’s nothing you can say about it because it plays within the rules Gene Roddenberry originally created. And you can’t go against Roddenberry, can you?

And you pause for a moment, balanced in that thought.

And you think: Wow, that’s pretty smart.

As for the film itself? It zips, baby. But it’s not that smart.

They bring back miniskirts and black boots. I’m a fan.

Chris Pine makes a dynamic Kirk. Zachary Quinto makes a spookily accurate Spock. Hell, all the casting by April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg is well-done. Among the second-tier characters, I particularly like Simon Pegg as Scotty, Zoe Saldana as Uhura and Bruce Greenwood as Capt. Pike. At times, Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy was a bit much—like he wasn’t doing DeForest Kelly so much as Dave Thomas doing DeForest Kelly on the old “SCTV” show. To trot out my nerd credentials. Not to mention my age.

Here’s the story if you want it: Next-Gen-era Romulans, who have witnessed the destruction of their planet, go through a hole in space, and, with their high-tech weaponry, destroy the U.S.S. Kelvin. But George Kirk, captain for all of 12 minutes, manages to hold them off to allow the rest of the crew—including his pregnant wife, who gives birth to a baby boy en route—to escape. Then these Romulans wait around for 25 years until Amb. Spock, whom they blame for Romulus’ demise, comes through the same hole in space. Apparently no one knows they’re out there. Helluva cloaking device. Helluva lotta patience.

In the meantime, baby Kirk grows up to be a badass. After a barfight with some cadets from Star Fleet Academy, Capt. Christopher Pike gives young Kirk a good speech (“Your father was the captain of a starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives. I dare you to do better”), and the next day Kirk signs up for Starfleet.

He makes passes at Uhura, makes friends with McCoy, makes enemies with Spock. We see Kirk faced with the unwinnable Kobayashi Maru test, which, in this universe, Spock created, and which Kirk wins by cheating, and for which he’s almost tossed out of the Academy by Tyler Perry doing the guest-star gig. (Hey, how about Madea as captain of a starship?)

Then: lightning storms around Vulcan, Federation ships sent to investigate, blown apart by the Romulans, who are busy getting their revenge. The Enterprise, thanks to Kirk, survives, but Vulcan is blown up and Capt. Pike is captured and one of those slug things that was put in Chekov’s ear in “Star Trek II” is put in Pike’s mouth here. Num.

Even though we’re in an alternate universe, we still get tons of echoes from the old one. When Kirk asks Sulu what kind of martial arts training he has, Sulu replies: “Fencing.” Spock repeats several of his famous lines, once as Quinto (“When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”), once as Nimoy (“I have been, and always will be, your friend”).

But there are holes in the plot as big as the holes in space the Romulans went through. Sure, I’ll buy that the Romulans can do whatever they want to Vulcan. One assumes the Vulcans, those peace-loving bastards, don’t have much of a defense system. But Earth? We’re way too paranoid not to be defense-ready. And are Spock’s actions really logical throughout the film? I mean, shooting Kirk into space in a pod? Is that standard procedure? Or is it merely a way to get Kirk onto that Class-M ice planet, where he’ll run into the arms—almost literally—of the old Amb. Spock? And how about old Spock? Turns out he’s responsible for the destruction of his entire planet! Ouch! Even with the alt-universe thing, I doubt Trekkers will take kindly to that.

I like certain touches. The long-faced alien trapped between Kirk flirting with Uhura at the bar. The sensation of actually being blown out into the deadly silence of space.

And the movie zips. And it’s fun.

Is it too zippy? Too fun? Too much like “Star Wars”? When the movie ends the way we knew it would, with the new crew heading out to explore strange new worlds and seek out new blah blahs and yadda yaddas, I looked at the new, alt-universe Kirk and thought, “But what’s your point?”

In the original series, particularly its first season, there was a mystery, and a creepiness, to what they might find out there, always augmented by that great background soundtrack of creepiness. (I can imitate four background tracks from TOS: “Spock’s low bass-guitar blues”; “lovin’”; “fightin’”; and “creepiness.” “Creepiness” is my favorite. Whoever did the music for TOS was genius.)

Now there’s very little mystery left. Now aliens sit longfaced between us at bars in Iowa, and now we bed Orion animal women like that (even the sex is easier: Sorry, Bill!), and now we warp to Vulcan and warp back again, lickety-split, and defeat the enemy just in time, and get our command at 28 (Pine’s age) as opposed to 35 (Shatner’s age in ’66). Most of the new crew is in their early 30s but they look so much younger, so less adult, than the original crew, who were in their mid-30s and 40s, that they almost seemed like tiny toons versions of same.

I guess I thought “But what’s your point?” because for most of the movie, the goal of James T. Kirk was to become a starship captain and outdo his father, which he did, by saving the entire frickin’ planet and maybe the entire human species. But now what? What’s Kirk’s goal now? To explore strange new worlds? To seek out new life and new civilizations? That takes work. He seems too breezy and solipsistic for that. Sitting in the captain’s chair he fought so hard to get, he already seems bored.

There are still final-frontier stories to be told, stories that add to the mystery rather than paving it over, but you’ve got to drop out of warp-drive, and pause, and look around, and reflect, in order to tell them properly. Hollywood’s movies? They just keep speeding up.

—May 9, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard