Despite the incompetent projection of it I attended (which cropped the Panavision vistas into a regular 1.85:1 box; beware of Bay Ridge Alpine Cinema!), I still count J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009) one of the happiest moviegoing experiences of this year.
The theme, suitably enough for a prequel, is education. “A stallion needs to be broken”, Spock (Zachary Quinto) says at one point – and the movie promptly proves him first wrong, then right. Stallion named Kirk (Chris Pine) needs to be broken in, but first it has to be allowed to stay as rowdy as possible. Only after that can Chris Pine become William Shatner.
When the theme of education is first introduced, we see bunch of Vulcan kids taking their tests in some pod-like exam rooms. They know it all, but they don’t know emotion – in other words, they’re the kids of the Internet era, plugged into their iPods and computers; disconnected from experience. What the movie is in favor of, is cheating at the exam; going outside educational system not to beat it, but to prove it’s not sufficient. At the end, Kirk teases Spock, knowing he’s not that crazy about showing mercy to the bad guys who destroyed his planet: “It’s logic. Don’t you like it…?”, to which Spock says: “Not this time”. Star Trek is all about exceptions to the rule and following one's gut feeling.
Of course, the world of Star Trek is as artificial as ever. We’re surprised at the sight of an apple (but then, we’re equally surprised when someone mentions “genocide”). The fun of the series has always lied in its ability to abstract the action and plot from any geographical or technological reality we are familiar with, and Abrams thrives on this, too (not least in the scene of Kirk making out with a green-skinned chick). It’s not surprising, then, that the most real thing in the universe of this film is a movie reference. When we learn Kirk Senior’s ship was called “Kelvin”, we sigh with relief and whisper to ourselves – all smug – “A-ha! They watched Solaris (1972), too!”.
The sensual pleasure of this film lies in its freshness, its tempo (A creature! – A creature gets eaten! – By a bigger creature!) and in the youth and beauty of its two main actors. Now, as hard as it was to make Spock beautiful, the joint chiefs of staff from the casting and make-up departments pulled it off, and Zachary Quinto is a joy to watch. Chris Pine, with his blue eyes always overactive and never completely at ease, makes for a perfect essence of Kirk: he’s the energy that we knew was somewhere in Shatner’s character, but to which he was only tapped, whereas here it’s on full display.
It’s very likely that future film historians (and no, I have not just talked to one, like Kirk did to the older Spock) will neglect the two months that came in between Watchmen (2009) and the new Star Trek. To them, Watchmen will probably be “the last blockbuster of the Bush II era”, while Star Trek will be hailed as the first one of Obama’s. And even though both premiered after the new President took his office, there is something to this oversimplification. When Abrams’ film ends, and we see the old (new) folks united again (for the first time) at the deck of the “Enterprise” – it’s hard not to feel the giddy excitement of an adventure just about to begin. I hate to be as crass as to evoke “Change” at this point, but if movies are at all capable of conveying a social state of mind (or at least actively wish for one), than that’s truly the movie of the moment.
The true joy of Star Trek is to watch how it restores youth itself to its proper place – right at the head of the game.