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Star Trek: Retrospective – Part 3

In Star Trek: Retrospective, Edgar Chaput boldly goes on a journey through the Star Trek film franchise. 

Previous Installments:

INTRODUCTION

PART 1

PART 2


Star Trek (2009)

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Ideas had been tossed about for a prequel to the original Star Trek for decades already. Gene Rodenberry himself, as early as 1968, is quoted as saying he had plans to make a feature-length film on the subject. Script notes surfaced intermittently, but either Roddenberry himself, dissatisfied with their potential, or other factors such as negative fan reaction, prevented the project from ever seeing the light of day, that is, until the mid 2000s. By then Star Trek: Nemesis had faded from memory. The studio, still tempted by the thought of renewing interest in cinematic Trek, hired writers and Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to brainstorm ideas. Before too long, self-described Trekkie Damon Lindelof was on board, as was J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot studio. As the project took shape, the new film would not be a continuation of the franchise but rather a prequel, a reboot, and sequel of sorts all rolled into one.

The USS Kelvin is sent to analyze a peculiar energy disturbance, a large lightning storm, the source of which is a mystery. Much to the crew’s surprise, a Romulan ship, captained by the vindictive Nero (Eric Bana), emerges from said storm. Nero kills the Kelvin’s captain when the latter boards his vessel and subsequently attacks the Starfleet shuttle, killing everyone, but not before a select few can escape just in time, among them James T Kirk’s then still pregnant mother. Several years later and Kirk (Chris Pine) is an up and coming cadet at Starfleet, as is the Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto), language specialist Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and doctor Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban). The Enterprise, under the guise of Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), is dispatched to Vulcan, where a mysterious enemy is planning to destroy the planet. It is none other than Nero and his Romulan armada, time travellers seeking vengeance on Spock and the Federation for the inadvertent destruction of their own world. The main target of Nero’s wrath: Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy), who has found himself transported into this new, alternate timeline created by Nero.

Star Trek 2009 succeeds in nearly every respect where it almost certainly should fail. Recasting untouchable fan favourites for younger, hipper versions? Altering the all-important cannon and timeline? Forsaking thematic depth for a space opera adventure more in line with Star Wars than Star Trek? Utter madness! And yet, director J.J. Abrams, his crew, and cast deserve much of the plaudits they earned when the film roared into theatres in the summer of 2009. No, it doesn’t feel much like classic Trek, yet its charms are undeniable. Only the most ardent, draconian supporter of the original series would exclusively shun the efforts of the creative minds that brought this new version to the silver screen. The filmmakers definitely eschew much of what made the show a success, most notably for the aforementioned reason that the movie’s focus, as far as plot is concerned, is in rapid-fire action than any tapestry of ideas that speak to the ills or strengths of humanity. Despite that, the end result is rollicking good fun.

Most shocking, or pleasantly surprising, is the strength of the cast. The actors portray versions of the characters fans recognize, yet put just enough of their own stamp on the roles to them their own. It’s an extraordinarily fine tightrope walk between imitation and breaking new ground, but of course not too much of the latter so as to not have the fanbase bristle. Apart from the reality that actors Pine, Quinto, Saldana, Urban, Simon Pegg (as Montgomery Scott), John Cho (as Hiraku Sulu), and the late Anton Yelchin (as Pavel Chekov) are extremely charismatic and easy to like, the fact of the matter is that the characters exist in an alternate timeline due to Nero’s spiteful interference with Trek history. As such, they don’t have to be exactly like the original crew. To put it bluntly, they are precisely what they are: the characters we know, just a little different. Much more so than the messy Generations, Star Trek is a true passing of the torch, what with the inclusion of the original Spock to assist this ‘Kelvin timeline’ Kirk and crew defeat Nero.

The 2009 Star Trek is popcorn entertainment, but fans can rest easy for it’s of the most delicious, buttery kind.


Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

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Four years is a long time for a studio to produce and release a sequel to a hit movie. Even so, it wasn’t before the 2013 summer movie season that moviegoers were treated to the next chapter in the adventures of the Kelvin timeline Enterprise crew. What would director Abrams and scribes Orci and Kutzman concoct? Odd rumours circulated during the pre-production phase and filming of what eventually became Star Trek Into Darkness. For example, this being the 2nd film with Kirk and company, would it feature Khan Noonien Singh, like the first sequel back in 1982? Why such a rumour would spread in the first place is anyone’s guess, but guess who looked smart when the movie opened…

James Kirk’s tenure as captain of the Enterprise is short lived. After disobeying the Prime Directive in order to save Spock’s life, Starfleet demotes him to rank of first officer, with Pike resuming duties as captain. Meanwhile, a renegade Starfleet officer, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) wreaks havoc in London via a terrifying terrorist explosion. Not done there, he directly attacks Starfleet command during a critical meeting, killing many high ranking officials in the process, among them Captain Pike. Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) reinstates Kirk as captain of the Enterprise, ordering him to hunt down and kill the terrorist Harrison. This causes significant strife within the crew, unaccustomed to such a blunt mission. It is only too late when Harrison, revealed to be a genetically engineered and enhanced being by the name of Khan Noonien Singh, exploits his vengeful mission against Admiral Marcus and the Federation in order to save the lives of the other experiments like him, trapped in cryogenic stasis.

How easy it is for filmmakers riding a superb high to falter quickly. Basking in the glory of the unexpectedly delightful and accomplished Star Trek, Abrams and company commit terrible sins with Into Darkness. Those chomping at the bit to rip the film to shreds mercilessly should be asked for a modicum of level-headedness. The movie is anchored by the same charismatic cast as before and interesting newcomers (Cumberbatch, Weller, Alice Eve as Admiral Marcus’ daughter, Carol Marcus), all of whom do their utmost to perform heavy lifting. Visually, the picture is very much in line with its immediate predecessor, which sported a slick, cool look that was easy to dig into. Michael Giacchino returns for scoring duties and, true to his reputation, the music is a sheer delight. It’s not that there aren’t any positives. They’re there, if one squints.

The problem is twofold: an asinine script and a respected director that took no issue with adapting it to the screen. Tonally, Into Darkness is on par with Nemesis for how purely un-Trek if feels. Bloodthirsty vengeance erupting left and right, Starfleet ordering search and destroy missions, the same Starfleet concocting a secretive plot to engage the Klingons in warfare, large sections of San Francisco being obliterated by a crashing Enterprise and rival vessel Vengeance (what sort of name for a Starfleet ship is Vengeance anyhow?), much of what transpires, tonally, feels off the mark. From a plot perspective, Into Darkness opts for deliriously bizarre choices, chief among them the reinvention of Khan Singh. First and foremost: why? Having set-up a brand new cycle in Star Trek lore, why remake Space Seed and Wrath of Khan into a single picture? Why remake them at all? Why would a rebooted Khan have any significance to this Kelvin timeline Enterprise crew given that they’ve never heard of him? And then there’s the matter of Kirk demise…and immediate resurrection. Into Darkness is an example of a movie that digs its own grave every step of the way, completely wasting a cast that is easy to fall in love with.


Star Trek Beyond (2016)

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It would certainly take time and considerable effort for the bitter taste of Into Darkness to wash away. Rather than immediately knock another film off the production line, Paramount and Bad Robot once again took some time in preparing the next instalment. For a while it looked as if Roberto Orci, of all people, was going to sit in the director’s chair, Abrams having gone off to direct the next Star Wars sequel. What that film would have turned out to be shall forever remain a mystery, for it was Justin Lin, who had carved a name for himself with impressive, consistent work on the Fast and Furious franchise, who eventually got the job. A curious decision to be sure, but then again, this new iteration of Trek had thus far put a lot of emphasis on moving fast and furiously, with some good results at least.

After a comically bungled peace keeping mission, the Enterprise and her crew dock at space station Yorktown. Now three years into the Enterprise’s historic five-year mission of space exploration, Kirk is somewhat lost and disillusioned. He applies for the position of Yorktown commanding officer, suggesting that Spock take over as captain of their vessel. Shortly thereafter, Kirk and company are called into action when an escape pod drifts nearby. Its lone surviving occupant, a female alien named Kalara, pleads that the Enterprise travel to Altamid to help her stranded crew. Before the Enterprise can even land, it is savagely attacked by a swarm of smaller vessels that rip through its body, ultimately crash landing on Altamid itself. Once there, the crew discover a new enemy, a ferocious alien named Krall (Idres Elba) that has plans on destroying Yorktown. A new ally comes in the form of a fellow stranded soul, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who may know how to best foil Krall’s plans.

Out of the 3 film instalments featuring the Kelvin timeline crew, Beyond is the one that best harkens to what the television series strove for. ‘Best’ need not necessarily mean ‘great’, only that it is the movie out of the trio that comes closest to accomplishing the feat. Rather than hop from one location to another at warp speed, director Justin Lin actually sets the action on Altamid for the majority of the run time, much like how the crew would be predominantly concerned by a single focus per episode. The introduction of Jaylah, a strange yet beautiful looking and fiercely independent alien, also adds to the classic feel.

That said, there is a reason why Justin Lin rather than someone with sensibilities for slower, methodical pacing was selected to helm the feature. This is the slick, super cool version of Star Trek, after all. Thankfully, Lin is up to the task of at least delivering an experience that wows and delights much like the 2009 first endeavour did. This being the third entry, the element of sheer surprise has long died out, yet Beyond trots along with considerable aplomb, relishing in the opportunity to pit the Enterprise crew into a single, particularly precarious predicament with seemingly no way out. Of course, leave to the maverick Kirk and his intrepid crew to once again defy the odds and save the day, as well as their own butts. The cast is now very comfortable with their roles, and in return the audience has grown to like them more as well. Surprisingly, if the movie has any significant letdown, it’s Idris Elba, which is a bizarre criticism, granted. Perhaps saying that he is the problem is unfair considering the ungodly amount of makeup he is caked in. His Krall, actually a former Federation officer disillusioned by its altruistic hopes, is a decent antagonist, although it’s difficult to shake off the sense that he is more ‘monster of the week’ than anything else.

While it probably won’t rank number one on many Trekkie lists, Beyond is a reasonably entertaining lark. For the simplicity and occasional goofiness of its plot, it’s still light years more intelligent than Into Darkness.


FINAL LOG

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Thirteen movies spanning 37 years for a property celebrating its 50th. Not bad at all. It’s rather amazing to consider Star Trek’s humble beginnings: a mid-to-low budget science-fiction primetime show that featured regularly astute writing, progressive casting, a game actors, all wrapped in pedestrian set design and alien makeup that today is often mocked by those that can’t see past the artifice. Cancelled after only three seasons, popular demand and fan support, as well as creator Gene Rodenberry’s dutiful stewardship, kept the franchise alive, even though the next big step came a decade after the final television season, short-lived animated series notwithstanding.

Here we are, a few months after 2016’s Star Trek Beyond successfully manoeuvred the multiplexes, earning solid critical praise and a handsome bounty at the box office. What’s more, a new show titled Star Trek: Discovery, the first since Enterprise ended in 2005, is on the horizon. Information trickling out of the production has been far and few between, but the excitement is unmistakable. Star Trek is alive and well, both its relevancy and fan base as strong as ever.

Imagination and creativity.

The final frontier.

These have been, up until now, the voyages of the starship Enterprise. To the writers, directors, and actors that take up the mantle henceforth: be brave. Explore strange, new stories, seek out new adventures, themes, and allegories. Boldly go where no Star Trek tales have gone before!

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