Just a few years ago, following a disastrous serialized television prequel, Star Trek looked like it was ready to keel over after spending the better half of a century on television and movie screens.
In walks J.J. Abrams…
At the eleventh hour, Paramount made a desperate hail mary for the ailing franchise by giving complete control of the property to the esteemed television producer; the same J.J. Abrams who immediately sent fans into a tizzy with reports that he didn’t watch Star Trek, didn’t care about precious canon and didn’t want to make another sequel.
That’s right, he was going to reboot the entire thing from scratch, using the original crew.
[Nerd side bar: The cries of Internet blasphemy about this were only rivaled to when reports surfaced that Abrams was actually planning on NOT destroying Krypton in his now-defunct remake of Superman.]
Turns out, it didn’t matter.
With frequent Abrams collaborators Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman at the keyboard, the Bad Robot alumni single-handedly resuscitated the franchise and made it – dare I say – cool.
The downside is that Trek’s new mass appeal has been achieved with the exclusion of franchise’s meatier elements; the film is now essentially a fluff piece.
The 3-disc Blu-ray release both amplifies the film’s strengths and its flaws; complimented by an incredible audio and visual presentation, along with a strong set of supplemental material.
And while the additional content offsets the picture’s strong emphasis of style over substance, it’s mileage will vary depending on your affinity for a time when science-fiction actually meant something.
Star Trek is essentially a pilot, something J.J. Abrams excels at producing, giving audiences both a clean point of reference and fans a new take on an old formula.
In that sense, it works.
But as a film, it is a very flawed attempt at a Batman Begins/Casino Royale stylized reboot; it never completely gels or manages to shake some poor storytelling decisions.
The first few minutes are out-of-this-world; an incredibly gripping and emotional cold open that immediately glues butts to seats. From the hull of the USS Kelvin being torn open (resulting in a crew member flying out into the eerie silence of space) to the tearful exchange between Kirk’s parents, Abrams knows he has the audience hooked.
Sadly, the rest of the film fails to live up to that level of intensity, trading away emotional depth for visceral action sequences. It’s all fun and games during the film’s brisk running time, but you can’t help but feel duped afterwards.
Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman piece together a reboot using well-known character tropes; one that tells the origins of a young, but immature military brat named James Kirk that must seize his destiny, and the roots of an unorthodox, pointy-eared Vulcan named Spock torn between two worlds.
Both, naturally, despise one another, but over the course of the film (and thanks to several manufactured plot devices) forge a bond that will result in three or four more big-budget, blockbuster films.
So, what works?
Well, for starters, the cast is strong. Any initial skepticism about replacing Shatner and Co. with a bunch of attractive twenty-somethings is erased pretty early on. It’s helps that Orci and Kurtzman’s primary strength as a writing tandem are character moments, and the film has that in spades.
Christopher Pine and Zachary Quinto strike out their own interpretations of the classic characters (Kirk and Spock respectively), neither content with a simple facsimile of their predecessors and both fit snugly into their roles.
Zoë Saldana and Simon Pegg are also pleasant surprises, making the most out of their limited exposure. Saldana, as Uhura, is given much more to work with than Nichelle Nichols ever received in her entire career; expanding the communication’s offer role on the Enterprise well beyond just the token minority character.
The creative team, through some crafty writing, also manages pays respect to both the original crew and prior Trek films, without forcing themselves into a corner with pre-existing canon.
And I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that Leonard Nimoy has a pretty significant and clever cameo, one that paid huge dividends by luring skeptical Trek fans aboard Abrams’ somewhat controversial reboot.
Yet, the film is filled to the brim with pointless scenes, and features a completely arbitrary villain that reaches the outer limits of believability.
Nero, played by Aussie thesp Eric Bana, has a backstory so riddled with holes that it resembles one of the many spaceships his character blows up throughout the course of the film (and he blows up a lot).
It is only compounded by the fact that there is absolutely no sense of urgency during the film’s running time, and Orci and Kurtzman balk at giving their stable of characters any kind of emotional weight (Spock being the only exclusion). Even when Nero’s character does something as destructive as blow up an entire planet, all you’re left with is a lingering feeling of indifference.
The young crew of the Enterprise also rises through the ranks so rapidly that it begins to feel contrived; by the end of the film, with nary an officer over the age of 35, the bridge resembles Star Trek: 90210.
And lastly, a lot of the film’s comic relief hinges on Orci and Kurtzman inserting established catchphrases into the script, which becomes a detriment halfway through the film. Both writers shamelessly wink at the audience, and it grows tiresome near the film’s third act.
What makes it all so frustrating is that the film is capable of being so much better than it actually is. The initial outline of a great story is here, it just needs a guiding hand to clean it up. The cast is great, but the character development is not.
For all the good things Abrams and his creative team do, they do about twice as many lazy things – which is especially aggravating considering the competency of the production.
You can’t help but think Star Trek is one film where the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Star Trek is one of the few Blu-ray releases to be docked points not on the merits of its transfer, which is strong, but because all the transfer does is magnify some very poor cinematography.
The film features a startling amount of lens glare – and it’s awful. And not only is it awful, it’s in every, single scene. Apparently, director of photography Dan Mindel does not believe there are tinted windows in space.
And it is not a simple nitpick either, but rather a serious distraction throughout the entire film. Paramount would better serve fans by including a pair of shades and some sun block with the disc.
Abrams also adds fuel to the lens glare-induced fire by repeating a gaffe I had hoped he had ended with his gig on Mission: Impossible III; mainly shooting the picture like a television show instead of a film. The director often pulls the camera in too close and ends up betraying the epic scale of his supposedly larger-than-life space opera.
If you ever wanted to see the Enterprise shot as if you were watching a UPN show, this is the Trek for you.
The actual image quality is pristine – a 1080p, 2.39:1-framed transfer that is virtually absent of grain and boasts a clean, sharp picture. Abrams’ re-imagining of Star Trek is colorful and clean; the bridge of the Enterprise looks like the Genius Bar at the Apple Store. This aesthetic lends itself well to high-definition, and long-time fans will be astonished by the high production values.
Blacks are deep, contrast is superb, print anomalies are negligible and the picture is crisp. It’s a darling transfer, it just happens to showcase a poorly shot film.
Star Trek sports a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless track that barrels along with an intensity that is unexpected, but welcome, from a Trek flick.
The film is host to imaginative and varied sound design that cleverly uses the acoustics of space, filling every channel of the sound stage. From warp engines to photon lasers, everything is audible and the clarity is exemplary. Trek also touts exceptional directional audio; often using all speakers for optimum effect.
Abrams standby Michael Giacchino creates a score that is understated, utilizing his distinct retro style to compose a suite reminiscent of the original ’60s television show. That said, Giacchino rarely flexes his creativity, and the soundtrack often times sounds derivative as a result.
The upside is that Giacchino’s score never overpowers the dialogue, and neither does the symphony of explosions and futuristic sound effects. The lossless audio is crisp and clear, even in the midst of some of the film’s more aggressive action sequences.
Other than an underwhelming score from an extremely talented composer, Star Trek is a sonic delight.
Warping home on a 3-disc set, Star Trek features a well-rounded, entertaining set of supplemental material that is as enjoyable as it is informative.
Despite any criticism of the production, the additional content leaves no doubt that Abrams is a passionate filmmaker and dedicated towards making an entertaining product for fans.
The first BD-50 disc, which contains the film itself, also stores a rather crowded audio commentary track with Abrams, writers Orci and Kurtzman, and producers Bryan Burk and Damon Lindelof (of Lost fame). The breezy commentary, which isn’t as hectic as the body count would suggest, is surprisingly informative and made a second viewing of the film rather worthwhile.
The disc also has a live RSS feed from NASA, via BD-Live support. Only nerdlings and space junkies will find the addition worth talking about, but it’s neat little easter egg.
The second disc is where the fun begins. This disc is full of a myriad of features, including a detailed look at Abrams’ pre-production process, casting decisions, creature design, set design, props and costumes, sound and a retrospective on Gene Roddenberry.
Now, folks, this is great stuff. Each aspect of the film is broken down, and Abrams’ – along his talented crew – run a clinic on big budget filmmaking.
Oddly enough, the feature that tickled my nerd fancy the most was a chapter on legendary sound designer Ben Burtt, and the work he put into this new Trek flick. Burtt is something of a Trekkie, and his enthusiasm is infectious; anyone with a working knowledge of film history will undoubtedly enjoy Burtt’s commentary.
Also included are nine deleted scenes with optional commentary, chief among them is a pretty lengthy subplot involving the Klingons unfortunately cut from the theatrical release. And while it may surprise you that one of Trek’s most recognizable creations sit on the cutting room floor, Abrams offers sound reasoning for the exclusion.
The third and final disc not only offers a digital copy of the film, but a free trial for the Star Trek D-A-C videogame – and weblinks for specific platforms. It rounds out a terrific package of supplemental material that will keep fans and enthusiasts busy for hours, and one of the best sets Paramount has put together all year.
While Abrams’ reboot is the most approachable of all the Trek films (and the easiest to digest), it is far from perfect.
In fact, this new and improved Star Trek feels awfully similar to the first Trek motion picture, in that the pieces are put into place, but a compelling narrative is noticeably absent. Maybe a sequel will cure what ails this reboot.
The end result is a pretty disposable piece of pop-cinema, one that suffers from some bad storytelling choices and is, by far, the least cerebral of all the Trek films. It only exists to shuffle its attractive crew from action set piece to action set piece, attempting to reconfigure the classic Enterprise crew along the way.
If anything, it’s frustrating how great the film could have been be with just some simple tweaks, but its laundry list of nagging flaws bog down what is an enjoyable experience otherwise.
The Blu-ray is an exceptional one, and it props up what is a fairly lackluster movie, but it’s tough to recommend the set as a must-buy with so many other reference titles available.
In the end, I was won over by the excellent audio and video presentation, and some of the more enjoyable bonus features pressed on a Blu-ray disc this year.
I just wish this ship had more underneath the hood.
Verdict: 4/5 – “BUY”