Well, it's midnight and I've just returned from attending the world's first showing of the new Star Trek film in IMAX format in New York City at the Loews Lincoln Center. When Paramount sent me the invitation, I confess I thought twice about attending. The reason is that I'm probably the only baby boomer who grew up in the 1960s and managed to emerge knowing almost nothing about Star Trek. Although I have seen some of the first feature films based on the show, I have never seen a complete episode of the original series. Nor have I seen any of the sequels, prequels or spin-offs. Wait - it gets better. Some years ago, I was introduced to Leonard Nimoy and only chatted briefly about films he directed, with nary a mention of his pointy-eared alter-ego (I think he was grateful, actually). Finally, back in 1990s, I was in L.A. to appear on a TV program and found myself backstage in the green room with a wonderfully witty gentleman whose face looked familiar, but whose name I couldn't place. After talking for about an hour about WWII history and the injuries he sustained in the war, I asked him what he did for a living. "I'm an actor", he said. "My name is James Doohan and you probably know me from Star Trek". Doohan was kind enough to say that my ignorance was refreshing, as it afforded him a rare opportunity to discuss something unrelated to the series, but I justifiably felt like an idiot. I tell you all of this because it is important for you to know that when I attended the Star Trek premiere, I had little interest in the film, and was far more intrigued by the prospect of simply enjoying the IMAX experience. Two hours later, I emerged from the theater a full-fledged Trek enthusiast, now determined to catch up with what others had the foresight to appreciate nearly a half century ago. The new Star Trek is a modern sci-fi classic and a personal triumph for director J.J. Abrams, who has reinvigorated the series in the way that both James Bond and Batman have been revitalized. This is your father's Star Trek - and that's meant as a compliment.
This is a movie so filled with energy, creativity and surprises that I will refrain from spilling most of the specifics here. Suffice it to say, you don't have to be a Trekker to appreciate its merits. While I am generally pretty grumpy about the overuse of CGI in films, this is a case where it is obviously merited - and they are the best CGI effects I have ever seen onscreen. However, Abrams- working with a literate and witty script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman - has not lost sight of the fact that the series was about the human element (or Vulcan element, as the case may be.) The story tells how all the aspects of the original series came into being. I have no idea whether these plot developments have been explored previously in various Trek films and series, but they were new to me, including the surprising revelation that Kirk and Spock started their relationship as adversaries. The film traces how Kirk progressed from a brilliant but rebellious troublemaker into commander of the Enterprise - and how he assembled the now legendary crew. No one envies actors who take over legendary characters played by other beloved actors, but the most exciting revelation about the new movie is the brilliant casting. Virtually every role is a gem and is played by actors with extraordinary talent and charisma. Topping the list, of course, are Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, playing Kirk and Spock respectively. Both were unknown to me, though I understand Quinto is one of the stars of Heroes. (Since I haven't watched episodic TV since Mr. Ed was ratings gold, I was unfamiliar with his work.) Both actors generate the kind of chemistry enjoyed by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in the original series. Amusingly, now freed by the constraints of TV censorship of the 1960s, Kirk's horndog instincts are on full display in funny sequences in which he tries to seduce the fetching Uhura (Zoe Saldana).We also get fascinating insights into Spock's motivations and background, extending to his early years on the planet Vulcan. The script hits all the right notes and Pine and Quinto (along with the rest of the cast), pay homage to their predecessors by invoking just enough familiar mannerisms without delving into cheap imitation.
Even for a Trek novice like myself, it was clearly moving to see the original Enterprise back in flight, the cheesy but beloved flight uniforms and ray guns and the even cheesier SFX (which Abrams keeps intact) whenever crew members beam up to another destination. Despite these homages to the past, this is a rich, impressive looking film with outstanding production design. The special effects team also creates a monster so hideous, it makes Alien look like Bambi. The film is not above criticism, however. Abrams falls into the same cliched trap that every other action film director does by shooting and editing the fight scenes in a jittery blur with no cut lasting more than a quarter of a second. It robs these scenes of their full impact, as the action becomes an indistinguishable blur. He might just as well have given the actors the day off and simply waved a multi-colored cape in front of the camera. As I'm even boring myself by making this frequent criticism of modern action films, I'll leave it with this bit of advice for today's directors: watch the train fight sequence in From Russia With Love, perhaps the most perfectly crafted fight scene ever made. Study it, learn from it and dispense with the gimmicks so we can have action sequences that don't look like they were shot by a jittery Don Knotts in the midst of an earthquake. Yet, such criticisms are minor, because Abrams' Star Trek is so dynamic, the few faults are quickly overlooked. The film also boasts a wonderful music score (remember when those were routine?) and composer Michael Giaccino's provides a particularly good touch at the film's conclusion. I should also point out that the much-heralded appearance by Leonard Nimoy isn't just a gimmick. Without going into details, Nimoy plays a pivotal role in the latter part of the film - and he does his best work ever as Spock. If you can get through the end of the film without a lump in your throat, you're more macho than I am.
I will confess that somewhere about 3/4 of the way into the film, I lost track of what the hell was going on. Something about time warps, "red matter" (whatever that is), black holes and God knows what else. Then again, it may be due to my limited ability to comprehend stories dealing with time travel. I still regard Total Recall with the same kind of complexity that scholars afford Milton's Paradise Lost. Nevertheless, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride - and what a ride it is. The buzz from the audience was completely positive and it's safe to say that a new series of Star Trek films seems assured. May they live long and prosper.
(Note to fans: Make sure you see the film in the IMAX process, if at all possible. It's an experience that is literally out of this world.)