Saturday, November 7, 2009

Star Trek Blu-ray Review

You are fully capable of deciding your own destiny.

As it has since September 8, 1966 with the debut of "The Man Trap" on NBC that marked the beginning of the greatest and longest-lasting Science Fiction franchise in the history of filmed entertainment, "Star Trek" once again boldly goes, this time to where it has never gone before in the span of 43 years, six television series, and 10 feature films. In 2009, a new film with a new cast portraying old favorites returned to the series' roots to explore strange new worlds populated not by new civilizations but more complex and understandably functional sets and wondrous special effects that improve not on the spirit but certainly the look and feel of the old classics while delivering a film that at once both satisfies the demands of longtime fans and welcomes newcomers eager to accept this version of "Star Trek" that doesn't break the mold but instead reshapes it to fabulous effect. Smartly and effortlessly blending the new with the old, maintaining the spirit of series creator Gene Roddenberry's vision but at the same time providing to the material a fresh and modern approach, Director J.J. Abrams' ("Lost") Star Trek is more than a summer blockbuster; it's a rekindling of an important milestone in Science Fiction while at the same time boldly plotting a new course towards a limitless, fascinating, and exciting universe of possibilities.

The Grandeur of the Galaxy.

Stardate 2233.04. The U.S.S. Kelvin is destroyed by a large and technologically advanced vessel, the event promising to forever alter the course of the unwritten yet destiny-driven history ahead. Several years later in Iowa, a young James Tiberius Kirk (Jimmy Bennett) is depicted as a renegade, a boy living on the edge, willing to disobey orders and rules should it suit his fancy. Meanwhile, on the planet Vulcan, a young Spock (Jacob Kogan) is ridiculed by his peers for his half-Vulcan, half-human heritage, demonstrating his susceptibility to emotional outbursts. As young adults, Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) soon find their destines forever entwined. Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) convinces the still-restless and uncontrolled civilian, Kirk, to enlist in Starfleet, seeing his potential underneath the rough exterior. While at Starfleet Academy, Kirk meets his future friend, Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) and potential love interest, Communications officer Lt. Uhura (Zoë Saldana). Starfleet graduate and now-Commander Spock challenges Kirk's ability as a potential officer when Kirk cheats a simulated test meant to examine the mettle of Starfleet Captains under the stress of sure failure and death, but the hearing is prematurely canceled when a distress call is received from Spock's home planet of Vulcan. Though Kirk is not assigned to a vessel, Dr. McCoy uses his position as a ranking medical officer aboard the Federation's flagship -- the U.S.S. Enterprise -- to bring his friend on-board. When a groggy but aware Kirk learns that the phenomena appearing above Vulcan is described similarly to that which preceded the destruction of the Kelvin, a ship to which Kirk has ties, he convinces both Captain Pike and Commander Spock that the event may actually be a Romulan ambush. Kirk's instincts are proven correct, and the Romulan vessel, Captained by a man named Nero (Eric Bana) reveals its true intentions, setting in motion a series of events that threatens the existence of the Federation and jeopardizes the destiny of Starfleet's best.

The biggest challenge facing a reboot of Star Trek -- particularly on this scale -- was threefold: the necessary re-casting of iconic characters, the re-design of the Enterprise, and the explanation as to the hows and whys of the differences between the 2009 edition of Star Trek and the long-established and cherished history of the people, places, and things of years past. Abrams' vision succeeds at each level. While the film might have gotten away with little-to-no regard for the latter -- the explanation for the altered reality -- the film not only explains it away but also integrates the reason into the film as the primary plot device. The film states -- and the crew acknowledges -- their existence in an altered reality shaped by future events which, as depicted in the film, logically alter the past. Considering "Star Trek" has dabbled in alternate timelines and realities before -- notably in the Original Series second season episode "Mirror, Mirror" and again in both "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: Enterprise" -- the notion seems as legitimate now as it was then. In addition, this is not the first time that "Star Trek" has seen itself drastically altered. With Director Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, "Trek" took a turn towards the militaristic, with stricter adherence to military custom, dress, rank, and terminology, not to mention delivering more in the way of dangerous and exciting action pieces. If fans can enjoy both Roddenberry's more utopian vision and Meyer's more traditionally militaristic visions equally, why not Abrams', too, considering his masterful job of exploring both sides equally in Star Trek, mentioning Starfleet's purpose of being a "humanitarian and peacekeeping armada" while at the same time including plenty of action and cementing it all in a decidedly militaristic structure.

Through it all, however, Star Trek is a film about destiny. Abram's picture posits that, despite the changes made to the "Star Trek" timeline, there is an aura of destiny about the NCC-1701 Enterprise and her famed crew, not to mention other, smaller, but no less important touches that find their way into the film that serve not only to please fans and maintain some continuity but reinforce the idea that some things are inevitable. In that regard, both the characters and the ship require a strong resemblance to those which first appeared in 1966, and while there is no mistaking that for Abrams' Star Trek, the similarities are perfectly maintained while providing a new identity for the 2009 rebirth. The Enterprise retains her basic shape, with an elevated saucer section, warp nacelles protruding from the hull in "V" formation and located behind the saucer, and a deflector array at the front of the hull and a shuttle bay in the rear. It's more streamlined and slick, a design characteristic reflected in the interior bridge, corridor, and transporter room settings as well. The interior of the ship is dramatically clean and bright, with white the primary color. It's almost organic, a design reflected in the technology implemented in the view screens and the data they display. No longer is the bridge made up of a jumble of clunky buttons as seen in the Original Series or the flat and seemingly unintuitive LCARS design of "The Next Generation." Here's it's something more readily identifiable to 2009 audiences (something "Enterprise" did very well) despite its complex structure. The computers require skill and speed to operate; no longer can the crew lock on to a signal for transport or engage the warp drive with the simple press of a button. It takes smarts and precision handiwork to operate the Enterprise, and by extension, that elevates the importance of her crew. In addition, the Enterprise is dotted by small but crucial details that make it a more believable vessel in both function and purpose; the bridge, transporter room, and turbolifts feature warning labels, for instance, and the transporter actually appears with a military designation (M-6110 in this case). Such details bring the ship to life like never before, giving it its own purpose and identity but at the same time merely updating and upgrading the ship for 2009 and beyond. Additionally, viewers will appreciate the finer touches that truly make Star Trek a film that speaks to, rather than alienates, longtime fans. The Kobayashi Maru test plays a crucial role in the film, "Admiral" Archer's beagle is mentioned, and yes, even a "red shirt" bites the dust in Star Trek.

Most importantly, Star Trek features a cast that might not absolutely resemble the actors that played in Gene Roddenberry's original "Star Trek," but they each understand not only their character's mannerisms but also the importance to the fan base to portray them with a dignity and compassion for the source material and the unique performances that made the characters so memorable. In fact, the filmmakers have integrated additional character traits into the story for both dramatic and humorous effect, and the script's understanding of the complexities of the characters further allows the actors to effectively portray them as fans demand. For instance, Sulu's (John Cho) prowess with the blade is utilized in one of the film's pivotal action sequences. Chekov (Anton Yelchin) struggles with the pronunciation of the letter "v" in what is the film's funniest scene. Actor Karl Urban delivers the closest approximation of his character through his effort as Dr. McCoy; the speech patterns, the catch phrases, and his attitude towards Spock make for an almost uncanny resemblance to what DeForrest Kelley did with the character. Bruce Greenwood's portrayal of Captain Pike steals the show; he's superb throughout, and his character, too, winds up reinforcing the film's themes of destiny as well as any other with a simple but highly effective nod to the "Star Trek" universe when all is said and done. Zoë Saldana's Uhura undergoes the most noticeable change from 1966 to now. She's scripted as a more important character with an attitude and surprise revelation that breaks the norms of established "Trek" lore but fit in nicely with the entirety of the film. Even Ben Cross as Spock's father Sarek turns in an excellent performance; not only does he somewhat physically resemble Mark Leonard, but he steals every scene he is in, most of which are highly-charged and emotionally-driven, which only proves the actor's ability to fully immerse himself as an emotionless Vulcan. Zachary Quinto both looks and acts the part of Commander Spock. Spock proves the most pivotal character in the film; his half-Vulcan, half-human heritage plays a crucial role in the movie, and his ability to command his half-human side proves vital to the outcome of the story. Quinto makes for the best Vulcan since Leonard Nimoy, fully understanding not only what it means to be Vulcan but also what it means to be Spock. As James T. Kirk, Chris Pine might be just a bit too rambunctious, but as the film develops, shades of William Shatner emerge, culminating with a scene at the end of the film that's unmistakably Kirk that longtime "Star Trek" veterans will immediately note in what is nothing but a simple look on the face and motion of the body. There's not a bad performance to be found, and more importantly, there's not a badly-interpreted character in the film. This crew meshes about as well as the old crew, and given that this is their first go-round together, it seems destiny has more in store for them than simply one great film.

Finally, it's important to note just how strong the production is from top to bottom. J.J. Abrams' visual style fits in wonderfully with the tone, story, and themes of the film, not to mention the approach that nicely compliments the set design. The extensive use of lens flare might distract some, but it reinforces the bright interior of the Enterprise, which also plays in stark contrast to the ugliness of the Romulan vessel and the urgency and sadness that play crucial to the crux of the film. Abrams' approach to the material is respectful and graceful, but also aggressive. There may not be a dry eye in the house after the film's opening sequence plays out, and there won't be an unsatisfied viewer insofar as the choreography of the action and its place in the resolution of the film's story. In addition, Star Trek's humor never falls flat or overwhelms the picture in any way. In fact, it generally enhances the tone, pace, and urgency of the film and the development of the story and its characters. Star Trek also delivers impeccable special effects. The ship and the action both are superbly realized in the digital realm, and there is no single effect that appears as anything less than perfect. Star Trek is perhaps the current pinnacle of special effects; they may not be as complex as those found in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but for sheer immersion, attention to detail, and absolute seamlessness, they don't come any better. Last but not least, Michael Giacchino's score is elegant, strong, and endearing. Like the film, it enjoys its own identity but listeners familiar with the broad range of music found in the "Star Trek" universe will note subtle similarities that allow it to nicely integrate with the works of Alexander Courage, Jerry Goldsmith, Dennis McCarthy, and others.


5 of 5

Star Trek beams onto Blu-ray with a mesmerizing 1080p, 2.39:1-framed transfer. Whether live-action people and sets or purely digital effects shots, Star Trek never fails to dazzle with its impeccable detail that's clearly extraordinary from the get-go. In fact, and save for one or two very minor issues, there may not be a better or more natural-looking Blu-ray out there. Facial detail, which makes for one of the first truly startling images when the camera focuses on the face of the U.S.S. Kelvin's Captain, reveals such intricate nuances in pores and the shadow of facial hair that the screen seems more like a window than a source displaying filmed images. Strong detail is evident in every corner of the frame; whether wear-and-tear on the exterior of the Starfleet shuttle that transports Kirk and McCoy to the Academy, the gritty and grimy interior of Nero's vessel, the clarity of the characters and words that appear on the Enterprise's display screens, or the texture of Starfleet uniforms, viewers will never find reason for concern with the intricate level of fine detail on display in practically every frame. The film isn't particularly awash in color, though it's nicely realized throughout. The red, blue, and yellow uniforms worn by the crew of the Enterprise and the ship's streamlined white and blue interior make for the most notable colors in the film, but the red convertible driven by a young Kirk, the lush green fields of Iowa, the earth tones of Vulcan, and the maroon colored Starfleet uniforms as seen primarily during Kirk's inquest all appear as natural and beautifully rendered. Blacks are marvelously deep and inky, and flesh tones retain a neutral shade throughout. Only one shot near the end of the film appears soft, but otherwise, Star Trek appears crisp and sharp in every frame. The transfer also features a very fine layer of grain that's never really noticeable but completes a perfect film-like transfer. About the only fault here is that Star Trek almost demands a huge screen to appropriately soak it all in, and for those that saw this spectacle unfold theatrically, it just feels a bit tiny on anything but the largest of displays.


5 of 5

Star Trek warps onto Blu-ray with a startling Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless soundtrack. Though the soundtrack might not be as loud and powerful as some might have hoped for, it's a wonderful listen that strives for a more realistic tone rather than an unnaturally aggressive mix. Precise and clear throughout, nary a moment passes where either high-octane action or subtle atmospherics don't make for a satisfying sonic experience. Indeed, the track excels when it comes to minor ambience; turbolift doors slide open naturally and effortlessly across the front half of the soundstage, and shuttlecraft fly about the listening area with a subtle zoom that doesn't overpower the listener but instead transports them into the middle of the action. Michael Giacchino's music enjoys exceptional clarity throughout the entire range, and it nicely blends into the rear channels. In fact, the back channels are in consistent use; even when not delivering powerful action effects or music, they immerse the listener in subtle activity that truly brings the film to life. Whether beeps and blips on the bridge of the Enterprise or background voices in the Vulcan school seen early in the film, these and other sound effects enjoy precise balance in both volume and position. Of course, the soundtrack explodes when the action intensifies. Whether a strong low end accompanying a bar scene in chapter three or various explosions during the battles between the Kelvin or the Enterprise and Nero's vessel, listeners will enjoy a robust yet tight low end that's never too aggressive or too relaxed. Phaser blasts feature a solid pulsating effect, and when the blasts impact metal surfaces, there's a wonderful thudding sensation that seems to reverberate throughout the listening area. Star Trek delivers a rousing, entertaining, and highly effective sound mix through the entire range, from the most energetic sound effects to the most subtle atmospherics. Rounded out by consistently strong dialogue reproduction, Star Trek makes for one of the absolute best soundtracks yet on Blu-ray.


5 of 5

Star Trek materializes onto Blu-ray with a fascinating and massive collection of extras spread across three discs. Disc one's primary extra is a feature-length commentary track with Director J.J. Abrams, Producers Bryan Burk and Damon Lindelof, and Writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. The track is immediately identifiable as affable and easygoing, but at the same time full of fascinating insights into the film. They begin by speaking on the year-and-a-half discussion as to how to open the film and the importance of continuity and "Star Trek" canon. The commentary moves on for a strong discussion on the importance of editing to not only pacing but also the strength of the story, a theme that runs throughout the commentary. Also discussed is set creation and design, character dialogue, the film's connection to the storytelling methods of Star Wars, costume design, the importance of the Kobayashi Maru, the many digital effects, the performances of the cast and character development, and much more. This is a fabulous commentary that grabs the attention and never lets up. Also included is BD-Live functionality that, at time of publishing, provides an RSS feed of the latest news from the NASA website.

Disc two features the bulk of the supplemental material. Things begin with To Boldly Go (1080p, 16:41), a piece that allows for branching to additional content as the piece plays (also accessible from the main menu screen). This is a good overview piece that features the cast recalling the massive challenge of rebooting the "Star Trek" universe, making Star Trek for fans and newcomers alike, the crew's varying degrees of "Star Trek" fandom, casting the roles, the Kirk and Spock relationship that serves as the core of the movie, the participation of a "Star Trek" legend, the subtle touches incorporated to please the hardcore fan base, and more. The additional content -- called "Branching Pods" -- include The Shatner Conundrum (1080p, 1:58), Red Shirt Guy (1080p, 0:43), The Green Girl (1080p, 3:25), and Trekker Alert! (1080p, 2:22).

Casting (1080p, 28:53), as the name implies, looks at the importance of re-casting the iconic "Star Trek" characters and the process of allowing them to make the characters their own while simultaneously recalling the performances of yesterday's crew. The piece takes its time introducing each actor, the character they portray, and the traits that make their efforts both unique and in-line with established "Star Trek" lore. A New Vision (1080p, 19:31) looks at the influence of Star Wars' pacing on the film, making the film seem "real," the use of on-set special effects when possible, the sets and shooting locations, shooting on film and with anamorphic lenses, the use of lens flare in the film and placing them digitally into the effects shots, shooting some of the more hectic "camera-shaking" effects, some of the innovative tricks used during the shoot, and the strengths J.J. Abrams brought to the film. The "Branching Pod" sequence accompanying A New Vision is Savage Pressure (1080p, 3:08).

Starships (1080p, 24:33) focuses on the design of the ships seen in the film, both interior and exterior. It looks at the importance of creating the right look based on the established "Star Trek" timeline but also updating them for 2009 and utilizing more modern equipment and making use of the larger budget not afforded to the original television show. The piece focuses primarily on the U.S.S. Kelvin; the U.S.S. Enterprise and her size, "hot rod" design, shooting locations that doubled for her bowels, and the design of the bridge; and Neros' Narada. "Branching Pods" for this feature include Warp Explained (1080p, 1:22), Paint Job (1080p, 1:14), Bridge Construction Accelerated (1080p, 1:18), The Captain's Chair (1080p, 0:45), Button Acting 101 (1080p, 1:44), 'Narada' Construction Accelerated (1080p, 1:20), and Shuttle Shuffle (1080p, 1:46). Next up is Aliens (1080p, 16:30), a look at the various aliens seen in the film and the people that played them, including a crew member on the Kelvin, patrons at the bar, characters at Kirk's inquest, an Enterprise crew member, Scotty's sidekick, Vulcans, Romulans, and purely digital characters. "Branching Pods" for this piece include The Alien Paradox (1080p, 1:40), Big-Eyed Girl (1080p, 1:25), Big Bro Quinto (1080p, 1:26), Klingons (1080p, 1:57), and Drakoulias Anatomy 101 (1080p, 1:35).

Moving on, Planets (1080p, 16:10) looks at the locations, sets, and special effects that double for alien worlds and futuristic locations, both interior and exterior settings. Locations examined include Vulcan, Delta Vega, a Federation shuttle hangar, Starfleet Academy, a futuristic San Francisco, and Iowa. "Branching Pods" for this supplement include Extra Business (1080p, 2:29) and Confidentiality (1080p, 2:45). Next up is Props and Costumes (1080p, 9:22), a look at the design of the updated phasers, communicators, tricorders, Uhura's earpiece and earrings, Starfleet uniforms, and Vulcan and Romulan costumes. The "Branching Pod" segment for this extra is Klingon Wardrobe (1080p, 1:08). The next feature is Ben Burtt and the Sounds of 'Star Trek' (1080p, 11:45), a fascinating glimpse into the world of sound design and the importance of sound effects to both film in general and "Star Trek" in particular. Burtt discusses his love for the sound effects of the original "Star Trek" series and how those influences carried over into the new film. Remaining with that same theme, Score (1080p, 6:28) features Composer Michael Giacchino discussing the retention of Alexander Courage's original theme and its place in the film as well as his own work that makes up the bulk of the score.

Gene Roddenberry's Vision (1080p, 8:47) features J.J. Abrams, Michael and Denise Okuda, Rick Berman, Nicholas Meyer, and others looking back at "Star Trek's" creator and his vision for the future, particularly as it was influenced by the era in which he created the franchise. Next up is a collection of nine deleted scenes (1080p) with optional commentary by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindoff. Scenes include Spock Birth (1:52), Klingons Take Over Narada (0:46), Young Kirk, Johnny, and Uncle Frank (1:36), Amanda and Sarek Argue After Spock Fights (0:38), Prison Interrogation and Breakout (3:08), Sarek Gets Amanda (0:22), Dorm Room and Kobayashi Maru (Original Version) (3:59), Kirk Apologizes to the Green Girl (0:54), and Sarek Sees Spock (0:12). Next is Starfleet Vessel Simulator, an interactive piece that shows both the Enterprise and the Narada in a three-dimensional environment with clickable options that reveal text-based facts about the vessels. Rounding out this impressive collection of extras on disc two is a gag reel (1080p, 6:22) and four trailers: "Teaser" (1080p, 1:18), "The Wait is Over" (1080p, 2:14), "Prepare for the Beginning" (1080p, 2:17), and "Buckle Up" (1080p, 1:03).

Finally, disc three of this set features both a playable demo version of the video game Star Trek D-A-C and a digital copy of the film. Replayed on a second-generation iPod touch, the quality of both the video and audio are suitable, though not necessarily as good as the best digital copy transfers that have come before it. Detail is fine, colors are a bit dull, and fairly heavy blocking and banding are evident throughout. The audio, too, is decent but lacks a fuller, more robust presentation. Dialogue is strong but sound effects don't always enjoy the level of clarity associated with the better digital copy soundtracks. Regardless, it's good enough to enjoy on a long car trip, plane ride, hotel room, or voyage across the galaxy at warp speed.

Final words

5 of 5

Star Trek is an extraordinary film on every level. Satisfying both longtime fans and tepid newcomers alike to the series, Director J.J. Abrams' vision of Gene Roddenberry's future is a dazzling achievement of filmmaking, special effects, and story, not to mention a perfect rekindling of a sadly dormant franchise. While Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and Anton Yelchin will never replace William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForrest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, George Takei, and Walter Koenig, there is no doubt they can co-exist. With an impeccable cast; wonderful special effects; a dramatic, far-reaching, and emotional story that doesn't rely on action but rather integrates it perfectly into the film; infectious humor; and spot-on odes to the original stories and characters that define the "Star Trek" universe, 2009's Star Trek is a passionate rebirth, a resurrection for the ages, and it boldly and confidently goes where "Star Trek" must to endure. Paramount's Blu-ray release of Star Trek is, like the film, mesmerizing. Featuring impeccable picture and sound quality, not to mention a complete, thoroughly informative, and consistently entertaining supplemental package, Star Trek receives my highest recommendation. Live long and prosper.