Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Is There Finally Some Oscar Hope For "Star Trek?"

We're well into Oscar season and I've been despairing for Star Trek, a sensational reboot of the sci-fi franchise that offers the smart, broadly appealing entertainment that Hollywood does best. it's garnered nary a peep despite being one of the best reviewed movies of the year. (Rotten Tomatoes shows a 94% overall and 92% from Top Critics.)


I know, I know. It's sci-fi, it's a long-running franchise, the cast is mostly unknown, helmer J.J. Abrams is from TV, the plot is very geek-centric and so on. The Dark Knight had many of those strikes against it but unlike that nihilistic film, Star Trek is positive and fun. The film has been out for a few weeks on regular DVD ($29.99; Paramount) and in a BluRay Special Edition ($39.99; Paramount but only $20 on sale at Amazon and just $5 more than the standard DVD) that is well worth the price. And now the Producers Guild has wisely named Star Trek one of the 10 best films of the year. Here's hoping Academy members will pop in the DVD or go to a screening, even if they're not a Trekkie. They're in for a shock.

For one thing, an amazing thing happens in the first few minutes of the film: you feel emotionally moved. Now I've watched Star Trek the TV series many times as a kid and dove into Star Trek: The Next Generation and all the films and (with decreasing interest) the numerous spin-offs and prequels and sequels. I've sometimes been very entertained. But I've almost never been moved.

And yet, in the first few minutes of the film we watch a young crew member plunged into crisis and sacrificing himself to make certain the rest of the crew (including his wife, in the midst of childbirth) can abandon ship. Remarkably, the scene is also funny and plugs right into the Star Trek mythology since we get to see how future Captain James Tiberius Kirk got his name. (A DVD extra shows how Spock got his name, BTW.) It's textbook screenwriting. And then your heart gets stuck in your throat. Whoa, I thought. I didn't expect that to happen.

After that the film just hurtles along, thanks to a marvelous cast. Chris Pine as Kirk gives an action film performance worthy of Harrison Ford circa Indiana Jones. (That's the highest compliment I know.) Zachary Quinto (of TV's Heroes and whose casting I wrongly bemoaned) brings exceptional depth to Spock. And straight down the line the cast is great: Bruce Greenwood is a sturdy Pike, Zoe Saldana is a sexy and smart Uhura, Simon Pegg is enjoyably scenery chewing as Scotty, John Cho and Anton Yelchin are distinctive in their small roles of Sulu and Chekhov and Karl Urban is a great Bones. And they're sexy. From Kirk to Chekhov. (And yes, I've freeze-framed the Green Girl scenes. I'm not ashamed to admit it.)

The screenplay is sleekly efficient: we see Kirk and Spock as alienated kids and quickly sparring at Starfleet Academy. The bad guy (a serviceable Eric Bana) is set up without any muss or fuss. The stakes are raised and raised again. And it all barrels along to a bang-up finale.

I have quibbles. The scene of a very young Kirk driving a car off a cliff (and almost killing himself) is idiotic and utterly out of whack with the rest of the film. It should have been left in the teaser trailer. One too many scenes of people dangling off the sides of cliffs or over an abyss are repeated. The snarky little alien sidekick for Scotty is better soon forgotten. But these are indeed quibbles.

Abrams and his team created a film wonderfully faithful to a beloved franchise but gave it new life and reached out to a broader audience than ever before. They also launched what might be a star in Chris Pine. (If nothing else, he's got a great few Trek films ahead of him.) There's a moment towards the end when Uhura confronts Kirk angrily and says, "I hope you know what you're doing" and Kirk quietly responds, "So do I." It's a moment of humbleness and vulnerability (in the middle of terrific action, I might add) that brings an entirely new dimension to the character and the series as a whole.

I've watched it three times in the theater and twice on DVD and just want an excuse to watch it again. The BluRay extras certainly provide them, such as deleted scenes, very good commentary and much more. J.J. Abrams has shown a knack for launching TV shows like Felicity and Alias and Lost and then not seeming to know what to do with them after the first season. I'm hoping that means he has about six good Star Trek films in him before he hits a wall. Hollywood should encourage him by rightly nominating the film as one of the ten best of the year. It won't win of course. (Neither will Avatar.) But it's exactly the sort of film the Academy expanded its list to include. Any voting members who doubt me just need to watch the film.