Flashback: ‘Star Trek’ (2009)

In 2009, the ‘Star Trek’ franchise made a bold return to the big screen…

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The cast of J.J. Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’ (c. Paramount Pictures).

Year:  2009

Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Ben Cross, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana

Directed by:  J.J. Abrams / written by:  Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman

What’s it about?

A young James Kirk and Mr. Spock meet for the first time aboard the newly commissioned U.S.S. Enterprise where they soon find themselves tasked with saving the universe from a vengeful out-of-time Romulan…

Retrospective/review

With the underwhelming box office and tepid critical reception of Star Trek Nemesis in 2002 and the cancellation of television series Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005 due to declining ratings a creative refresh of the Star Trek franchise was needed in order to rekindle fan interest and bring in a whole new audience that would help carry Gene Roddenberry’s creation into the future.

Whilst Star Trek would remain dormant on the small screen until the arrival of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017, it’s theatrical voyages would recommence just four years after the conclusion of Enterprise.  Enlisting J.J. Abrams (together with his Bad Robot production company) to produce, direct and help craft the story – with screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (co-creator and executive producer of Discovery) – Paramount Pictures commissioned Star Trek for the big screen.

Released in May of 2009, received to favourable reviews and a healthy worldwide box office of around $385 million (a fairly respectable figure at a time when $1 billion grossers were few and far between and comparable to Marvel’s Iron Man), Star Trek would prove to be a rollicking action adventure that, although favouring popcorn spectacle and Star Wars-style visual grandeur over the deeper philosophical explorations of previous iterations, excels in its characters and engaging story.  In order to be free from the burden of decades of continuity whilst still tying into the established universe, Star Trek would employ the popular time travel trope by bringing Leonard Nimoy’s (gifting the project with true Trek royalty) Spock back in time in an event that would create an alternate reality – now referred to as the Kelvin timeline – allowing a new series of Star Trek films to forge their own creative path.

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Eric Bana as Nero (c. Paramount Pictures).

Star Trek opens with the arrival of the Romulan ship Narada, thrust back in time after the destruction of the Romulan homeworld in the wake of a catastrophic supernova, which Ambassador Spock and the Vulcan High Command pledged, and fail, to avert.  The Narada, under the command of the embittered Nero, is discovered by the U.S.S. Kelvin which is subsequently attacked and its captain killed – leaving Lt. George Kirk (a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth) in command.  The Kelvin’s crew, including Kirk’s wife (played by Jennifer Morrison) – about to give birth to their son, are evacuated as Kirk sacrifices his life to save others.  Jumping forward several years we meet a young trouble-making James Kirk and an equally troubled Spock, struggling to reconcile his half-human/half-Vulcan heritage.  Little do both know that destiny awaits (which for Kirk includes the captain’s chair of a certain starship), events drawing them together as the fate of both their worlds hang in the balance.

Finding new actors to inhabit the roles of the beloved original series crew was undoubtedly a daunting task and fortunately, the casting of Star Trek is exceptional.  Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are perfect choices for the roles of Kirk and Spock, respectively, both actors bringing respectful and recognisable performances to classic characters whilst making it their own and their chemistry helps drive the core narrative.  Likewise, Karl Urban is a revelation as the cantankerous but loyal Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy – the final component in the celebrated Kirk/Spock/McCoy troika that was such an important part of the original series.  There are equally strong turns from Zoe Saldana as Communications Officer Uhura, John Cho as Helmsman Sulu, the late Anton Yelchin as the incredibly eager Ensign Chekov and Simon Pegg as Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott.  Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of Captain Christopher Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter in Star Trek’s original pilot episode, “The Cage” and by Anson Mount on Star Trek: Discovery) is also a highlight, particularly in his relationship with Pine’s Kirk as he inspires the bright but directionless young rebel by daring him to be better and enlist in Starfleet.  Playing the part of the villainous Nero is Eric Bana, who had previously starred in Ang Lee’s Hulk.  He’s not necessarily the most complex of antagonists but Bana gives it his all, delivering a decent measure of menace.

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A slick redesign for the U.S.S. Enterprise (c. Paramount Pictures).

The design of Star Trek is exemplary, from the Academy Award winning make-up, costumes and props (both nifty updates from the original series) to the lavish, brightly lit sets by Scott Chambliss and the sleek redesign of the Enterprise herself, providing viewers with a pleasing new look which respectfully adheres to the overall configuration conceived by Matt Jeffries.  Whilst there’s a comforting sense of the familiar, Star Trek also takes some creative risks – primarily the destruction of Vulcan by Nero and his cohorts in retribution for the failure to save Romulus from its own obliteration in the future.  It’s a shocking and dramatic sequence that establishes the highest of stakes to unite the Enterprise crew and allows for a more emotionally vulnerable depiction of Quinto’s Spock.

As director, J.J. Abrams (who made his feature film debut in 2006 with Mission: Impossible III) brings energy and enthusiasm to Star Trek, keeping the viewer invested whether it’s in his execution of action and visual splendour or the tight and attentive focus in the quieter, more intimate character moments.  A good film is always enhanced by a great musical score and composer Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack is a memorable one, exciting, emotional and wonderfully intertwining cues from Alexander Courage’s original Star Trek theme with fresh themes to take the new big screen franchise forward.

Star Trek may have been divisive so far as the fanbase is concerned but there are those that enjoyed it for what it was, a polished and highly entertaining rejuvenation of an ageing franchise that opened up the universe to a whole new audience which is something that shouldn’t be undervalued.

Geek fact!

The story of Star Trek was fleshed out via tie-in comic books from IDW Publishing (and overseen by co-screenwriter Roberto Orci) with prequel titles Star Trek: Countdown and Star Trek: Nero adding a lot of insightful detail and background to the narrative of the 2009 film.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Wonder Woman’

DC’s iconic female superhero bursts onto the big screen in her first solo feature…

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nelson, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Ewen Bremner, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Eugene Brave Rock

Directed by:  Patty Jenkins / Written by: Allan Heinberg (Story by Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg & Jason Fuchs) / 141 minutes

What’s it about?

Rescuing crashed pilot Steve Trevor, Diana, princess of the Amazons, leaves her homeland to bring an end to the Great War which is ravaging humanity…

In review

Despite the relative financial success of the DC Extended Universe thus far, there’s no escaping the divisive opinions from various fans and critics that loom over Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad.  Could Wonder Woman turn the negative critical tide and foster some much needed appreciation for the Warner Bros’ DC Comics films?  Thankfully, Wonder Woman is a resounding success on various levels.  It retains a layer of gritty seriousness that will please those that actually enjoyed the previous DCEU entries and deftly marries it with a vision of hope and optimism in dark times and a heartening message that although humanity has it’s ugly side, good will ultimately prevail over evil…all it needs is a hero to lead us into to the light.

An origin story told via flashback, Wonder Woman opens on Themyscira, an island paradise populated by the Amazons – a female society of immortal warriors lead by the wise Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson).  It’s here that the Hippolyta’s daughter, Diana grows to adulthood and trains under the guidance of Antiope (Robin Wright – House of Cards).  When Diana rescues American pilot Steve Trevor after his crashes off the shores of her homeland, she learns of a great conflict raging across the outside world – one that she believes is being orchestrated by the god of war, Ares.  After German soldiers storm the beeches of Themyscira, Diana, in defiance of her mother’s wishes, decides to pursue the callings of a hero and accompany Trevor back to the war-torn theatres of the First World War and bring an end to the bloodshed and needless suffering of the innocent.

After making a memorable debut as DC’s iconic Amazonian princess (created by William Moulton Marston and first appearing in All Star Comics #8 in 1941) and champion of justice in Batman v Superman, Gal Gadot delivers a pleasingly nuanced performance as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in a turn that conveys equal measures of strength (both physical and emotional), compassion and heart with a touch of innocence and naivety as she embarks on her hero’s journey.  Despite her relative inexperience as an actor, Gadot is actually quite wonderful in her first solo DC outing, demonstrating a clear affection for the character and embodying the values and spirit of an important and enduring pop culture icon with reverence and conviction.  Star Trek Beyond’s Chris Pine is the perfect co-star, infusing his portrayal of Captain Steve Trevor with charm, humility and a dose of earnest humanity.  He also shares great chemistry with Gadot, a key component to the film’s rich and often touching emotional core.

There’s some well implemented comic relief from Lucy Davis as Trevor’s plucky secretary, Etta as well as drunken marksman Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and fellow comrade Sameer (Said Taghmaoui) that along with participation from Gadot and Pine provides dashes of levity that feels natural and fitting without compromising the film’s more dramatic moments.  Although underdeveloped, Danny Huston and Elena Anaya provide adequate enough villainy as devilish German General Lundendorff and the deranged Dr. Maru respectively, their plot to unleash a deadly new gas creating reasonably high stakes for Diana, Trevor and their group (which also includes “The Chief”, played by Eugene Brave Rock) to grapple with.  Ultimately, it’s the characters and themes, bolstered by a solid script that really makes Wonder Woman work.

Director Patty Jenkins (at one time in the frame to helm Marvel’s first Thor sequel) draws fine performances from her cast that lift the overall package whilst proving skilful in presenting grand visuals (enhanced by the finely tuned eye of cinematographer Matthew Jensen) and staging some thrilling and slickly executed action sequences (with composer Rupert Gregson-Williams adding to the excitement as he incorporates Hanz Zimmer/Junkie XL’s WW theme from BvS).  Some viewers may feel fatigued by the bombastic CGI-laden finale, yes, we’ve seen it in numerous superhero films by now, but it’s arguably necessary to close the film on an epic high and it’s executed with some satisfying emotional beats.  Yet there’s no denying that Wonder Woman’s finest and most effective set piece comes from earlier in the film as Diana, frustrated by the horrors and injustices of war, emerges from the trenches as she heroically pushes her way across the battlefield, plunging through the barrages of the German war machine.

It’d be all too easy to cynically write-off Wonder Woman as a mere symbol of feminism, but peel away the layers and she’s so much more, with all that’s wrong in the world these days heroes are needed and though a work of fiction, blended with popcorn entertainment and comic book fantasy, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is an inspiring tale and one filled with plenty of heart.

The bottom line:  A triumph for the DCEU, Wonder Woman is an exciting and epic story of a hero’s origin that’s enhanced by strong characterisation, dynamic action and great chemistry between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.

Wonder Woman is in cinemas now.

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Ready for action: Gal Gadot stars in ‘Wonder Woman’ from Warner Bros.

Fim Review: ‘Star Trek Beyond’ (spoiler free)

Star wreckin’…

Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella

Directed by:  Justin Lin / Written by:  Simon Pegg & Doug Jung / 120 minutes

What’s it about?

Attacked during a rescue mission in uncharted space, Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise find themselves stranded and fighting for survival against Krall, an enemy who seeks to destroy the Federation and the way of life its citizens hold dear…

In review

Arriving as the beloved science fiction franchise approaches its 50th anniversary, Star Trek Beyond is the third (with a fourth already confirmed) cinematic instalment set in the rebooted ‘Kelvin Timeline’ featured in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009) and sequel Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).  Directed by Fast & Furious veteran Justin Lin, Beyond proves a worthy continuation of this new series of Star Trek films that’s crowd pleasing fun if not as wholly cerebral as some of the franchise’s highpoints.

Whilst Abrams is arguably the better filmmaker, Lin is a credible successor who does a commendable job of crafting a commercially viable summer blockbuster, his affection for the franchise and its characters clear as he deftly balances an eclectic ensemble with large scale action and jaw dropping visuals.  Although this is a Star Trek for the era of serviceable billion dollar blockbusters, Beyond offers something a little more with a script (by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung) that delves into themes of unity and the strengths found in diversity, reflecting on the social concerns of today.

Via the two J.J. Abrams outings, audiences have grown to love the characters of Kirk, Spock, McCoy et al thanks to a wonderful cast, melding nuances of their own personalities with the legacies of these established characters.  Thankfully that continues here and we get some great character moments amongst the spectacle and social commentary where everyone (albeit some more than others) gets an opportunity to shine.  Zoe Saldana, John Cho and the late Anton Yelchin (as Enterprise crewmembers Uhura, Sulu and Chekov respectively) all feature in the action and have relevance in the story (Simon Pegg’s Scotty is also served better beyond being mere comic foil).  Idris Elba makes an imposing villain with physicality and gravitas, although the character of Krall could have warranted further exploration he delivers a fair measure of menace and threat.  Fellow guest star Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: The Secret Service) also provides a memorable and enjoyable turn as Jaylah, the alien ‘badass’ that a stranded Kirk and company enlist for help against Elba’s Krall.  Once again, though it’s the three main stars that compel the most with numerous standout moments for Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban.  Through Pine we get a universe weary Kirk, with Quinto a contemplative Spock and Urban a McCoy who’s irascible as ever and provides both humour and the supportive conscience Kirk and Spock need as they face their respective emotional dilemmas.

Against the backdrop of story and character, Justin Lin brings his Fast & Furious credentials to the fore during the action of Star Trek Beyond with big budget CGI and explosive pyrotechnics marrying to produce some jaw dropping spectacle (most significantly the decimation of the poor old Enterprise, as already depicted in the film’s pre-release trailers).  It’s a little frantic at times, but no different from what you would experience in any modern blockbuster.  In addition to all of this, there’s a plethora of references, tributes and respectful call backs to the history and legacy of Star Trek that all in all make for a pleasing and fitting celebration of one of pop culture’s most beloved and enduring franchises that will most definitely continue to go boldly.

The bottom line:  Star Trek Beyond is an enjoyable and fun blockbuster that has something to offer both fans and casual viewers alike and proves a fitting tribute to the legacy of the franchise on the eve of its 50th anniversary.

Star Trek Beyond is in cinemas now.

Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) prepares to lead the fight in Paramount Pictures' 'Star Trek Beyond'.

Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) prepares to lead the fight in Paramount Pictures’ ‘Star Trek Beyond’.

Blu-ray review: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

This review contains SPOILERS

 

please don’t read on if you haven’t yet seen Star Trek Into Darkness

 

A bold new future for the beloved and enduring science fiction franchise…

 

Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve, Peter Weller

Directed by:  J.J. Abrams / Written by:  Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof / 132 minutes

What’s Star Trek Into Darkness about?

Captain James T. Kirk takes the U.S.S. Enterprise into Klingon space in pursuit of rogue Starfleet Officer John Harrison…

Film review

Into Darkness is the long awaited sequel to producer/director J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009).  Since its theatrical release earlier this year it has gone on to become the most financially successful of all of the franchise’s big screen adventures and despite overall critical acclaim has proven divisive among the fans (but isn’t this always the case?).

As a life-long Star Trek fan (since the early eighties) I can safely say that although it may not quite have the impact of the 2009 prequel/reboot, Into Darkness is one hell of a ride that acknowledges the hallmarks of Gene Rodenberry’s vision whilst providing plenty of the rollercoaster excitement that modern summer blockbuster audiences expect.

Into Darkness continues to further explore the characters of the original Star Trek series and films with a well-chosen cast who, beyond merely channelling the performances of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy (who appears in a short cameo) et al give fresh, yet familiar interpretations of those iconic characters.

Although each of the characters is given their moment in the spotlight (Scotty resigns, Chekov reluctantly dons a red shirt, Sulu takes command and Uhura tries to reason with Klingons), the film’s focus is really, rightfully, on the burgeoning friendship between Kirk and Spock with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto both proving their worth as successors to Messrs’ Shatner and Nimoy.  Sadly Karl Urban’s McCoy is a little side-lined as a result but hopefully future sequels will explore and develop the infamous Kirk/Spock/McCoy troika.

The Enterprise crew face a more complex villain this time out in Benedict Cumberbatch’s enigmatic John Harrison (more on him shortly) as well as Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus (the ever superb Peter Weller) and are joined by Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) – a character that fans will of course be aware of.

Just as the original Star Trek television series provided commentary on issues and concerns of the 1960s (such as the Vietnam War and Civil Rights), Into Darkness addresses topics relating to terrorism through Harrison’s vendetta against Starfleet and Marcus’ push for militarisation in the wake of Vulcan’s destruction.

Gladly the screenwriters understand the characters and core concepts of Gene Rodenberry’s vision for Star Trek.  Following atrocities committed by Harrison (including the death of Admiral Pike) we see Kirk set out on a mission of vengeance, a basic human reaction, tempered by Spock’s sense of logic and morality.  With the Enterprise carrying a complement of long range torpedoes (Scotty all too aptly reminding Kirk that their mission is that of peaceful exploration), which mirrors the real world drone strikes carried out in the Middle East.  It’s all played out as Gene Rodenberry would have intended, presenting our heroes with ethical dilemmas that they must face and overcome to do what is morally right.

One of the most divisive points of Star Trek Into Darkness is the true identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain.  I’m still surprised that Khan was chosen (even with all the prior speculation) and despite my initial trepidations I feel it worked out well, Cumberbatch is a powerful presence and although physically dissimilar from Ricardo Montalban makes the character his own.  Another bone of contention for some of the fans is the homages to Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan.  They do work – the reversal of the Kirk/Spock roles from the finale of Wrath of Khan being a key example.  It’s relevant to the story and character arcs of the film, bolstered by heart-wrenching performances (complemented by another great score from Michael Giacchino) by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto.  I’d say it’s permitted this time around so long as future films don’t make a habit of it.

The screenplay holds together rather well although it’s a shame that Khan’s back story wasn’t fleshed out a little more, perhaps via a short series of simple flashbacks.  It wouldn’t have bloated the run time or slowed down the pace yet would have added more weight to the villain’s motives (I look forward to IDW Publishing’s forthcoming comic book mini-series then).

Aside from being a Star Trek film, this is also a popcorn summer blockbuster and the action is riveting and epic with many standout moments, from the Enterprise emerging from the bottom of an alien ocean (during the film’s Indiana Jones-esque opening) and Khan’s attack on Starfleet Headquarters to a tense encounter with the Klingons, the Enterprise’s plummet Earthward and Spock’s climactic edge of the seat chase of Khan through (and above) the streets of San Francisco.  It’s also not as dark as the title suggests with some welcome levity via McCoy’s persistent metaphors and Scotty…well Scotty in general!

J.J. Abrams directs proceedings with reliable aplomb, the more intimate dialogue heavy character scenes flow at an appropriate pace, balanced with the large scale effects-laden action sequences.

By the end of the film there’s a true sense that the Enterprise crew have become a family, Kirk has grown and earned his command and the respect and trust of his crew, ready to set forth and seek out new life forms and new civilizations.

Standout moment

A crippled Enterprise plummets to Earth, with the crew literally hanging for life – their only hope for salvation is the re-initialisation of the ship’s warp core.  Despite Scotty’s protests Kirk decides to sacrifice himself for the needs of the many…

The Blu-ray

Star Trek Into Darkness is presented in its entirety in 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen meaning that unfortunately Paramount have opted not to preserve the IMAX scenes.  This aside the transfer is as flawless as you would expect from a modern production.

Extras are light with only a series of interesting, albeit short, production featurettes included (there’s no commentary).  By comparison the 2009 Star Trek release came with a separate Blu-ray disc full of extras.  It’s a massive shame and sadly a continuing trend with Paramount Home Entertainment releases.

The bottom line:  Star Trek Into Darkness is a solid second entry in the new cinematic Star Trek universe with moral issues balanced with good characterisation, strong cast performances and breath-taking action and excitement.

Star Trek Into Darkness is out now on Blu-ray (2D and 3D editions) from Paramount Home Entertainment (also available on DVD and digital download).

Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) confront the captured John Harrison (the superb Benedict Cumberbatch).

Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) confront the captured John Harrison (the superb Benedict Cumberbatch).