Star Trek (US - BD)
Gabe pets his tribble and throws back a bottle of Romulan ale to the Trek reboot
A few years ago I said that James Bond and Batman were the franchises most in need of a reboot. Star Trek didn’t even dawn on me as an option in the ‘floundering franchise’ lottery at the time, because it had all but disappeared off the face of the Earth. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. If I had been a fan I would’ve known how much the franchise was suffering. The ‘90s were good to Star Trek, specifically on television, where the last two seasons of Next Generation overlapped with Deep Space 9, which itself overlapped with Voyager. Nearly three decades after the original series was canceled, fans had two successful television series, and a new line of theatrical films in theaters to enjoy. 1996 was likely the apex of the franchise’s popularity (possibly even overall quality), including middle seasons of DS9 and Voyager, and the release of the most popular of the Next Gen movies, First Contact. From there things tumbled quickly down hill, culminating in the unpopular Enterprise series (which I’ve never seen), and a truly terrible film called Nemesis. Star Wars prequels and Matrix sequels filled the general public’s science fiction consciousness for the next half decade, despite consistent complaints concerning quality.
Apparently pre-production for the Star Trek reboot began around 2005, which was a pretty thematically dark year for reboots and prequels. At the time dark was needed, especially in the case of Batman Begins, which was following the vomited candy adventures of Batman and Robin. Similarly George Lucas allowed the otherwise child-friendly Star Wars prequels grow dark with Revenge of the Sith, Spielberg produced a nightmare reboot of War of the Worlds, and Peter Jackson gave audiences a bummer look at King Kong. Thank Surak Star Trek didn’t come out during this ‘dark era’. Dark worked for Batman Begins, but Star Trek can only go so dark before the darkness degenerates into silliness way beyond Gene Roddenberry’s intentions. Though I suppose my personal favourite among the Star Trek films, Part VI: The Undiscovered Country, could be considered thematically darker than the other original crew flicks, it was still a fairly PG-rated film. To understand how much the series doesn’t work when crammed into the violence friendly early/mid-90s, one need only re-watch the last official series film – Nemesis. Nemesis saw the franchise holders trying to turn the series into The Matrix, and was an epic case of missing the point. J.J. Abrams and company had the exact opposite problem Christopher Nolan and company had with Batman Begins. There was likely a lot of pressure to make Star Trek more like The Dark Knight, and I’d shake Abrams’ arm right off his body for resisting if I could.
Star Trek is largely a triumph of form over content. It’s such an effervescently entertaining film it’s easy to overlook the fact that it doesn’t have a plot. The small bits of development we do get are very often dependant on coincidence, and the less said about the brutal Deus Ex Machina that is ‘red matter’, the better. The pre-release accusations of Star Trek: 90210 aren’t entirely baseless (even if they mostly referred to the age and appearance of the cast). The early Earthbound pieces of the story are a little CW, but it’s over and done with pretty quickly. Sadly, this is also the bulk of the plotting. Beyond this set-up the film moves practically into real time, and the narrative events consist of bickering amongst the ruins of a devastating battle. The set-up is also the point where the story makes the least sense. Why do they make starships in Iowa? Why is Pike in Iowa? Why is Bones in Iowa? Shouldn’t these people be in San Francisco? Time passage doesn’t really make a lot of sense either, or rather, it makes sense, but it’s managed in such a nonchalant manner that it’s a bit arresting. Did Nero really sit around for 25 years waiting for Elder Spock to appear? Why did it take 25 years in the first place? Still, the alternative is hours of Kirk moving through school, which doesn’t sound very exciting. As long as the audience suspends their disbelief and runs with the flabbergasting pace, these narrative issues really aren’t a problem, but we’re talking about purchasing a DVD or Blu-ray here, and upon multiple viewings these issues step to the forefront quite a bit more.
The closest the screenplay gets to innovation is, ironically enough, also the source of its biggest plot-holes and most overt shortcomings – time travel, one of the most common contrivances in the franchise. Because the villainous Romulan Nero has chased Elder Spock back in time all previous canonical events in the Star Trek series and film still apply. Canon is ‘rebooted’ the second Nero enters the past timeline and kills Kirk’s dad. This frees the writers to craft their own versions of the classic characters, and ensures the audience doesn’t know exactly what to expect. Preconceived destiny was an on-going problem for the Star Wars prequels, where we all knew who was and wasn’t going to die the whole time. On the other hand, fans aren’t forced to deal with a film entirely free of the basics of the series mythology (which I thought was a problem for Batman Begins).
The story is lacking, but the characters are perfect, charming, and surprisingly well-rounded given their lack of background meat, even if introductions are consistently awkward (one practically hears the studio audience cheering every time a recognizable name is blurted). Star Trek throughout history has always been only as strong as its characters. As a much more loyal fan of Star Wars I readily admit that Trek, in most incarnations, features the superior characters. Some of the characters here are rather removed from their inspirations, but they’re all loveable, even the villains, to a certain extent. As a passing fan, and someone unconvinced of Abrams' talents, I really only paid to see the movie in order to watch Karl Urban, Eric Bana, and (of course) Simon Pegg. Abrams was clearly not above stunt casting, but even the pretty faces end up swinging for the fences. As a guy that generally hates Heroes I was most apprehensive of Zachary Quinto (who clearly looked the part), but he makes Spock his own, almost as well as prettyboy Chris Pine, who creates a Kirk about as removed from William Shatner as comfortably possible. Urban, Pegg and Anton Yelchin do the best impressions without overstepping into parody, while Zoe Saldaña is the most pleasant surprise in the ensemble. The only flop in the whole cast is Nero, and it’s really not Bana’s fault, it’s the fault of the writers, who appear to be trying to create another Khan. Nero is an afterthought, as is his back-story.
Abrams' best work as a director is found in the film’s action scenes, which strike a nice balance between modern, shaky-camera, fast editing action, and more traditional wide-angle action. The hand-to-hand combat scenes could’ve degenerated into a series of slow-mo money shots, ala The Matrix sequels, but Abrams uses very little slow motion, opting for dynamic camera movements instead. The space-based, special effects driven action is an extra special achievement. It’s important that Star Trek not become a series of dog fights, because that’s a Star Wars thing. Star Trek spaceships are boats, not jets, and the ship to ship battles have been defined as naval battles since the first season of the original series. Abrams keeps this aspect, and keeps the ships big and slow (when not in warp), but works kinetic movement into his camera work. Battlestar Galactica and Firefly redefined spaceship effect photography by mimicking the look of hand-held cameras, after the Star Wars prequels had already developed beautifully elegant God’s-eye views of such action. Abrams takes both styles into account, and adds a lot more circular virtual camera movement. This, along with the cramped compositions, creates a scale that threatens to burst out of the confines of the screen at any minute. The monster chase scene recalls Starship Troopers and Phantom Menace a tad more than I’m sure the filmmakers intended, but otherwise thumbs up to the action on the whole.
It was clear from the trailers that Star Trek was not going to follow the gloom and doom precedent set by The Dark Knight, but I was definitely not prepared for how genuinely funny Abrams’ film is, based on the mostly humourless stuff in his production history. Sure, there are a few good gags peppered over Lost or M:I3, but speaking in the broadest terms they’re mostly action soaked soap operas stuck in dramatic 5th gear. In contrast, the Star Trek pie is at least 75% intended comedy. The dramatic moments hit hard (I’m pretty sure I don’t have to point them out and spoil them for others), and the action is, as stated, breathless, but the most memorable moments are the funny ones. Some of the fan-service gags come across as forced or unneeded, but overall the levity is infectiously buoyant, and generally true to the original series and films. Even the super-broad stuff (McCoy giving Kirk some kind of space virus that makes his hands large, for example) strikes mostly melodious notes without interrupting or stopping the rest of the song.
Lens flares have never looked as sharp, and lens flare-erific as they do in 1080p high definition video. The crisp edges, the bright light, the varying colours, the…um sparkliness. Lens flares mean heavy lighting (when they aren’t created digitally), and heavy lighting means heavy shadows, and needle sharp details. The majority of the production design is extremely white, smooth and shiny, which helps put an even bigger spotlight on the skin and hair details, which are pretty impressive considering how smooth-skinned most of these actors are (except for Nimoy, of course, whose nearly 80-year-old face is a beautiful wellspring of lines and pores). There is grain over the whole print (they are shooting on film here), but it’s very fine, and never a clear issue during those super-white Enterprise interior shots (night shots on Earth are a little iffy). The bowels of Nero’s ship are shot to stand in high contrast to the rest of the film, and grain is thickened in the darkness, but the bigger issue is the slight blooming of the highlights, which appears not to be intended. The use of anamorphic lenses leads to some slightly off stretching, but such a thing occurred in theaters as well. The filmmakers talk about how much they like the imperfections during the special features.
Star Trek has always been a colour-coded universe. Colour represents rank on costumes ( Edit: Sigh, I’ve been correct by the Trek Nazi I asked to proof this review, apparently colour represents field or section or focus, not rank), and represents threat levels on phasers. In their importance, the colours are also quite varied, unlike the Star Wars prequels or Lord of the Rings series, both of which featured scenes defined by a single gel colour. The separation of colour elements is especially important on any Federation based set. Intense primary blues, reds and yellows are consistently set against the harsh whites and deep blacks, and the results are clean, clear, and as sanitized as the filmmakers intended. Even the blooming, out of focus background hues feature clean edges, and basically zero issues with edge-enhancement. The Romulan ship is a clear exception, and features mostly lush green hues, peppered with the yellow and blue shades of Kirk and Spock’s uniforms, and the red lights of phasers.
Note: there has been at least one augmentation made to the DVD/Blu-ray release. I know this because I watched it with someone that saw the film in theaters a few too many times, and noticed a minor flub. During his face-off with Nero’s second hand man Kirk hangs off an edge, is pulled up by the Romulan by the neck, and uses the Romulan’s own gun against him before dropping it on the platform beside him. In theaters the Romulan’s gun can be seen next to Kirk’s hand before he’s attacked. This is the best screencap we could get (from a bootleg, clearly). The top cap represents the theatrical release, where the gun is in frame before it should be, the bottom cap is from the DVD/Blu-ray release (though clearly of a lesser picture quality, sorry gang)
Besides being a massive production, created by an army of creative minds with millions of dollars at their disposal, Star Trek has one big ace up its sleeve so far as sound is concerned, and that ace is named Ben Burtt. Geeks and nerds the world over should know that name as the one connected with the indelible soundscape of all six Star Wars films. More recently Burtt designed the sound of Pixar’s Wall-E. Sound has played just as big a part in Trek mythology, and even as a reboot the new film came with certain sound effect expectations. Burtt has aural signatures, but he makes an effort to separate his work on both franchises, and takes into account classic Trek noises, while still making them his own. This Blu-ray’s Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is a perfect representation of the effort Burtt put into the production. The soundscape is constantly busy, consisting of directional effects, ambient hum, and occasionally abstract multi-channel ballets. The realistic elements are spot-on, but much less interesting than the more extra-terrestrial effects. Space battles are the best candidates for reference material with all their roaring engines, buzzing laser beams, and the punchy boom of ships entering warp. A more compressed track would likely warble in this case. Though it sounds very much like a Star Wars ship (I think it’s a pod-racer), my personal favourite bit of audio design is the whirring sound of Elder Spock’s little squid ship. Elder Spock and Kirk’s mind meld features an entirely different kind of impressive sound design.
But if there’s one thing that defines the sound of Star Trek even more than effects, it’s the music. Besides Alexander Courage’s ingrained original theme, the Trek films stand apart thanks to the graceful efforts of composers like Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. Even the bad films had great music. Composer Michael Giacchino uses parts of the original theme throughout his score (all of it for the end credits), and pointedly recalls some of Goldsmith’s and Horner’s work, but mostly makes this Trek his own, through more action-based cues, and slightly less baroque major themes. The music is an integral part of the mix, occasionally becoming the sole aural element of a scene. There was a song used for the film’s third trailer that was so perfectly moving it convinced me to see the film opening weekend, but I couldn’t find it anywhere in the finished film. Does anyone know if I just missed it?
The extras start on disc one with a group commentary featuring J.J. Abrams, producers Bryan Burk and Damon Lindelof, and writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. The track is a bit cluttered (the participants have very similar voices, so it’s hard to tell who’s speaking), but overall entertaining and informative. There’s a lot of focus placed on the script and structure, and specifically on the deleted scenes. The little, ultimately inconsequential set stories are the best bits, but too much time is spent back-patting, which is a common problem for commentary tracks the world over. There’s very little here not covered during the other making-of material, but the commentary works well as a companion piece, so I actually recommend listening to it last while experiencing this collection.
On to disc two, which starts with ‘To Boldly Go’ (16:40, HD), a behind the scenes featurette with four optional branching ‘expanding pods’ (‘The Shatner Conundrum’, ‘Red Shirt Guy’, ‘The Green Girl’ and ‘Trekker Alert!’). Though short, and a bit fluffy, this is a relatively informative featurette, featuring raw set footage set to interviews. Inception and pre-production genesis are big themes. The magnitude of ‘Trekkie-ness’ is gauged for each of the major contributors, and the mix (Trekker to Novice) is likely the major reason the film worked. ‘Casting’(29:00, HD) features a self-explanatory title, and covers every member of the chief cast. The whole thing is a smidgeon on the fluffy side, but the warmth genuinely adds to the entertainment value. This leads into ‘A New Vision’ (19:30, HD), which features another branching pod (‘Savage Pressure’). This featurette is concerned with revamping the series for modern audiences, and striking the balance between Star Wars bombast, and the traditional series. This section also covers location shooting, lens flares and special effects.
Next up are a series of design and technology featurettes, starting with ‘Starships’ (24:30, HD), and its seven branching pods (‘Warp Explained’, ‘Paint Job’, ‘Bridge Construction Accelerated’, ‘The Captain’s Chair’, ‘Button Acting 101’, ‘Narada Construction Accelerated’ and ‘Shuttle Shuffle’). The ‘future-retro’ look is another important element to the film’s form over function success, and besides getting a good look at the nitty gritty process of redefining the look of Star Trek, we get a good look at the cast and crew filming on the sets and locations (a lot of the interior stuff was shot at a Budweiser plant). ‘Aliens’ (16:30, HD) features five branching pods (‘The Alien Paradox’, ‘Big-Eyed Girl’, ‘Big Bro Quinto’, ‘Klingons’ and ‘Drakoulias Anatomy 101’). This section obviously explores the alien designs, which are a nice mix of digital and practical creations, and the process of creating and performing as the characters. ‘Planets’ (16:10), again, speaks for itself, and features two branching pods (‘Extra Business’ and ‘Confidentiality’). This section explores both location/set shooting, and design challenges. ‘Props and Costumes’ (9:20, HD) features a sole branching pod (‘Klingon Wardrobe’), and closes out the design stuff with a look at the production of the smallest details (the way the new phasers flip between stun and kill is super cool).
The featurettes continue to sound design with ‘Ben Burtt and the Sounds of Star Trek’ (11:50, HD). This section covers a lot of the stuff I yakked about under the audio section of this review, but also goes into Burtt’s pre- Star Wars love of early Trek, and his research, which apparently made all the difference. ‘Score’ (6:30, HD) briefly covers composer Michael Giacchino’s contributions to the film, and the gigantic shoes he had to fill. ‘Gene Roddenberry’s Vision’ (8:50, HD) closes out the featurettes, with a brief look at the life and career of the father of Star Trek.
This brings us to the much discussed deleted/extended scenes, with optional commentary (13:30, HD). There are nine scenes total, and most of them pertain to the first act, including Spock’s birth, young Kirk and his brother, and Spock’s parents bickering. The more interesting deletions pertain to Nero and his crew being captured by Klingons after Kirk’s dad rams their ship, which explains what happened to them over the 25 years. Unfortunately this doesn’t explain why the Klingons wouldn’t have decommissioned the ship and taken the red matter. In the end, Nero hanging out in space actually makes a little more sense. None of the deletions would’ve helped the film’s rocky narrative, or Nero as a character, and things work better without them, even though they’re all well shot, and mostly completed, except for a few digital effects.
Things are brought to a graceful end with a ‘Starfleet Vessel Simulator’ interactive game-like-thing, a gag-reel (6:20, HD), and four trailers.
Though apparently he was never officially attached to the project, director Bryan Singer is a confessed Trekkie (he appears briefly in Nemesis), and expressed interest in the franchise at one point. J.J. Abrams was officially attached to a Superman reboot, and even wrote a rather notorious script (go out and read Jake Rossen’s ‘Superman vs. Hollywood’ right now!). Personally, I’m relatively satisfied with both Singer’s Superman Returns and Abrams’ Star Trek, but I’d love to visit the alternate universe where the two directors switched franchises. We know what would’ve happened in Abrams’ Superman: Flyby (Krypton doesn’t blow-up, Superman fights evil Kryptonians, Luthor is a government UFO nut), but what would a Singer Star Trek look like? We can assume Kirk would’ve still been adopted at some point, and there would be more sexual tension between him and Spock, but where would he fit Nazi’s into the story? Would the Klingons or Romulans perhaps be occupying Vulcan?
On topic, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek is a blast that overcomes some genuinely bad plotting through buoyant humour, well-rounded characters, and skippy action. I can’t wait for the sequel. This Blu-ray collection is tip-top from top to bottom, featuring a nearly perfect 1080p transfer, a Ben Burttified Dolby TrueHD audio track, and a whole bunch of really entertaining extras.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 17th November 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, Dolby Digital 5.1 French
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese
Extras: Director/Writer/Producer Commentary, Behind the Scenes Featurettes with Optional Branching Pods, Deleted and Extended Scenes, Starfleet Vessel Simulator, Trailers, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Eric Bana, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Zoe Saldaña, Leonard Nimoy
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy and Sci-Fi
Length: 127 minutes
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