Star Trek *****
Following the box office failure of 2003’s Star Trek: Nemesis and the cancellation of TV show Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005, it looked as though Paramount’s Star Trek franchise had seen its last voyage where no man has gone before. However, as has been demonstrated by the recent revivals of the James Bond and Batman franchises, no popular series stays dead for long, and Paramount have opted to follow the reboot route that those two film series went down, taking Star Trek back to its beginnings and making it appeal to a mainstream audience once again. And the man chosen to oversee this rebirth of the Trek franchise is none other than J.J Abrams, the genius behind hit TV shows Alias and Lost, and director of 2006’s highly underrated Mission: Impossible III. Promising to boldly go where Star Trek has never gone before, this re-imagining has become one of 2009’s most eagerly anticipated blockbusters with the online trailer being downloaded a record number of times and pre-release reviews and word of mouth being almost unanimously positive (with the exception of a few Trek purists who are somewhat displeased with the film’s alleged contradiction of established Trek continuity). So, is this new incarnation a rebirth that will make Star Trek cool once again or will it seal its fate as being a small fan base only phenomenon?
The Federation starship USS Kelvin is investigating a ‘lightning storm’ in space. It turns out to be a black hole, and the Narada, a Romulan mining vessel, emerges from it and attacks. The Kelvin’s captain, Richard Robau (Faran Tahir) is captured and killed by the Romulan captain Nero (Eric Bana). First officer George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) takes command and sacrifices himself and the Kelvin by ramming it into the Romulan ship in order to allow the rest of the crew to escape. During the escape, George’s wife Winona (Jennifer Morrison) gives birth to a son: James Tiberius Kirk. About 22 years later, Kirk (Chris Pine) grows into an intelligent but reckless young man. He meets Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) in a bar in Iowa, where Pike convinces Kirk to enlist in Starfleet Academy and follow in his father’s footsteps. During his eventful education on Earth, he is suspended for cheating on a test designed by the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock (Zachary Quinto). Despite this, Kirk is smuggled onboard the USS Enterprise by his friend, Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban), as it is sent on its first mission to investigate a distress signal originating from the planet Vulcan; Captain Pike commands the ship, with Spock as his first officer, and Uhura is also assigned to the ship. It soon becomes clear that Nero has returned and he possesses a doomsday weapon that he is using on Vulcan and also intends to use on Earth. When Pike surrenders to Nero and Spock’s emotions begin to get out of control, Kirk finds himself forced to become Captain, and with the help of his crew that also includes Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Hikaru Sulu (John Cho), Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Simon Pegg), he sets about trying to stop Nero before he can carry out his deadly plan. However, with Nero having already changed everything will anything ever be the same?
The direction that J.J. Abrams has taken with Star Trek is an extremely bold and risky one. After all, rebooting the franchise was never going to go down well with the fans who have invested so much time following the established Trek continuity and hold it sacrosanct. And the recasting of much loved characters was always going to be a tough thing to pull off as if the actors chosen weren’t spot on then there would be an inevitable backlash from fans annoyed at seeing their favourite characters ruined by actors ill suited to play the roles. With not only the approval of Trekkies everywhere hanging in the balance (the fact that Abrams is apparently not one himself not doing much to help him) but also the need to create a film that will appeal to a mainstream movie-going audience, Abrams had an insurmountable task to pull off with this film but it is a task that that he has pulled off with a spectacular degree of success. For starters, an ingenious twist (hint-it involves time travel) means that the series has been rebooted without ignoring everything that has come before. As such, the film goes back to basics but still acknowledges all that has already occurred in the Trek universe, thus enabling casual moviegoers to appreciate it as well as die-hard fans (although the purists may still feel cheated). Perhaps more importantly, however, the casting is absolutely spot on across the board. It was always going to be tough to find actors who could fill the shoes of the original cast members but clearly it was not an impossible task as virtually everyone in the film proves themselves worthy to be playing the roles. Chris Pine perfectly captures all the mannerisms of James T. Kirk, delivering a performance that expertly balances the character’s rebellious wit with his more serious and heroic persona. Pine has never really had the chance to shine in past films but his role here shows what he is really capable of. Pine has excellent chemistry with his co-stars and the dynamic between Kirk and Spock is particularly successful. In the role of Spock, Zachary Quinto shows that he is capable of being far more than just Sylar from Heroes excellently capturing the character’s inner turmoil as he attempts to embrace logic in the face of his increasingly out of control emotions. His performance is one that I am sure original star Leonard Nimoy would approve of and Nimoy himself puts in a terrific appearance as Spock’s future self. Another excellent performance comes courtesy of Karl Urban who as ‘Bones’ McCoy excellently captures the essence of what was so great about original actor DeForest Kelley, perfectly portraying the brash cynicism of the character. Next big thing Anton Yelchin (who can also soon be seen as Kyle Reese in Terminator Salvation) is also superb, and in the role of Chekov he delivers a flawless Russian accent and nails the character’s dialogue. Simon Pegg, who this critic initially thought to be a very bad casting choice, proves me wrong with a delightfully humorous performance as Scotty that is perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film and his Scottish accent isn’t half bad either. In the role of Uhura and Sulu, Zoe Saldana and John Cho also deliver very good performance although neither is quite up to the same standard as the rest of the key cast members. It isn’t just the main cast members who impress, however, as the remainder of the cast is also extremely impressive. As villain Nero, Eric Bana doesn’t just make a very sinister adversary but one who has a real purpose for his actions besides being just evil, which the character isn’t really. While there is no denying that he is the bad guy of the film and that he commits horrible acts, his tragic back story helps to humanize (or should that be romulanize) him somewhat, making him a much more three dimensional bad guy than is often seen. There are a number of other recognisable faces in the film as well including Bruce Greenwood, Winona Ryder (as Spock’s mother Amanda Grayson), Ben Cross (as Spock’s father Sarek), Jennifer Morrison, Tyler Perry (as head of the Starfleet Academy) and Paul McGillion among many, many other members of the film’s extremely huge cast. The strength of the acting in this film is a key reason why it works so well, as the characters are at the heart of the film and are crucial in making us care about what does and doesn’t happen. If just one role had been miscast the film likely wouldn’t have had the same impact.
The film also impresses in a variety of other ways, a key one being the story. As with the characters, the story is a crucial part of the success of the film, and thanks to an extremely well written script serious drama and humour are so successfully combined that neither ever compromises the other. The writers do a good job of ensuring that the film takes itself seriously when necessary but doesn’t take itself too seriously whenever it is appropriate. The result is a film that manages to be tense, moving and funny in equal measure. While the film may annoy Trek purists with some of the changes that have been made, there are plenty of references present throughout that are just for the Trekkies. The success of the characters is partly due to the writers as well, not just the strength of the acting, as their dialogue and interactions work because they are well written. The relationships between the characters ring true and there is some genuine conflict, something that has been greatly lacking in Star Trek in the past. The writers also handle the time travel element of the plot very well. Time travel in movies is something that can make the story extremely hard to follow and result in paradoxes and contradictions but this element of the plot is handled in such a way that it doesn’t seem overly complicated at all and it has a good linear flow. As you would expect from a film such as this though, it isn’t all story and character development. In the action department the film also delivers spectacularly, providing one of the most visually impressive and most thrilling movies that you will see this year. The visual effects are amazing, with near seamless interaction between real and CGI, and the set design is equally impressive, paying homage to classic Trek but also giving anything a snazzy 21st century spin. There is also some good creature design with a variety of different aliens appearing throughout. The redesigning of sets and costumes may slightly annoy Trek purists but they work and the majority of Trek fans should be very pleased with the way it all works out, and the film really does provide a feast for the eyes. The shifting of emphasis from the exploration of the TV series to a more action adventure orientated story allows for some fantastic and memorable action set-pieces that really outdo anything else that has been seen lately. As a whole, Star Trek is a movie that impresses in every regard. It manages to maintain the spirit of the original series whilst reinventing it for a 21st century audience, delivering something that can be enjoyed and appreciated by Trekkies and non-Trekkies alike. So, whether you’re a Star Trek fan or just want to see a great movie set your phaser to stun for what it without a doubt one of the best films of 2009.
Coraline 3D ***½
Coraline 2D ***
In an age dominated by computer animation, it is really quite refreshing when a filmmaker chooses to use more old fashioned animation techniques rather than the latest CG animation and, while it is very rare nowadays, every now and then such a film comes along. Coraline is one such film, utilizing the stop motion animation style made famous by The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, while writer director Henry Selick (the man behind Nightmare) has chosen to make this film using an older form of animation it hasn’t stopped him from incorporating some more modern technology as well, as the film has been produced in digital 3D to provide a movie-going experience that truly stands out amongst the CG dominated animation pictures that we have been accustomed to lately, at least in visual terms anyway.
Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is a young girl who has just moved into a new home with her parents (voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman). Her eccentric neighbours include actresses Miss Spink (voiced by Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (voiced by Dawn French), circus acrobat Mr. Bobinsky (voiced by Ian McShane) and Wybie (voiced by Robert Bailey Jr.), a young boy whose grandmother is their landlady. Coraline is constantly bored, with her parents too busy working to even notice her and she wishes that everything could just be better. And it seems like her wish may be granted when she discovers a door in the house that leads to a parallel world where she meets her Other Mother and Other Father and where everything seems to be better and more fun, except for the fact that everyone there has buttons sewn into their eyes. At first it seems like a dream come true and she wants to be there all the time but she soon learns that she should be careful what she wishes for when she discovers that the whole world is a trap designed to imprison her and she must count on all her resourcefulness, determination and bravery to get back home – and save her family.
Based on the book of the same name by acclaimed fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, Coraline is a fairy tale of the very macabre variety. Right from the opening scene, in which we see someone – or something – with hands that look like they are made up of sewing needles pulling apart and reassembling a doll, it is clear that this cautionary tale is definitely not going to be particularly light viewing. This may be surprising to some considering that Coraline has been marketed as a family film, something which is rather questionable considering some of the film’s content. Everything about the film is dark and creepy and there is a constant feeling of unease that would be more at home in a horror movie than a family one. The film’s menacing and sinister side means that this is not a film that I would recommend for taking really young children to, as they will likely find much of it terrifying rather than entertaining and may well have nightmares after seeing it. The film really could have a done with a bit of humour to lighten the tone somewhat. Also, the film may be a bit too slow paced for much of the duration for children with short attention spans. While the film falls far short of being a successful film for all the family, however, from a technical standpoint there is plenty to marvel at. The environments that are created range from the extremely beautiful to the very unsettling, and all are extremely life-like, helped considerably by the film’s impressive use of 3D that makes it seem even more realistic. The production design is ingenious and clever and for this reason the first is an excellent example of cinema as an art form if less so as entertainment. As for the story, writer/director Selick does a good job of adapting the book for the big screen but fails to produce something that is really suitable for all the family, with the film generally being too creepy for young children, the very audience that has apparently been targeted by the film’s marketing campaign. Technically brilliant but as a piece of family entertainment greatly lacking, Coraline is a film that should be praised for its artistic merits but when it comes to the film’s entertainment value it really is hard to tell exactly who it is aimed at.
Reviews by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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