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'Lost' creator JJ Abrams is handed Star Trek to make it shiny and new. Simon Pegg, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto star
James T Kirk (Chris Pine) is a farm-boy from Iowa who leaps before he looks; an impetuous adrenalin-junkie slumming it in bars and avoiding the legacy of his father, who died in command of a Federation starship. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is a half-human, half-Vulcan divided by the two paths his mixed parentage offers - should he adhere to the pure logic of his Vulcan upbringing, or admit some of his emotional human side?
Realising he will never be entirely accepted on his home planet, Spock enlists in Starfleet, the military wing of the Federation, an alliance of humans and aliens that aims to keep the peace throughout the galaxy. Wild James T Kirk is also persuaded to enlist by one Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who catches Kirk in action in a bar brawl and decides he has exactly the qualities a peace-keeping federation requires.
After three years in Starfleet, these new graduates are thrown into the fray when Spock's homeworld of Vulcan comes under attack. The villain is Nemo, an aggrieved Romulan from the future (Eric Bana) out for revenge, with an enormous tooled-up Venus fly trap of a spaceship and a ball of "red matter" with which to wreak galactic destruction.
This rebooting of Star Trek does itself a favour putting Kirk and Spock's character conflict onto the bridge of the USS Enterprise. They are literally at one another's throats. The franchise collapsed under the double dose of the Enterprise TV series and Star Trek X: Nemesis, which this reviewer described as "a lesson in diminishing returns".
The whole enterprise buckled under the dead weight of consensus - consensus between the characters, consensus between fans and creatives toward the sanctity of continuity. With four long-running TV series, 10 films, numerous novels, cartoon shows and comic-books, Star Trek's continuity had become like one of those chapters in the Bible that details the begetting of the sons of Abraham; useful for a keeping track of who was related to who, but lacking in dramatic dynamism.
Continuity locks fans in, but keeps new audiences out. Continuity turns fans into believers, into a sect that no-one wants to join. Inspired by Russell T Davies' destruction of Gallifrey to free Doctor Who from the tedium of other timelords, director JJ Abrams and his scriptwriters wipe out a crucial aspect of the Star Trek universe. By doing so they stop the film from being a prequel - a useless form that runs counter to the basic "we don't want to know what is going to happen" appeal of storytelling - and leap out of continuity. Now he can play with what made Star Trek appealing without having to worry if his Klingon is grammatically correct.
Star Trek really is a playful movie, grabbing greedily at the cascade of promise that was the title sequence of the original Star Trek. In spirit, it is more Kirk than Spock - a manic, relentless, action movie and the polar opposite of the 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the ponderous first cinematic outing for the USS Enterprise that took its cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey when everyone wanted more Star Wars.
JJ Abrams' Star Trek has fist-fights, phaser shoot-outs and epic space battles. The warp drive hits you in the solar plexus. Black holes destroy planets. Kirk gets it on with a green-skinned lovely.
The cast are young and hot and watchable. Chris Pine's Kirk catches William Shatner's yelps and grunts, Zachary Quinto's Spock arches an eyebrow like Nimoy and is convincing as a rawer, younger version of the character. Zoe Saldana's Uhura has a meatier role than the secretary-in-outer-space origins of the character. Anton Yelchin's Chekov is initially awkward but you warm to this interpretation of the character as a precocious genius - mixing your classic Chekov with Next Generation's Wesley Crusher. Karl Urban's Dr Bones McCoy is the actor whose performance leans closest to parody of the original. Simon Pegg arrives late as Scotty and has the best comic lines. The original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, also appears in a role far more substantial than the expected cameo.
It makes sense that Star Trek should return just as we enter a new era. You could argue that the spirit of the series was too at odds with the war on terror. Gene Roddenberry's liberal vision of the future, of a United Nations-style peacekeeping Federation, did not fit with the fear and aggression that followed 9/11. Every era gets the science fiction it deserves.
As Star Trek collapsed both under the dead weight of its own continuity and the new nasty political reality, one of its long-lost imitators, Battlestar Galactica, was relaunched as a compelling commentary on the George W Bush era, bundling in torture, religious conflict, suicide bombings and desperate, hunted heroes. Conveniently, just as a Democrat is once again in the White House, Battlestar Galactica has finished and Star Trek has re-emerged to make the galaxy safe for liberals.
That Barack Obama is reported to have shared the classic Vulcan salute of "Live long and prosper!" with Leonard Nimoy allows us to indulge in this grand theory, a tacit acknowledgement of the small but significant role Star Trek played in the history of American race relations when Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura famously shared television's first interracial kiss.
In a nutshell: It's Star Trek, Jim, but not as we have known it. A masterclass in how to rebrand and relaunch a franchise. Sign us up for more alien girls, punch-ups, phasers, photons and misbehaving black holes.
By Matthew De Abaitua
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