Part I: Heads, Star Trek
JJ Abrams has this weird way of affecting me emotionally despite my own good judgement. His new Star Trek movie is full of a lot of hackneyed, space-related problems, but its delivered with such charm and ... sometimes ... grace that it really doesn't matter. On one hand there's a lot of silliness that I can't really give a damn about: obligatorily convoluted Eric Bana time travel plot, sword fights high above planets, and plenty of superficial threats that don't really mean anything. What comes out ahead, though, are the hairs standing up on the back of my neck the moment Captain Kirk is born, the dissolution of a major time travel trope that I didn't even realize existed, and really clever casting that makes the smartest Blockbuster choices I've seen in a long time.
I haven't read any other reviews about Star Trek, so I apologize if I'm harping on topics that have been discussed ad nauseum, but -- holy shit -- what awesome casting decisions. I say this not because I'm a big Heroes fan (I've never watched an episode), or because I love Chris Pine (I forgot he co-starred in the awful Bottle Shock), or because I care about anyone but Simon Pegg. I say this because JJ Abrams knows what he's doing. He can steer a blockbuster like few people I can think of, and here's why:
Comic book movies and, in this case, Sci-Fi TV show movies, are by their nature intertextual. Both Wolverine and Star Trek are, for me, sides of the same coin, since they pull from established mythologies in order to update and recreate stories we already know. The fun of these films is to see your favorite characters anew, and the handicap that these movies get is that we go into the movie already loving the characters. The writers, and Mr. Abrams, have it easy. I'm not even a Star Trek fan and I can dig Sulu. I can tell you everyone's catch phrases, some history about Spock, and recognize characters that pop up even though I don't think I've ever actually watched an entire episode of the short-lived, sub-good, now-immortal TV show. Just imagine if I loved the damn thing.
So Abrams has this already on his side going into the film. Your usual filmmaker, I think, would just try to get some big stars or look alikes, then rely totally on the fact that your audience will give you the benefit of the doubt and their wallets. Instead, Abrams casts a band of lesser known semi-stars to give his Star Trek a smaller feel, and maybe in some ways mirror the casting of the original TV show, which was comprised mainly of small-time actors.
But Abrams doesn't just use small actors. He's smarter than that. He uses small actors that also have their own set of mythologies to pull from. They are weirdly intertextual in their own right. This point might be a bit complicated, so let me try to explain: When we see Jack Nicholson in the Bucket List, we see Jack Nicholson the man, and every character Jack Nicholson has ever played. We get a sense that the man, and the characters, are looking back on their collective life.
When we see Zachary Quinto play Spock, though, we really only see Spock and Syler from Heroes, since Quinto has only had one major character in his career. Same with John Cho as Sulu; we see his character, and one half of Harold and Kumar. Or, if you haven't seen those movies, you just see these fairly unknown actors inhabiting hugely popular roles, so Abrams wins either way. The actors feel fresh, and it gets the audience doubly excited, since I love a young Scotty, but I also love Simon Pegg.
The key is this: I think the audience gets excited in a markedly different way than if A. really big actors (like Jack Nicholson) or B. really good actors (like Jack Nicholson) were playing these roles. It's exciting to see Jack as Joker precisely because we know he's going to be awesome, because he's Jack and we've seen him be awesome a million times. Cho or Quinto, on the other hand, are on a first name basis with the public in a different way -- Harold and Syler. Just exactly in the same way that Leonard Nemoy will never be anyone but Spock. And that's cool.