I'll start off this review the same way I've started off pretty much every review I've ever written of a Star Trek movie: by telling you that I hate Star Trek. I've always thought the franchise, whether on TV or on the big screen, was…well…how do I say this nicely? I can't. Let's put it this way - I've always thought the franchise had its head up its own ass. This was especially true with the last few big screen adventures of the Enterprise, which seemed designed to please only the most obsessed Trekkies who are concerned more with obscure minutia than with genuine story. (And no need to correct me on the inappropriate use of the word "Trekkies." I know you prefer to be called "Trekkers," and I don't care.) When it comes to sci-fi, I much prefer the depth of the Star Wars universe. That saga certainly has its own minutia, but there's enough of an overriding arc that non-fanboys can still follow it. Occasionally someone tries to lure me into a conversation about whether Star Wars is better than Star Trek. I never bite. For me, it's a complete waste of time, like arguing whether "Twilight" is a better book than "To Kill a Mockingbird." It's not, and everyone knows it, except for some hardcore fans with no sense of perspective.
All right, I'm slamming something that many people hold dear, and perhaps I'm even doing so unfairly. My apologies. I do so only to point out how surprised and delighted I am by director JJ Abrams' new Star Trek reboot. Paramount has been working overtime to hammer home the message that "this is not your father's Star Trek." And you know what? They're right. The film is smart enough to be accessible to everyone, while retaining enough respect for the franchise's legacy to please diehard fans. The first thing I did after the screening was to call my best friend - a longtime Trek fanatic whom I have enjoyed gently ridiculing - to say, "Dude, the new Star Trek was awesome!" See, this is why I did all the hating above; to let you know that I'm paying the film what I consider to be the ultimate compliment.
I knew this Trek was going to have class during a dazzling pre-opening credit sequence that combines intense action, impressive special effects, and actual honest-to-goodness humanity. A Federation ship is attacked by evil Romulans, and a young crewmember dies without having the opportunity to meet his newborn son. That child grows up to be James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), an Iowa farm boy who seems hell-bent on self-destruction. After a chance encounter with Federation Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Kirk decides to get his life together by enlisting in Starfleet Academy. The first people he meets are a medic named Jim McCoy (Karl Urban) and a linguist named Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Kirk likes them, but clashes with the ever-logical Vulcan named Spock ("Heroes" star Zachary Quinto). Once assigned to the USS Enterprise, he meets other familiar characters like Checkov (Anton Yelchin), Sulu (John Cho), and, eventually, Scotty (Simon Pegg).
Without giving away too much, the Enterprise crew discovers that some rogue Romulans, led by the sinister Nero (Eric Bana), are planning to wipe out several worlds in retaliation for what they believe was the destruction of their own planet. Worse yet, they hold Spock personally responsible. Over the course of the mission, Kirk learns to assume leadership, while Spock grapples with the effects of his decision to pursue logic at the expense of emotion, in addition to his own fallibility. There are massive space battles, time warps, and plenty of interpersonal conflicts.
My beef with Star Trek was never with creator Gene Roddenberry's central premise. I like the idea of an optimistic future where people of all races and species work together for peace. Instead, I've always objected to the way the franchise devolved into something esoteric. Trekkies - oh, all right, I'll give in and call you Trekkers - became so enamored of every tiny detail that Trek eventually ended up catering to them in its later TV iterations and features. The better of the movies, namely Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home and Star Trek: First Contact, at least made a few concessions to the non-fans, and were therefore in a slightly different class. But Insurrection? The Final Frontier? Nemesis? Man, those things were painful to sit through.
With this new Star Trek, JJ Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman remove the esoteric stuff and focus on developing the characters as fully as possible. They all do an excellent job of making Kirk and Spock real people instead of the archetypes they've been reduced to in the last few decades. We see Kirk gradually flicking off the chip that's perpetually been on his shoulder. We also see Spock dealing with the prejudice that comes from having a Vulcan father and a human mother. He's chosen which side of himself he wants to emphasize more, yet also discovers that he is distinctly, inescapably both. These are issues that anyone in the audience can understand, so it's much easier to get wrapped up in the story. The same holds true for Nero. Some of the previous Trek entries (TV and cinematic) have delved into the tiniest details of the Romulans. Not here. Nero is a guy whose planet was destroyed. He's pissed off and seeking revenge. His menace is brought to the forefront, which makes him an effective villain.
Abrams finds the pathos in a well-worn series, and for that reason everything else is more heightened. There are a number of really exciting action sequences (especially a fight on a floating space drill) that work because we truly care about the fate of the characters and the accomplishment of their mission. A plot twist involving the time-space continuum - and featuring a much-publicized cameo from an original cast member - works for the exact same reason. There's no gimmickry in this film; all the familiar elements are placed in the context of a well-told story. The cast has been uniformly chosen for their ability to inhabit the characters and not for any self-aware nudge-nudge value. It all adds up to create the first Star Trek movie that feels fully realized. You could accurately say that is stands alone while still fitting perfectly into the already established canon. Tough feat to pull of, but it does.
One more thing I'm thankful for: Abrams has managed to throw in things that Trekkers expect without ever falling into the trap of winking at the audience. You'll hear all the famous catchphrases (e.g. "I'm giving her all she's got, Captain!") in ways that are integrated naturally into the plot. The film doesn't distract us by excessively calling attention to them. Hooray for that.
The most important thing to say about Star Trek is that it's a lot of fun. I loved the action, and the special effects, and the humor. Against every natural impulse I possess, I got involved in the journey of Jim Kirk and Mr. Spock. I liked and respected them because they sincerely earned my empathy this time around. These days, Hollywood studios are "rebooting" every dusty franchise they can get their hands on. With Star Trek, the process is legitimately welcomed, and it produces something that can be enjoyed by anyone looking to see a grand adventure made with skill, conviction, and even a bit of grace.
( 1/2 out of four)
Star Trek is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence and brief sexual content. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.
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