Star Trek (dir: J.J. Abrams)
It’s just Star Trek. No numbers, no subtitles, no tag and no repeat of The Motion Picture. The newest take on the beloved franchise that spawned generations of Trekkies (sorry, I meant Trekkers) takes the Enterprise bridge crew back to their roots as Starfleet cadets, meeting cute at the Academy shuttle (or over a bar fight near the Iowa starshipyards) and clashing in their first bridge assignments on an emergency mission (hey, it’s cadets on a starship!). The old friends are just new acquaintances learning to work together here.
Most long-lived franchises survive through reinvention every generation or so, but the foundation of the Star Trek legacy is not the premise or the promise of a certain brand of SF adventure. It’s characters and personality. None of the Star Trek spin-off shows have captured the dynamic that Kirk, Spock and McCoy did on TV, and the young blood imported for the early Star Trek movies couldn’t hold their own against the old characters and their defining chemistry and were quickly beamed out of the series. Once the Next Generation crew took over the film franchise, the audiences lost interest.
That’s what director J.J. Abrams is faced with preserving with his take on “Kirk and Spock: The Early Years” and for the most part he succeeds. These younger models deliver a new take on all the old classics: Zachary Quinto (best known as “the creepy guy on ‘Heroes'”) slips into Spock’s deadpan commentary and raised eyebrow and Karl Urban drawls Dr. McCoy’s country doctor homilies and frontier exclamations. Anton Yelchin gives a pitch-perfect impression of Chekov’s cartoon accent (right down to a joke that turns on his inability to pronounce the letter “v”) and offers plenty of boyish energy, Simon Pegg has a blast playing with Scotty’s unalloyed joy at mucking with equipment and pushing the warp engines to their limit, and John Cho gets to pull out the sword for pilot and fencing champion Sulu. New to this universe: Zoe Saldana creates a much more spirited Uhuru than the sixties model and she even has a boyfriend. You’ll never guess who it is.
And in the central role of the macho James Tiberius Kirk, bleach blond Chris Pine is a two-fisted delinquent turned Starfleet maverick: impulsive and cocky and swashbuckling. The opening scene literally rewrites his story and Kirk grows up fast, cocky and arrogant, a townie with a chip on his shoulder who likes to scrap with the local Starfleet cadets. His blue eyes twinkle, his grin rarely drops and he focus only falters when a girl walks by. Which gives him plenty of distraction.
J.J. Abrams has improved significantly as a director since Mission: Impossible III. He has a lighter touch this time around, with plenty of humor (at times coming dangerously close to the event horizon of flippancy) and real eye-candy spectacle and cosmic imagery. The writers (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, veterans of Abrams TV projects) take a page out of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn to give these kids a madman of a nemesis on a mission of vengeance and tosses in a time-travel twist (yes, it’s yet another Star Trek time travel story) to give him the tools to destroy the Federation. (Does every villain have to threaten life as we know it? Just asking…) Unfortunately Nero is no Kahn and Eric Bana doesn’t have much to do but glare and grimace and vow revenge through gritted teeth, but his ship is intimidating, vaguely organic with a hint of predatory insect on a galactic scale.
Fans of the old get to see Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood here), Kirk’s famed “Kobayashi Maru” stunt (as discussed in Star Trek II) and the inevitable fate of the first red shirt (chronologically speaking, of course) to join Kirk for an away team mission. And yes, Leonard Nimoy is back as Spock, playing the elder statesmen to the green young versions of his old crew. Even viewers with only passing familiarity of the show will get a lot of the tongue-in-cheek asides but you don’t have to be a fan to enjoy the energy, the color and the character of the film.
Abrams and company cram an awful lot into one film but, for all the momentum and humor and galactic action, there really isn’t much dramatic substance or emotional heft to a story that literally shakes up the mythology as we know it. And it hardly seems to matter.
Star Trek has it every which way: it’s a prequel and a relaunch, a self-aware tribute that honors the legacy with winking references and in-joke yet gives itself license to revise and rework the mythology. It takes itself seriously and yet has fun with the characters and the chemistry. It aspires to be everything to everyone and it’s as good as can be expected given those directives, but its prime directive is simple: have fun. It does and I did.
[a shorter version of this review is at the Seattle PostGlobe]