I have to confess something before I begin a review of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek: before walking into the film, I had never seen an episode of the TV series (in any of its iterations) or any of the 10 feature films. Yet, because of how thoroughly Star Trek (particularly The Original Series) has pervaded pop culture, I was already familiar with the main cast, the enemies, the music, Kirk’s narration.
“To boldly go where no man has gone before,” we all know where that comes from. Well, that out of the way, I was floored by J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, which is the kind of Hollywood blockbuster that hasn’t been seen since Spielberg and Lucas were in their prime.
This is precisely the movie that George Lucas should have been aiming for with his Star Wars prequels, something that’s large-scale visionary while maintaining character detail, a slam-bang adventure without a whiff of self-indulgence, no intergalactic politics in sight.
Star Trek opens aboard the U.S.S. Kelvin, which is being attacked by the Romulan ship Narada, commanded by Nero (Eric Bana). George Kirk, who has taken over command of the Kelvin, sends his pregnant wife away in an escape vessel before diving into the Nero on a suicide run.
If you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ll notice (I’m assuming) something is amiss – this isn’t how things were supposed to happen. Years later, we get glimpses of a young James Tiberius Kirk driving a convertible off a cliff in Iowa; meanwhile, on Vulcan, a young half-human, half-emotionless-Vulcan Spock is tormented by his peers who try to get an emotional response from him.
They eventually do, by invoking the name of his human mother (played by Winona Ryder). Always works. Years later still, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is recruited into the Starfleet Academy by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who remembers his father.
At the Academy, Kirk somehow passes the un-passable Kobayashi Maru training exercise, landing him an enemy in the creator of the exercise, Spock. When Captain Pike’s U.S.S. Enterprise is called into emergency action, Kirk sneaks aboard and joins what should become a familiar crew: Spock, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), McCoy (Karl Urban), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Sulu (John Cho).
Soon enough, they’ll be joined by Scotty (Simon Pegg) The rest of the film involves, in some order: time travel; ice-planet monsters; an older Spock (played by a returning Leonard Nimoy); alternate realities; planetary destruction; and some incredible action sequences, including one where Kirk and Sulu parachute down to the top of the planet-destroying device for a swordfight.
This ain’t your father’s Star Trek. It’s a loud, colorful, fast-paced, action-packed, breathless piece of filmmaking. It isn’t visionary sci-fi. It’s been watered-down for mass consumption, just intelligent enough to get by. It’s illogical and filled with coincidences (though one of the themes here seems to be fate, so I’ll let this one slide.) But it works, and it’s a thrilling ride.
Pine and Quinto could not be better as Kirk and Spock. They have none of the gravitas of Shatner or Nimoy, nor do they attempt any to mimic the original actors. Instead, they’re blank canvases that allow these iconic figures to be written on their faces.
Supporting cast plays it much broader, emphasizing the original cast to an almost comedic effect. Particularly Pegg and Yelchin. Urban, as McCoy, is the hammy best among the crew. Bana, unrecognizable as Nemo, makes for a disappointingly bland villain.
After every dark vision of the future possible, Star Trek conveys a refreshingly optimistic vision for mankind. This is fully realized in the set design and cinematography by Daniel Mindel, which creates some beautiful shots like a barren Iowa field with a massive futuristic cityscape in the far distance.
Music by Michael Giacchino seems to recall John Williams’ Star Wars soundtrack more than the classic Star Trek theme. Will Trekkies like the new film? I can’t answer that. At the very least, Abram’s film has won a convert who will go back and watch the original series and films.
I’ve since seen The Motion Picture (not a prime Trek example, apparently), and there’s certainly something there that’s been excised completely from the new film. A level of self-consciousness that isolates Star Trek from any other work. Now, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Abrams’ film just works on a different level, trying (and succeeding) to appeal to a mass audience.
Still, fansmay be disappointed. For everyone else, this is a summer blockbuster that absolutely delivers on summer blockbuster terms.