Damn it, Jim, it's a reboot not a sequel.It could've gone wrong in so many ways, and given TV wonderboy J.J. Abrams' desire to please everyone — Trek geeks and the uninitiated — it should've been a complete mess. Instead, Star Trek is a manically paced, profoundly affectionate and highly entertaining prequel to a cultural touchstone.
Yeah, it's more slam-bam space opera than brainy social science fiction and, sure, it could use some breathing room to make its characters more human, but Star Trek is fun — something the franchise hasn't been since 1986's goofy The Voyage Home. We're not sure if Abrams' clever inclusion of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" heralds the kind of revolutionary take on the material he thinks he's achieving (this Star Trek is significantly dumbed-down when compared to the series or even the 1979 film), but the anthem does stir the audience while making clear that the quiet diplomacy of Jean-Luc Picard has no place in Abrams' oh-so-hip reconceptualization. One gander at hotter-than-hot (and wholly feminist) Uhura (Zoe Saldana) makes that clear. When was the last time anyone described Star Trek as sexy?
The plot is mostly preamble, introducing younger, hipper versions of the well-known characters, getting them into space then throwing them against a time-traveling bad guy Romulan (Eric Bana), who conveniently allows screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to rewrite 43 years of Starfleet lore into an alternate reality (one more concession to Hollywood-friendly tent-poling, no doubt). Die-hards may have a tough time swallowing the changes, but the vast majority of audiences simply won't care. Orci and Kurtzman (Transformers) smartly crib details and flourishes from the best of the earlier films, Wrath of Khan, providing a fitting bookend to the 1982 film's focus on Kirk and Spock's friendship.
Sadly, Abrams' Star Trek doesn't have the corny but rousing literary pretensions of Khan or the great Ricardo Montalban to chew the scenery. Instead, it's a pretty standard outer-space combat flick that trades in standard-issue war tropes about rising to the occasion and trusting your comrades. Heck, the Enterprise's captain's seat becomes a revolving proving ground for a half-dozen characters. Worse, the script offers yet another villain keen to destroy the world because someone killed his wife. Really, how many of these guys are out there?
This version will, inevitably, be accused by some of turning Roddenberry's ongoing sci-fi parable into Trekkie-pleasing trivia and mindless thrills. Look for anything approaching depth in Star Trek and you'll walk away disappointed. The closest Abrams comes to making a point is to strangely suggest that Vulcans are the metaphorical equivalent of intergalactic Jews. But the show was never that deep and its trademark sense of hope and optimism remain intact. Given the doom and gloom in our world now, that's not such a bad thing. Well-made cinematic brain candy is a rare but welcome treat these days.
Eventually, however, audiences will look for more substantial stories, and the real proof of success will come with the inevitable sequels and whether they can challenge rather than simply re-establish their iconic characters. (More focus on humans over hardware would be appreciated.)
Luckily for Abrams, the franchise has a long and beloved mythology to draw from, smoothing over his film's many cracks and bumps. He fully embraces Star Trek's colorful history, repeatedly paying homage and referencing past episodes and movies. And though he can't shoot a coherent action scene to save his life, the director keeps things rollicking, suspenseful and engaging.
His is also a highly charismatic cast. Chris Pine avoids William Shatner's hyperbolic style and presents James T. Kirk as the brash, swaggering hero he was meant to be. Zachary Quinto (Heroes' Sylar) lacks the great Leonard Nimoy's sonorous voice but offers a believable Spock. John Cho (Harold & Kumar), Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) and Anton Yelchin give up solidly broad strokes as Sulu, Scotty and Chekov. But it's Kiwi Karl Urban (LOTR, Doom) who really delivers the goods as the irascible Dr. McCoy. Not only does Urban credibly channel DeForest Kelly's difficult-to-pin-down acting style, he creates a three-dimensional character you want to see.
Ultimately, it's hard to make the case that Star Trek boldly goes where no film has gone before. Truth is, Abrams' spirited relaunch goes where countless other summer popcorn blockbusters have been — it just happens to do it with verve, style and wit.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].