Review: J.J. Abrams brings the fun back to Star Trek

[Update: We first posted this review on April 27, with the permission of Paramount. We are reposting it to coincide with today's first public screenings of the movie, starting at 7 p.m.; the movie officially opens on Friday in conventional theaters and IMAX.]

It's no secret that Star Trek has been off mission for a long time. On May 8, Paramount will jump-start its most valuable franchise with a new movie titled simply Star Trek, from director J.J. Abrams, abetted by his longtime collaborators and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.

They have boldly gone and remade Trek for a new century, and on balance it's a souped-up, streamlined, energized version of the old clunker, full of wit and speed and action and heart. And it works more often than it doesn't.

(Spoilers ahead!)

The story, both a sequel and a prequel, begins when the Romulan villain, Nero (Eric Bana), brings his massive ship the Narada back in time to 2233 from the 24th century, attacking the hapless Federation starship the U.S.S. Kelvin. While the stalwart if ill-fated Capt. Robau (Faran Tahir) beams over, the ship is left in the hands of George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth), whose very pregnant wife, Winona (Jennifer Morrison), is about to give birth. Their son, James Tiberius Kirk, is born as a massive battle rages.

Flash forward as the narrative splits between Kirk's childhood and that of Spock (played as a boy by Jacob Kogan), the tormented half-human child of Vulcan.

At Starfleet Academy, young adult Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) find themselves at odds when an emergency arises: Vulcan is in danger. As the Federation rushes to deal with the trouble, Kirk finds himself on board the newly commissioned Enterprise alongside Spock, Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and the rest of the crew. What they encounter forces each to deal with his or her innermost fears while finding the courage to overcome them, the wisdom to reach out to each other and the hope to forge ahead.

There are two ways to consider Abrams' Trek: As a Star Trek movie and as a work of cinema.

On the first point, I think Abrams et al. have made a movie that feels like Star Trek in its broad strokes and at its heart, even if many of the details have been changed. The interactions of the key characters—particularly Kirk, Spock and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban)—feel true, even if it takes the entire movie to get them where they're supposed to be.

Similarly, the movie finds what is essential in each of the supporting characters of Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Simon Pegg), while depicting them realistically as the competent, brilliant scientists they are meant to be.

Mostly, Abrams' Trek understands that the original series was only nominally about space adventure and social commentary: It is really a story of hope and humanity and the comradeship among people we ultimately wish we could become. In this, Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman have captured the spirit of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek.

The only thing missing is some kind of larger social message, one of the hallmarks of earlier Trek films: I expect that shortcoming will be redressed in future installments. This film necessarily deals with personal arcs: the becoming, so to speak, of the main characters into the people we recognize.

Fans will no doubt quibble about the film's wholesale revision of canon (explained in part by the plot device of the time incursion), including a particularly surprising new romantic relationship (!) and Abrams' 23rd-century version of Earth, which looks a heck of a lot more like ours and not so much like Roddenberry's utopia (they even use Nokia cell phones and drink Budweiser. And when was the last time the Beastie Boys appeared on a Star Trek soundtrack?) And there's no reset button: We are in completely uncharted territory by the film's end.

Of bigger concern is the movie's architecture, which brings us to an evaluation of Star Trek as a work of cinema.

Here, the movie has definite problems. The storyline is built on a series of coincidences and improbable events (why did Nero's ship appear right near the Kelvin? How does Kirk find Spock on Delta Vega?), unexplained situations (where has Nero been for 25 years? Why is his mining ship so advanced?) and implausible circumstances (why is cadet Kirk so quickly promoted to first officer when there's an entire ship full of junior officers around?).

Another shortcoming: Nero is not a particularly interesting villain, with a barely-touched-on backstory and a crew of inexplicably devoted and interchangeable acolytes. He is motivated by simple revenge, but we never feel his anguish or his wrath, Bana's quirky performance notwithstanding. And without a strong, charismatic villain, there's not much for our heroes to play off of.

But those issues aside, Abrams shows a much surer hand with the material than he did in his first feature film, Mission: Impossible III, which often played more like an expanded episode of his Alias than a big, epic movie.

Not so this time. Star Trek is big, epic and sweeping: not just the biggest Trek movie ever, but as huge as any popcorn extravaganza. The film's pacing is brilliant, the action staged imaginatively and with great verve, the visual effects thrilling (with a clear debt to the shaky-cam stylings of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica). It's every bit the blockbuster adventure ride Star Trek should be, as much Star Wars in its visual energy as old-school Trek. Did we mention fun? Something Trek lost sight of a while back.

A word about the performances: Pine manages the task of inhabiting the character of Kirk without doing a William Shatner impersonation, though a mannerism or two act as an homage, such as when he swaggers onto the bridge, pauses, then utters "Bones" before taking his seat in the captain's chair. He nevertheless finds the core of the character: the charismatic, fearless man of action with the heart and soul of a philosopher.

Urban nails McCoy from his first utterance, and his performance is one of the delights of the film.

It takes a while to see Quinto as Spock, an issue having to do more with the long emotional (yes, emotional) journey he has to travel and less with Quinto's measured performance. It still works, aided by Quinto's uncanny resemblance to Leonard Nimoy, who has a small but key role as "Spock Prime." Nimoy's welcome presence links old and new Trek. The rest of the cast, particularly Saldana and Cho, are terrific.

As the ads say, this isn't your father's Star Trek. And, as far as I'm concerned, that's great.

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