Almost since the days of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the mid-eighties, the powers that be at Paramount had been threatening to do a new Star Trek television series or film that would follow the hallowed characters of the original series through their early days at Starfleet Academy, sort of a Star Trek version of Muppet Babies. However, the idea of casting younger actors in the iconic roles of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy always seemed to carry the faint whiff of sacrilege, like a female pope or eating a cheeseburger with mayonnaise.
By 2009, DeForest Kelley was no longer with us and Shatner and Nimoy were both pushing 80. The Next Generation films had crashed and burned with the anemic Nemesis and no one was beating down the doors for film versions of Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise. If Star Trek was to continue generating cash for Paramount, it was now-or-never for a reboot of the original series. J.J. Abrams, the man behind TV’s Lost and Fringe, was the man brave and/or stupid enough to take the job.
Given enough rope to hang both himself and a whole convention center full of Trekkies, Abrams went for it. I don’t think anyone knew what to expect from this movie and, freed from the weight of the usual expectations, this is finally the movie that the franchise deserves. It may lack the emotional resonance that The Wrath of Khan held for the faithful, but for the uninitiated, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek makes up for it with sheer entertainment value to spare.
The film starts with the very hour James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is born, which also happens to be the hour his father is killed in an attack by an unknown force (is there any other kind in Star Trek?). Flash forward a couple decades and Kirk is a reckless, womanizing thrill-seeker goaded by his father’s memory into joining Starfleet. However, just as Kirk is about to be drummed out of the academy for cheating on a test, Spock’s home planet Vulcan is attacked by the same unknown force that killed Kirk’s father.
The film is sufficiently reverential toward the legacy of Star Trek to keep all but the most OCD Trekkies happy, but much like Nick Meyer, Abrams is not so overawed by the mythology that he fails to have fun with it. While the whole cast of characters from the original series, McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Uhura (Zoe Saldana), have their scenes, this is very much the story of Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto). Pine does a remarkable job of capturing the twinkle-in-the-eye swagger of the TV-era Kirk, but Quinto is the real revelation as a pre-Nimoy Spock whose emotional reserve masks a Vulcan-sized chip on his shoulder. Ironically, of all the secondary characters, the normally neglected Uhura gets to have the biggest moment in the spotlight. I think Abrams knows his audience well enough not to consign Zoe Saldana to the background.
Normally, a solid villain is key to a decent Star Trek movie, but this enterprise (sorry) succeeds despite the fact that Eric Bana’s character doesn’t make that much of an impression. As a character, Nero is a little too much like Tom Hardy’s character in Nemesis to seem really fresh and never quite comes alive when he’s on screen. Fortunately, the film’s strengths are how well it fleshes out the characters we already think we know.
I’m pleased to report that this Star Trek is sufficiently Trekkie-friendly to keep the hardcore fans happy, sufficiently polished for the rest of us, and sufficiently profitable to keep the good stuff coming for a few years to come.