There isn’t much of the allegorical lesson-learning that has been a staple of Star Trek in the past. Instead, Abrams and company seem more interested in telling an engaging adventure story populated by interesting characters. This is easily the most action packed of the Star Trek films, with mammoth space battles and entire planets being destroyed.
To wit: The film opens with the USS Kelvin facing down a gigantic mining vessel, captained by the sinister Romulan Nero (Eric Bana), who is seeking revenge for the destruction of his homeland by blowing up planets and starships. James T. Kirk is born during this attack, or rather on a shuttlecraft while fleeing this attack, but meanwhile his father has to take control of the Kelvin and go down with the ship to ensure everybody else can get safely away.
We next meet Kirk as a child, angry over the death of his father and tooling around the Iowa countryside in a stolen Corvette. Meanwhile, on Vulcan, young Spock is a brainiac who can’t quite suppress the emotions of his human side as well as he wants to.
As adults, Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) meet each other at Starfleet Academy, where they immediately butt heads, as all great lovers do in movies. When Nero comes out of hiding to attack again, the cadets are called to serve on Starfleet’s newest flagship, the Enterprise, under Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood, always awesome). And, surprising to no one, Pike is sidelined and Kirk and Spock must take control of the ship and take the fight to Nero.
Occasionally, the young cast seems like kids playing Star Trek in the basement, but quite often they are spot on. Pine doesn’t try to emulate William Shatner’s distinctive, pause-filled acting style, and doesn’t particularly resemble Shatner physically, but he does capture both the charisma and dickishness at the heart of the character, making light of Kirk’s (and Shatner’s) ego while also showing why so many would follow him into battle. James T. Kirk is a great man, yes, but he can also be a swaggering prick.
Quinto’s Spock exudes a constant aura of smugness that Leonard Nimoy (who appears in the film, and has never been more relaxed in the role) never had, as he tries to show everyone he can find that he’s smarter than they are, but Quinto’s Spock is, underneath the logical surface, really a hotheaded youth in revolt. The film really shows us how the Vulcans’ lack of emotions is a choice, and as a half-human, half-Vulcan, Spock is rebelling from two cultures and finding a home in neither.
Among the rest of the cast, Karl Urban comes closest to pure imitation of his predecessor as the gruff Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is retrofitted as a feisty, self-actualizing woman, but, ironically, her role in the end is still that of “the girl.” Sulu has relatively little to do, but John Cho does wonders with a raised eyebrow and a couple of wry lines. Chekhov’s mangled Russian accent is basically his whole character, but Anton Yelchin brings an infectious enthusiasm to the role. And Simon Pegg is consistently hilarious as Scotty, who is largely relegated to being comic relief.
The script, by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (who previously wrote Mission: Impossible III for Abrams) is stuffed full of contrivance — Kirk’s road to the captain’s chair of the Enterprise hinges a bit too much on credulity-straining coincidence, but we know that he must become captain, and we want him to. That isn’t even mentioning the many plot holes big enough to fly a starship through, or the giant space MacGuffin called red matter that quite literally fuels the movie’s plot. However the film is so propulsive and entertaining, and the characters so involving, that it’s easy to forgive most of the script’s flaws.
Still, there is a pretty gigantic disaster that takes place midway through the film, and, while effective in the abstract, it just doesn’t hit us emotionally as much as it should. There are large moments in the movie that are stunning -- a shot of a line of shuttlecrafts flying away from an exploding spaceship comes to mind -- but the most effective moments occur on a smaller scale, with Kirk and Spock embodying the age-old conflict between mind and body. The movie is at its best when focusing on the budding relationships between these and the rest of the characters, the core things that fans loved about the show. Star Trek has a reputation for being a bit staid and austere, but with this reboot, Abrams has managed to spotlight what made Trek great in the first place. Instead of fossilizing the franchise with a fan’s reverence, Abrams has boiled Star Trek down to its core concepts — emphasizing the optimism and spirit of adventure inherent in the original show.
Still, Abrams is a relatively novice film director, and one less successful way he tries to liven things up is with his camerawork, which includes lots of slanted, swooping shots, as well as lens flares and snap zooms and myriad other superficial ways to make the movie look exciting and different.
Despite being incredibly obvious, the cinematography (by Daniel Mindel) does bring energy to the film. Sometimes, though, the art department goes a little far trying to show the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. Everything in the Federation seems to be made of gleaming white plastic, like iPods flying through space, while Nero’s ship is jagged and black, and looks scavenged from spare parts. Starfleet officers wear sleek uniforms, while the Romulans wear space parkas and wade through inexplicable pools of standing water on their ship.
Prequels by nature are difficult to do, having to service established history for characters while going into reductive, often drama-killing detail about why characters are the way the are. They can end up playing like more of a dreary fill-in-the-blanks exercise than an interesting story. But Abrams and company find a fairly creative way around this that sticks to the spirit of the franchise we love while expanding the scope of what the story can do. I am a Trek fan from way back, and could nitpick if I wanted to, but at its best this movie feels like Star Trek, and you can’t really ask anything more. By the end of Star Trek, these characters are ready to explore strange new worlds, and we’re ready to follow them.
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