Let me be clear off the top. I’m no fan of the J.J. Abrams machine. I’ve never seen an episode of Alias or Lost. As a fan of Japanese giant monsters, I couldn’t help but grudgingly like his production of Cloverfield, though I found the Abrams-directed take on Mission Impossible to be a smug fanboy disaster. I don’t care if it was the third film in that increasingly woeful series. The one thing I’ve seen about fifty times apiece is Classic Trek, and woe onto anyone who messes with it -- i.e. the abomination called Star Trek Generations, a movie that killed Kirk to bring in the Next Gen new blood and almost ruined my beloved memory of the show in the process.
You can imagine the apprehension that I had going in to see a geek wunderkind’s smarmy take on everything I held dear. Now quadruple that with my amazement that Star Trek emerges as what might be the best franchise reboot of all time. Just imagine if Star Wars Episode One was indeed as good as you’d hoped for, and you’ll get the adrenalin rush of what Abrams has accomplished here with tons of fanboy love. His quickly beating heart references just about every movie and show in the Trek cannon, yet does so without a trace of slavish smugness. What he does lavish upon the screen is one of the most epic, visually awe-inspiring sci-fi movies in recent memory. My generation will always have Star Wars, but it’s a fare bet that the tons of kids who have zilch idea of Classic Trek will find their Luke and Han in Abram’s hot new Kirk and Spock.
Sure. I know how pissed William Shatner is that he wasn’t in a plot that cleverly re-jigs the entire Trek universe...and Shatner will be doubly pissed when he sees how much better this is than pretty much any Trek film (though I’ll give Wrath of Khan the mulligan). As much as I hate to admit it, there’s no sane way Shat could have been fit into this plot, which takes Khan’s crazed survivor on the quest for vengeance thing, then doubles it with the whole Romulan Godzilla-sized starship revenge thing from Nemesis (which I liked more than most). Here, the space Ahab is Eric Bana’s Nero, a Romulan with some cool face tats who pilots a huge junker that could probably beat the shit out of Vejur. In Star Trek, he’s out for Spock’s blood and ends up with Kirk’s dad’s in a dazzling prologue that sets the tone for Abram’s formidable mix of emotion and effects, not to mention sheer, bravura filmmaking.
The opening’s powerful sacrifice yields a young punk named James T. Kirk, with Tom Cruise Top Gun motorcycle cool to spare. And damn if that ultra cool jet he’ll eventually be riding is the U.S.S. Enterprise. On the other side of the galaxy, another young guy with a galaxy-sized chip on his shoulder is Spock, who’s about to take the Vulcan logic test in order not to beat the shit out of anyone else who’s calling him a human halfbreed. Then there’s a space-sick medic named McCoy, a hot translator named Uhura, a neophyte space pilot with a mean Katana called Sulu... Yadda. Yadda. Yadda. As the “A Team” comes together to go up against the seemingly unbeatable Nero and his planet-buster, Abrams goes through the intro drill with no end of delight, throwing tons of bones at Trek fans to show them he’s as self-referentially smart in playing their game. Yet when you watch how brilliantly the actors step into their roles, it all somehow seems fresh -- the “guess who?” jokes tossed out with the enthusiasm of a kid who wants to do it bigger and better than ever before, as opposed to the rote winks of a Hollywood hack powering up the money machine again.
That Abrams's renewed warp engine will make tons of dilithium is a given, and deserved at that. For as good as Classic Trek could be, its shows and films were limited by budget (with the first TMP being the exception). Perhaps what makes this Trek so cool is that Abrams is hell-bent on giving himself and fans the Star Trek they always dreamed of seeing in a story that involves true sacrifice from nearly everyone. In the process, Abrams continually slaps Kirk upside the head in the time-honored tradition of a young punk who makes good. Even Spock gets more love here. And by starting all of this from “scratch,” as it were, Abrams has achieved something we really haven’t seen since Star Trek- The Voyage Home -- that is, a Star Trek film that works just as well for the uninitiated as the converted.
The fans who said the whole “save the whales” thing made Kirk and company go soft will have little to complain about here. Kick-ass, brilliantly staged action and intense character-driven scenes abound. And here it’s about everyone, not just The Big Three of Kirk, Spock and McCoy -- icons whose even-nicer uniforms are filled out by Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban. While Pine and Quinto are basically doing their own thing, Urban goes for more of a pitch-perfect impression of McCoy that bubbles with the humor of the late DeForest Kelley. Otherwise, you don’t mind that Pine isn’t doing the Shatner pregnant pauses, and the soft-spoken Quinto raises nary an eyebrow (though he gets to employ a mean nerve pinch).
Getting nearly as good screen-time is a spot-on cast, from Zoe Saldana’s exceptionally strong Uhura to Simon Pegg’s playful Scotty and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, who still can’t pronounce his “R"s through the Russian accent. Bruce Greenwood acquits himself with usual presidential authority as the non-burned Captain Pike, while Bana proves to be a formidable villain (even getting a Kahn-like “SPOCK!!!!!” in here). In an exceptionally well-conceived appearance by screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Leonard Nimoy does perhaps his best acting in the entire series as a time-lost Spock, whose mixture of good humor and grief makes the character more humanly poignant than ever before.
It’s gotten tired when you hear filmmakers talking about how special effects mean nothing without human drama, and there’s more than enough to excuse the colossal visual scope here, which ranks as some of the best visuals seen in a space-set sci-fi film, with any number of breathtakingly beautiful shots that can proudly stand as Enterprise porn. However, I do miss the utilitarian sleekness once we’re in the ship, as much of the engine room looks like a factory (though the bridge is suitably dazzling). It’s also a ship that could have stood a bit of trimming on the running time, especially in the middle. While Michael Giacchino has come up with an effectively powerful score, his theme rapidly gets more use than McCoy’s exclamations that he’s a doctor instead of a (fill in the blank). Yet these are nits to pick in the overall stunning accomplishment that Abrams has pulled off in his desire not so much to keelhaul the Enterprise as to give it a brand-spanking-new coat of studio paint, polished off with the love that a sailor has for his favorite boat.
That this Enterprise and its inhabitants have been spiffed up like never before is a testament to Abrams’s geek love that’s finally been done just about absolutely right in my book. There’s no better experience for an old, Classic Trek salt to come out with the heady feeling of being an eight-year-old who’s just seen the coolest thing ever on television. The fact that this rush is now coming from seeing the true spectacle and drama that the big screen can provide makes this reborn Star Trek all the better. And you can bet that, with Abrams at the helm, it will be more than a four-year voyage at the multiplexes to come (though Imax is the only real way to see this). Live long and prosper, J.J. I’m now a believer.
For Fans Of: Star Trek, Lost, J.J. Abrams
Why We Like It: fantastic reboot of a classic series, Chris Pine, geek culture