Unless you've been living under a rock, you've at least heard of Star Trek. You probably recognize the odd phrase ("Beam me up," "Set phasers on stun," or perhaps "Live long and prosper") and the guy with the pointy ears. Some of you recognize quite a bit more, but the imperative Paramount gave to its golden boy J.J. Abrams was to bring in the non-fans (known variously as "Trekkies" or "Trekkers") with a movie that says "global blockbuster" and not "nerd fest." Quibbles aside (and the fans, oh yes, they will quibble...), producer-director Abrams and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci have effectively served both masters: the rebooted Star Trek will please the lion's share of fans while reaching out to what may be the biggest audience the series has ever enjoyed.
For the record, I'm a Trekkie myself, one who liked the idea of giving Abrams a shot at reinvigorating the franchise. Abrams has taken essentially the same tack here as he did with Paramount's other big TV-derived franchise, Mission: Impossible. Like Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek runs mostly on fast-paced, big-budgeted, explosive action, fuel-injected with enough melodrama to provide the impression of character building, if not always the real thing. Though Star Trek aficionados will get an extra charge from it, Star Trek's bravura opening sequence immediately thrills and tugs at the heartstrings in ways that should work nearly as well for newcomers. But brush that tear from your eye, as Abrams is about to hurtle through and hurdle over enough scrapes for dozens of cliffhanger serials.
Abrams and company have achieved quite a bit in reframing the future adventures of the explorers of Starfleet (a "peacekeeping and humanitarian armada"), which represents the United Federation of Planets. The crew of the Enterprise includes Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban), helmsman Hikaru Sulu (John Cho), 17-year-old navigator Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and the brash and unwelcome James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), destined to follow in his father's footsteps to become a Starfleet captain (also on the fringes: Simon Pegg's Scottish starship engineer Montgomery Scott). Before the Enterprise takes its maiden voyage in response to a mysterious threat (involving Eric Bana's Romulan "war criminal" Nero), Abrams gets to work with some surprisingly rich and certified-fresh myth-building.
Pegged by Pike as "the only genius-level repeat offender in the Midwest," Kirk is a womanizer, and a hard-drinking brawler. But fatherly Pike gets the fatherless Kirk's acting out, and challenges him to quit wallowing and make something of himself that would be worthy of his father's heroic legacy. Meanwhile, intellectual giant Spock also has parental issues that lead to brawling, a serious no-no on his home world of Vulcan. Unlike other pure-bred Vulcans who have learned to control their emotions with pure logic, Spock has a human mother (Winona Ryder) as well as a Vulcan father (Ben Cross). Touchy on the subject, Spock rejects a condescending invitation into the prestigious Vulcan Science Academy in favor of joining Starfleet. It's this Star Trek's greatest stroke of genius to conceive of Kirk and Spock as two rebels looking for a cause, who butt heads on the way to becoming lifelong friends:
Kirk: I don't believe in no-win scenarios.
Spock: A captain cannot cheat death.
The filmmakers fill the film with spectacular ILM special effects and fan-pleasing in-jokes and references, including walking reference Leonard Nimoy reprising the role he created as the elder Spock (referred to in the credits as “Spock Prime”). No fair telling how or when he turns up, but I will say this: he comes along with one mother of a plot hole that's close to inexcusable (and definitely illogical). Abrams hopes he's got the film moving too fast for viewers to notice or care (on first viewing, anyway), and he's probably right. Those wanting to excuse the plot hole can tie it into the film's strong sense of destiny, despite the villain's largely successful attempts to disrupt the timeline.
Speaking of quibbles, here are four others: an easily impressed young Spock finding "Fascinating" a chair that spins automatically; the unearned, campy touch of putting some kind of space sword in Sulu’s hand (he fences, don'cha know?); the hellishly spiky and impractically designed Romulan tech (Star Trek bad guys never met a catwalk they didn't like); and, after a while, that relentlessly manic action-movie pace. At times, you may wish, as I did, that this most dizzyingly hyperactive of movies would calm down just a little.
The rest of the strenuous plot gymnastics pretty much work, and by pressing the continuity reset button, Abrams and company are able to make some bold—in fact, downright apocalyptic—changes to the Star Trek universe. But change is good for the soul, so they say, and the new cast members acquit themselves admirably. Pine, Quinto, Urban, and Yelchin do especially bang-up jobs of channeling their forebears without suffocating their own personalities, and though their characters don't seem so familiar, Saldana, Cho, and the reliably humorous Pegg are no less likeable. Also earning kudos: production designer Scott Chambliss, whose shiny retro chic dazzles, and composer Michael Giacchino, whose new Star Trek theme almost makes us forget the Alexander Courage original (don't worry: that's here, too).
What would series creator Gene Roddenberry think? "The Great Bird of the Galaxy," as fans affectionately took to calling him, would recognize the quick nods to space exploration and diplomacy, political allegory (though brief, there's a scene of torture amid evocatively sloshing water) and the Western (a scene that finds Kirk and Spock, side by side, playing phaser-packin' "space cowboys" against the Romulan "Indians") as a reflection of his original concept: "Wagon Train to the stars." Ever the horny devil, Roddenberry would also appreciate the film's sexiness (besides the obligatory green babe, her academy roommate Uhura proves greatly desirable, as do the once-more-svelte Kirk and Spock).
Paramount has a lot riding on Abrams' version of Star Trek, a perennially lucrative niche market that the studio hopes will break through into stratospheric box office numbers for the first time in its 43-year history. Though it’s hard to know whether the pricy new film will turn the instant profit Paramount desires, Abrams has already proven a wise investment.
[This review first appeared in an edited form in Palo Alto Weekly.]