There are precious few things in the realm of entertainment that could bring Trekkers and casual sci-fi fans together in geeky harmony, making J.J. Abrams' invigorating Star Trek reboot one of the rare Hollywood commodities that's actually worth getting excited about. Just a few short years ago, it seemed as if the Star Trek universe had gone supernova, exploding into itself with the divisive Next Generation feature Star Trek: Nemesis and the cancellation of the Emmy Award-winning Enterprise.
What a difference a few years can make...
Fun, funny, exhilarating, and occasionally touching, Star Trek gives Gene Roddenberry's enduring sci-fi series a much-needed shot in the arm (or, perhaps more appropriately, the neck). Likewise, it may be important to note that this is the first new chapter in the series to debut theatrically rather than on television, because this could be the key to winning over the potential new fans who may be more willing to buy a ticket to a movie rather than committing to an extended television run from the onset. If pressed, even die-hard Trekkers will likely admit that the Star Trek franchise has yielded mixed results over the years, though if Abrams and company can keep up the kind of giddy momentum on display here, there's a real chance that the series will have its strongest run since The Next Generation hit its stride in the early '90s.
The story gets under way as a Romulan vessel intercepts a Federation starship. The captain of that Romulan ship is Nero (Eric Bana). There seems to be some confusion on Nero's part as to what the actual stardate is, and after unsuccessfully inquiring as to the whereabouts of a Vulcan named Spock, Nero slays the Federation captain and launches an all-out attack on his ship. As a result, First Officer George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) is promoted to captain and attempts to fend off the vengeful Romulan while his crew -- including his pregnant wife, who's just gone into labor -- abandons ship. Flash forward years later to find that the child born on that fateful day is James Tiberius Kirk. Not only does Kirk have a rebellious streak, he also has some daddy issues and a severe problem with authority. Challenged by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) to prove himself by becoming a Federation captain, Kirk (Chris Pine) accepts and promises to accomplish his goal in record time. When the Federation receives a distress signal from planet Vulcan during a hearing to decide whether Kirk cheated on his final test at the academy, his friend Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) sneaks him aboard the USS Enterprise as it sets out on its maiden voyage. What the crew finds upon arriving at Vulcan will not only set the stage for Kirk to prove himself as a competent captain, but will also bring together the classic crew that includes First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), Communications Officer Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Helmsman Hikaru Sulu (John Cho), Navigator Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Engineer Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg) for their first mission together.
When the final shot in the trailer is one of the opening shots of the film, it's a good indicator that the filmmakers are confident in their product. Regardless of how closely you've studied the trailers or how much you know about the plot, Star Trek still has its fair share of surprises for Trekkers and series newcomers alike. It opens with an act of heartbreaking heroism amidst an explosive space battle, and skillfully leaps forward to explore the origins of Kirk and Spock in a way that doesn't sacrifice story for momentum. From the moment a young Kirk dashes down the freeway in a vintage convertible blasting the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," it's obvious that this isn't your father's Star Trek, and it sets the stage for us to expect the unexpected. Like an artist reinterpreting a familiar song but instilling it with enough nuance to make it his own, Abrams remains faithful to the original mythology while adding some new touches that keep the movie fresh and exciting. This careful balance is accomplished in part by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman's clever script, which opens the door for subtle change by incorporating time travel into the story. Though this element can seem somewhat muddled in an opening third-act scene where Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) explains Nero's tragic roots to an incredulous Kirk, it isn't long before the pieces start falling into place and the action picks back up. Orci and Kurtzman keep the stakes high but never resist the urge to have a little fun with the characters, and therein lies much of Star Trek's widely appealing charm. The relationship between Kirk and Bones, in particular, gives the film much of its humor, with a goofy sight gag early on nearly careening into straight comedy. Still, when the going gets tough for the Enterprise crew, we get plenty of those familiar "chaos on the bridge" shots, and despite all the sound and fury of certain scenes, it's Abrams' occasional use of silence that gives the film some of its most powerful moments.
The Star Trek series is known for its colorful characters, who are here as vivid as ever thanks to a talented cast that would rather fully inhabit their characters than emulate the actors who originated them. Pine makes Kirk's swagger unmistakable, though he doesn't seem interested in carrying over William Shatner's notoriously stilted delivery, and "Live Long and Prosper" has never sounded as much like "F**k you" as when Quinto's Spock delivers the famous line to a prejudiced Vulcan council. As the primary villain, Nero, Bana really doesn't have much to do but look intense and occasionally flip out, but when it comes to the Enterprise crew each character gets his or her moment to shine. The main thrust of the story is the burgeoning friendship between Kirk and Spock that will ultimately help both to realize their destinies. But while Pine and Quinto are the primary focus of the film, the performances are strong all around, particularly in the cases of Urban and Yelchin, who are consistently fun to watch whenever they're onscreen.
Traditionally, science fiction films tend to be a bit dark -- no surprise since they're frequently set on a desolated planet or somewhere in deep space. By filling Abrams' Star Trek with plenty of light, color, and lens flares, cinematographer Daniel Mindel gives the film a unique look. In addition to bringing aboard frequent collaborators Orci, Kurtzman, and editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, Abrams enlists Lost and Mission: Impossible III composer Michael Giacchino to score the film. By borrowing elements of previous Star Trek scores and folding them into his own inspired compositions, Giacchino manages to simultaneously evoke feelings of nostalgia and excitement right from the opening scene. Watching Star Trek, we get the sense that we're actually witnessing the birth of something new rather than the flogging of a dead Tribble. It fulfills its promise of rebooting the series while leaving us wanting more, and it does so with style and energy to spare. Now that's an origins tale that truly delivers.