Star Trek by J. J. Abrams (Review)

The filmmakers figured out exactly where they had to be reverent of Star Trek canon, and where they could be fast and loose with it.
Star Trek, J.J. Abrams

I first discovered Star Trek when I was in kindergarten via reruns of the original series. Later, I enjoyed the subsequent movies chronicling the further exploits of Kirk, Spock, et al. However, when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered — I was in 6th grade at the time, I believe — it was like lightning out of the blue and I became as big a Star Trek geek as you could imagine.

How big, you ask? Well, for example, my friends and I would often get into discussions — in physics class, natch — over the nature and structure of dilithium crystals. We were completely talking out of our butts, of course, but it was great fun to have something that inspired us so much. It was, in some ways I suppose, a nearly religious experience, my first forays into true geek culture.

But notice I said “was.” Subsequent years took their toll on the once mighty franchise as well as my impressions of it. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was great, but with its darker tone and murkier political and religious plot lines, it felt like it was cut from a different franchise. Star Trek: Voyager had its moments, but after awhile, I just lost interest. The crew never galvanized me the way that Kirk’s or Picard’s had, nor did their plight. I couldn’t drum up any enthusiasm for Star Trek: Enterprise. It, along with the later films, felt like desperate attempts to simply bleed a turnip, to wring just a little more cash from the franchise.

Meanwhile, series like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica appeared, bringing a more realistic, authentic approach to sci-fi that made Star Trek’s storylines and characters seem downright prosaic and prudish. I came to the conclusion that the series just needed to go away for awhile, to let the next generation (npi) have their day in the sun while the mighty Trek rested up in stardock, living on via syndication and DVDs until such time as the stars aligned for a truly new 5 year mission.

Suffice to say, I just rolled my eyes when it was announced that a new Star Trek movie was in the works. I rolled my eyes again when it was announced that the new movie would be a reboot focusing on Kirk and Spock during their days at Starfleet Academy. Such a movie felt even more desperate, if not a wee bit sacrilegious. Throwing out a crapload of technobabble, plots replete with deus ex machinas, and yet another bevy of aliens that looked just like humans with bad acne? Well, that par for the course. But mess with Kirk and Spock, with established canon and lore? It seemed ludicrous. Not even the announcement that J.J. Abrams — the creator of my beloved Lost and current poster boy for geeky pop culture turned populist entertainment — would be sitting in the director’s chair did much to improve my mood.

But here I am after having seen Abrams’ Star Trek, and I’m enjoying a heaping plate of crow. I was proven wrong, and I couldn’t be happier: Star Trek is fun, exciting, and cool all over again, and it feels like there’s a brand new galaxy to explore.

The movie opens with the USS Kelvin on a routine mission when it encounters a strange “lightning storm” in space. The lightning storm reveals itself to be a massive Romulan mining vessel that opens fire on the Kelvin, inflicting heavy damages. The captain of the Kelvin travels to the alien vessel to negotiate surrender, leaving a young George Kirk in command. Things, however, go horribly wrong, and in an incredibly gut-wrenching scene that left both my wife and I choked up, Kirk sacrifices his life to save the lives of the ship’s crew and passengers, including his wife and newly born son, James.

Flash forward a few years, and James is now a rebellious youth. The loss of his father has affected him deeply, and even though he lives near a Starfleet facility, he prefers to beat up Starfleet cadets in bar brawls rather than join the illustrious fleet. However, a post-brawl encounter with Captain Pike, who served on the Kelvin with his father, causes Kirk to rethink his directionless path. Meanwhile, on the planet Vulcan, a young Spock wrestles with his mixed heritage. His classmates taunt his human mother and call his father a traitor, and later, he joins Starfleet partly out of rebellion against a society that views him as something of a misfit.

The two meet at Starfleet Academy when Kirk somehow beats the infamous Kobayashi Maru simulation, an “unbeatable” program designed by Spock. Spock accuses Kirk of cheating, but before the proceedings can go any further, a distress call is received from Vulcan. The planet is under attack, and all new Academy graduates are sent to their ships to mount a rescue attempt. Kirk, who is snuck aboard the Enterprise — Starfleet’s brand new flagship — by his friend Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, quickly deduces that Vulcan is under attack by the same ship that destroyed the Kelvin and killed his father.

From that point on, it becomes a race as Kirk seeks to prevent the Romulan ship from doing any further damage to the United Federation of Planets, all while attempting to deal with an increasingly antagonistic Spock and exorcise a few ghosts from his past. Little does Kirk and rest of the Enterprise crew realize, however, that the Romulan ship’s captain, Nero (who seems to have a special interest in Spock), has set in motion a plan that will have massive repercussions for their very existence.

Last year, Iron Man announced the arrival of the summer blockbuster season. This year, it’s Star Trek’s turn, and it does so with action, humor, and eye-popping effects aplenty. Put simply, Star Trek is popcorn entertainment of the highest form, and only the most hardcore of Trekkies would choose to resist its numerous charms.

The charms start with the cast. It has been proposed that there be an Academy Award for “Best Casting” and I’m of the opinion that this should be an official Oscar, if only so that Star Trek can win it this year. It could not have been easy trying to re-cast such iconic roles, roles that have ingrained themselves into our pop culture subconsciousness, and yet, Star Trek does so with a stellar ensemble.

I have no idea who Chris Pine is, but he effectively steps out of William Shatner’s shadow — though he does borrow something of Shatner’s vocal cadence — and becomes James T. Kirk, playing him as the lovable rogue we all know so well without ever becoming a parody. How good is Zachary Quinto as Spock, you ask? Not only does he look the part so well it’s eerie, his acting is so strong that I get depressed thinking about how he’s currently saddled with Heroes. Simon Pegg as Scotty is, well, Simon Pegg as Scotty, which is good enough for me. But the biggest revelation has to be Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Urban, best known for his role as Eomer in the Lord of the Rings movies, is simply wonderful as the irascible, prickly doctor who is deathly afraid of space.

The screenplay never stops for an instant, zooming from action to humor to drama at warp speed. Sure, it falls apart in some pretty big ways if you stop to nitpick, say, key parts of Nero’s nefarious plan. But it takes you on such a rollicking ride that only the most anal of viewers won’t forgive it. The requisite battles are intense, the set design manages to evoke a grittier realism while still evoking shades of nostalgia, and did I mention how action-packed and funny the movie is?

All told, there are numerous reasons why Star Trek works, but essentially, it boils down to this: the filmmakers figured out exactly where they had to be reverent and respectful of the franchise’s existing canon, and where they could be fast and loose with it. The result is a film that is not just a reboot that is very well-suited for those who have little to no knowledge of or investment in the franchise, but is also something of an homage that, for those of us who have been fans, captures a good deal of what we loved about the franchise and lets us see it with new eyes.

Now, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s flaws, given how effusive I’ve been so far. There are those plot deficiencies that I mentioned earlier, events that happen merely because the writers wanted a convenient solution to the dilemma at hand, and a wee bit of technobabble (e.g., “red matter” and “transwarp transportation”). And hardcore Trekkies might be a little miffed at how the film focuses more on the action/adventure end of the spectrum, and features less of the utopian idealism and philosophizing that has been instrumental in cementing the series’ place in history.

However, I say that’s for future Star Trek movies to handle. Yes, I certainly hope that Abrams et al. are seriously considering making a few more Star Trek movies. Which is something I never thought I’d be saying anytime soon. But the truth is that Abrams has succeeded in reminding me that there are, to borrow a classic phrase, plenty of strange new worlds to explore and many new civilizations just waiting to be sought out, and I can’t wait for the Enterprise and her new (though very familiar) crew to take me to them.

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