J.J. Abrams goes where no “Star Trek” director has gone before by giving fans what they’ve wanted (for nearly a decade): Kirk and Spock in Starfleet Academy. This might just make up for that whole “Enterprise” TV series debacle.
At its core “Trek” is a reboot of the 1960s television franchise. Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci pay homage to all that has come before—like a sequence plucked straight from a “Wrath of Khan” discussion, in which Kirk finds a unique solution to Spock’s unbeatable Kobayashi Maru test. But the writers also wipe the 43-year-old slate clean to begin the adventures anew by providing us with a much-needed gritty edge that “Trek” films have lacked since 1982.
This new approach is tempered with more relationship drama (something for the 20-somethings and teens raised on “The O.C.” or “The Hills,” but not “Trek”) and the kind of action-adventure sequences that make “Star Wars” films fun to watch even when they’re bad. It also sprinkles in a little Beastie Boys for good measure. As the creator of “Lost,” Abrams knows how to take science fiction and shape it into a hip, compelling work that’s accessible for mainstream audience.
What we get with “Trek” is a film that is sexy and contemporary, featuring actors who easily wrest the roles of the Enterprise crew away from the original cast without resorting to mimicry. Chris Pine’s Kirk is equally smart and arrogant, but doesn’t always get the girl or win the fight. Zachary Quinto (Sylar from “Heroes”) plays up Spock’s half-human/half-Vulcan identity confusion by running emotionally hot and cold throughout the film, including romance without the pretext of pon farr. And in this “Trek,” Kirk and Spock are rivals on a variety of levels – from the captain’s chair to the affections of a female crew member.
But for all the film’s glint and style, it leaves you wanting something more in the way of substance. The plot, as IGN’s Orlando Parfitt rightly describes it, is “a mess.” We get a two-dimensional enemy with the Romulan commander Nero (Eric Bana), whose presence is merely a device to rewrite franchise history. We also never get the sense that the Enterprise crew is ever in any real danger – well, except maybe from each other, or if they’re wearing a red shirt (or a red high-altitude jump suit).
***SPOILER ALERT BEGIN***
The plot is fairly simple, despite time-travel twists: alter-kacker Spock (Leonard Nimoy), in his continuing efforts to help his ungrateful Vulcan cousins, the Romulans, is unable to save the Romulan homeworld from being destroyed by its sun, which has gone supernova (think “Superman”). Spock inadvertently creates a singularity (read: black hole), which sucks a menacing-looking Romulan mining ship into the past – to the exact day and point in space where James T. Kirk was born – and an ensuing battle creates a parallel timeline that is similar to, but different enough from the “Star Trek” we know and love. The Romulan commander, Nero, armed with knowledge of the past and a mining ship that mysteriously has advanced weaponry but no drainage for standing water on its bridge, begins a decades-long campaign to rewrite history by destroying the Federation, planet by planet, in order to make the universe safe for Romulans. (But won’t their sun still go supernova? – No, don’t think about the plot … bad… eat your popcorn, enjoy the special effects! Oooh, look, a bar fight!) Young Kirk and Spock, meanwhile, struggle to fit in and find their niche in a timeline where they can’t stand one another. So, it’s up to alter-kacker Spock, who has also accidentally traveled back in time, to encourage Kirk to work together with his younger self to repel Nero’s illegal space-drilling-and-planetary-destruction operation.
***SPOILER ALERT ENDS***
The film’s starship and battle sequences, by Industrial Light & Magic, are nothing short of spectacular. I had reservations after seeing stills of the re-imagined Enterprise several months ago. But the ship, when in motion, comes across as a passable hybrid of the 1960s Enterprise and the film franchise version. The ship’s disparate interiors are, however, distracting—the engine room looks like an oil refinery welded to a brewery, while the bridge is so polished and shinny that it could double as a futuristic BMW showroom.
It’s easy to knock “Star Trek’s” flash over substance, but the film can be forgiven for its deficits. After all, this is the first “Trek” film that anybody could ever describe in terms of being “cool” since “Star Trek IV” (which non-fans always seem to refer to as: “You know, the one with the whales….”). Abrams has successfully moved this franchise away from the geek-oriented audience, which was already dwindling with each successive “Trek” movie, along with Paramount’s box-office receipts, and opened it up to, well, EVERYONE!
Now that the stage has been set for the next adventure and we’ve got some of the character development out of the way, let’s hope we get a worthy villain. Klingons, perhaps? And dare I dream: a “Trek” script co-written by Kurtzman, Orci and Harlan Ellison?
On a scale of “Wrath of Khan” (best) to “Final Frontier” (worst), this lands somewhere between “Search for Spock” and “Undiscovered Country.” Sit long and prosper.
Also, given that this is J.J. Abrams – be on the lookout for Easter eggs:
• Longtime Abrams friend Greg Grunberg (“Heroes”) has a voiceover cameo, yelling over a speakerphone at young Kirk who steals a joyride in an old Corvette to the strains of The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.”
• When Uhura orders a drink in the beginning, there’s mention of Abrams’ Slusho brand slurpee-like drink from “Alias” and “Cloverfield.”
• A tribble can be seen on the desk when we first meet Scotty.
• Kirk’s evac kit features the letters and numbers “NCC-1701-D,” the registry number of the “Next Generation” Enterprise.