First a little background: I am not a Star Trek fan. Though I saw the first four movies of the original film series, I have never watched a full episode of any of the numerous television series. I'm also not all that in love with J.J. Abrams, creator of TV shows like Lost and Fringe and director of the last Mission: Impossible movie. Thus, it is with some considerable surprise that I can enthusiastically say I enjoyed the hell out of this new Star Trek.
The movie opens with an attack by a crazy Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana, Munich), whose ridiculously badass space ship is a giant killing machine that eclipses the U.S.S. Kelvin in both size and firepower. Aboard this Kelvin is George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth), soon to be the dad of one James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine, The Princess Diaries 2). The lesson to be learned from the elder Kirk is one that will inform the rest of the movie: one truly proves their mettle as a hero when the chips are down.
Jump ahead twenty years or so, and James Kirk has not yet figured this out. The wise and fatherly Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood, I'm Not There) sees the boy's potential for risky and valorous action, so he convinces Kirk to join the Starfleet Academy. There, the impulsive but clever young man distinguishes himself more for carousing and troublemaking, but he also begins to meet the people who will be with him for the rest of his life. Bones (Karl Urban, Pathfinder) is a cadet in the medical core who becomes his beleaguered, put-upon pal, while Uhura (Zoe Saldana, Drumline) is the girl too smart to fall for Kirk's charms. Also, there is Spock (Zachary Quinto, TV's Heroes), the half-human, half-Vulcan science officer who is none too keen on Kirk's shenanigans and part of the family line that Nero is most intent on wiping out.
And when Nero returns, he gets pretty close to doing just that, taking his killing machine straight to the Vulcan homeworld. Starfleet rushes to stop him, and the newly christened U.S.S. Enterprise is amongst the troops ready to do battle. Led by Commander Pike, the crew is made up largely of newly graduated soldiers, including Kirk and friends. Those familiar with the original cast of characters won't be at all surprised to discover the craft is piloted by one Hikaru Sulu (John Cho, Harold and Kumar) and navigated by the hilarious Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin, Charlie Bartlett). All these new graduates are untested, but events will soon line up to put each of them to the test, with Kirk and Spock taking center stage once Pike is sidelined by Nero.
It's all familiar stuff, but Star Trek feels as fresh and new as it ever did. The movie, written by Roberto Orci (Transformers) and Alex Kurtzman (Eagle Eye), doesn't feel as worked over as most tent-pole franchise pictures, nor does it shoot for any radical retooling in some vain attempt to be edgy or harvest a toy line out of the proceedings. Rather, the filmmakers stick to what has made Trek an enduring property, keeping their story simple, taking their time to establish the characters before sending them into action, and then letting the plot move in directions that make sense rather than just piling on random events for the sake of making cool special effects sequences. When people defend junk like Wolverine, they always insist that dissenters take the material too seriously, that mindless entertainment is just fine, but Star Trek is proof that an adventure movie can be smart, funny, and downright exciting without having to insult our intelligence. When we know it can be this good, how can we not reject the rest?
The acting throughout Star Trek is top-notch, and I really have to give a hand to the folks who cast this. All of the performers slotted to play younger versions of the iconic characters are right on the money. Pine, Urban, and Quinto in particular manage to channel the essence of the actors who preceded them without resorting to cheap imitations. There are hints of William Shatner's swagger in Chris Pine, and there is something very familiar in the way the young actor takes a punch. Likewise, Urban and Quinto pick up some of the cadence and mannerisms of DeForest Kelley and Leonard Nimoy, the latter of whom also appears in this movie, so that their performances pay tribute to the men who forged the path, but they do so without being overly beholden to them. Both men make their own mark. Really, this is what Abrams and his writers have done throughout their Star Trek. You get the sense there was always a thought given to how Gene Roddenberry would have done it in the classic version and then enough of a tweaking to make it applicable to 2009 but not enough to remove the essential quality that fans have gravitated to for four decades. There is none of that hubris that says, "We can do it better." Rather, you can tell they love what they are emulating and want to get as close to it as possible. They even concoct a clever plot twist that allows the two Treks to exist together without one invalidating the other.
Truth be told, though, Star Trek has never looked better. The special effects that bring the space battles to life are incredible. The spaceships are awesome constructions, with Nero's mining vessel looking like the spiky chaos he wishes to inflict on the world, while the smooth and lasting Enterprise is order, reason, and goodness embodied. Spock also gets his own interstellar fighter vehicle that is every bit as inventive as he is. The clashes are filmed with clear focus and steady cameras, electrifying the war scenes while still making sure they are easy to follow. Similar care is given to all the details, from the updating of the uniforms to the creation of alien creatures that fit within this new world naturally. Add to that a complex and fearsome villain (Bana can be quite menacing), and you've pretty much got everything.
Which isn't to say there isn't a misstep or two. Scenes of Kirk and Spock as school-age children are unnecessary, and the use of a Beastie Boys song to underscore the Kirk flashback is too anachronistic and cheesy. A couple of scenes of slapstick are over the top and out of place, and though humor makes both the new Chekov and Simon Pegg's Scotty light up the screen every time they appear, Scotty's little alien friend again pushes the comedic asides too far.
Still, that's what? Ten minutes out of a two-hour movie? Not bad for a flick I never expected to like as much as I did. It's a topsy-turvy world where, just a week ago, what I thought would be the proven winner, Wolverine, instead made me think the summer movie season was dead on arrival, and the movie that I thought would blow it saves us from getting sucked into another black hole of, well, suck. Star Trek does just that, though, and if this is going to end up being a whole new franchise, they couldn't have embarked on a more pleasing maiden voyage.