Successfully relaunching the long-declining franchise, rising director JJ Abrams delivers a less cerebral, more adrenalin-fueled take on the voyages of the USS Enterprise. In the process he reintroduces critical elements the franchise has not seen in years – cultural relevance, suspense, and a fresh sense of wonder missing from a mythology so heavily explored and exploited over the years.
The story is too generic and lightweight, the performances too self-conscious, and the humor too pithy to cite this as a role model of rebooting ala “Batman Begins” and “Casino Royale.” Yet like those films, full credit has to be given to the filmmakers for successfully striking the right balance of reverence and renewal. Hardcore fans may not like the change of tone which ditches the deeper exploration of themes in favor of a sensory thrill ride, yet the film very much retains the feel of Gene Roddenberry’s universe albeit trimmed of some of the moral shadings and political allegories.
Armed with a cash flow at least three to four times that of the average previous Trek film, the new “Star Trek” looks every bit its sizable new budget. The new production design is fascinating – the comparisons of the new look bridge to a ‘hi-tech Apple store’ are fair, though the engineering decks unfortunately resemble a modern gasworks albeit with some funky redressing. The ships themselves retain the Trek signature design but add a lot more detail, while visits to the red-toned rocks of Vulcan, the ice moon Delta Vega, future San Francisco and the grimy interiors of a massive Romulan mining vessel are all beautifully realized.
Notably improving on the job he did with the well-filmed but bland “M:I-3”, ‘Trek’ really gets to show off Abrams’ superb directorial proficiency. For most of its runtime the film sets a slick pace that Michael Bay or Paul Greengrass would be proud of. Unlike them however, the camera operators and editors here have normal attention spans so jittery close-ups are kept to a minimum while cutting is fast but never confusing. Several sequences, notably a lengthy one involving three officers trying to land on, sabotage and then escape an atmospheric drill platform are thrillingly executed.
The space battles do lack some of the majesty and suspenseful setup of those in previous films and shows, but replace it with intensity, scale and speed – if the Trek battles of old were very submarine-inspired, the ones here play out much more like aerial dogfights. One of the franchise’s greatest assets is the sheer beauty of these ship designs and so we get some very epic shots of the various vessels from all sorts of inventive angles. From a visual effects standpoint, the film cannot be faulted and the space combat scenes are amongst the most convincingly real ever to be committed to celluloid.
The sound design is truly extraordinary throughout and makes great uses of silence on two occasions to convey the noiseless vacuum of space. “Lost” composer Michael Giacchino’s score sadly lacks the epic-quality of the Vangelis-esque music used in the film’s promotional trailers, but it is otherwise a very impressive if overly repetitive music that fits in with both the film’s tone and the franchise as a whole. Classic Trek’s theme music comfortably slots into the climax over the opening credits, unlike an early scene where a Beastie Boys song and a bit of Nokia product placement is jarringly inserted.
The few problems here not unexpectedly lie with the script. Projects like these are an utterly daunting job for even the best screenwriters as they have to setup a franchise, respect the various shows and films that came before both thematically and logistically, and face the inherent difficulties of telling not just an origin story but one of which little is known about. To their credit, scribes Alex Kurtzmann and Roberto Orci deliver their best script yet and show an obvious love of Trek lore which gives everything a solid level of authenticity while fitting it all into the modern breathless blockbuster mold.
Yet they can not overcome the inherent problems of most origin stories; a few of the lingering problems of the Trek film formula in general; and their own signature weakness of lifting elements from key films of the genre and fusing them into a generic, rather fragmented thriller narrative abound with convenient coincidences and credibility gaps. Like the first films in various superhero franchises, the film has to wade through an awkward and copious amount of exposition, jokes that rely too much on either pratfalls or insider knowledge, and a banal antagonist with an underwhelming scheme.
Eric Bana as the villain, a rogue Romulan miner named Nero, is yet another revenge-fueled alien villain who serves as a pale imitation of Ricardo Montalbahn’s Khan from the one true cinematic classic of the previous films – “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” Many of the subsequent Trek sequels have tried to remake it with limited success and this one is no different on that score, even as so many of the other elements have been improved on. Bana does what he can with the part, but his limited screen time and lack of development stand as the film’s most obvious flaw.
The over-reliance on both time travel and technobabble drag down the pace in parts of the second half, but the scribes thankfully avoid the reset button syndrome and definitively establish this film as the first in an ‘alternate history’ of this universe. This allows newcomers not to be daunted by the Trek backlog, and yet it reintroduces Trek’s various alien races and events in new ways (ala “Doctor Who,” Nolan’s Batman-verse) which should excite fans. None of the films have ever reached the dramatic heights of the best Original Series, Next Generation and Deep Space Nine episodes, but this new emphasis on light fast-paced thrills should ensure that this and subsequent sequels will be amongst the most entertaining entries.
The young actors face a daunting challenge with their roles, not just slipping into characters beloved by millions but ones which are so identified with the specific actors that have played them for decades. Of the crew its Chris Pine who comes off the best, helped by his sheer amount of screen time. Though he lacks William Shatner’s ‘wink wink’ aggrandizing and signature delivery, Pine manages to invest the character with a cocky and somewhat arrogant bravado and yet still manages to make him likable. Spending much of the film with his face covered in blood or bruises, guys will empathize with this self-assured yet ultimately good-hearted rebel who spends most of his time either swaggering or brawling.
“Heroes” star Zachary Quinto delivers a solid Spock, never really capturing either the quirky humor or condescension of the character that Leonard Nimoy perfected so well. He does however have an excellent grasp of the logical Vulcan routine down while his chemistry with Pine is a fiery dynamic that shows promise for future adventures together. So much of the character elements are focused on these two and their early friendship that many of the other actors are reduced to either imitating their predecessors or doing what they feel comfortable with.
Of said imitators it is Karl Urban who comes the closest to stepping out on his own, the New Zealand actor gets the character’s inherent technophobia, skill, mannerisms and stubbornness just right. Simon Pegg as Scotty and Anton Yelchin as Chekov are heavily-accented comic relief for the most part, Pegg in particular obviously having a blast throughout. Zoe Saldana as Uhura and John Cho as Sulu just play themselves, Saldana making Uhura a strong and dynamic personality despite limited screen time.
Supporting performances are great with Bruce Greenwood lending a real sense of honor and gravitas to original Enterprise Captain Pike. Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth does well with his short role as Kirk’s father in the film’s opening scenes, Ben Cross as Sarek however plays Spock’s dad as more of a grump than Mark Leonard who could so beautifully convey annoyance and disappointment purely through stance and body language.
A notably aged Leonard Nimoy is just stellar as always, and his scenes talking about his friendship with Kirk over the years will bring a tear to the eyes of most Trekkers. Celebrity cameos from Winona Ryder and Tyler Perry do not subtract from the film but add very little, while no other stars or characters from any of the previous series or films appear. Make-up is mixed – some jobs like Scotty’s alien assistant are superb, Uhura’s Orion roommate on the other hand seems amateur.
Easily set to be amongst the best films of the Summer, where it stands in the scheme of things a few years from now will be interesting to contemplate. ‘Wrath of Khan’ remains the definitive ‘Trek’ film, while ‘Undiscovered Country’ and ‘First Contact’ had a stronger narrative and antagonist respectively than what’s seen here. Yet much like the first “Spider-Man” or “X-Men” which were ultimately eclipsed by their sequels, what is setup here shows such great potential that if Abrams direction and the current cast & mythology were to combine with a stronger story – it could be an achievement of “Spider-Man 2” or “The Dark Knight” caliber.
Most of the issues here are nitpicks and it simply can not be stated enough how effectively Abrams and his crew have revived and repositioned not just the franchise but the ‘space opera’ genre itself. After the painfully stilted “Star Wars” prequels and the last few lackluster ‘Trek’ films, this ‘Trek’ at last brings back a sense of fun adventure to the space epic which has not really been seen since the 80’s. By the end of this film when the crew is in place, the cast has settled into their roles, and this once familiar universe now feels wide open and new – you can not help but be aching to go on another Trek – a feeling many of us Trekkers haven’t felt in a long time.