In a galactic-sized slice of chutzpah, the zingingly fun new Star Trek begins with the most expensive cell-phone ad ever. (As if there’s another franchise to thank for our ubiquitous flip communicators.) A heavily pregnant crew member—in labor, no less!—chats remotely with her husband, the acting captain. An off-board enemy craft, a giant, inky, squid-looking thing, seems poised to swallow their vessel whole. She must abandon ship without the father. To the tinny cries of their newborn, Dad, stuck on the bridge, christens their boy...James Tiberius.
Geeks will rev their engines, but the unexpected elegance of director J.J. Abrams’s reboot of the franchise comes in its large-scale disavowal of easy nostalgia. Abrams, responsible for TV’s Felicity, Alias and Lost, has small-screen punch in mind. Working with screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, he’s done more than roll back the clock on the original crew of the Enterprise, here dewy cadets of Starfleet Academy. The director has also stripped his brisk proceedings of the earlier movies’ glacial pomp—a Kubrickian reverence for hardware that sometimes threatened to overshadow the gab. Refreshingly, we’re back on the bridge, chattily, and the fireworks come from the spark of youth in self-definition.
Of course, we recognize these kids. Brash, horndoggish Kirk (Pine, no worse than Shatner) is an Iowan underachiever until the giant dry-docked flying machines call to him, along with the leggy charms of the uninterested Uhura (Saldana). Meanwhile, on Vulcan, quiet Spock (Quinto, beautifully concentrated) has grown from a bullied tyke with a green-bloodied lip into a surly rejecter of the patronizing local schoolmasters, who are impressed with him despite his half-human “disadvantage.” With a hug from his proud mother (Winona Ryder, palpably thrilled to be involved), Spock is off to Starfleet to make his own way.
The Kirk-Spock clash—impulse versus logic, for any cave dwellers—is a defining one in the annals of TV. But Gene Roddenberry’s late-1960s creation has a deeper resonance when you factor in its black communications officer, its brainy Russian navigator (here played “wibrantly” by Anton Yelchin as a 17-year-old whiz kid), its cool Asian pilot (Harold & Kumar’s John Cho, adding some blade heroics) and its mitigating medical conscience (Karl Urban). Star Trek was a utopian dream, and not so popular during its initial Cold War run.
Abrams milks that egalitarianism for all its timeliness; thrust into bold postures by dire circumstances, today’s optimistic crew is perfectly matched to our own political moment. (Yes, they so can.) A galloping, occasionally vertiginous story—involving a black-hole time warp and something to do with planet-consuming “red matter”—has been devised to propel Kirk, a cheater on his exams, into the captain’s chair, as well as keep our minds off the inevitable survival of all involved. Eric Bana, capable of delicious menace in Chopper, has less to work with as an underwritten Romulan warlord in a dark cape and body art; you wish the script found a way to refresh its antagonists, too.
But the naturalistic asides slung among our heroes are more than compensatory, establishing both a believable, well-oiled discipline and a collegial camaraderie. As military films go—and this is one, even if, in the words of Bruce Greenwood’s elder officer, they make up “a peacekeeping, humanitarian armada”—Star Trek feels more like Paul Verhoeven’s future-sexy Starship Troopers than anything else; it even has a rampaging anus monster to make the Dutchman jealous. Certain plot developments, like an Uhura kiss too good to spoil, produce a real jolt, and a hurled insult from Bones pushes fidelity perversely close to profanity: “Are you out of your Vulcan mind?”
Perhaps these characters are growing toward the cantankerous ones we know (a regal cameo from Leonard Nimoy is the least fresh thing about this update). Yet the movie is daring enough to give them uncertainties; we might end up in a completely different universe. Abrams leans into Michael Giacchino’s clean, triumphant orchestral score and lets his conceptual modifications do the talking. Directorially speaking, he has, without doubt, boldly gone where no one has gone before—you should too.
Opens Fri 8.
See also The Hot Seat