It’s difficult for this longtime Trekkie to review J.J. Abrams’ relaunch of the U.S.S. Enterprise. It’s difficult to dispassionately dole out compliments and complaints per the job description. Because, yes, the professional critic understands: This is Paramount Pictures’ latest effort to jump-start a profitable but long-stalled franchise, to do for James Kirk what MGM did for James Bond.
Studio execs know that just enough time has elapsed since the original to engender just enough nostalgia for characters named Kirk, Spock and McCoy. For the professional critic, this reboot has all the trappings and trimmings of the quintessential summer blockbuster: shiny things that fly through outer space and make boom. Plus plenty of merch: Mommy, can I have a phaser?
Good thing I’m not professional. Seriously, Mommy: Can I have a phaser?
Trekkies and civilians alike (those for whom William Shatner’s long-ago “Get a life!” jab didn’t have the same sting) can rejoice: Not only does this Star Trek proffer smart thrills and slick kicks, but it also builds upon the original’s history — from its very first pilot episode to Robert Wise’s 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture and beyond — while creating an entirely new future.
Retooling Gene Roddenberry’s hoary, winded pop-cultural war horse, Abrams has scrubbed, polished and turned up the volume to 11, with admiration and affection for the original series but little of the die-hard’s encased-in-amber reverence. All at once, he has revived the corpse but wiped clean its memory — a fresh start. Star Trek is like all of the best offerings in the big-screen Trek series: “wonderful dumb fun,” as Pauline Kael wrote in her glowing review of 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the franchise’s high point, from which Abrams and his longtime collaborators — writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, responsible for everything from Alias to Mission: Impossible III — crib so many plot points, Star Trek almost qualifies as a remake.
Even in a universe altered by that most worn-out of Trek plot devices — time travel — Abrams remains faithful to all of the things that transformed a modest science-fiction series, made popular in 1970s reruns, into a beloved touchstone. Trekkies already know half the dialogue by heart; it’s the sampled soundtrack to a misspent youth in front of a television. Except now, it’s set to the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.”
The story is no more complicated than that of your best Trek TV episode: A bad Romulan (Eric Bana, sporting the full Mike Tyson face tattoo) has come from the future in a tricked-out spaceship to destroy the past (specifically, planets Vulcan and Earth). His motives are barely explained and even harder to understand, unless one has read the four-part prequel comic book, ahem. No matter: Like most Trek baddies, Bana’s Nero is decidedly besides the point; he’s merely phaser fodder, the latest villain in possession of a doomsday machine who exists solely to threaten Vulcan and bring together, on the bridge of the Enterprise, Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin), who — at warp factor 10, red alert, damn the photon torpedoes — must save the universe, this time for the very first time.
The crew is a bunch of untested Starfleet cadets: Kirk is a know-it-all horndog with a penchant for green-skinned ladies. McCoy is, well, a simple country doctor who abhors space travel; some things never change, as Urban, among all the cast members, comes closest to spot-on imitation. As for the rest, places, please: Sulu is a guy who likes swords and steers the ship; Chekov is a wunderkind who speaks in a weddy, weddy tick Russian accent; Scotty is working miracles in the engine room; and Uhura is still trying to hail Starfleet on all frequencies to no avail. The more things change …
Spock is the centerpiece, not only as played by Quinto as the tormented youth in revolt raised by the Vulcan Sarek (Ben Cross) and human Amanda (Winona Ryder, almost unrecognizable), but also in the form of Leonard Nimoy, the once-dead first officer who has lived long enough to travel back in time to offer sage advice to old friends in need of — dare one say it — the human touch. Nimoy’s scenes elicit genuine emotion, not just the nostalgist’s thrill of familiarity or the newcomer’s delight at discovery. When Spock tells a young Jim Kirk, “I have been, and always shall be, your friend,” or when he realizes a “live long and prosper” salutation simply will not do, it’s enough to move even a Star Wars fan to tears.