If you’re a Star Trek fan, then J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise will have its share of delights. These will come in the collective form of nostalgia: Fans may revel in the chance to re-visit beloved characters, worlds, stories, even sound effects. Remember that inexplicable, reverberating chirp that used to emanate from the bridge of the Enterprise in the show’s 60’s version? Well, you’ll hear it again in J.J. Abram’s update, and, hearing it early in the film, I admit to that frisson of pleasing familiarity, and I was glad that Abrams felt as warmly about those classic retro effects as I did.
Star Trek will also appeal to action junkies because the script by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman gets most of its (warp) drive by shunting from one action scenario to the next. The plot involves that sci-fi chestnut: Time travel. After witnessing the destruction of their world, a rabble of Romulans travels back in time to wreak vengeance on Vulcans and Earthlings, both of whom they believe to be the perpetrators of their demise.
The Romulans’ time jump posits them moments before the birth of James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), fated to be captain of the Enterprise, whose life path becomes altered thanks to the Romulans space-time disturbance. In this altered reality, Kirk’s father promptly dies a martyr’s death as the spaceship he’s captaining confronts the Romulan menace, and Kirk henceforth grows up fatherless, lonely, and, all in all, your prototypical, psychically wounded rogue and reluctant hero-to-be.
Star Trek’s quantum reality conceit makes this not an origin but a pseudo-origin story, an alternate history of Kirk and company running parallel to Gene Roddenberry’s master plan. Does that make this Star Trek a cop-out? A cynical answer may be that the plot gave Abrams and Paramount free rein in formulating a re-branded, blockbuster-friendly — and I’ll say it, “dumbed down” — Star Trek for the global masses.
One by one, Abrams trundles out the other key players in the Star Trek universe: Spock (Zachary Quinto), nursing his push-pull relationship with his human half; Uhura (the striking Zoe Saldana), a brilliant spitfire with whom Spock shares undercurrents of romance; Chekhov (Anton Yelchin), who spouts his dialogue with a suitably broad Russian accent; Sulu (John Cho) who’s fencing background (duh!) is singled out as his trademark character trait; Scotty (Simon Pegg), the befuddled-yet-brilliant engineer; and “Bones” McCoy, the ship’s crotchety doctor, played by Karl Urban in an uncanny simulacrum of the character patented by DeForest Kelley. Watching Urban assay this role is such a joyous experience — if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Urban is Kelley’s sincerest fan, and the rest of us are only too lucky to behold the actor’s impeccable resurrection of the good doctor. In likable performances, Pine and Quinto give us game approximations of the formative Kirk and Spock, each exhibiting essences of his character’s personality — Kirk’s lascivious bravado and Spock’s alternately hot-and-cold stoicism. For the Romulans, Eric Bana snarls and glowers in a fiery but one-note role as their leader Nero, baying for Vulcan and human blood.
Twined with the cat-and-mouse game between the Romulans and the Enterprise crew is the issue of Kirk’s assuming the captaincy of the Enterprise. Given Kirk’s rookie status, it feels contrived, yet it precipitously guns towards its own foregone conclusion — that, by the end of Star Trek, he will be ship’s captain. Kirk’s journey does offer the opportunity for Abrams to bring out Leonard Nimoy in a nifty cameo as the older, sage Spock — himself pursing the Romulans from the future — and here to stoke the flames of Kirk’s destiny. As the face-off with Nero arrives, I was both stunned and disappointed to note how it all looked and felt like a scene from Return of the Jedi or, worse yet, Revenge of the Sith — both lesser sci-fi’s from what I believe to be a largely lesser series.
As director, Abrams is of the comic-book school of character development. That is, he intersperses personality tidbits as a kind of ready-to-go seasoning over the casserole of chases and explosions that comprise the entire narrative framework of his pictures. Abrams and his writers’ are concerned, first and foremost, with running these iconic characters through their origin-story paces with the maximum of large-scale, effects-driven antics that nail down character traits, rather than explore the dynamics of these characters in any kind of serious, organic way. As appealing as they all are, these characters are eventually cogs in the larger machinery of the plot. The approach runs counter to the storytelling philosophy that went into Roddenberry’s series, in which plot was meant to serve, expand and enrich the characters’ understanding of themselves.
Don’t get me wrong: This is a skilfully constructed studio picture that boasts a casting coup on par with The Lord of the Rings’. While it underserves its source material, it more than amply provides a much-needed quotient of reasonably smart summer entertainment. It never transcends its own story the way the best Star Treks do (the series and the films), and falls short of the grander thematic ambitions that made Roddenberry’s vision so enduring and beloved. This Star Trek has something bigger on its mind. It smells like popcorn and sounds like a cash register.
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Ben Cross, Winona Ryder, Chris Hemsworth