Now this is a summer movie, which is great because after (ugh) Wolverine, I was thinking about ditching the movie theater until October. But director J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek is the perfect summer movie event, the kind of flick that, like a great carnival ride, is so much fun that when it ends, you seriously think about getting back in line to go again.
Suspenseful and witty and poignant, by turns, with deftly sketched characters and thrilling action sequences, Star Trek entertained the hell out me. No, it’s not going to change the world. It doesn’t even indulge in a big metaphor-with-a-message, the way the television shows so often did. (I don’t mean that as criticism of the TV shows, by the way. I’m a sucker for a well-executed metaphor-with-a-message, though admittedly the emphasis is on the well-executed.) But it’s fun, well-crafted and affectionate and just clever enough to keep from bubbling into froth.
Abrams’s Star Trek is technically a reboot of Gene Roddenberry’s classic series, but it’s not as radical as Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies or the latest Bond movies starring Daniel Craig—at least not overtly so. For starters, it demonstrates much more fondness for the original. Nolan’s Batman and Craig’s Bond aggressively counter the excesses and campiness of their immediate predecessors, but Star Trek playfully alludes to the old movies and TV shows throughout. (I suspect that for every allusion I caught, another two or three went over my head. I was raised on II, IV, and VI—like most, my parents had only disdain for the odd numbers—and I’ve seen isolated episodes from the various series, but I’m hardly a Trekkie/-er.) Far from rejecting its forerunners, Star Trek celebrates the way the Trek mythos has seeped into pop culture by telling in-jokes, tweaking clichés, inverting familiar lines, and killing off the poor extra in the red shirt.
The new movie’s divergence, when it comes, is more subtle. Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman might play with our prior acquaintance to the characters, but they refuse to be bound by it and actually come up with a rather brilliant way to reject dogma entirely. Ultimately, they give us Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew—but, quite deliberately, not exactly the Kirk, Spock, and crew we have known before. We must start fresh. We have permission to start fresh, which is actually pretty cool. Just as the young, green Starfleet officers are embarking on new voyages and new exploration, we are, too.
The cast, tasked with reincarnating icons, does a surprisingly good job all around. As Kirk, Chris Pine wisely refrains from attempts at imitating William Shatner’s bizarro line delivery, but his brash, cocksure demeanor—way more charming than it should be—is exactly right. Zachary Quinto’s Spock is as logical as ever, but like Leonard Nimoy (who makes a welcome appearance himself), he finds the seemingly paradoxical notes of melancholy, the intellectual curiosity, and the outsider posture that make the character so intriguing and endearing. Karl Urban is delightfully growly and grumpy as Bones (he even reproduces DeForest Kelley’s distinctive diction perfectly), and the always funny Simon Pegg makes for a wonderfully jovial Scotty. John Cho and Anton Yelchin each have their moment in the spotlight as Sulu and Checkov (more so, I’m afraid, than George Takei and Walter Koenig often did), and Zoe Saldana gets far richer material than poor Nichelle Nichols ever had, making Uhura a whip-smart, ambitious, ardent woman and an integral part of the crew and the movie.
As for the plot, there’s the inevitable sci-fi silliness (red matter?) but genuinely powerful stuff, as well. The prologue, in which Kirk’s father dies an intimidatingly heroic death, manages to overcome all the contrivance and become truly nerve-racking, maybe even portentous, and the horrific event at the center of the film is appropriately unsettling—especially, dramatically speaking, through the prism of Spock’s perspective.
The villain Nero (Eric Bana), a distraught Romulan avenging a wrong that no one outside his oddly advanced ship understands, is effective enough. But the heart of Star Trek—in both the larger series and this movie in particular—is the evolution of Kirk and Spock’s relationship, and Abrams and company handle that beautifully, expertly balancing the exciting, pulse-pounding sequences with the little grace notes that give those sequences their resonance.
The movie made me rediscover my attachment to the familiar characters, but beyond that, it made me rediscover my appreciation for big rollicking summer movies, the kind you see in a big crowd, everyone gasping and laughing and cheering together. Actually, that sort of experience is particularly well suited for Star Trek, with its sweetly anachronistic optimism about the future. Sharing that hopeful, sunny perspective with a packed auditorium made me absurdly happy—and eager to see where the new old crew of the Enterprise will venture next.