Okay, nerds, listen up: whatever nitpicks you have, stow ’em, because J.J. Abrams’ new semi-reboot of the Star Trek franchise is top-notch summer-blockbuster entertainment that revitalizes an ailing property, making it accessible and exciting for non-fans while going to great lengths (greater, probably, than absolutely necessary) to satisfy the deep continuity needs of a dedicated following. This is easily the best Trek movie since 1996’s First Contact, and the one most likely to reach a wide audience since 1986’s cheesy The Voyage Home. It looks back to the characters’ beginnings, but it does so in a way that’s all about moving forward.
Abrams and writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci devise a loophole for themselves by basing their story on a time-travel scenario; when original-recipe Spock (Leonard Nimoy) heads back in time pursued by evil Romulan Nero (Eric Bana), he sets in motion a chain of events that creates an alternate reality and allows Abrams & Co. to tinker with established bits of Trek lore. Still, these characters and situations are instantly recognizable: James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), not yet a captain, is a cocky hothead with little respect for authority and a penchant for bedding green-skinned babes; Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto) is coolly logical but grapples with his half-human heritage; Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) is irascible and cantankerous, and a loyal friend to Kirk.
Other familiar supporting faces show up as well, but Abrams is wise not to waste time giving everyone their own subplot. Beyond the holy trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the Enterprise crew member with the meatiest part is actually Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who serves as a romantic interest for both Kirk and Spock, and displays a competence and ingenuity that nicely updates her glorified space secretary role from the original TV series. Sulu (John Cho) gets one badass fight sequence; Chekov (Anton Yelchin) saves the day with some telemetry something-or-other; and Scotty (Simon Pegg) doesn’t show up until more than halfway into the movie, but makes up for it by providing nearly all of the funniest lines.
This film is certainly more action-oriented than any Trek of the past, and Abrams stages one bravura sequence after another, from the opening flashback during which Kirk is literally born in the midst of a space battle, to a white-knuckle skydiving/martial-arts combo that allows Sulu his moment to shine. The story here is less cerebral than a lot of classic Trek, but it doesn’t entirely trade philosophy and science for ass-kicking; Nimoy in particular lends a wistful, reflective tone to his portrayal of the aged, time-displaced Spock, and Quinto matches him note for note as the younger, more assertive version.
The rest of the cast is also strong; Pine is a solid anchor, and Urban wonderfully channels the late DeForest Kelley with his cranky cynicism. Yelchin goes a little overboard with his fakey Russian accent, but it’s all in keeping with the original Trek spirit, which is captured here far better than many fans feared. Echoes of past Trek stories abound, in lines of dialogue and entire plot points (the legendary Kobayashi Maru test is pivotal); the filmmakers even manage to throw in a reference to final Trek TV series Enterprise, for heaven’s sake. It’s hard to see what more fans could have hoped for.
Of course, this movie isn’t all things to all people, but it’s close; Abrams has made the best popcorn-movie version of this concept possible, with awesome special effects, kinetic camerawork (marred only by the director’s obsession with lens flares) and brisk pacing even at a little over two hours. Let’s hope hardcore Trekkers can suck it up and embrace this new vision, because there’s no doubt everyone else will.