Rating in Stars: ***½ (out of ****)
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg
Director: J.J. Abrams
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action and violence, and brief sexual content)
Running Time: 2:07
Release Date: 05/08/09
It would, on face value, be easy to dismiss Star Trek as fan service by its very existence as another adaptation of Gene Roddenberry’s television series of the same name (which spawned four spin-off series, as well as a number of movies) and by a plot that seems to want to connect it to those movies (especially by including one of the old-guard cast as an older version of a character already present in the timeline). Fortunately, screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are respectful of the source material they are updating for a new audience, while injecting, if not new life, then a different kind of vivacity into the proceedings. This is a more-than-efficient spectacle, featuring some truly glorious set pieces and a welcome sense of humor. The fan-service aspects are only a minor distraction.
Following a prologue in which George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) must sacrifice himself moments after the birth of his son when a massive Romulan ship emerges from a black hole in space and threatens the crew of the U.S.S. Kelvin, we are introduced to James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine), George’s son, and Spock (Zachary Quinto). The former is bitter as a grown man who never knew the father he resented for his sacrifice and a mother who remarried, but he’s influenced to join the Starfleet Academy by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who maintains that he sees greatness in the potential cadet. The latter is a logic-driven, half-human half-Vulcan whose place among his fellows is insulted when it is insinuated that his human mother (Winona Ryder) is a “disadvantage.” Through a combination of solid performances and writing, we get a sense of who these men are from minute one.
We are also introduced to the various elements that make up the U.S.S. Enterprise, the ship on which Pike currently resides as captain and Spock as first officer. There is Zoe Saldana as Nyota Uhura, the resourceful, multilingual lieutenant who had Kirk’s eye from the moment they met and is now dating the guarded Spock, John Cho and Anton Yelchin as Hikaru Sulu and Pavel Andreievich Chekhov, the two lieutenants in charge of maintaining the craft’s speed and orbit, and a very funny Simon Pegg as Montgomery Scott, the warp science expert hired on by way of strange, convoluted circumstances involving Kirk’s abandonment on a dangerous, arid planet where he runs into another version of Spock played by Leonard Nimoy.
That last part requires some context, and the context is occasionally labyrinthine. The villain is the captain of that Romulan ship, a vengeful individual named Nero (Eric Bana), who has traveled from almost two centuries in the future to exact his justice upon Starfleet for what he saw as the unjust genocide of his people and destruction of his world. That involves a MacGuffinesque red matter that can create a wormhole in space, and through the older Spock’s unintentionally tragic mistakes, Romulus was destroyed. When Vulcan is destroyed and the younger Spock’s mother dies, the plot kicks in: Nero must be defeated, but not in a way that carelessly causes more red matter to explode.
There is an efficiency to the plotting here in spite of its busy nature, with the screenwriters allowing us to become accustomed to the crew’s interactivity while ducking in and around stretches of action sequences that thrill on the basis of their seamless visual effects. Director J.J. Abrams, cinematographer Dan Mindel, and co-editors Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon expertly devise and execute these sequences, such as a showdown between Kirk and an indigenous animal on the snowy planet, a dive in which Kirk, Sulu, and another officer must disable an enormous laser drill, and a climax that variously involves chases, shootouts, hand-to-hand combat, and a layering of desperate emotion just underneath the surface. Star Trek might be busy, but it’s as good as the original movies ever were. What a ride.