With one film, J.J. Abrams has made Star Trek younger, flashier, sexier, funnier, and less intelligent, but more exhilarating than it has been in decades. By altering the franchise's storied past, he ignites a fevered barn-burner that's geared toward today's action junkies but also sets the stage for what could be a long and prosperous future.
Abrams' stylized reboot isn't the finest film in the 10-picture series, which dates back to 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That distinction still belongs to the second Trek feature, The Wrath of Khan, though Abrams and co-screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman wisely allow that film to influence most of their creative decisions. Article continues below
Like Ricardo Montalban's rage-fuelled Khan, Nero (Eric Bana) is a seemingly wronged alpha male seeking vengeance against a U.S.S. Enterprise crew member: Spock, not Kirk, sits in the crosshairs this time around. Time-traveling back to the moment of a pivotal attack on the U.S.S. Kelvin, Nero unknowingly interferes with the birth of James T. Kirk, thereby creating an alternate timeline and freeing Orci and Kurtzman from the hallowed Trek canon.
The bold move also allows Abrams and crew to re-cast Trek characters who have been ingrained in our pop-culture conscience. Because, as original Kirk William Shatner prophetically surmised in Khan, "Galloping around the galaxy is a game for the young."
Abrams' Star Trek splits its focus between the franchise's new Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), explaining how these rebellious teenagers found their way to Starfleet Command and, in time, aboard the Enterprise as captain and first mate. But while nods to Trek history are plentiful -- we witness Kirk cheating his way through the legendary Kobayashi Maru simulation, his introduction to Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban, sufficiently surly), the recruitment of hapless engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg) -- Abrams' installment doesn't care to linger in the past. It rockets ever forward on its own original path, guided by spare-no-expense special effects, healthy character development, and welcome comic relief.
If anything, Star Trek moves too fast. It's evident from the opening scenes aboard the Kelvin that this isn't your father's Trek. Dialogue overlaps like an E.R. episode as Abrams whizzes his cameras as if they're attached to slingshots. The film's budget is evident in its high-tech scenery -- this is the best looking Star Trek film, by far -- and extreme-sports action sequences.
But Abrams' direction isn't always smooth -- a mid-air mission involving parachutes, a drill, ten-foot flames, and a well-calibrated teleportation boosts your heart rate, even if you're uncertain at times what exactly is going on. It's possible, even, that the sheer speed of Trek will alienate resolute Trekkies who preferred Shatner's dramatic pauses and the plausible scientific storytelling to the adolescent energies of Abrams' pedal-to-the-metal thriller.
No matter which generation of Trek you support -- and that includes you Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine addicts -- it's hard to knock the solid ensemble, which claims these established characters as their own as they fall into place for inevitable sequels. Pine leads with his ego but earns Kirk's heroic swagger. Urban and Anton Yelchin (as Russian whiz kid Pavel Chekov) are asked to lighten the mood with broad jokes. Quinto's Spock comes across as unsure, though it's a tough task since we're comparing him to original Vulcan Leonard Nimoy, who passes the torch in a nostalgic cameo.
The real star, of course, is the Star Trek franchise itself, and it hasn't risen so high or shone so brightly in years.