Star Trek feels like a movie motivated by fear. Fear of being too old, to slow, too out of touch. Fear of being too tied to what came before. Fear of irritating old fans. Fear of failing to bring in new ones. And so sometimes it overcompensates, moving too fast, jumping from point to point with barely a pause in between out of fear that its modern, energy drink influenced audience may at some point decide to get up and go to the bathroom. It invents unnecessary plot devices to excuse reinventing the Star Trek universe, just to preemptively shut up those fan-boys unhappy with the change in direction. Yet the irony here is that all of this fear was completely unfounded. This Star Trek works. This idea works. There was nothing to be afraid of and in fact, the whole thing would have only worked better had they simply sat back, relaxed and let things happen. This could have been a revelation, a reinvention of not only the Star Trek franchise but the entire science fiction genre. All the pieces are right there, if only director JJ Abrams and his team had trusted themselves, trusted the fans, trusted their audiences. They don’t, and the result is a movie that’s merely really good instead of genre-changing. Really good is, well really good. In fact I should probably stop kvetching.
This edition of the movie series is a lot of fun. It’s fresh, it’s exciting, it feels young as when the world was new. For the first time in a long time Star Trek truly feels futuristic. Abrams has successfully created an entire world to play around in, a bright and shiny world full of youthful optimism and blinking lights. It’s a Star Trek we’ve never really seen before, a Star Trek done with a monster, blockbuster budget. Abrams takes that world and lets his characters live in it. He doesn’t linger over it or treat it as if we’re seeing something awe-inspiring. This is simply the place where his story happens and within the first five minutes you know there’s a pretty good chance that by the time it’s over, he’ll have changed Star Trek forever and for the better.
The original Star Trek: The Motion Picture failed so ignominiously (that’s right, I went there) because it became a hardware show. Happily, Star Trek director Abrams displays the same instinct for group adventure that re-ignited the franchise in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the same wisdom in supplying a juicy villain.
A Romulan warlord named Nero may not equal Khan, but he’s in Khan’s class. At the helm of a vehicle that resembles a metallic space squid, tattooed in Maori-like war dyes even more fearsome than Mike Tyson’s, he’s a dark prince of vengeance with a global score to settle. But not even his spiky villainy can outshine a glittering ensemble of colorful good guys.
Each Enterprise officer receives a tingling or funny introduction. But the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock and a James Dean-like Midwest misfit Kirk get the most prolonged and momentous build-ups. With that mixed-race paragon of inter-galactic cool back in the spotlight — you can almost call him “Spock Obama” — this movie, though years in the making, has come eerily close to landing in the dead-center of the Zeitgeist.
An emergency occurs, requiring the presence of Starfleet ships at the planet Vulcan. Unfortunately, the fleet is out on maneuvers or perhaps out to lunch, forcing them to man whatever starships they have with cadets. Spock ends up on the Enterprise, so does Kirk and everyone else fans are familiar with. They leap into space, with an experienced officer named Pike in command to play nursemaid, headed for whatever danger it is that’s worrying Vulcan. From then on, the film moves at a frantic, breakneck, almost out of control pace. Abrams refuses to pause or slow down, to take a breath for anything.
Most of the time this works brilliantly, as in a scene where Enterprise’s chief doctor McCoy is required to administer medical attention to Kirk while he races through the ship attempting to warn the captain of an impending attack. It works in the movie’s action sequences too, where character development and plot movement take place all at once, with torpedoes firing and sky diving happening while at the same time we figure out who these people are. But at some point the movie needed a pause, a moment of reflection, a scene where the audience is allowed to catch its breath and come to grips with what’s going on. It never gets it.
We’re left with a movie in which occasionally things move far too fast, and logical plot progression is glazed over in favor of getting to the next thing. Characters swap ranks for no reason, leap from point to point without adequate explanation. It’s not that there isn’t one, it feels more like Abrams’ skips over it, because he’s in too much of a hurry to reach the next wow moment in Orci and Kurtzman’s script. It’s frustrating, particularly for anyone who’s familiar with the thoughtful introspection of previous Trek entries, and it makes the movie seem like less than it is. This Star Trek needed one of those scenes in which Kirk goes down to the med bay to see his shipmates dying, or a pause while the crew convenes in a conference room to figure things out. Or for that matter maybe a few moments with Nero in which he’s allowed to engage in some honest to god monologueing, if only to break things up. Nero is breakneck pace’s biggest victim. Somewhere beneath Eric Bana’s pointy ears you get the sense that there’s another Khan lurking, waiting to get out.
Unfortunately his story is told only in a rushed and muddled flashback with no weight to it, while Bana isn’t given enough screen time to make an accounting of himself. In the process, Leonard Nimoy’s appearance as elderly, future Spock is also abbreviated. There’s a pivotal confrontation between Nero and Nimoy’s classic Spock which happens entirely off camera. Seeing those two face off would have given the film the kind of gravitas it’s currently missing. Yet this isn’t a slight film, in fact it’s epic, but it races by at such a furious pace that when it ends you may walk out wondering where the rest of the movie went.
If you do, it’ll only be because Star Trek leaves you wanting more. In spite of pacing problems this is a fantastically entertaining film, a crowd pleaser both for Trekkies (Trekkers?) and the as of yet unaligned. Circling around them like ribbons on a maypole are comic glories such as Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, who contributes a stripling’s ebullience and the most ticklish accent since Gilda Radner’s Baba Wawa. Karl Urban’s alternately panicky and bemused Bones gets some of the best sardonic lines, such as “Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.” Best of all is Simon Pegg as Scotty, who brings an exhilarating freshness to each scene. When he says of the Enterprise, “I like this ship! It’s exciting,” he’s both hilarious and refreshing.
His juxtaposition of matter-of-factness and mythmaking is intermittently elating. During the chaotic starship evacuation that begins the film, you suddenly realize that a female officer has lovely alien eyes; when Kirk springs the battle trap that closes the film, the Enterprise soars from its hiding-place as if it were a saucer-like planet emerging from some kind of big bang. Most important, Abrams has topped his TV-series track record for fashioning pilot episodes that hook audiences for twists and turns to come.
In this Star Trek, the past, present and future of the members of the Enterprise spin parallel circuits on a cosmic wheel of fortune. When they click into place, nearly everybody wins — especially, the audience.