'Star Trek' Is Out of This World
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Before discussing the politics and philosophy of the new "Star Trek," or singling out individual scenes and performances, let's cut to the chase, at warp speed: You want to know if it's good or not. Certainly, doubt is in the air; rebooting a 43-year-old franchise is a dicey proposition. The idea that director J.J. Abrams (creator of "Lost," "Cloverfield") would be going back to the early days of the Enterprise led many to scoff at a "Starfleet 90210" approach. Some casting was met with unbridled enthusiasm, and some was met with puzzled disdain. Well, as someone who likes some (but not all) of the many "Star Trek" shows, films and incarnations, I will tell you that I can name exactly three and a half things "Star Trek" gets wrong -- and I can name about a thousand that Abrams and his cast and crew get absolutely, pitch-perfect, elegantly right. Whether you know the 43-year-old genealogies and convolutions of "Star Trek" in its many incarnations or are just looking for pure moviemaking excitement, "Star Trek" is the best kind of summer movie: smart, sleek, spectacular excitement.
Part of that excitement comes when you realize that Abrams (and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) are not, in fact, making a prequel. Instead, "Star Trek" is a sequel that folds back on its franchise, as a renegade Romulan, Nero (played by Eric Bana) comes from the far end of the Trek canon timeline to the beginning via a wrinkle in time. Cause and effect are now undone, and the net result is like seeing a chess set that's been fiddled with by many hands over decades, dusted off and polished to a shine, with every piece put back in starting position. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is still logical, half-human and half-Vulcan; "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) is still supplying medical and comedic relief; Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is still in communications. And James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is ... a sullen, tormented jerk going nowhere fast. Until Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood, perfectly cast) looks up the record of the punk kid who flattened a few of his cadets in a bar brawl: "Your father was captain of a starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives, including yours. I dare you to do better. Enlist in Starfleet."
And never mind how odd and welcome it is to have a summer blockbuster about institutional tradition and public service as a key to individual achievement. Never mind that after too many summer films revolve around superhumans and robots, it's nice to see a film about what ordinary mortals are capable of in the defense of the greater good. Never mind the pop-politics synchronicity of a show kicked off by Kennedy-era optimism coming back for the Obama era. The people behind "Star Trek" must be thinking of all that stuff, but it never gets in the way of the story or the fun. On its own, Pike's prodding of Kirk is a great moment that brings the series back to the age-of-sail military roots that made it what it was. Much of the joy in "Star Trek" comes in watching the film steal back the visions and concepts and character moments other franchises have lifted from it. The ship has the big, metal bulk of "Battlestar Galactica"; Pine's ready, rougish, rough-around-the-edges Kirk reminds us that Kirk was Han Solo before we had Han Solo; the crackle and snap of some of the crew interactions reminds us that "Firefly" reflects some of the original "Star Trek" glow.
As for my three-and-a-half objections? At times, the script verges into slapstick a bit too readily. Michael Giacchino's score is, occasionally, a touch overdone. A single effects sequence on an ice planet is more ambitious than well-executed. And the constant use of lens flare to make the ship feel "real" gets a little distracting. But those are quibbles, and the trouble with quibbles is that, while you have to mention them, I just don't have the space to tell you about Bana's working-class villain with a grudge and a literal weapon of mass destruction. Or the astonishing scene between two lovers on the elevator -- excuse me, turbolift -- that's somehow intimate, moving, gripping and real thanks to the two actors. Or the knock-down drag-out action set pieces (Pine's Kirk, like all true heroes, is seen taking far, far more beatings than he dishes out). Or the fascinating game-changing shift Orci and Kurtzman make to the rebooted "Trek" universe. Or the many, too many to name, things this film does on its way to pop-culture (near) perfection that make it a great ride for those who are just hopping on now and nerd-vana for those who already know the characters.
It's no surprise that Paramount wanted to return to "Star Trek"; at the end of the day, the studio wants to make money. What's surprising is how that led to Abrams and his cast and crew making such a good movie, the rare summer film for which you look forward to the prospect of a sequel with excitement, not dread, and one that delivers on every promise it makes.