Film Review: Star Trek

The four-decade-old sci-fi franchise boldly goes back onto the big screen as a muscular, action-packed summer blockbuster.

In interviews, J.J. Abrams has frequently referred to his mega-budgeted update of Star Trek as a "ride," and that's the best descriptor for this fast-paced, hugely enjoyable re-imagining of one of science fiction's premier franchises. From the opening set-piece to the grand finale, the movie hurtles along at maximum warp speed, generating plenty of laughs, thrills and cheers along the way.

What distinguishes Star Trek from other would-be summer rides like the first Transformers or the current X-Men Origins: Wolverine—which offer a series of chaotic action sequences loosely tied together by an equally chaotic narrative—is the director's command of pace and story structure. As he demonstrated on his debut feature Mission: Impossible III as well as his extensive work in television (most notably the "Lost" pilot and the first two seasons of "Alias"), Abrams understands how to drop his characters into an explosive situation and then keep ratcheting up the stakes in believable ways, with a minimum of cheap plot twists. And while his stories do occasionally suffer from lapses in logic, he tells them with such confidence and enthusiasm, it's only in hindsight that plot holes star to appear. More than anything, he wants audiences of all backgrounds to have fun watching one of his movies and that's what Star Trek provides. Put it this way: If this version of Trek doesn't become a four-quadrant hit, than Paramount might as well stop trying.

Going into Star Trek, one of the biggest challenges Abrams faced was finding a way to tell a new story that wouldn't demand familiarity with the franchise's 40-year history or contradict an important piece of Trek lore, thus infuriating its passionate (and sizeable) fan base. He solves that problem early on with a clever little bit of sci-fi logic that firmly establishes this Trek as its own entity, without necessarily negating any of the previous shows and movies.

Rewinding the timeline to before the Enterprise—and, just to be clear for any Trekkers out there reading this, I'm referring to the classic NCC-1701, not the NX-01 featured in the prequel series "Enterprise"—embarked on its five-year mission, the story depicts how that ship's legendary crew assembled for the first time in order to battle Nero (Eric Bana), a mysterious Romulan warrior piloting a vessel with planet-destroying capabilities. That's right, all of the usual Starfleet suspects are present and accounted for, from ace helmsmen Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) to surly doctor Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) and resourceful communications expert Uhura (Zoë Saldana). And just as you're starting to wonder what happened to everyone's favorite starship engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg), he beams aboard halfway through the movie, significantly upping the comic-relief quotient.

The crux of the plot, though, turns on the relationship between James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), who are far from being the close chums Trekkers remember from the original series and the first six movies. On the contrary, they spend much of the film literally at each other's throats. Abrams enhances their conflict by playing up the differences between their established personalities; Kirk's a leap-before-you-think kind of guy, whereas Spock is compelled to analyze every aspect of a situation in order to prevent an illogical, emotion-based response. Abrams has also equipped both characters with fresh emotional baggage. By centering the movie around this relationship, he departs from the typical origin-story template, which generally tracks the transformation of a single individual. At its core, Abrams' Star Trek is really about the origin of a friendship between two very different people.

Playing roles made iconic by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, Pine and Quinto slip right into these characters and make them their own. It may be considered heresy to suggest this, but Pine shows more range in his first outing as Kirk than Shatner displayed over the three-season run of the original show; he's cocky, funny, charismatic and a convincing brawler, with none of the odd affectations that made his predecessor a target for parody. Quinto, meanwhile, imbues Spock with a sarcastic, petulant edge that the more reserved Nimoy (who has a small but significant role in this movie as the elderly Spock) rarely allowed to peek through the Vulcan's placid surface.

Even though they aren't awarded the meaty material enjoyed by the two stars, the rest of the cast does an equally commendable job finding fresh takes on their characters. Urban and Pegg appear to be engaged in a duel over which of them can steal the most scenes, while Yelchin makes a charmingly naïve Chekov and Saldana's understated turn adds some interesting emotional shading to Uhura. Cho's Sulu is the only crew member who doesn't snap into focus in this outing; aside from one neat bit of swordplay, he spends too much of the movie lost in the background. Hopefully, Cho will ease into the role—and the writers will give him more to do—in future installments.

The best Star Trek episodes and movies have always matched the Enterprise crew against a worthy adversary, and that's where Abrams' Trek stumbles. It's not Bana's fault; in fact, the Australian actor delivers a performance that's far more entertaining and compelling than any of his outings as a traditional hero. Unfortunately, as written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Nero is, at best, a pale echo of one of the franchise's greatest villains, Khan.

Since the movie's designated bad guy generates few sparks with the heroes, Abrams has to create fireworks via full-throttle action sequences filled with dazzling sound-and-lights FX displays courtesy of ILM. These set-pieces are spectacularly executed, although purists may complain that they bear a closer resemblance to Star Wars than Star Trek. Overall, though, it's hard to imagine Trekkers not having a good time aboard Abrams' retrofitted Enterprise. The movie is respectful of its source material—there are a number of witty references to obscure bits of Trek lore—without being beholden to it. Thanks to Abrams and his cast, this franchise may live long and prosper for another four decades.