2009 | Director: J.J. Abrams (“Mission Impossible III,” “Gone Fishin'” [writer]) | Writers: Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (“The Island,” “The Legend of Zorro”)
There’s something inherently stupid about the Star Trek universe, a place filled with ludicrously-designed spaceships helmed by philosophizing, moralist captains who spend their time harassing suspiciously human-looking aliens wearing velour track suits. The original television series was marked by ham-fisted and clunky plotlines that served as weak social commentary, but it was also the showcase for one of the better TV duos in Captain James T. Kirk and his half-Vulcan first officer Spock, two heroes whose deep, complex relationship dwarfed most others on the small screen.
When spy-fi auteur J.J. Abrams (“Alias,” “Lost”) was announced as director of the 11th Star Trek film last year, some (me, namely) wondered if he had the chops to pull off such a task without making the product unrecognizable. But while Abrams’ penchant for stunning visuals and imaginative action sequences does little to pull the series out of the middling plot doldrums, he has retained—and even intensified—the brilliant character dynamic that made the show (and early films) so memorable. To call Abrams’ “Star Trek” merely satisfying would be somewhere between an understatement and a slap in the face.
Beginning with parallel views of Kirk and Spock’s growth from childhood to young adults of vastly different standing, “Star Trek” quickly sets itself apart in the series, as the appearance of vengeful Romulan Nero (Eric Bana) and a much-older Spock (Leonard Nimoy) from the future upsets the space-time continuum—smartly rendering the known ending to every character in the series irrelevant—and sends the Federation into an uproar, forcing brash, reckless cadet Kirk (Chris Pine) into action alongside a brooding Spock (Zachary Quinto), cranky doctor Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), and officers Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Chekov (a delightfully naïve Anton Yelchin) and Sulu (John Cho). Contrivances place them together on the virgin starship Enterprise, whereupon they zoom from locale to locale in an effort to prevent a Vulcan holocaust and save their kidnapped captain, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), from the Romulans. Of course, the sometimes-lame struggle against their primary antagonist isn’t the point; how the iconic characters struggle with each other, however, is.
Spock is, surprisingly, the dramatic and emotional lynchpin of “Star Trek,” but even his intriguing arc of belonging, love, and revenge is overshadowed, rightly, by that of Kirk. While the series and older films caught Kirk and Co. at or after their zenith, Abrams rightly focuses on their fulfillment of destiny, treating his ubiquitous subjects like Greek gods, and registering their first actions with bombast. In the center of this maelstrom of herodom is Pine’s Kirk, who is recognizable in bravura only when compared with Shatner’s smooth ego and distinct delivery. That’s not to say that the new Kirk isn’t well-designed; in essence, the character has been reinvented right alongside the timeline as a ticking time-bomb of cynical potential, needing only a nudge here and a punch in the gut there to cause him to blossom into the proud, explosive leader he’s meant to be.
Pine hits all the right notes, and some of the other actors—such as Urban as McCoy and Simon Pegg as Scotty—are pitch-perfect in their roles, but most of the credit here belongs to Abrams, who was gutsy enough to aim the franchise in the unique direction “Star Trek” sets off for, and skillful enough to execute in such an exciting manner. It’s not perfect, but it’s an intensely gratifying examination of the internal and external forces that, from a mere man, forge a hero.
Rating: Three and a Half of Five Stars