BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 8, 2009
I am not a Trekkie. It’s important that this be clearly established before we move on. Yes, as a boy I was a fan of the original “Star Trek,” to the point where I could distinguish a Saladin-class Destroyer from a Ptolemy-class tug--an admission I’d be loath to make if my wife weren’t already bound to me by marital vows, two children, and a large puppy. But I never cottoned to the subsequent Trek series and bailed out on the movie adaptations shortly after the Enterprise started rescuing whales in the mid-80s. I am not, in other words, someone who approached director J. J. Abrams’s new Star Trek expecting to be perturbed by--or even aware of--its canonical deviations.
Yet there is something about the heedless enthusiasm with which Abrams dismantles his inherited universe that feels a tad ungenerous. He doesn’t merely revise his predecessors, he erases them and, to some degree, the original rationale of the franchise. Kirk and Spock and all the other familiar faces are here, but an accidental time traveler from the future (two, in fact) has shown up to radically alter the past. It’s Abrams’s “Lost,” but in reverse: In the delightfully confounding ABC series, the elaborate time-travelling narratives are pieces of a puzzle that need to fit together at the end--at least if Abrams doesn’t intend to spend his dotage in the witness protection program; in Star Trek, by contrast, the temporal shenanigans serve to wipe the slate clean for Abrams (and “Lost” partner Damon Lindelof, who produced) to do whatever the hell they like. Kill off a few characters’ parents to give them the oedipal issues with which “Lost” viewers are so very familiar? Blow up the planet Vulcan as a down payment on a still larger climax? Introduce a little hanky panky among the series regulars (no, not Kirk and Spock, whose mutual longings remain sublimated)? Done, done, and done.
Still, for all its faults--and it has plenty to go around--Star Trek is nearly impossible to dislike. In his daft, dizzy reinvention of a moribund franchise, Abrams has found a way to be referential without being reverential, to conjure nostalgia without being constrained by it. He may play fast and loose with the world he’s been bequeathed, but at least the movie he gets out of it is itself fast and loose.
Abrams puts his stamp on the proceedings quickly, offering up Dead Parent Number One in the very first scene. Investigating what seems to be a “lightning storm in space,” the Federation starship U.S.S. Kelvin abruptly finds itself phaser-to-phaser with an immense claw-like dreadnought piloted by the surly Romulan captain Nero (Eric Bana, looking as though he just got back from an unsuccessful audition for Road Warrior! The Musical). When the encounter goes poorly and the captain of the Kelvin is killed, it falls upon First Officer George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) to evacuate the crew, including his own wife, Winona (Jennifer Morrison), who is in the process of delivering a baby boy. As the lifeboats flee, George realizes that the only way to ensure their safety is to stay behind and kamikaze the Kelvin into the Romulan maw. In his last moments, he and Winona have a sorely belated ship-to-ship discussion of baby names. Tiberius? Nah, the kid would never forgive them. Jim? Bingo. And then bang-o: One space-faring Kirk departs the world, another arrives.
Born under so unlucky a star, it’s hardly surprising that James T. Kirk (played as an adult by Chris Pine) grows up with issues, which Abrams dramatizes by having adolescent Jim drive his stepdad’s vintage convertible off a cliff, and twentyish Jim pick pyrrhic barfights across rural Iowa. Flipping back and forth to the planet Vulcan, we also meet the mixed-race Spock (Zachary Quinto), whose rebellions against authority are less rowdy but no less deep. Both men of course make their way to Star Fleet, thus beginning the oddest couplehood since Felix Unger showed up on Oscar Madison’s doorstep with a suitcase and a frown. Soon enough, there is another “lightning storm in space,” and the Enterprise is sent to investigate, with Kirk and Spock on board.
I’m not going to describe the rest of the story in any detail because, if I did, you wouldn’t believe me. It is not without reason that the movie itself withholds its explanations until about the 90-minute mark and, even then, delivers them by expository Vulcan mind meld, presumably to avoid the otherwise inevitable “You have got to be kidding me” response. Suffice to say that the script (by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) may be the most preposterous since Lex Luthor decided to take over the world by way of kryptonic real estate: This is a film with, literally, a black hole where its plot should be. There were moments when I couldn’t help but wonder whether George Lucas had somehow gotten his cinematic butterfingers on yet another iconic movie franchise.
But if he had, there’s little chance Star Trek would have proven such a gas. Sharp casting deserves much of the credit. In the central roles, Pine brings a wry magnetism to the impetuous Kirk, even if he takes a while to settle into the role, and Quinto, who was one of few bright spots on “Heroes,” makes his Spock rather more human and decidedly more ironic than Leonard Nimoy’s. Touring the bridge: Zoe Saldana is pleasantly assertive as the lovely Lieutenant Uhura, even if her miniskirt has grown no more military-appropriate; John Cho adds a spot of swordplay to his helmsman duties as Sulu (though anyone who’s followed his Harold & Kumar work would have to conclude he’s the last person in the galaxy to be trusted piloting a trillion-dollar starship); and, as whiz-kid Chekov, Anton Yelchin has more fun with a cartoon Russian accent than anyone since John Malkovich in Rounders.
Karl Urban, who played an assassin in The Bourne Supremacy and Eomer in the Lord of the Rings movies, is oddly cast as Dr. McCoy--he still looks as though he’d be more comfortable administering injuries than healing them--but the gamble pays off neatly (though the inevitable, inside-joke “Damn it, man, I’m a doctor, not a physicist,” might’ve been a tad more creative). Bruce Greenwood brings a stoic likability to the mentor role of Captain Pike. And Simon Pegg, who shows up a bit later than the rest, is every bit as amusing as one might hope as the excitable engineer Scotty. The only obvious misstep is the genuinely peculiar choice of Winona Ryder in the (small) role of Spock’s fiftyish mom.
Abrams keeps things moving at a lively clip, tossing in elements borrowed from The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The whole project has an air of innocent conviction to it, with the youthful Enterprise crew--who rise to their elevated posts thanks to a comical series of infirmities among the senior officers--congratulating one another with infectious enthusiasm for such 23rd century exploits as “beaming three people, from two locations, onto one transporter pad.” Seldom have interstellar travel arrangements seemed so worthy of celebration.
Visually, Abrams gives the film a bright, appealing sheen, though his criminal overuse of lens flare occasionally renders the viewing experience a little too much like a visit to the eye doctor. When, at one point, McCoy warns Kirk, “You’re going to start to lose vision in your left eye,” audience members might be forgiven for thinking he’s talking to them.
Yet, for all the amusement Star Trek provides, it’s hard to shake the sense that something has been lost in translation. Abrams’s film is in some ways a throwback not to the original series, but further still to the pulpy exploits of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, in which sneering villains were forever threatening to blow up the heroes’ home planets. Gene Roddenberry’s original “Trek” aimed higher than such space opera, toward the moral, political, and technological sophistication of Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. It didn’t always succeed--and, when it did, it wasn’t always terribly exciting--but it was something new, and important, in the pop-cultural universe. For his rookie outing at least, Abrams has focused on simpler cinematic diversions. There’s no question that his Star Trek radically revitalizes the franchise; but it does so in part by setting aside what distinguished the show in the first place.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.