J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek accomplishes the impossible: It reboots an entire film franchise even while honoring the spirit of its beginnings, and it breathes new and heated life into a series grown stale. The director reteams with writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman; the same team also crafted the fantastically done Mission: Impossible III, and Orci and Kurtzman’s writing and producing credits include “Alias” and “Fringe.” They’ve created something wonderful in Star Trek: a fast-paced, breathless space opera, crammed with action, humor, and heart. Of the original film series, only the second and sixth entries — The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country — stand up as legitimately good films, thanks to director Nicholas Meyer’s emphasis on character conflict and dramatic action. Abrams and crew take a cue from those films but go light-years further and faster, upping the number of action sequences but also marrying them to an intriguing story. It’s easily one of the most fun films to hit theaters in some time, and the perfect summer blockbuster.
The film opens in a frenetic blast as the U.S.S. Kelvin, a starship from the United Federation of Planets, encounters an alien Romulan vessel under the command of the psychotic Nero (Eric Bana), emerging from a black hole amid a lightning storm in space. The production design walks the line between flashy tech and a more believably lived-in look, but the overall aesthetic is retro futuristic, as if conjured by artists in the 1960s and bolstered by effects from decades later. The enemy ship attacks the Kelvin, but not before a handful of survivors escape in shuttles, including a woman giving birth to a baby she christens James Kirk. Twenty years later, Kirk (Chris Pine) is an Iowa townie who loves to get drunk and pick fights with Starfleet cadets, getting into a brawl after hitting on a young woman named Uhura (Zoe Saldana). He’s persuaded by Capt. Pike (Bruce Greenwood) to join the Academy and outperform his father, a renowned captain in his own right. The film does a wonderful job at organically growing the plot, setting up the childhood histories of Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto) — half human, half Vulcan — as well as laying the foundation for a new origin story for characters who first appeared on television in 1966. Kirk meets Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) when he ships off to the Academy, at which point the story skips ahead three years. The cadets have graduated when they get a call saying a battle has broken out between Romulans and Klingons, and they’re assigned to ships and scrambled to intercept. The best and brightest are assigned to the Enterprise, including Uhura, McCoy, Spock, pilot Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) and Pavel Chekhov (Anton Yelchin). Abrams gives the right amount of deference to the moments where the characters come together, knowing that one of the functions of a film like this one is to broadcast on a certain level that it is, in fact, being watched by people who at minimum are familiar with decades of pop culture references and catchphrases. But he’s also a talented enough director to know that this story must also stand on its own as a reintroduction to the series, and it does. Character motivations are established early on, and the film plays like a tightly plotted origin story.
The bulk of the plot involves the Enterprise’s pursuit of Nero, as well as the burgeoning relationships between Kirk and the rest of the crew that will come to define the stories yet to be told, but it’s in the inventive plot that the story really shines. Without giving much away, Kurtzman and Orci have found a way to turn Abrams’ Star Trek into a hybrid of prequel and reboot: According to the story’s chronology, the action takes place before the earlier films, but the new movie also manages to cut the ties to the other franchise and engineer a method that will allow a whole new set of adventures. Whereas, say, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films exist in a separate canon from Tim Burton’s, the new Star Trek film takes place in the universe established when William Shatner played Kirk but makes it clear that everything will be different.
That difference also plays itself out in the action set pieces, and Abrams proves once again that he’s one of the best in the business. Space battles refuse to acknowledge any set orientation, the camera twisting around and catching new views of ships against stars, and it seems that there’s a lens flare popping every few moments just to drive home the unstoppable brightness of a sun. He’s also advanced the pace of those battles: The older films had ships drifting lazily against each other while firing phasers that extended in one long beam from attacker to target, but the laser cannons here fire in short bursts that feel more like real guns and allow for faster-paced dogfights. It’s old, but it’s new.
Kurtzman and Orci’s script is also peppered with quick jokes and character-driven moments that are brought home by the cast, none more so than those delivered by Pine. He’s appeared in a few films before this one, including a Lindsay Lohan vehicle, but he gets a chance to take the lead and make Kirk his own here, and he does so with an engaging mix of flair and arrogance. He plays Kirk as a proud and occasionally sex-crazed hotshot, willing to take risks just for the hell of it, adding an attitude and palpable sexuality absent from the other movies. He’s witty and charming, to boot. In other words, he makes the character more believable than ever. Quinto and Urban are also spot-on castings, capturing the look of their predecessors (Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley) but never coming across as mimics. And Simon Pegg is pitch-perfect as engineer Montgomery Scott, capable of functioning as comic relief and a reliable dramatic character. (And yes, he does indeed say to Kirk, “I’m giving her all she’s got!”)
In fact, if there’s one universe to which the film completely belongs, it’s the one Abrams has built across multiple TV series and films. Uhura mentions a drink called Slusho at a bar, a drink that appeared in “Alias” and again in Cloverfield; additionally, there’s a plot point in Star Trek dealing with matter capable of creating black holes, and it’s stored in giant free-floating red balls that can’t help but call to mind the Mueller devices of “Alias,” as well. Even the title cards that set locations like Iowa or Vulcan are done in a similar typeface to the credits on “Lost.” There’s no real reason for the connections — that is, their seeming existence in different fictional universes carries no greater weight than a filmmaker’s desire to feature in-jokes in his work — but they’re still cute enough to work. They’re Abrams’ signatures, just like his skill with humor, action, pacing, and stories that blend sci-fi elements with pulp opera and appealing characters. It’s how he makes a movie his own, and Star Trek is no exception. He’s made something new from something old, and begun a bold journey that can only go somewhere amazing.