First things first- seeing J.J. Abrams’ reboot of Gene Rodenberry’s classic sci-fi franchise in a “True IMAX” format is the best way to go if you can. The IMAX politics I’ll leave for others like Harry Knowles and Roger Ebert to discuss. My focus is on the movie.
As prequels go, Abrams’ “Trek”- written with fast and funny pleasure by Abrams’ henchmen Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who’ve also worked on J.J.’s “Alias,” “Lost,” “M:i-III,” as well as the “Transformers” reboot)- will likely have Trekkie’s tighty-whities in a bunch over the liberties it takes, but for those of us who were merely casual fans of the franchise, you really can’t go wrong with the adventure he has in store for us, which pays tribute to the franchise’s emphasis on intellectual sci-fi while also finding a chance to throw a little space opera on for good measure.
The opening sequence sets the stage for the entire film, as the U.S.S. Kelvin is hijacked by a Romulan vessel- actually a drilling ship (to be explained later)- captained by Nero (Eric Bana, in a villain turn for the ages in the “Star Trek” universe). The captain of the Kelvin is taken captive, but not before he puts George Kirk in charge with orders to evacuate if he’s not back in 15 minutes. When Nero asks the captain for Spock, the captain has no reply, and is killed. Kirk then goes into action, evacuating the passengers of the Kelvin- including his in-labor wife- while having to stay aboard to make sure everyone else can survive. He saves the lives of 800 people- including his newly-born son Jim- while sacrificing himself. His act of courage becomes an example for Starfleet cadets for years to come.
Twenty-five years later, Jim’s time as come to follow in his father’s footsteps. But he doesn’t really have a sense of direction without his real father, until a barfight with some cadets puts him in the crosshairs of Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who convinces him to enlist in Starfleet.
Parallel to this we see Spock- the son of Vulcan Sarek (Ben Cross) and Human Amanda (Winona Ryder)- struggling with his own identity, and turning his back on the conventions of his people to enlist in Starfleet himself. His human emotions are a hindrance to him in his early years; by the time he’s a Commander in Starfleet- where his designs of the Kobayashi Maru simulator proves a challenge for cadets like Jim (Chris Pine) and medical specialist “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban)- his logical side is paramount to his success in Starfleet, although cadet Uhura (Zoe Saldana) has a gauge on his emotional side. Jim’s innovative solution to the Maru “no-win scenario” gets him in trouble, but that rebellious streak is what’ll make him an unlikely great when Nero returns for revenge on Spock (Zachary Quinto) and his homeworld of Vulcan.
I’ll let the film fill in the blanks in how Nero was aware of Spock before anyone else was from there. For Trekkies, there will be blasphemies galore in Abrams’ film, but even die-hards will find it hard not to revel in the excitement of watching the Enterprise’s crew in the act of inventing itself. The film’s story moves at warp speed compared to “Trek” films past (and Michael Giacchino’s score propels it every step of the way), but the action captures the same level of excitement and adventure of “Trek” highlights “The Wrath of Khan” and “First Contact.”
A lot of that comes from the story, which also shares a common thread with those films in that they are driven by revenge. You see, Nero blames Spock for the destruction of the Romulan home world with Red Matter, which basically turns a space body into a black hole. But how can Spock be held responsible when he’s still in his early years at Starfleet?
That question is answered through science-fiction logic and storytelling innovation that allows older Spock (what a pleasure to watch Leonard Nimoy at work) to not only talk with young Kirk but also himself. See, even fanboys can’t help but get stoked by that notion.
Abrams’ eye for casting continues to go unmatched (except by fellow TV wunderkind Joss Whedon). Who knew “Harold & Kumar’s” John Cho would make such a strong choice for a young Sulu? And with his flawless, Russian-born accent, “Charlie Bartlett’s” Anton Yelchin is Pavel Chekov to a “t.” And three cheers for Simon Pegg, who damn-near steals the movie 2/3s of the way in as engineer Scotty. But the Holy Trinity of Kirk, Spock, and Bones is where the film really succeeds- this is the dynamic the film HAD to get right, and did they ever succeed. “Lord of the Rings'” Urban was an unlikely choice for Bones that pays off beautifully, with Urban showing us the curmudgeonly crank McCoy will become. Quinto shows the conflict within Spock between the logical and the emotional with delicate ease that pays tribute to the legend before him (literally at the end). But my favorite is Pine as Kirk, who captures that arrogance and rebellious streak that always made Kirk such a formidable captain with William Shatner in his uniform, especially in “Khan,” which Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman seem to have gone back to in particular to form the Kirk they’ve asked Pine to embody. Shatner may not have gotten a cameo in this film, but he can rest easier knowing his character is in good hands, in front of and behind the camera. So is the rest of the franchise, which is boldly going where others have gone before, just with more in the tank creatively.