REVIEW - Abrams Takes STAR TREK to Spectacular New Frontier

[This review contains SPOILERS]

Tasked with the near-impossible responsibility of reviving a franchise that even most diehard fans will admit has been on life support, director J.J. Abrams changed the rules to his own Kobayashi Maru.

In other words (for those of you not fluent in Starfleet-ese), he cheated.

Star Trek is a high-impact, high-stakes galactic adventure with a healthy dose of humor. Abrams has crafted a Trek movie at once familiar and completely foreign to those well versed in Starfleet lore, one that takes the franchise in a bold new direction thanks to inventive storytelling and tremendous casting.

Star Trek the Franchise has been languishing in suspended animation for years, banished to the cheap seats of the pop culture universe.

Whether it was a long-overdue realization of that sad-but-true fact, Abrams’ clout in the industry or a combination of the two, it seems every allowance and effort was made to reinvigorate Trek. The result is a spectacular success.

The thrust of the film’s story is set up almost immediately in the prologue. The U.S.S. Kelvin is under attack from a monstrously imposing Romulan ship, the Narada. Nero (a snarling, nearly unrecognizable Eric Bana) has traveled back through time with the means to create black holes capable of destroying planets. He plans to exact revenge on the Federation, and specifically a familiar ambassador, for what he sees as a betrayal of his people.

During this initial battle, the birth of a certain future starship captain with the middle name Tiberius also takes place.

Years later, we find young James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) in Iowa. He’s wasting his days and potential away, drinking and getting into bar fights.

When an old crewmate of his father, Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), challenges the wayward youth to focus his anger and energy on a more productive path, Kirk enlists in Starfleet.

As it did in his directing debut, Mission: Impossible III, Abrams’ economical and action-oriented filmmaking style – honed from his TV experience – serves him well here. Things get moving quickly, and soon we are treated to more action than we’ve seen in perhaps all the previous Trek movies combined.

The highlight is the spectacular Space Jump sequence; when a not-quite-yet Capt. Kirk, Mr. Sulu and an overeager shipmate perform a suicide skydive mission onto a mining platform high above the planet Vulcan.

All that action may have actually gotten in the way of other parts of the story. Not nearly enough time is spent at the Academy, where the friendship between Kirk and McCoy presumably is cemented. It’s just a guess, because in the film we are forced to take it at face value.

And the film’s lighter moments are often awkwardly timed and heavy-handed, including one silly sequence where Kirk has an allergic reaction during a deadly serious moment.

Considering all the Trek TV shows, movies, novels, and comic books created over the past four decades, it was surprising to learn that the tale of how the original crew of the Enterprise came together, had never been told.

Abrams wanted to distill that basic origin story to zero in on the franchise’s two most familiar faces, Kirk and Spock.

And wouldn’t you know, before they began history’s greatest Bromance, these vastly different beings – each having endured individual tragedy – hated each other’s guts.

Whereas Shatner displayed the cool of an intergalactic James Bond, Chris Pine’s Kirk is all swagger and unfocused ego. He’s angry at the world. And while he doesn’t look or sound like his predecessor, Pine embodies the role as well as anyone could have imagined.

Zachary Quinto had the resemblance to Leonard Nimoy down, but he excels at showing the struggle to balance his logical Vulcan side, and the human characteristics he gained from his mother.

And no one gets a rise out Spock faster than Kirk. First by cheating on his ‘unbeatable’ test of character, then by constantly second-guessing strategic decisions. If you hadn’t seen the 79 episodes of TOS (translation – the "Original Series") and the six feature films starring the original cast, you would never guess that these two would become the closest of friends.

But it’s the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, during his brief but essential scenes in the film, who helps the two see their destinies are intertwined.

“I have been, and always shall be, your friend,” Nimoy tells the younger version of the man who would be his closest friend. Perhaps the quietest scene in the movie, and it’s most powerful.

By the way, if you haven’t seen any of those adventures before this movie, it won’t matter.

Maintaining consistency with four decades of Trek canon would be a nightmare even for Trek junkies like screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.

So Team Abrams changed the rules to their own no-win scenario with an ingenious plot twist.

Nero’s trip to the past has disrupted the timeline and changed the future. As he tells Kirk himself during a fight scene, “James T. Kirk was a great man. But that was another life.”

[You think the Wolverine production team is thinking right about now that a time-travel McGuffin would have worked out better than mind-wiping Adamantium bullets?]

That’s not to say the filmmakers ignored history. There are homages and easter eggs aplenty, from catchphrases to green alien girls…even a Slusho reference.

As for the re-casts, there were a few missteps. Karl Urban works a bit too hard on mimicking DeForest Kelley’s cadence as ‘Bones’ McCoy, and Anton Yelchin’s harsh Russian accent as Chekov borders on self-parody.

Faring much better is John Cho as Sulu, who turns out to be quite handy in a fight. And Zoe Saldana is a savvy and sexy Uhura.

And if anyone doubted that Simon Pegg would steal every scene he appeared in, well, you were wrong!

As anyone who can recite dialogue from Wrath of Khan knows, a Trek movie is only as good as its villain. Eric Bana doesn’t chew the scenery or flaunt his pecs like Ricardo Montalban, but his Nero is a mad dog. The Romulan is motivated by payback and Bana embraces Nero’s bloodthirsty rage.

There has been much discussion about how this new movie is a chance to give this once-proud franchise a facelift, a chance to modernize it, energize it. Change it.

But Star Trek succeeds primarily because it doesn’t change the essence of Trek crafted the franchise's creator Gene Roddenberry - the optimism of deep space exploration, the vision of a brighter future for humanity. It’s all there, only now the faces are younger, the gadgets cooler, the pace faster. And Sulu has a ninja sword.

Welcome to the 21st Century, Star Trek. We’ve been waiting.

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