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Star Trek feels like a movie motivated by fear. Fear of being too old, to slow, too out of touch. Fear of being too tied to what came before. Fear of irritating old fans. Fear of failing to bring in new ones. And so sometimes it overcompensates, moving too fast, jumping from point to point with barely a pause in between out of fear that its modern, energy drink influenced audience may at some point decide to get up and go to the bathroom. It invents unnecessary plot devices to excuse reinventing the Star Trek universe, just to pre-emptively shut up those fanboys unhappy with the change in direction. It wraps itself in nods to the past while juicing itself into the future, like a Star Trek movie in desperate need of Ritalin. Yet the irony here is that all of this fear was completely unfounded. This Star Trek works. This idea works. There was nothing to be afraid of and in fact, the whole thing would have only worked better had they simply sat back, relaxed and let things happen. This could have been a revelation, a reinvention of not only the Star Trek franchise but the entire science fiction genre. All the pieces are right there, if only director JJ Abrams and his team had trusted themselves, trusted the fans, trusted their audiences. They don’t, and the result is a movie that’s merely really good instead of genre-changing. Really good is, well really good. In fact I should probably stop complaining.
This Star Trek movie is a lot of fun. It’s fresh, it’s exciting, it feels young as when the world was new. For the first time in a long time Star Trek truly feels futuristic. Abrams has successfully created an entire world to play around in, a bright and shiny world full of youthful optimism and blinking lights. It’s a Star Trek we’ve never really seen before, a Star Trek done with a monster, blockbuster budget. Abrams takes that world and lets his characters live in it. He doesn’t linger over it or treat it as if we’re seeing something awe-inspiring. This is simply the place where his story happens and within the first five minutes you know there’s a pretty good chance that by the time it’s over, he’ll have changed Star Trek forever and for the better.
That first five minutes of Trek is maybe the best five minutes I’ve spent in a theater all year. It doesn’t involve Kirk, Spock, or any of the standard, Trekkie familiars and it’s an action sequence full of explosions and the firing of phasers. Yet somehow it’s also gut wrenching. Five minutes into the movie and Abrams already has half his audience quite literally in tears. Five minutes in and we’re already that involved, that invested in what’s going on. How many other movies can say the same?
While the audience dries its eyes, we meet James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto); two boys growing up on two different worlds, living two different lives. We see their childhood in snapshots: Kirk is human and rebellious. Spock is half-Vulcan, repressed and angry. They don’t meet until they’re young adults at Starfleet Academy, training ground for anyone who wants to go into space. When told it will take him four years to complete his training Kirk confidently proclaims, “I’ll do it in three.” Jim cheats on the Kobayashi Maru, a test designed by Spock to learn how students will react when faced with certain defeat. Kirk doesn’t like to lose. Spock, though he’d never admit it, also doesn’t like to lose and instantly dislikes the man who found a way to beat him. Their fates are of course, immediately, and irrevocably, intertwined.
An emergency occurs, requiring the presence of Starfleet ships at the planet Vulcan. Unfortunately, the fleet is out on maneuvers or perhaps out to lunch, forcing them to man whatever starships they have with cadets. Spock ends up on the Enterprise, so does Kirk and everyone else fans are familiar with. They leap into space, with an experienced officer named Pike in command to play nursemaid, headed for whatever danger it is that’s worrying Vulcan. From then on, the film moves at a frantic, breakneck, almost out of control pace. Abrams refuses to pause or slow down, to take a breath for anything. Most of the time this works brilliantly, as in a scene where Enterprise’s chief doctor McCoy is required to administer medical attention to Kirk while he races through the ship attempting to warn the captain of an impending attack. It works in the movie’s action sequences too, where character development and plot movement take place all at once, with torpedoes firing and sky diving happening while at the same time we figure out who these people are. But at some point the movie needed a pause, a moment of reflection, a scene where the audience is allowed to catch its breath and come to grips with what’s going on. It never gets it.
We’re left with a movie in which occasionally things move far too fast, and logical plot progression is glazed over in favor of getting to the next thing. Characters swap ranks for no reason, leap from point to point without adequate explanation. It’s not that there isn’t one, it feels more like Abrams’ skips over it, because he’s in too much of a hurry to reach the next wow moment in Orci and Kurtzman’s script. It’s frustrating, particularly for anyone who’s familiar with the thoughtful introspection of previous Trek entries, and it makes the movie seem like less than it is. This Star Trek needed one of those scenes in which Kirk goes down to the med bay to see his shipmates dying, or a pause while the crew convenes in a conference room to figure things out. Or for that matter maybe a few moments with Nero (Eric Bana), the film’s villain, in which he’s allowed to engage in some honest to god monologueing, if only to break things up. Nero is breakneck pace’s biggest victim. Somewhere beneath Eric Bana’s pointy ears you get the sense that there’s another Khan lurking, waiting to get out. Unfortunately his story is told only in a rushed and muddled flashback with no weight to it, while Bana isn’t given enough screen time to make an accounting of himself. In the process, Leonard Nimoy’s appearance as elderly, future Spock is also abbreviated. There’s a pivotal confrontation between Nero and Nimoy’s classic Spock which happens entirely off camera. Seeing those two face off would have given the film the kind of gravitas it’s currently missing. Yet this isn’t a slight film, in fact it’s epic, but it races by at such a furious pace that when it ends you may walk out wondering where the rest of the movie went.
If you do, it’ll only be because Star Trek leaves you wanting more. In spite of pacing problems this is a fantastically entertaining film, a crowd pleaser both for Trekkies and the as of yet unaligned. Fans will be delighted with how perfectly Chris Pine captures the essence of a brash, younger, James T. Kirk and with the pitch-perfect performance given by Karl Urban as cranky, complaining, utterly endearing Leonard “Bones” McCoy. They’re toying with icons here and they more than do them justice. Even Chekov and Scotty, who while played somewhat more over the top than necessary by Anton Yelchin and Simon Pegg, are in their own way honorable portrayals of people we already know. For those who don’t know them, you’ll want to after this. Everybody gets their moment, and some like Zoe Saldana’s Uhura earn expanded roles. Uhura’s always been the Star Trek cast’s footnote but she’s a major part of the story here, and it’s about time I suppose, that Trek got a decent female character. Zachary Quinto has the toughest job, playing a Spock in the same movie with Leonard Nimoy, allowing us easy comparison between their two takes on the character. Qunito’s portrayal may be slightly unsteady, but ultimately adequate in this context. It’s my hope he’ll have this Spock thing figured out, by the time they start shooting the next movie.
And there will be a next movie. Whatever it’s flaws this is a rare Hollywood movie that, regardless of box office performance, truly demands a sequel. Star Trek is only the beginning of an adventure, a launching point to warp us all into a bigger, even more exciting world. Viewed from that context Abrams’ movie is a stunning success. You’ll walk out of the theater hungry for Star Trek: The Next, desperate for more of this kind of adventure. It’s been a long time since the hope and optimism of Gene Roddenberry’s vision have seemed this bright, this alive. This is exactly the Star Trek movie this fading franchise needed. Star Trek is reborn.