Boldly returning, revising, rebooting
by Molly Templeton
STAR TREK: Directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Cinematography, Dan Mindel. Music, Michael Giacchino. Paramount Pictures, 2009. PG-13. 126 minutes.
It’s a clever thing that director J.J. Abrams pulls off in the simply named Star Trek — which could, alternately, be called Star Trek Begins, or Star Trek Origins: Kirk and Spock. With his writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Abrams (co-creator of Lost) manages to essentially wipe the Trek slate clean, giving the makers of future Trek films the freedom to ignore nearly everything that went before.
But as audacious as the filmmakers may be, they can’t — and don’t — ignore the established characters. Star Trek is a success for many reasons, not least because it manages to be, like last year’s Iron Man, a mostly non-intelligence-insulting, thoroughly engaging action-adventure flick. It’s imperfect, but it’s also delightful. On the one hand, the plot stumbles over itself a time or two; on the other, the opening sequence is the kind of thing that gives a science fiction fan (even one that grew up on Star Wars, not Star Trek) goosebumps — a feeling that continues through the Enterprise’s every maneuver and the script’s every shout-out, visual or verbal, to the earlier Trek.
Still, the prime reason Trek is so much fun is the casting, which lets new faces revise these familiar roles: Chris Pine is a brash, cocky Kirk, playful, yet angry that he never knew his father. Zachary Quinto (Heroes) nails the unnatural calm of the Vulcan Spock, who also wrestles with his parentage. Zoë Saldana plays a Lt. Uhura so smart and certain of herself that she lets me forgive the writers just a little bit for their failure to imagine a Star Trek in which the lone central female character didn’t have to be somebody’s girlfriend. Simon Pegg is a great Scotty and John Cho a charming (if underused) Sulu. And Karl Urban (The Lord of the Rings’ Eomer), as ship’s doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy, is simply outstanding. McCoy, Kirk’s first friend at Starfleet Academy, is a man with his own talents who’s not above a bit of trickery to achieve desired results — say, getting a Kirk who’s facing academic suspension onto the Enterprise when the fleet takes off in response to an ever-so-timely distress call from Vulcan.
That distress call sets in motion the main plot of Star Trek, but the film establishes its real interest long before then. In the beautiful opening sequence, a Starfleet ship meets its end and James T. Kirk comes into the world; in parallel scenes, Kirk and Spock grown up, one rebellious, one disciplined; when they both arrive at the Starfleet Academy, competition between them is as inevitable as their eventual clash. Abrams — who can’t seem to leave time travel alone these days — solidly establishes a Trek universe that’s split from the one we know, but it’s still one in which Kirk and Spock are key, one offering confidence and charisma, the other an endless reservoir of logic and intellect.
A cynic might say that Star Trek’s alternate-universe ploy is just a way to make more films (and money) without fussing over continuity with the old Trek. But part of the charm of Abrams’ film is the way it sets new parameters while showing affection and respect for the Trek that was. What happened in the Trek series we know still happened, as the presence of old Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who’s central to this film’s story, makes clear. But like Kirk leaving Iowa or Spock leaving Vulcan, this Trek is leaving the home of the established canon to make its own way in the universe. Star Trek is dead; long live Star Trek.