By Christy Lemire
HOLLYWOOD — J.J. Abrams’ hugely anticipated summer extravaganza “Star Trek” boldly goes to the past within the distant future of the “Trek” universe, years ahead of the TV series and the myriad movies and spin-offs it spawned.
And in doing so, he and his longtime collaborators, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, change everything you know — or obsess about, if you’re into this kind of thing — about the kitschy pop-culture phenomenon.
It’s a daring and exciting approach that’s sure to tickle and provoke purists, while at the same time probably cause neophytes to feel a bit lost.
A major plot twist pops up — which includes the arrival of Leonard Nimoy — about halfway through the film, a twist that doesn’t exactly work and from which the film never completely recovers.
Having said that, Abrams clearly aimed to appeal to the broadest possible audience with this dazzling visual spectacle while also leaving plenty of Easter eggs for the hardcore fans to find. If there’s any social or political subtext, as in the original series, it’s difficult to determine; this “Star Trek” seems solely made to entertain. It’s an absolutely gorgeous film with impeccable production design — the lighting is wondrous, almost heavenly — and lovely, tiny details frequently emerge from within the larger, grander images.
Abrams certainly puts on a good show — between television’s “Lost” and the 2006 “Mission: Impossible” sequel he directed, there’s no question the man knows how to stage an action sequence, and the opening gets things off to a thrilling start. He efficiently and satisfyingly presents the back stories of the men who will become Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the half-Vulcan, half-human Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) and puts them on a collision course with each other, which ups the excitement level early.
Kirk and Spock, you see, weren’t always pals — at least not in this revisionist history. This “Star Trek” pits them as opposites and adversaries until they must reluctantly learn to function side by side for the greater good. Kirk was a brilliant young hotshot causing trouble in rural Iowa, talented beyond his years but self-destructive nonetheless; Spock was a brilliant young math whiz whose mixed ethnic heritage made him the target of Vulcan bullies who were just as geeky as he was. Pine gets the womanizing and the ego of Kirk, but in a younger state there’s also a likable boyish enthusiasm about him; Quinto, meanwhile, plays Spock as a little more tentative and less Zen-like. But maybe that sense of inner peace comes in time.
All that informs their interaction once they join the Starfleet Academy and ultimately climb aboard the shiny U.S.S. Enterprise — which looks familiar but has been significantly updated from 40 years ago. Among them are the usual cast of supporting characters: Communications Officer Uhura (the graceful Zoe Saldana, who gets more to do than Nichelle Nicholls ever did on TV); over-the-top Medical Officer Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban, who gets to growl familiar lines like: “Dammit, man! I’m a doctor, not a physicist!”); Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Simon Pegg in a lively bit of casting); reliable Helmsman Sulu (John Cho, showing he can do much more than comedy) and 17-year-old supergenius Chekov (Anton Yelchin, doing an intentionally cartoony Russian accent as an homage, even though he really is Russian).
Their shared enemy is the angry Romulan leader Nero (Eric Bana, borrowing Mike Tyson’s elaborate facial tattoos), whose sharp, spiky ship resembles a malevolent version of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. The source of his vendetta against Spock, and the entire Federation, is revealed as the film progresses, and it’s a crucial part of that distractingly perplexing twist we mentioned earlier.
Either you’ll go with it or you won’t. Regardless, based on Abrams’ ambition and scope in rejuvenating the franchise, it’s clear it still has plenty of room to live long and prosper.
“Star Trek,” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence and brief sexual content. Running time: 127 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.