Taking the reins of the Star Trek saga, producer/director J.J. Abrams’ most impressive gambit is a self-consciously clever ploy. Faced with the task of acclimating new audiences to this venerably corny space opera, he simultaneously executes a franchise reboot and nostalgia play. Thanks to the miracle of time travel — in the context of the Star Trek cosmos, such gimmick doesn’t even qualify as a stretch — Star Trek functions simultaneously as sequel and prequel. That is to say, while it brings with it the return of a notably wizened Leonard Nimoy as an elderly Mr. Spock, the eyebrow-humping logician who was arguably the signature character of the original TV series, it’s also full of origin stories. If you ever longed to see the Trek-ian likes of Kirk, Spock, Sulu, “Bones” McCoy, and Uhuru as fine young things studying together at Starfleet Academy, this is your chance.
Problem is, anyone who’s nerd enough to have had those kinds of daydreams also realizes that they’re impossible. These characters had long and complicated personal histories before eventually coming together as a gloriously multicultural crew on board the starship Enterprise for their bold five-year mission. That’s why, in a self-reflexive nod to the creative difficulties of the development process, Abrams and company (the screenwriters are Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) have declared this film’s universe an alternate reality, using the destruction of a planet via man-made black hole as an excuse to time-warp a fearsome Romulan mining vessel back a generation. Bent on revenge for complicated reasons, the Romulans violently alter the course of Star Trek history, setting in motion a new backstory for the crew of the Enterprise, which is assembled fairly quickly and through almost random chance over the course of this new film. It’s a cheat, sure, but it’s also pretty clever. And it gives the filmmakers a chance at exploiting whatever particular mojo made Star Trek work for so many years while investing it with something resembling youthful sexiness and stylishness.
Abrams’ first film as director was Mission: Impossible III in 2006, and his feature debut suffered in necessary comparison to the other films in the series. Whatever the relative merits of the Abrams version in terms of pure narrative adroitness (co-written by Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman, it focused on a love story that suggested an attempt to humanize a franchise that had previously been driven by techno-gimmickry and preposterous action set pieces), it’s clear that only two of the films were helmed by directors who really understood montage, mise-en-scène, and the efficacy of sheer spectacle — the Abrams version is a huge comedown in terms of scale and ambition.
Likewise, Star Trek is distinguished from other studio tentpoles not by its level of cinematic craft, but rather by a deliberate commingling of space opera and soap opera. If D.W. Griffith had directed a Star Trek movie, it might superficially resemble the pre-credits sequence of this one — a concentrated dose of weepiness involving the ideal of noble self-sacrifice alongside the miracle of childbirth. To Abrams’ great credit, the sequence is also a little bit terrifying. It sets the stage for the most emo Star Trek ever, giving both Kirk and Spock tragic backstories that contextualize their willfulness and ultimate success on the bridge of a starship.
It’s also easily the glossiest thing I’ve seen since Speed Racer, and that’s no mean feat considering it was shot on 35mm film rather than in glaze-friendly HD — it’s probably the prettiest science fiction film since the Soderbergh remake of Solaris. Cinematographer Dan Mindel works in Panavision, allowing anamorphic lens flares to wash over the frame, which underscores the hazy sci-fi artifice (the mood is simultaneously futuristic and retro) but also gives the film an unusual warmth. There’s no concern here with grit or grime, or dressing sets for that lived-in look. Everything related to Starfleet, even the guts of the ship, is pristine and well-lit and tastefully appointed. The bridge of the Enterprise could easily be refitted as an Apple Store. Action scenes, like a precarious duel on the ledge of a tendril-like drill hooked from outer space into the core of the planet Vulcan, take place in broad daylight. (The interior of the Romulan vessel is darker and more cluttered, but it’s about as suggestive of chaos and disorder as, well, “Bop ’Til You Drop.”)
The drama is impressive, but never quite revelatory. Images fly by with the breathless efficiency of television programming, where creatives learn to work on tight budgets and timetables. Few of the pictures created here are particularly evocative, much less provocative — this is agreeable, absorbing storytelling whose script and direction seem unburdened by ambitions of artistry.
That’s not to say the film is lacking opportunities for giving pleasure, some of it intense if not profound. The visual-effects work, led by Industrial Light and Magic, is particularly extraordinary. There’s still a sense of old-fashioned artifice to some shots, which show characters in the foreground staring out at what’s obviously essentially a matte painting, but fewer than ever are calling attention to themselves as FX. A couple of alien creatures that menace Kirk as he’s briefly marooned on an ice planet (one of them is very reminiscent of the New-York-gnawing critter from the Abrams-produced Cloverfield) are exceptionally well realized, and the subtle adornments to the Iowa landscape in the film’s early scenes — you can just barely make out the outlines of towering Starfleet facilities, like purple mountains looming on the western horizon of the Great Plains — will inspire in receptive viewers something like awe.
The spacefaring scenes are similarly top-notch, and a few shots read to me like deliberate callbacks to images from the original television series, where the scale of a given image is conveyed by positioning a tiny Starship Enterprise as a very small, almost insignificant element of the cosmic spectacle. In fact, the film is so packed with nods to various facets of the Star Trek mythology (like the presence of Christopher Pike in a supporting role, or the dramatization of the famous Kobayashi Maru test that gave James T. Kirk his earliest reputation as a maverick) that it almost plays as advocacy, casting light on the nooks and crannies of its own universe. Certainly it feels more of a piece with its numerous predecessors than, say, the three Star Wars prequels, which managed to undermine much of what fans originally found charming about the series.
Meanwhile, Abrams has smartly assembled a cast that’s not just good-looking but genuinely charming, fulfilling the film’s practical function as Baby Star Trek spin-off and occasionally lending it some moxie. Chris Pine’s Kirk may be the trickiest role, considering how ripe William Shatner’s characterization has grown over the years, but he builds a solid bridge between the hormone-swollen farmboy who shows up near the film’s beginning and the charismatic leader of men who’s expected to finish it out. (Exuding sex appeal and even appearing briefly in his underwear, he also fulfills a modest beefcake quotient that may help the film cross certain demographic boundaries.) Zachary Quinto is OK as supreme logician/mystico Spock, even if he doesn’t quite muster the dignity and, let’s face it, starchy creepiness that Nimoy brought to the role. Karl Urban does an amusing impersonation of his Trek forebear DeForest Kelley, while Simon Pegg goes his own way as genius engineer Montgomery Scott. John Cho and thickly accented Anton Yelchin barely register as Sulu and Chekov, respectively.
The screenwriters go out of their way to develop character arcs and witty repartee, doing their best to depict the roots of the Kirk-Spock friendship and giving each fan-favorite character a moment in the spotlight. But poor Zoë Saldana is reduced to kitten status as Uhuru. Her frankly sexist characterization — aside from vouching for the provenance of one insterstellar transmission, she has little function but to give comfort to the men around her — is amplified by her professional uniform, which includes a girly little skirt. This is, of course, a holdover from the original series, which dressed its women in the sort of then-fashionable attire worn by flight attendants in the romantic age of air travel. It just feels hopelessly backward a good 40 years later, in the wake of, for example, the decidedly egalitarian coed showers of Starship Troopers. God knows I’m not generally one to complain about putting women in skirts. Saldana appears earlier in the film in her underwear, which is great. But please, in return, give her something to do besides fall in love with a superior officer. Didn’t Lieutenant Saavik get to wear pants?
Finally, whether it represents a lack of characterization, a lapse in direction, or a failure of nerve, Eric Bana is far too reserved in the thankless role of Generic Space Villain. Seen mostly in giant-floating-head mode on the outsized plasma screen that adorns the bridge of the Enterprise, Romulan commander Nero comes across as the kind of broadly drawn cut-and-paste antagonist you might face in a Command and Conquer scenario. His character is indicative of the film’s weakness — the gameplan is so convoluted that, when an older version of Mr. Spock suddenly shows up living in a remote cave near a Starfleet outpost, the film must deploy a metric ton of exposition not just to shed some light on Nero’s thirst for revenge but merely to explain what the hell’s going on. Further to the point, he’s just out-and-out silly — a pointy-eared, face-tattooed alien barking about destroying planets and threatening to put space beetles up your nose. (Been there, done that.) The more we see and hear from this guy, the less scary he gets, which is a problem. A more frightening adversary would have gone a long way in propelling Star Trek through too-familiar genre territory. But even if Star Trek doesn’t have a fresh idea in its head, even if some elements of the story — like the too-convenient proximity of planets with breathable atmospheres (and resident genius engineers) — beggar belief, it’s breezy, genial entertainment with a giddy, honest exuberance that’s more infectious than the swine flu. (Resistance may be useless.) As summer tentpoles go, that takes it a long way.