It’s easier to think of the new, goofily uneven Star Trek spectacular as a qualified success given its undeniable recovery from a laughably abysmal opening scene. A rogue freighter from the future, skippered by a vengeful Romulan baddie (a shouty, tattoo-faced Eric Bana), wreaks destruction on a Federation starship whose young acting captain heroically prepares to go down with the vessel after ordering an evacuation, and speaks his last words to his tearful wife, who has just given birth to their son in a fleeing shuttlecraft. “Let’s call him Jim! I love you!” radios the sacrificial father, who never lays eyes on his newborn child, James T. Kirk.
Charged with a relaunch initially known in Hollywood as Star Trek Zero, TV wonderboy J.J. Abrams has not only turned the franchise odometer back to apply the origin-tale trend to the first crew of U.S.S. Enterprise voyagers from the 1960s tube series, he’s used that frequent crutch of the show, time travel, to heretically overhaul the 43 years of Trek canon as he and his collaborators see fit. Bana’s ship has emerged from a black hole to revamp history and create “an alternate reality,” according to the young half-alien Spock (a disappointingly bland Zachary Quinto), and that new, convoluted reality permits director Abrams to literally reinvent this long-running pop myth’s universe by journey’s end. For starters, we see the troubled 23rd-century childhoods of the bullied Spock on planet Vulcan, and back in Iowa, rebellious Kirk, who in pre-adolescence is into stealing antique cars and blasting the Beastie Boys—early music!—before growing into a cocky drunk and pussyhound (cutely smug himbo Chris Pine) who enters Starfleet Academy on a dare to match his father’s glorious selflessness. Aren’t audiences sick of survivor’s guilt in their blockbuster heroes yet? More daringly, a sexual liaison between a pair of Enterprise officers is revealed—and it’s not Kirk/Spock.
Like the original cast’s best movie, The Wrath of Khan, this Star Trek essentially turns out to be a war film, with the occasional philosophical timeout to discuss love, friendship, and duty until the next bone-crunching fistfight or multi-weapon rumble with the Romulans. But Bana’s villain lacks the wit and corny majesty of Ricardo Montalban’s, and the pricey action set pieces—miles-long freefalls, three different Kirk cliffhangers, phasers blasting through ship hulls—are bloodless and familiar, so it’s up to the familiarity and sentiment of the Trek milieu to carry the day, and it just manages to, thanks in part to Pine’s extrapolation of a randy punk Kirk from William Shatner’s easily mocked but indelible template, and the pleasingly pivotal presence of Leonard Nimoy as the elderly iteration of Spock, who in his two mentoring scenes brings dignity and badly needed warmth to a slam-bang tent-pole actioner. As for the science, the writers can’t even cough up a perfunctory definition of the movie’s apocalyptic power source, “Red Matter,” which obliterates worlds a la Khan‘s Genesis device, but with none of its regenerative features.
A likely spoiler: Of all Team Abrams’s revisionist moves, the one most likely to curdle the blood of Trek devotees is the incineration of the home planet of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, this pop epic’s cerebral counterweight to Earth and its traditionally destructive instincts. Down to their orthodox elders’ disdain for intermarriage and Spock’s mourning of six billion killed in a madman’s holocaust, the Vulcans have never seemed more like intergalactic Jews.
Abrams’s less felicitous ideas include stunt casting (Tyler Perry as a Starfleet administrator? Winona Ryder as Spock’s human mother?), but he’s wisely leavened the casual megadeath and space-battle effects with low comedy and numerous in-jokes on the ‘60s series. The happiest notes struck by the new cast are mostly comedic riffs on their predecessors: Karl Urban’s irascibly technophobic Bones McCoy, Anton Yelchin supplying teenage Chekov’s vaudeville Russian accent, and most broadly Simon Pegg, in his element as Scotty, because only a comedian can now bellow, “I’m givin’ ‘er all she’s got!,” from the engine room. But the signature concluding voiceover that promises a continuing quest to seek “new life forms and civilizations” may baffle the uninitiated, who’ve sat through two hours of a Star Trek that has subjugated series creator Gene Roddenberry’s liberal optimism to a brutalist entertainment formula that requires even barroom punches to sound like explosions.