By Simon Abrams
There's a quick, but relatively lingering shot of outer space in the first few minutes of J.J. Abrams Star Trek that illustrates why his "revamp" of Gene Rodenberry's essential science fiction franchise works so well. In it, several seemingly microscopic ships are fleeing from a monolithic Romulan mining ship in front of an enormous sun. It comes hot on the heels of a glitzy, fatal encounter which establishes the ostentatious mood that elevates the origins of James T. Kirk to the heights of grand space opera. The awe that this image inspires succinctly relates how Abrams' film achieves its goal of restoring the enormity of the universe these characters inhabit.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and, to a lesser extent, Star Trek: Generations (1994) and Star Trek: First Contact (1996) arguably achieve the same mix of personal pathos and unrepentant spectacle that Abrams does, but none of them work on the same scale. Abrams uses the film's myriad gorgeous shots of space just as his screenwriters and frequent collaborators, Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, use broad brushstrokes to paint a picture of young Kirk (Chris Pine) as a fated hero. This is after all a universe that fans and non-fans are to some extent already acquainted with, making it only—pardon the cheesy in-joke—logical to revive interest in the stagnant series by reminding us that Kirk, and hence the show, was always bigger than life.
This undoubtedly has a lot to do with the fact that Abrams' financial empire affords him the opportunity to boldly use funds that no previous producer could secure before, but it's not something that Abrams consistently flaunts. During most of the film's spectacular scenes of violence, Abrams employs a gimmicky yet effective shaky cam technique that Ronald Moore's excellent Battlestar Galactica revamp helped to make a genre staple. We can't always see what's going on, but we do get the impression of frantic action and immediacy. This is fitting because fighting in Roddenberry's series was always meant to have a dirty taint to it. Through displays of grandstanding violence, as in classic episodes like "Balance of Terror" or "Arena," we melodramatically learn to disavow bloodshed, or at least we do until the next fight.
Kirk is frequently at the center of these scenes of violence, though Orci and Kurtzman wisely have him extend the didactic olive branch typical of Rodenberry's series as an empty but necessary gesture (somehow, showing mercy at the end of this story just seems wrong). Though Star Trek's about the first adventure of the Enterprise crew as we know it, Abrams' story is realistically all about Kirk. He was always the head of a team, but he also effectively speaks for them, learning their lessons through the periodic reform of his usual swagger. Even Spock (Zachary Quinto), who enjoys a sizable subplot, learns that he has to give up the limelight and become Kirk's moral compass. He may get the girl in the end, but Kirk gets his captain's chair.
Therein lies the real raison d'etre of Abrams' thankfully over-the-top Trek. Peppered with an overwhelming abundance of fan service-friendly quotes and references to the original series, the film is a much-needed, self-congratulatory celebration of Kirk and co.—the supporting cast is all-around terrific—and of their importance. Over-the-top actions speak for themselves and a new mythology is established through a mash-up of the characters' convoluted history, here boiled down to token gestures like Spock using the mind-meld and the Vulcan nerve pinch. For a franchise that has fallen so far away from its original glory, puffing its origins up to gargantuan size is exactly what the show needs right now to get back into the good graces of both fans and curious newcomers. For once, bigger is better. And, in this case, oddly more personal.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, the New York Press and Slant Magazine. Since last year, he's been obsessively keeping a film journal where he writes down something about every film he's seen.