As bad as things are in America economically and culturally, it’s reassuring to see that Hollywood can still produce good, heroic films.
J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek is what Trek movies should have been from the start: a fast paced, character-driven adventure story set in a plausible future society. Abrams employs a hackneyed plot device (time travel) to sidestep 40 years of stale canon and begin the tale of the Enterprise crew afresh. Properly, this tale centers on the relationship between the young James Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), bitter rivals who grudgingly learn to respect each other under the stress of combat.Pine captures the essence of a role William Shatner seldom played to perfection, and often debased into parody. His Jim Kirk is sly, aggressive and brilliant, a high achiever whose arrogance and penchant for extreme risk-taking seem almost justified by his abilities. But the real standout is Quinto, portraying Spock's half-human/half-Vulcan personality with breathtaking subtlety and power. As good as Leonard Nimoy has handled the role, he's been surpassed by his younger replacement, who enjoys the advantages of a more expressive face and a more versatile voice. Both characters are enthralling, and by the end of the film you're rooting for them.
The supporting characters are also better realized. Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy, snapping out his lines with no hint of the Georgia drawl, comes closest (as nearly every critic remarks) to imitating the style of his predecessor (DeForest Kelly). His warmth and gravitas convey the big-hearted soul beneath the carping, technophobic exterior. Zoe Saldana's Uhura, a crack linguist with romantic designs on Spock, is no longer the passive switchboard operator. Yet neither is she the type of hectoring, feminist bitch seen in lesser incarnations of Trek (e.g., Dr. Helen Pulaski of The Next Generation). Simon Pegg's Scotty and Anton Yelchin's Chekov are both technical wizards largely relegated to comic relief on this maiden voyage. Pegg's brogue is more authentic by far than James Doohan's. Yelchin's Russian accent is truer than Walter Koenig's in the pronunciation of vowels, but fake as ever in its substitution of w's for v's. John Cho's Sulu is as mild and understated as George Takei's original, but he's given the chance to shine in hand-to-hand combat using a katana with a telescoping blade.
Of the pacing, suffice it say the film leaves you little room for breath, save for the more touching and intimates scenes (Captain Pike quietly upbraiding civilian Jim Kirk after an Iowa bar brawl, Uhura comforting Spock in the turbolift). Otherwise, the swiftness of the narrative is almost brutal. Abrams understands the short attention span of modern audiences, whittled to a sliver by video games, the frenetic editing of TV shows, and the mouse-clickable context dropping made possible by the Internet.
Production design is another strong point. Star Trek, decades late, has adopted the Star Wars aesthetic of a lived-in universe, with many sets and props showing degrees of dirt and wear. To be sure, the bridge of the Enterprise is white-walled, blazing with numerous lights, but its vertical glass screens and closely packed consoles suggest the complexity of a nuclear attack sub bridge, the nerve center of a strictly regulated war machine where spit and polish are entirely appropriate. Yet the engineering compartment is surprisingly primitive, with catwalks, cylindrical storage tanks marked with today's standard nuclear hazard symbol, and a water cooling system. The Federation outpost where Kirk meets Scotty is a dingy military base with peeling paint and flickering florescent overhead lights. By comparison the plush, upholstered, carpeted Enterprise of The Next Generation looks ridiculously effete.
The shape of the Enterprise's hulls and nacelles are a compromise between the original Sixties version and the ship's appearance in the first six films. The new contours may be liked or disliked according to taste, but in place of the inert, rectangular nacelles of the Eighties we see tapered cylinders whirling and pulsating with visible energy. Brilliant cinematography, making effective use of light and shadow, allows us to sense as never before the colossal bulk of this vessel.
My only disappointments with the film are the convoluted plot and somewhat underdeveloped villain. Both shortcomings are deliberate sacrifices made to keep the story focused on the main characters and moving briskly. Abrams needed to sell his version of Star Trek to a general audience while keeping the existing fan base happy, and more important, craft a work good enough to stand on its own as a science fiction masterpiece. He has succeeded handsomely on all three counts.