This part-prequel, part-reboot of Star Trek: The Original Series has moments to rival the best of Trek, but unfortunately it also has moments that rival it at its worst, although the film as a whole is somewhere in-between those two extremes. Not a complete success, but not a complete failure, either.
Seeking revenge on an elderly Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Romulans commanded by the obsessed Nero (Eric Bana) are thrown back in time and decide to wreak their vengeance in the past, and their mission intersects with the lives of young Cadet James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and young Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) at Starfleet Academy and aboard the newly launched USS Enterprise commanded by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood).
Director J.J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III, and co-creator of television’s Lost and Fringe) delivers spectacular visuals and action scenes, making for the most viscerally exciting Star Trek film of them all, but Trek at its best was a morality play in space, yes, a ham-fisted one at times, but still at its core it was about more than just exciting action. This film is a fun roller coaster ride with a hollow center, and even a scene of genocide plays out as a visual effects spectacle with little emotional weight. Abrams gets so much right here that it’s disappointing when he also gets so much wrong.
Writing team Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Mission: Impossible III, Transformers, and co-creators of Fringe) deliver an uneven screenplay. At its best, it delivers a fresh but still familiar take on a venerable franchise, spot on younger versions of iconic characters, and a few moments of joyous perfection, while at its worst it veers into the camp humor territory of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, easily the worst film in the franchise, while giving us a one dimensional villain and plot holes galore. They marry a lazy time travel plot (one of the most overused Trek plot devices, seen in two previous films and numerous episodes of each television incarnation) to a Romulan bent on destroying the Federation that recalls the plot of Star Trek: Nemesis, a film so poorly received that Paramount decided the only possible solution was to reboot the franchise. And while some of the changes to canon make sense because of the timeline being modified, others make no sense even in that context.
This is hands down the best looking Star Trek film thanks to the contributions of cinematographer Dan Mindel (Enemy of the State, Mission: Impossible III), production designer Scott Chambliss (Mission: Impossible III, television’s Alias), and costume designer Michael Kaplan (Fight Club, I Am Legend). The design of Star Trek: The Original Series reflected a 1960s view of the future, while this film brings a slick 21st century view to the table while still paying homage to the classic design principles. Visual effects supervisors Roger Guyett (Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Mission: Impossible III) and Russell Earl provide seamless, eye-popping effects at every opportunity. Composer Michael Giacchino (Mission: Impossible III, Speed Racer) delivers a rousing score that also makes good use of Alexander Courage’s classic theme music.
The true strength of the film is its cast, which manages to recapture the magic of their predecessors while also making the roles undeniably their own. Chris Pine’s James Dean-esque performance as Kirk, full of swagger and bravado masking emotional wounds, dominates the film as the character should, while Zachary Quinto is ideally cast as a younger Spock still struggling with an emotional side inherited from his human mother. Pine wisely eschews imitating William Shatner’s mannerisms except in one scene when he comes close in an obvious homage to the original Captain Kirk, but Quinto is able to capture Leonard Nimoy’s mannerisms without making it seem like imitation or, worse, parody. The third member of the classic Trek trinity of characters, Dr. McCoy, is excellently played by Karl Urban, who seems to be channeling the spirit of DeForest Kelley and threatens to steal every scene he’s in. Nimoy shines once again as the older Spock, bringing genuine emotional resonance to his scenes. His Spock is one at peace with himself and his half-human heritage.
Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Simon Pegg as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as Chekov all provide fresh interpretations of their classic characters, although Scotty and Chekov are played for laughs too often for my liking (but the blame goes to the writers and not the actors). One area in which this film improves on the original series is that other Starfleet commanders are portrayed as competent and heroic officers in their own right, in this case Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike and Faran Tahir as Captain Robau of the USS Kelvin. As one dimensional as Nero is written, the performance from Eric Bana isn’t any better. He’s more Shinzon from Star Trek: Nemesis than he is Khan from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and this film deserved a better antagonist than that.
The rest of the cast is solid, including Ben Cross and Winona Ryder as Spock’s parents Sarek and Amanda, Chris Hemsworth and Jennifer Morrison as Kirk’s parents George (another heroic Starfleet officer) and Winona, Rachel Nichols as a Starfleet cadet from Orion, Jimmy Bennett playing Kirk as a rebellious child, Jacob Kogan playing Spock as a child, and Greg Ellis as Chief Engineer Olson. Deep Roy plays Keenser, a strange little alien living in a remote Starfleet outpost and who seems to be the Star Trek equivalent of an Ewok. I’m not even sure why that character was included.
There are several notable cameos, including the late Professor Randy Pausch as a USS Kelvin crewmember, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (Batman & Robin, The Da Vinci Code) as a member of the Vulcan Council, Tyler Perry as Admiral Barnett, Paul McGillion as a Starfleet Academy barracks officer, and voice cameos by Greg Grunberg as Kirk’s step-father and the late Majel Barrett as the voice of Starfleet’s computers.
Star Trek is very much a mixed bag, with moments of excellence and moments of less than excellence, but a strong cast and some genuinely exciting action scenes make it watchable. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan‘s reputation as the best of the films remains safe. When all is said and done, this new film ranks somewhere in the middle of the eleven films made to date. It’s entertaining enough, but it simply doesn’t live up to the potential it had to boldly go where no one had gone before.
[3 out of 5 stars]