Mothballed early this decade by a string of increasingly unpopular TV series and films, the venerable Star Trek series hasn’t so much been pulled out of storage with this new film as dusted off, broken down to its most basic parts, streamlined, and sent blazing off at an acute angle from its original course. Directed by J.J. Abrams—it’s his second feature directorial effort after helping create landscape-changing TV like Alias and Lost—Star Trek retells the maiden voyage of the Enterprise with the crew made familiar from the classic ’60s show. It’s not technically a reboot or a retcon as the film, more or less satisfactorily, explains. But it is, undeniably, a reconsideration of what constitutes Star Trek, one that deemphasizes heady concepts and plainly stated humanist virtues in favor of breathless action punctuated by bursts of emotion. It might not even be immediately be recognizable to veteran fans as Star Trek. But they’ll have to actively tune out Abrams’ eagerness to entertain not to enjoy the ride.
The film begins with the dramatic birth of future-captain James T. Kirk, then clips through a Batman Begins-like gathering of the pieces. As Kirk grows into the hot-blooded Iowa townie played by Chris Pine, young Spock grows up on Vulcan where he’s teased and discriminated against for his half-human ancestry. Played as an adult by Zachary Quinto, he joins Starfleet half out of spite, a decision that brings him into fraught contact with Pine. Also on board: familiar faces from McCoy (Karl Urban) to Uhura (the intense Zoe Saldana, who’s given much more to do from the beginning than Nichelle Nichols ever got) to Scotty (the always-welcome Simon Pegg). The supporting performances pay homage to the original without devolving into impressions, but Quinto and Pine offer new readings of their iconic characters. Quinto wears his soulfulness closer to the surface than Leonard Nimoy (who’s also on hand); Pine plays Kirk as a party boy genius whose heroic ascent comes as much from accident and bluster as talent. (Think John Paul Jones with a lot of keg stand experience.)
Abrams and screenwriters Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman breathlessly push the story forward while still leaving room to get to know the film’s heroes. It’s a warp 10 adventure, but one anchored by characters whose clever banter patches over a tendency to ache and bleed. (Sometimes in green.) Is it Star Trek? The many callbacks to the past—don’t choose the red jumpsuit—don’t really disguise an only-clever-enough plot or a shortage of Trek’s penchant for social subtext. But it is the sort of Abrams-patented combination of gripping action and vulnerable heroes writ large. It boldly goes somewhere different and makes it hard to leave the film not hoping for a return voyage soon.