Ever since Hollywood’s flagging creativity and the fanboy community’s Web-exacerbated obsessiveness erupted into madcap symbiosis in the late 1990s, the Geek Event Movie has been a reliably tricky proposition. What’s the right balance between fan service and wide appeal? Stay too close to the source material and you get the newbie-confounding Watchmen; go too broad and you get a fan-reviled Daredevil. (Or just bonehead it completely and piss everyone off with The Phantom Menace.)
So it was with familiar apprehension that I walked into J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, but for a different reason than usual: I know little to nothing about Star Trek. (I saw two of the more recent movies because of friends—all I remember is a rocket taking off set to “Magic Carpet Ride”—and I recall suffering impatiently through the final six minutes of Next Generation episodes waiting for something better to come on TV.) Surely an earnest, reverent remake of the holiest of geek holies would be a sobering experience for someone used to being on the other side of the knowing giggles and nitpicks. Would I be able to keep up? And if it was disappointing the Trekkies, would I understand why?
The first bit of good news about Abrams’ Star Trek, then, is that it’s hugely accessible, both as rousing summer sci-fi and as a celebration of its source material. Credit, of course, is due to the ubiquity of Gene Roddenberry’s creation. Forty-three years in the pop blender means that even cursory cultural literacy meets fandom halfway, as the characters, their universe, and its iconography are surely familiar to the segment of the population that owns a television. But Abrams, known best for superior genre TV like Lost and for directing the least-forgettable Mission: Impossible film, has no intentions of coasting by simply on pointy ears and “Dammit, Jim”s, and the dazzling result cements his place among the artists of the blockbuster.
The story? It is the story of the crew of the USS Enterprise, and how they came together, and when it ends we know we’ve only seen the first chapter of their adventures. But one of the keys to Star Trek’s success as an origin story is that it very rarely acts like one; even as we witness a main character’s birth in the prologue and follow youngsters Spock and James T. Kirk to the Starfleet Academy, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci’s screenplay keeps the plot and its themes close at hand, ensuring a brisk pace and allowing for plenty of loose character moments without wasting a single scene. (An added bonus of the script’s discipline is a film that plays even tighter on a second viewing.) In a summer-movie minefield of sequels and remakes, Star Trek is a re-imagining that readily justifies its existence.
The cast, too, brings the movie a fresh tone without betraying its legacy. Heroes villain Zachary Quinto is a dead ringer for Spock, as is this Leonard Nimoy fella who has a cameo as an older version of the character. Chris Pine’s turn as Kirk is a starmaker, and Eric Bana’s pissed-off Romulan, Capt. Nero, provides the film with the nuanced, broken baddie it deserves. Surprisingly enough, it’s Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy who steals the show with an arsenal of tasty line readings.
Behind the camera, Abrams confidently darts between ensemble, beauty, and big-budget thrills like no second-time film director should be able to. The first 10 minutes alone, devoid of recognizable characters but fraught with heroics and doom, will likely remain one of the finest sequences of the year.
Through the flash and the fun, though, what distinguishes Star Trek remains, and finds new relevance. While its noisier cousin Star Wars has always pushed wild-eyed mythology, Star Trek focused on more specific human concerns, and continues to dwell on the relationship between emotion and reason rather than easy stuff like good versus evil. It’s no coincidence that one saga’s hero hails from the desert planet Tatooine while the other is from Iowa. As an entertainment imbued with such crucial ideas, Star Trek is a worthy resurrection of something we may need now more than ever. And if there’s a few more awesome space battles in the deal, then that’s just a price we’ll have to pay.