Abrams conquers the final frontier
If any franchise is deserving of a flashy reboot, it’s Star Trek. This work horse of a series started life as an American sci-fi TV drama back in 1966, winning over audiences with its cardboard cut-out sets, colourful storylines and hugely likable, well-defined characters. Its cult popularity saw the original show endure right through until 1969, and it has since spawned four spin-off series, an animated show and 10 feature films, not to mention endless books and graphic novels, partworks, fan films and even chart hits.
It’s perhaps surprising, then, that some have remained immune to the gravitational pull of the Trek universe – including me. Having only caught glimpses of the TV shows, usually while switching channels, and having never seen a Star Trek movie in my life, I was concerned I wouldn’t ‘get’ this latest incarnation despite Abrams’ assertions that his film is as much for the non-fans as for the confirmed Trekkies. It turns out, of course, that I needn’t have worried; Abrams’ film is absolutely sublime.
A breathtaking opening sequence sees the USS Kelvin come under attack from the mega ship of the Romulan Nero (Eric Bana). At the helm during the final minutes is young Captain George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth), who makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to secure the survival of those aboard his ship – including his newborn son, James. Both blazing action and moving drama, these first few minutes both sets the scene for what’s to come and the tone of the movie.
Twenty-something years later, and James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) has grown into an angry young man. Running into a group of space cadets at a local bar, a fistfight brings him into contact with the earnest Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) who offers Jim the chance to join the Federation. Three years later and Jim finds himself aboard the USS Enterprise, along with his sparring partner Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Bones (Karl Urban), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Sulu (John Cho), when it warps to the aid of the planet Vulcan. On discovering that the Romulans are preparing to wipe out the planet the crew of the Enterprise embark on a dangerous rescue mission, one that will test the strengths and loyalties of all involved, and that will result in James Kirk realising his destiny – with a little help from the future Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and a wet-behind-the-ears Scotty (Simon Pegg).
What lies at the very core of Abrams’ Trek is the perfect balance he has achieved between acknowledging the long-standing traditions of, and fan loyalty to, the franchise and updating it for a new audience. The foundation of this balance is absolute faithfulness to the characters. Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman clearly respect the established personalities of the magnificent seven, yet have some fun with the genesis of their particular quirks and foibles. And the casting is absolutely pitch-perfect (with the small exception of Winona Ryder, clearly far too young to be playing Spock’s mother); Saldana exudes the sassy, sexy intelligence of Uhura, Yelchin embraces the comic element of Chekov’s strong Russian accent without poking fun at the character, Cho is poised and likeable as Sulu, Urban both looks and sounds like he was born to be Bones and Pegg is passionate and passable as Scotty. It’s good to see, too, that all are given plenty of screen time to develop.
But at the centre of them all are the powerhouse performances of Pine, who effortlessly embodies the swaggering ego of Kirk, and Quinto, who harnesses both Spoke’s cool logic and inner turmoil, revealing the battle between his Vulcan and human characteristics without melodrama. And the pair play exceptionally well off each other, a factor crucial to the film’s success. For this Star Trek is as much about establishing the relationship between Captain and First Officer, a relationship which runs through the heart of the franchise, as it is about rebooting the series as a whole.
And yet, despite its attention to detail and unlike most of the Treks before it, this film is actually an exercise in restraint as far as the geek element is concerned. There are moments, expressions and lines of dialogue that fans will get a kick out of, but these are woven into the fabric of the story rather than being ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink, pause for applause’ gimmicks. The familiar way Kirk sits in his chair; the way Spock raises an eyebrow or the way Bones delivers, just once, his famous ‘Dammit, Jim’ line; the film provides these subtle nods to those who already know these characters, while fleshing them out for newcomers. And, in doing so, there is a hint that this Enterprise crew could travel a different path to where they have gone before
Pulling the strings like a super-charged puppet master is Abrams, whose enthusiastic, self-assured direction ensures that, despite all the explosions, battles and emotional fireworks, the film’s narrative stays on course throughout. It’s hard to believe this is only his second directorial feature, following 2006’s Mission: Impossible III – although, to those who know and love his far-reaching TV shows Lost, Alias and Fringe, his big screen talent will come as no surprise. Here he has delivered a sci-fi actioner that runs at warp speed throughout its entire two hours, that makes the most of its big-budget effects but also throws pathos, drama and comedy into the mix. As a result, Star Trek is that very rare beast; an eye-popping summer blockbuster with genuine heart and soul.
Stars Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Eric Bana, Karl Urban, Bruce Greenwood
Director JJ Abrams
Screenplay Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
Distributor Paramount Pictures
Running Time 2hrs 7mins
Opens May 8