***a few minor spoilers follow***
What a difficult film to review!
With over 42 years of history, sequels, and hundreds of hours of programming behind its various incarnation, there's a hundred ways one could approach the new Star Trek movie. My decision was to walk in and do my damnedest to forget everything that went before. I decided I'd take it on its own terms, and not base my reaction on what Star Trek's been.
Somehow I suspect my opinion may change on subsequent viewings. Either I'll like it more or less.
JJ Abrams' new film Star Trek is the fastest paced science fiction film I've seen in a while. It's got that kind of relentless forward momentum that the better Star Wars films possessed. The story launches into action in the first couple of minutes and it zips along at Indiana Jones pace for its mercifully standard two hour running time. Love it or hate it, it's hard to be bored, because the film is fleet footed and quite the sprinter.
Where it succeeds is in being a fairly smart action film. By smart I don't mean brainy, as this film's chock full of dumb science and riddled with convenient coincidences. However, it's not just about some simple goal like being the first to get the MacGuffin. Rather, it's about how a couple of young men somehow manage to start down the path to becoming the men they're destined to be, even when history itself gets yanked out from under their feet. Oh yeah, and in doing so there's lots of explosions and fist fights.
The plot, in a nutshell, is that vengeful travelers from the future come back in time, and the events surrounding it chain-reacts through the succeeding decades, affecting the lives of the protagonists. Young James T. Kirk's life is hit hardest, and his life goes into a direction of being a layabout jerk. But his potential is known to a respected officer who pushes him to join Starfleet. Meanwhile, on planet Vulcan, young half-human Spock is tormented by his Vulcan peers, and told by his parents he must choose his own path. Never wholly accepted, and treated as if his human heritage is a physical handicap, he rejects a prestigious appointment and also enlists in Starfleet. The two men meet at Starfleet Academy under acrimonious circumstances, and are instantly opposed. But when the travelers from the future reappear to cause further havoc, they're forced into action side by side.
The strongest part of the film is the story of Spock, whose struggle to reconcile his dual nature is thrown an additional monkey wrench by a rather stunning set of plot twists. Without giving away the details, the bottom drops out from under his personal and professional life. Where he ends up isn't exactly what you might expect at first.
The movie tries very hard to be fun. Sometimes it succeeds, sometimes it gets sophomoric doing so. There's a nice running gag with cadet Kirk trying to find out Uhura's first name, which she won't tell him, and a overly slapstick but pretty funny sequence where Dr. McCoy keeps jabbing Kirk with hypos to counteract reactions he's having to other drugs. Young ensign Chekov's accent is so thick even the computer can't understand him. On the other hand, there are some dumb physical comedy bits and eye-roll inducing innuendo.
The cast is mostly good. In some ways Chris Pine as Kirk is the hardest character to like because the story paints young Kirk as something of an arrogant ass. Fortunately, the story forces him to take more responsibility, and he becomes more likable as the plot progresses. Zachary Quinto's Spock is good. He's got that stoic expression down pat, but you can see in his eyes the emotions he's suppressing. He's a young guy struggling to find the balance between logic and emotion, and not always succeeding. Zoe Saldana's Uhura is professional and takes no guff, but I wish she'd been given a bigger role. That said, her part is arguably at least as big as McCoy's, which is saying something. Karl Urban's McCoy is spot on. He's grumpy and cantankerous, and from the first time we meet him we find out exactly why he'd joined Starfleet. John Cho's Sulu has a nice moment on the bridge when the Enterprise first pulls out of dock, but aside from one big action scene, he's not got much to do. Anton Yelchin's Chekov is rather adorable. Playing a 17 year old mathematical genius, he makes a lot of his small part, and his accent, while fairly authentic, is comically ridiculous. Eric Bana as the bad-guy gets so little to do that he doesn't register much. Simon Pegg's Scotty is a kick. He's so clearly delighted by the Enterprise and its technological gadgets, he's like a big kid in the toy store. Leonard Nimoy has a bigger-than-cameo appearance as you-know-who, and while his part is pivotal to the plot, his character feels strangely just a little out of character at moments. That the writers insist on having him pull out some obvious chestnuts from "Spock's greatest hits" doesn't help matters, particularly when there's clearly other things he should be saying.
The movie is full of action sequences, most of which are very well realized. The first space battle is a doozy, and it's of a scale and intensity rarely seen in sci-fi movies. When ships fire phasers, it's not a couple of little ray beams, rather, it's like a WWII battleship letting loose with every cannon. When ships are hit, chunks of them blow apart rather than vaporizing or vanishing in a convenient fireball. When ships go to warp drive, they do so with such force that the camera jolts in their wake. The film neatly conveys the immensity of the vessels without resorting to making them lumber around like Spanish galleons or making them maneuver like fighter jets. Ships never fall prey to all maneuvering on one plane as if on a glass table-top. They enter frame and the camera pivots around so you realize you're initially looking at them upside down or sideways. There's a big action sequence where characters have to do an orbital skydive from a shuttlecraft, and a nail-biting bit where two of our heroes are plummeting towards the surface on a planet as Chekov tries to get a transporter lock on these moving targets before they hit the ground.
All this said, the film's got flaws. It's loud. It's too focused on forward momentum to do little things like make logical plot progressions, and when the writers do feel the need for exposition, they slam on the brakes too hard and and indulge in overexplaining. The film also comes perilously close to breaking the fourth wall as the characters discuss how these events will have changed their lives from whatever they might have been. There's also the usual sci-fi stupidity of people in the far off future having an affinity for 20th century cars, music, and culture: as if many people today would drive an 18th century carriage or play chamber music. Kirk is a jerk for the first third of the film, and you want to him fail epically just to wipe the snugness off his face. Too many events occur by coincidence rather than design, and the moment you think about it, you realize that it's far too many coincidences to be believable. It's one of those movies where, when it's over, you go, "wait a minute, why did they _____ when earlier they ______ed?" The plot mechanics don't bear up to scrutiny at all.
Science and believability wise, Star Trek is often as dumb as a box of rocks. Ships zoom from point A to point B in minutes, but then take hours to do the reverse route. The depiction of space sometimes resembles Buck Roger's comic ideas from the 1930s, and at times you'd think the planets are spaced like balls on a pool table in this film's galaxy. The filmmaker's wanted to make the ships feel more real than in most sci-fi films, but their idea of realism sometimes goes in head-scratching directions. The bridge of the Enterprise is a busy high-tech nerve center with touch screen interfaces, vast curved displays and a main viewscreen that's an actual window overlain with a sophisticated Heads-Up-Display. The corridors are tubular and white with glossy black floors. The elevators are blindingly fast, crossing the ship in seconds. The engine room is... well, it looks like a modern factory of some sort. It's full of pipes and vats and valves. I realize the boiler room of the Titanic didn't much resemble the ball room, but really, this smacks of "free location" and is as out of place on a 23rd century spaceship as main sails would be on a 747. In fact, I found out the engine room was shot on location in a brewery...that explains the product placement.
Yes, I said product placement, blatant and in your face: Nokia and Budweiser in the fuuuuuture! Ugh.
Technically, the film is well made and clearly very expensive, but the action sequences suffer from the action being too fast and the angles too close, leading to quite a bit of blurry "what was that?" when things really get crazy. In fact, JJ Abrams background in TV really jumps out by the number of closeups and extreme closeups he uses. On an IMAX screen, I could pick out every single stubbly whisker on Eric Bana's face.
But that said, it's a fun, fast paced ride that doesn't require you to leave your brain at the door, but probably plays best with critical facualties on Pause.*******
Ok, that's the film on its own terms. Let's look at it as Star Trek.
This film is like a big Marvel "What If?" version of Star Trek.
As Star Trek, it's most like the original and nothing like the sequels. It's a big fun space opera where the characters clash over what action to take. Tone wise it's on the approximate level of a second season episode of the original series: there's a big problem (like a Doomsday Machine), but there's a lot of humor (a la Tribbles). In other words, the Federation is in danger, but we're going to have fun while saving it. If William Shatner wanted lots of "running and jumping" in his Star Trek film, he'd have loved to have played a script like this. There are fistfights and in-your face character conflicts, big revelations, epic consequences, and lots of humor...little of which falls into cringe territory. In fact, one kinda wishes a film as big and full of energy as this could have been made the the original cast in their prime...ok, with at least a nod to scientific plausibility.
There are tons of nods to the franchise's past, from the names of planets, the name plaques for admirals, to a tribble. There's Captain Pike, a green Orion girl, some familiar Klingon ships, and cadet Kirk taking some Kobayashi Maru test. Sometimes, they're spot on funny, as when the film pays a sideways homage to Kirk's famous "Khan! KHAAAAN!" by standing that on its head (you'll know it when you hear it), or when Scotty assures Kirk and Spock he's going to beam them into what he's sure is a cargo deck, but ends up being smack in the middle of the enemy bridge. Often the nods are cute, sometimes they're stupid, like assigning the name Delta Vega to a planet within sight of Vulcan.
The story goes to rather absurd lengths to get the familiar characters conveniently in their familiar positions despite the change in history. Somehow, despite Kirk joining the Academy years later than he would have in the original timeline, all these familiar faces end up on the Enterprise even without him as Captain. Did we really need to have EVERYONE on the ship in the first film? Okay, they left non-entities like Chapel and Kyle out, but, as with the Batman films, where they decided they didn't need Robin right away I think they could have focused on Kirk and Spock and added some of the other characters later. No one was going to NOT see the film because Chekov wouldn't be in it.
What the filmmakers did, smartly, I think, was to realize there was just too much past baggage in the franchise, making it difficult to do new stories or go in a different direction, hence the plot involving travelers from the future changing history, thus allowing them to chart new events without concern for what happened before. This film takes the infamous "reset button" used to restore history at the end of a world-changing episode and throws that damned button out the window. The events that change history in the opening scene and subsequent cataclysms of the film are fait accompli: nothing is undoing them. The Captain Kirk of this film has a different history than that of the original series, as do, presumably, other characters. As such, all bets are off concerning events that happened in oh so-familiar series and movies. The world is different, the Enterprise is different, and how Kirk ends up in command is different. Heck, maybe in this new universe there'll never be a Next Generation or DS9 or wretched Voyager. I suppose one can hope... If anything, I think they bent over backwards too much to justify the change, as if assuring the fans that the shows they knew are "still there" in a parallel reality...as if anything could erase hundreds of hours of episodes and features.
In tone, the film is clearly much more Star Wars like than any Trek that's gone before it. There's big action, big stunts, and big effects sequences. In that sense, it's not Star Trek as we've seen it, but it's not utterly at odds with some of what's gone before. In the end, it's a fun movie, and I'll admit I liked it more than almost anything I've seen with the "Trek" label on it since high school. I'm not sad to see the old stuff go. The adventurous Star Trek I loved as a kid had passed on a long time ago, replaced with joyless, sanctimonious, technobabble laden tripe that pretended it was relevant but was less innovative than most modern TV dramas. Except for reruns of the original, I never cared to see another Star Trek film or TV show. As such, the fact that this new movie grabs the property and yanks it in a whole different direction doesn't bother me at all. This new Star Trek, flawed as it is, goes for the fun factor the original series could display in spades.
One can only hope they can make a sequel that's just as exciting but with more brains. Maybe then Star Trek will be worth watching again.