“Star Trek” isn’t just a perfect reboot of an old — and lately, tired — franchise, it’s a perfect sci-fi thriller. In fact, it’s a damn-near perfect little summer popcorn movie. And more. This will be a spoiler-free review, but I’ll put up a spoiler discussion in just a bit.
The picture “Trek” reminded me of most, strangely enough, was Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 11.” That was a movie with a constant swirl of color and thrills and a crackling ensemble cast, with each character having something important to contribute to the action. The “Star Trek” which director J.J. Abrams has given us is one where even Uhura, finally, is more than legs in a mini skirt. In fact, she has one of the film’s more powerful moments, when she’s forced to hold herself together in public in a way that’s nearly… Vulcan in her self-control.
The plot is simple — er, simply convoluted. There’s time travel involved. The fun isn’t in the resolution, which any smart viewer can see coming a mile away. The fun is in watching this ensemble come together, in sometimes unexpected ways. And the time travel motif gives Abrams freedom to change stuff up. Long time fans will notice — and, I think, enjoy — the differences. Newbies will just enjoy it, period.
The drama hinges on one terrible, stupid catastrophe. It’s a terrible, stupid catastrophe tragic on an epic scale, and for one character, on a very personal level, too. I found myself wondering how the crew of the Enterprise would use time travel to “fix” things and save the day. As time started running out, however, an extra level of dread kicked in as I realized the terrible, stupid catastrophe would be allowed to stand. It’s a bold move by the filmmakers, going somewhere the Star Trek universe has never gone before. The only time travel in the movie is accidental and occurs basically off-screen, and the characters must live with the results. There’s no cheating here.
And that’s about as much about the plot as I can talk about without revealing a bunch of spoilers. So let’s move on to the cast.
Chris Pine: He owns James T. Kirk like James T. Kirk owns the bridge of his starship. The swagger, the gleam, the ‘tude, the intense interest in what’s under that (i.e., any) skirt… Pine has it all. All without descending into parody or simple imitation of Shatner.
Zachary Quinto: He’s Spock. Younger, so his inner human/Vulcan turmoil is more on the surface — not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’d say more, but I found myself so accepting of Quinto (who I’d never seen before in anything) in such an iconic role, that I’m not left with anything to add. This is Spock.
Karl Urban: He comes the closest to doing an imitation, of Deforest Kelly’s “Bones” McCoy. But he’s given so many great lines, and delivers them so perfectly, that you just won’t care. He damn near steals the movie.
Simon Pegg: An inspired choice to play Scotty, and his constant questions about where to find a decent meal fully explains the greatly-expanded girth of James Doohan (the original Scott) over the years. His manic genius is, well, genius.
Zoe Saldana: The above-mentioned Uhura. My latest movie crush. There’s quite a bit of character development, and even some plot, riding on her slender clavicles. And she carries it all effortlessly. Comparing her to Nichelle Nichols would be unfair, since Nichols — unfortunately — was rarely used as anything more than tasty, tasty eye candy.
John Cho: At first it was distracting seeing a Korean guy playing Sulu. Then he brought out his sword. Sweet!
Anton Yelchin: Chekov. Another scene-stealer, although with the least-defined role.
Eric Bana: Best Trek bad guy since Khan — which isn’t saying a whole lot, considering the intervening eight movies. But his job is to kill a whole bunch of people, then get killed himself. Both of which he does convincingly enough.
Oddly enough, I found the two “grown-up” Vulcans to be the most disappointing characters in the movie. This is doubly surprising when you consider that it’s Ben Cross, a fine actor, playing Sarek (Spock’s dad.) Maybe it’s just because Mark Lenard played Sarek for so many years on so many different shows, but I don’t think so. Cross somehow doesn’t bring enough gravitas. And it’s quadruply surprising that the “real” Spock, Leonard Nimoy, turns in his least-impressive performance in the part he created. Maybe it was bad direction, maybe it was his mostly-expository part, or maybe age has finally caught up to Nimoy. But if there’s a weak link in the casting, he was it. Oh, except for Winona Ryder. I have no idea what she was doing in this movie, and I’m not sure she did, either.
Giant kudos to Bruce Greenwood as Kirk’s commanding officer and (in some ways) surrogate father. Greenwood delivers the weight Nimoy and Cross should have, but didn’t. And he did so well enough to make up for the other two, and then some. When he says to young Kirk, “Your father was Captain for twelve minutes and saved 800 lives… Including yours — I dare you to do better,” it’s no spoiler to tell you that, of course Kirk does better. He’s James Tiberius Kirk, mothereffer.
Years ago, I reviewed the then-new “Enterprise” TV series, and argued that the original series worked because of “the Holy Trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.” Re-watching the old show a couple years ago, I was amazed at how, from the very first episode, Kirk, Spock & McCoy formed such a tight unit. The new movie, I figured, would succeed or fail by how well it showed that camaraderie form and gel.
Well, let me tell you: Star Trek not only succeeds, it exceeds. Not because the reboot trinity is any better than the old one — it couldn’t be. It exceeds the original because, for the first time, the supporting cast is just as strong and just as integral. And when I say integral, I mean: integral to the movie, to each other, and most importantly, to the USS Enterprise.
Put simply: This is the Star Trek movie fans have been waiting for, going on 30 years now. It’s also the Star Trek movie newbies will still be watching 30 years from now. Or as my friend (and devoted Trekker) Charlie Martin wrote to me last night: “Best. Trek. Evah!”