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Star Trek Meekly Goes Where Other Movies Have Gone Before

One of the coolest sequences in the latest Star Trek movie — the silent plummeting of several members of the Enterprise’s crew through space as lights play across the clear visors of their helmets — looks a lot like 2001, A Space Odyssey. A subsequent fight on the small platform of a giant drill seems inspired by the (much more exciting) fight on the floating ship at the start of Return of the Jedi. A ship that tries to make the jump to light speed finds its engine fizzling instead, as in Star Wars. And when one giant beast nabs another as it’s about to eat Captain Kirk on an ice planet, the moment is practically spliced in from Jurassic Park.

J.J. Abrams’ barely competent reboot of the franchise provides a reasonably engaging story with a time-travel twist and a nice set of special effects. Planets implode and ships zip through black holes. Perhaps the most useful effect, on Eric Bana as the evil head Romulan, is the makeup that renders him unrecognizable. I’ve had my fill of Bana appearances in summer blockbusters, so it’s fine with me if he disappears with a shaved head and face tats that make him look like a biker dude gone to seed.

The movie, which departs from established Star Trek mythology in several respects, starts with an effective scene about the birth of Kirk. He and Spock grow up on different planets but with the same misunderstood-outsider pose. Spock, who as a boy is being bullied for being half-human (his mother is played by Winona Ryder), also represents the movie’s half-thought plea for civil rights. Spock considers himself a victim because the academy admits him on some sort of affirmative action deal for half-Vulcans.

Meanwhile, Kirk, growing up in Iowa, is a chaos-loving townie growing up near the Starfleet Academy, taking out his frustrations on the accelerator of his hot rod. Like the later fight scene on top of the drill platform, a car-chase bit that illustrates his wild side is clumsily cut. It’s supposed to be exciting but it isn’t, with its images thrown together in a salad.

One thing that could have made all of the action scenes more interesting would have been a leading man with a rakish glow. As Spock, Zachary Quinto is fine, but it’s a largely thankless part. C-3PO had more chances to act, and it’s hard to picture little girls craving news on who Quinto’s dating. As for Kirk, he’s played by Chris Pine. Who? He’s not just an unknown. He’s an unknown unknown. Casting a big-budget movie that largely depends on the charisma of a guy who isn’t one of the top 1,000 actors in Hollywood was a gamble that seemingly indicates Abrams wanted no name to upstage his on the marquee, and he got his wish. Chris Pine wants to be Tom Cruise but he isn’t even Mark Hamill. The special effects save him to a degree, but Pine doesn’t hold your attention. He’s handsome in such an unremarkable way as to suggest he should be playing the second-oldest brother in a prime-time soap about a large family. Many an actor who never quite made it on the big screen — Charlie Sheen, say — has ten times the devilish charm of Chris Pine.

Pine is symptomatic of the essence of J.J. Abrams: He has a TV soul. He casts TV-ish actors. The staging of his thrill sequences is fine for the small screen but light years shy of real masters like Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, or Paul Greengrass. And he loves TV writers, workaday scribes like this script’s authors  — Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Lost). They are not, to put it politely, overly-burdened with talent. They got started on stuff like Xena: Warrior Princess and to a degree they’re still there. So when they attempt wit, all that comes out is camp. Meeting Uhura, a linguist, Kirk says, “You’ve got a talented tongue.” The writers’ idea of a snappy comeback is “Tell me something I don’t know.”  Their notion of characterization is to throw the word “logical” into every line Spock delivers and they actually include the lines “I’d like to kick some Romulan ass!” and “Are you out of your Vulcan mind?”

Trekkies emerging from the theater were heard murmuring things like, “It’s great that it was kinda campy, just like the show.” That’s making a virtue out of necessity. If Abrams and his writers knew how to create something as fiercely non-campy as The Dark Knight, don’t you think they would?

Star Trek

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Eric Bana

2.5 stars/ 4

127 minutes/Rated PG-13