Let’s begin with 5 simple words: this is not Star Trek.
It really is that simple. The new movie has several shades and flavors of the original series, and of course the hallmark characters, but – as pre-release media has made clear – J.J. Abrams has not so much “rebooted” the franchise (the popular term), as created something new with samples of the original spliced into the backbeat. That works great in (some) music; how does it do for one of the most revered sci-fi franchises in Western history?
The answer is, if you’re not fussed about strict adherence to the original, not that badly. Face up, 2009’s new Star Trek is a summer action movie first and foremost. The slower (and sometimes plodding) plots and pacing of prior movies are almost completely gone; this is a roller-coaster ride nearly from start to finish. In ST’s defense, it’s actually a pretty good thrillride. Even in this day and age of expensive home-theater setups, this is a film you’ll benefit from seeing in a theater. Abrams shoots and directs some great action sequences, and the SPFX on display are very modern and impressive. The film’s opening sequence, a space battle, does a great job of setting the pace for the film. If you enjoy that scene, you’ll probably be mostly good for the rest.
The problem, or at least issue, is that niggling “mostly.” It’s common knowledge that with ST, Abrams was setting out to bridge the gap between everyday movie-lovers and dedicated Trek fans, or at least translate the old-school source material into something far more widely palatable. On a purely visceral level, there’s no denying Trek ’09 will succeed in that regard; the action is approximately at the level of something like Transformers, and more than enough to keep viewers enthralled. However, classic Trek – as well as the better new iterations – has another, brainier (nerdier?) side as well, and even a casual sci-fi fan might not be able to avoid thinking that element got left on a cutting-room floor somewhere. Older Trek had its own brand of pseudoscience and associated weirdness, and new Trek taps that same well – no room for a knock there, even the original series was far too inconsistent with its science to be halcyonized for it. However, characters in the old series and even the movies often had to think, and the viewer was usually thinking along with them. There’s not too much of that going on here. Worse, some of the action seems to come at the expense of even threadbare sci-fi respectability (i.e. consistency and common sense in the fiction). Too, though I don’t want to totally spoil it, one particular sequence has a plot-central character being totally upstaged by… well… a version of himself who is both earlier and later. People who have seen the film or enough of the previews know what I mean.
You might be thinking at this point that Star Trek ’09 is bad. Absolutely incorrect. It’s fun, often funny (though a few of the jokes fall flat) and plenty of film-fueled adrenaline in a snazzy package. Some of the main bridge-crew members of the original cast actually get (what at least feels like) more screen time and emphasis than we’ve seen in prior versions of Trek, and more than enough to flesh them out nicely as characters we’d like to see again. Uhura and Sulu are probably the best examples, as (quite unfortunately) Scotty and Chekov seem sometimes to be more comic elements than developed roles. (There’s plenty of precedent for slapstick humor in older Trek – remember Scotty knocking himself out on the conduit in Voyage Home – but there was always character development along with it.) While some of the new character iterations, particularly Kirk, are fairly untrue to their antecedents, the acting is consistently enjoyable and in some cases a remarkable tribute to those who went before. I’m talking most specifically about Karl Urban, who at times almost seems to be channeling DeForest Kelley from beyond the grave. If you’re a fan of the old-school Bones, you’re either going to absolutely love this new portrayal or really hate it. In any case, the cast and filmmakers did a great job of bringing their characters to like. The plot and timeline in Trek ’09 skips around so rapidly that at some times you may not follow it all – but you will care about the people in it. While many of the film’s sequences and events feel somewhat derivative of similar things we’ve seen in big-name franchises past, it’s all well-packaged. Sometimes imitation, in addition to being the best form of flattery, can give you something decent by itself.
Star Trek ’09, then, is a nitpicker’s torture chamber, but it will probably be a huge box-office earner, and for casual movie fans it’s sure to be a hit. This new take on the classic franchise may actually generate quite a bit of new interest in the original material – but in all truth, it really is different enough that those who like the former may be rather bored with the latter. If Gene Roddenberry’s classic SF mainstay is one of the underpinning truths of your personality – in other words, if you really are one of the Star Trek geek elite – you should probably stay far, far away from this new version (though let’s be honest, not that you will). If you’re interested in something much more mainstream with plenty of quality screenwork and effects, go see the new Star Trek. (Though you might want to wait until after opening weekend!)