J.J. Abrams second attempt at rebooting a Paramount franchise is vastly superior to the shallow, overly kinetic Mission: Impossible III (2006), which failed primarily because it wasn't true to the nature of the original TV series and first film: a team of colourful characters who support each other in a major adventure.
Star Trek isn't about espionage, but Abrams smartly let the writers (and perhaps himself) develop a script that put characters in the forefront, evidenced in the film’s opening scene which immediately gives hotshot, cocksure James T. Kirk a powerful backstory: he's the son of a hero, and yet as a teen and young adult, he feels like a misunderstood orphan who's also been allowed to run wild far too long.
When Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) challenges him to use his energies and acuity for the good of the Federation, Kirk accepts, and so begins an almost perfect balance of retrovism, reverence, and comic book fun.
The coincidences that bring together all the core Enterprise members – Dr. Bones McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Pavel Chekov, Lieutenant Sulu (Harold and Kumar's John Cho), an Scotty (the inimitable Simon Pegg) – are too neat but appropriately cheeky, much in the way the original series sometimes let TV viewers share in the way the characters teased and winked at each other, if not the viewers themselves, but the humour is affectionate, and the actors are extremely careful in not sending up their beloved counterparts. Once in a while Bones or Scotty quote classic lines from their sixties TV incarnations, but that's part of the fun in watching the way eager and sometimes abrasives recruits and mid-level officers slowly move from irritable competitors to genuine friends and colleagues.
The most important characters are Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Heroes' Zachary Quinto), and both are given solid intros that cover their awkward childhoods, and the scars that made them ideal for the high pressure world of planet hopping and maintaining inter-stellar peace and harmony.
Pine occasionally gives a sentence a light Shatnerian delivery, but it doesn't render a scene into a flat cartoon or negative satire. The more amusing TV series references are extremely subtle, except maybe for fans and the steady viewers who, at the very least, watched the sixties show over and over again during their childhoods during its endless life in syndication.
Examples include Sulu confessing his only real combat skill is fencing (which ultimately serve him very well); new recruit Kirk bedding a green female alien (P2's Rachel Nichols), echoing a chameleon character who entices the TV incarnation of Captain Pike; and a red shirt crewman who joins Kirk and Sulu on a demolition mission we know he'll never live to see complete (since all red shirts on the TV series were the first to die of whatever danger lurked on an alien planet. If in doubt of this, one need only watch the series, or check out Sam Rockwell’s painfully funny whine in Galaxy Quest).
The look and sound of the film also strikes a fine balance between the iconic space ships and the uniforms of the show, as well as technical designs more realistic for 2009 audiences – something that didn’t work out as well in the first theatrical film. Michael Giacchino's score is officially based around a short heroic theme, but his music often emphasizes characters – a quality that served him well in the animated The Incredibles, as well as the Abrams-produced show Lost.
Giacchino's use of a mournful, slow-burning tragic theme for the opening sequence covering (quite literally) Kirk’s birth is as devastating as his tragic Lost theme; it's old fashioned with heavy strings, but it provides a beautiful contrast to the fast edits and metal carnage that separate Kirk's father from his wife and son.
The film editing is still overly kinetic, but Abrams may have learned in his second directorial effort the importance of letting audiences see actors in montages that don't blur their screen locations and create visual mush.
There's also moments designed to elicit pure nostalgia among fans; while nothing will ever top Kirk and Scotty''s tour of the retrofitted Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1978), with Jerry Goldsmith's exquisite music, Abrams allows for moments where the Enterprise is seen in elegant wide shots, in front of planetary shapes, or diving into battle. She’s a beautiful ship, and deserves to have her own screen moment like the humanoids.
Gene Roddenberry's visual concepts for the space crafts were spot on in capturing a bit of seafaring, adventurism, and excitement, and certainly one thing Abrams and his effects team do well is show the Enterprise in motion from various angles, which breaks the sometimes staid style the early films, as well as the TV series with its far more limited effects budget.
Also incorporated into the nostalgia are vintage sound effects that have been discretely augmented for modern ears, but remain recognizable for fans wanting to hear those classic sensors waves, transporter beam whirs, or photon torpedo blasts.
The gradual convergence of core crew remains the films' most comic book aspect, but this new reboot certainly sets up the actors for the next feature film. One only hopes the same care will be allotted into developing the next script.
A near-perfect reboot for fans deserving a solid theatrical entry.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan