J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot has given the franchise a sleek and stylish new gloss, writes Hugh Lilly
J. J. Abrams, best known as the creator of the television series Lost and Alias, has managed to resuscitate an ailing franchise, creating the year’s biggest blockbuster in Star Trek. The sheer vastness of the Trek universe can be intimidating—since 1966 there have been ten distinct television series spanning 716 episodes, and, since 1979, eleven feature films—but Abrams manages to disinhibit himself of those limitations by starting entirely anew, telling the story of the crew of the United Space Ship Enterprise from its inaugural flight. Working with a clean slate—evidenced by the lack of a subtitle—Abrams has rejuvenated the long-running series with an exhilarating film that positively glistens with talent, explosive action and a buoyant storyline.
2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, the most recent film spun from the web of Gene Roddenberry’s cold war-era “outer-space Western,” was met mostly with negative reviews and a poor box-office take. The last feature film to feature the characters from The Next Generation TV series, Nemesis felt stale—as if the whole franchise had passed its use-by date. Writing in the Portland Oregonian, critic Marc Mohan said: “Even though it doesn’t feel like an appropriate send-off, the lethargy of Star Trek: Nemesis is probably indication enough that the series should end here.” Interesting, then, that someone like Abrams should be so haphazardly awarded the reins to the longest-running science-fiction series in cinema history (at over 22 days, the Trek canon’s nearest rival is Doctor Who, which clocks in at more than 15 days). Abrams’ only previous feature credits are the nausea-inducing monster flick Cloverfield and the largely stultifying MI:III. He was also partially responsible for inflicting the Michael Bay film Armageddon upon the world, which served largely to show us that Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler really didn’t “wanna miss a thing”. In sum, Abrams knows the vernacular of action movies—he knows how to write to the genre’s specifications and, as evidenced by his latest film, he definitely knows how to direct it, assembling, as he has, the perfect cast and crew.
Star Trek reboots and re-invigorates the franchise by re-casting every role—William Shatner was reputedly irked by not being included—re-locating the events (to Earth, partially) and beginning the story from the top. It could quite legitimately be called Star Trek: Origins, although that would bring with it unwanted associations—think “Wolverine.” Here, Chris Pine—known mostly for his role in the tween-oriented Lindsay Lohan schlock-fest Just My Luck—replaces the jittery Shatner in the role of James Tiberius Kirk, as he grows from a rebellious young Iowan into the confident and cocky captain of the Starship Enterprise.
Zachary Quinto (TV’s Heroes) truly steals the show as Spock, starting out a dorky, awkward teenage Vulcan on a planet full of dorky, awkward-looking semi-aliens. Casting John “Harold & Kumar” Cho as Captain Sulu and Simon “Shaun of the Dead” Pegg as Scotty were strokes of genius, but other decisions—like putting New Zealander Karl Urban in the role of Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy and having the young and inexperienced Anton Yelchin try his best Russian accent as Chekov—leave much to be desired. Yelchin’s accent comes off phony and unintentionally hilarious, and Urban acts about as well as a piece of unvarnished two-by-four. The balletic Zoe Saldana steps into the limelight as the cunning linguist Uhura—yes, both Spock and Kirk tap that—and the always-striking Wynona Ryder plays Spock’s human mother. Rounding out the main cast is the commanding Eric Bana as Romulan villain Nero.
Spock and Kirk go tête-à-tête at Starfleet Academy, where Kirk has manages to manipulate a training simulation created by Spock. Meanwhile, Romulan ships from the future—herein the film’s brilliantly-executed, thrilling time-travel element—are within range of Earth, and Nero prepares to exact revenge for something Spock’s ancestors did. There are travels to a suspiciously Hoth-like ice planet, and it’s all action from there on out-action which doesn’t let up ’til the familiar blare of the main theme as the ship jumps to warp speed and the now famous dictum is uttered, albeit updated somewhat for our new, gender-nonspecific, millennium: “Space: the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission? To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Thankfully, there are plenty of laughs to be found throughout Star Trek, breaking up the seemingly relentless action sequences, and there’s also a captivating melodramatic sub-plot which delivers drama to the crew of the Enterprise. Gone are the muted tones and industrialized recessed wall-touch computers of Voyager—in this writer’s opinion, still the best Trek on TV—and the almost other-worldliness of TNG; the superb art direction and set design reënvision the deck of the Enterprise as light, open and spacious. Composer Michael Giacchino, an Abrams regular, has written a subtly-employed score that matches the new style perfectly while at the same time paying due homage to Jerry Goldsmith’s magnificent and sizeable past contributions.
What’s most appealing, though, about the new film is its accessibility: unlike other recent films in certain science fiction series, this can be watched with absolutely no previous knowledge of the Trek universe. You don’t need to be a costume-wearing, convention-attending, comic-book addicted Trekkie to enjoy it—although, obviously, there are advantages to such nerdiness, like inside jokes and appearances by the likes of Leonard Nimoy. Still, this Star Trek can be watched and enjoyed even if you’ve never seen the original series, have no idea what a Tribble is, or why Spock has pointy ears and a weird, mildly Ringo-esque mop top.
The ordinarily cryptic Abrams—guest editor of this month’s puzzle-filled issue of WIRED—has managed to boil the gargantuan Trek universe down to its bare essentials, and the result is a simple, marvellously entertaining space adventure which clears the way for a whole new set of voyages in the not-too-distant future.
Star Trek opens Thursday May 7th.