Some movies are critic-proof, of course, and director J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot is a classic case in point. Reviewers might as well save their breath if they don’t happen to believe it lives up to its hype. Abrams is a god to the current generation of sci-fi fans, and nothing critics say is going to have the slightest impact on his faithful.
At the risk of talking just to hear myself speak, then, permit me to suggest that this 11th full-length feature based on the beloved television series (not so beloved at the time; it was canceled in its third season) is a serviceable exercise in wham-bam photon-blasting action but not a whole lot more. Some other filmmaker could have made pretty much the same motion picture with Vin Diesel and a bunch of competent genre regulars, and the result would have been lucky to crack the top 10 at the weekend box office — much less draw rave reviews as the entertainment event of the season.
Put aside for a moment the viewer’s nostalgic affection for the central characters. What, after all, do we have here but yet another special-effects fest about an evil alien (Eric Bana) in a crazy-looking spaceship going around blowing up planets, and a cool-looking ship full of good guys trying to save the world? Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman can scarcely be said to have boldly gone where no screenwriters have gone before.
But, over the run of six TV series and nearly a dozen big-screen adaptations in 43 years, the core characters of Star Trek have become part of our DNA. Whether you’re 14 or 84, you know these fictional men and women. You’ve shared adventures, mysteries and laughs with them. It’s likely that, on some level, to some degree, you care about them.
And Abrams has bet everything on that transgenerational connection. I say that because — apart from the engaging but hardly groundbreaking battle sequences — there isn’t much to this movie beyond the introduction of the people who will be playing these iconic figures for the next several years.
The one twist here is that we reconnect with the familiar characters at an earlier point in their lives than we’ve witnessed previously. We first encounter James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), for example, as an 11-year-old Iowa hellraiser joyriding in a stolen car. Cut to a geeky Spock (Zachary Quinto) getting bullied by his Vulcan classmates for being half human. It’s a neat trick that has caused more than one critic to praise the director as “bold” and “brilliant,” yet I’m not sure it adds a great deal to either the canon or the film.
Especially given the fact that, only minutes later, everybody’s grown up, graduated from the Starfleet Academy and at their posts aboard the newly completed Enterprise on their way to face off against Bana’s time-traveling Captain Nero. He has a very large spacecraft, lots of tattoos and a bone to pick with Spock for something the pointy-eared cadet won’t even have done for years to come.
Abrams’ relaunch does tweak the backstory in places, but ultimately these additions don’t change much of anything. Kirk and Spock, for instance, don’t hit it off right away, but they bond in due time with a little help from future Spock. That’s Leonard Nimoy himself, who lends a touch of class and gravitas to what occasionally resembles a high school production, given the cast’s median age. Next to Nimoy’s, Quinto’s voice sounds as though it hasn’t changed yet, and I’m not sure the new Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) even shave.
So is this first mission a success? From a financial standpoint, duh. In terms of establishing the existence of a market for a retooled Star Trek, certainly. Is it exceptional cinema? No. It’s a popcorn movie with a pedigree. The Enterprise will need a full tank of dilithium crystals the next time it takes off, because it has a long way to go to live up to the best of the franchise’s long and prosperous legacy.