One of the latest television commercials for J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek featured a critic’s quote to the effect of “This year’s Iron Man!,” a claim that actually underplays how great of a time Trek is, how well it welcomes newcomers while giving longtime Trekkers plenty to love. Iron Man, basking in the undeniable-cool of Robert Downey, Jr., had all the potential in the world to not alienate those who didn’t grow up with the superhero’s comic books; Star Trek, on the other hand, with its mostly B-list cast and polarizing source material, could’ve left crossover audiences in a solar dustball.
Totally not the case. Not being a Trek head myself, how would I know that the film so successfully pledges allegiance to the franchise’s loyal minion? By the enthusiastic applause and feminine squeals elicited from the souls of the middle-aged fanguys crowding the AMC this afternoon. The truly impressive part: I was right there with them joy-wise, wrapped up in every Enterprise missile battle, James Tiberius Kirk one-liner, and inexpressive emotion delivered so effectively by Zachary Quinto (Heroes) as half-Vulcan/half-human Spock.
Star Trek is a fast, loose, smart two-hour spectactle that washes over your senses while you’re in its presence, and then, unless you’re an uber-fan wearing a “Live Long and Prosper” t-shirt, leaves your memory bank without damaging anything. Breakneck fun, popcorn goodness. The plot involves an evil Romulan named Nero (played by an unrecognizable Eric Bana) who is out for revenge against Spock, who, decades later in the future, will inadvertently cause the destruction of the Romulan’s homeland. Nero and his space-thugs are sent time-traveling through a black hole, first to do battle against the Starfleet’s (Star Trek‘s version of the military) ships under the brief command of Captain George Kirk and then again 20-some-odd years later as Kirk’s son, Jim (given tons of charming snark by Smokin’ Aces co-star Chris Pine, surely bound to explode thanks to his work here), is a Starfleet cadet alongside a same-aged Spock and several other hotshot students on the U.S.S. Enterprise vessel.
If that’s all a bit cloudy, it’s most likely because you’re entering this film’s lexicon with little or no Star Trek mythology knowledge (or, I just explained the film terribly, either or). Which is fine, because Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (also the scribes behind Transformers) keep the franchise’s narrative complexities at bay here, sprinkling the movie with tons of Easter eggs references and homages while ultimately reeling in Trek virgins with sheer visual pleasantry. The pace is snappy, the dialogue witty and lighthearted. The performances click on all cylinders from a cast of quite-likeable familiar faces (Harold & Kumar’s John Cho, Shaun of the Dead‘s Simon Pegg, Alpha Dog’s Anton Yelchin, Tyler Perry randomly). Even the potentially-confusing time travel plot device is far more tangible than expected.
And then there’s the special effects, where Abrams and his behind-the-camera team excel. Each exterior spaceship shot looks unlike a video game, a stroke of CGI wizardry that thankfully comes only a week after the sketchy effects seen in the even-sketchier X-Men Origins: Wolverine. One minor moment, in particular, feels bone-crunchingly real—-in an effort to save his family back on Vulcan as Nero is sending the land into a black hole of evaporation, Spock “beams” (Trek‘s means of body transportation from one location to another, the original Jumper trick decades before that shitty movie) back to Vulcan and corrals his parents, but as they’re fleeing from a cave, we see a large pillar-statue falls to the floor on top of a running Vulcan man, and the impact is brutal. Blink and you’ll miss it, but, if you catch it, the impact pummels.
Star Trek isn’t without it’s flaws, though. Pegg is totally underused as “Scotty,” unfortunately stricken with marginally-humorous comic relief lines for the few scenes he does have, and the Nero character doesn’t register enough on the “intimidating nemesis” scale. Nero isn’t given much to do other than look aggravated and snarl fiery commands to his generic Romulan henchmen. He’s a serviceable foe that operates more as a plot-mover than an actual living, breathing opposition that the audience fears. Orci and Kurtzman’s script handles the U.S.S. Enterprise’s crew so well, though, that the ho-hum nature of their enemies isn’t a lasting party foul.
With Star Trek, the summer movie season has officially kicked into motion. That Wolverine flick made bagloads of money last weekend, sure, but the film itself isn’t one that’ll be praised for months, if not years, to come; Abrams’ Star Trek most certainly is. It’s made a believer out of yours truly….hell, I’m intrigued enough now to toss the entire Trek filmography into the Netflix and play catch-up. Millions of so-called “nerds” should now feel vindicated, the bullies and cool kids who once slapped them around both apologizing and requesting to borrow their former punching-bags’ DVDs and VHS dubs.
Thanks to Abrams and company, we’re all nerds this summer. Without shame.