Forget script doctor. J.J. Abrams apparently wants to be a franchise doctor.
Script doctors are called in to resuscitate moribund screenplays. Abrams, the brain behind such television sensations as “Felicity,” “Alias” and “Lost,” has tried to perform the same sort of surgery on two entire franchises, first with Mission: Impossible III and now with Star Trek, the eleventh installment in the science-fiction series. Don’t be surprised if Star Trek leads to a whole new run of movies.
It’s not that Star Trek is that stunning – though on the grading scale used for these consistently bad movies, it gets fairly high marks. (Read my capsule reviews of all 10 films here.) Star Trek “works,” rather, because producer-director Abrams is an astute, calculating handler of complicated pop properties. The new movie is respectful of the franchise without succumbing to its glaring weaknesses. At the same time, it’s inclusive enough for new audiences without pandering to contemporary sensibilities. It may not be a perfect film, but it’s the perfect franchise product.
To its credit, Star Trek does something that very few previous installments have managed: It expands this imagined universe so that you feel like you’re actually out there, in outer space. With cops on hovercycles, unnerving aliens and squealing space monsters, the series has finally left the beloved bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Most Star Trek movies felt like a board meeting on that bridge. This feels like an adventure.
“Energize!” the characters say before beaming from place to place, and Abrams has essentially energized the series (even the warp speed is, well, warpier). Those Trekkies who bemoan the lack of cerebral content here should go back to the earlier films and realize that their turgid philosophizing rarely rises above the level of a middle-school ethics class. Creator Gene Roddenberry always envisioned Star Trek as an intellectual enterprise, but too often the franchise mistook dullness for intelligence.
With its time-tripping, generation-spanning plot, Star Trek doesn’t have room for philosophical speeches. It barely even has time for its superfluous villain, a renegade Romulan played by Eric Bana.
The movie is a prequel, essentially, in which we follow famed Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner before, Chris Pine here) from his youth as a reckless kid in Iowa through his training with the Federation and on to his first voyage aboard the Enterprise. It’s all here: how Kirk meets Spock (Zachary Quinto), his eventual right-hand Vulcan, as well as the rest of the Enterprise crew.
The casting choices are distracting at first – we get Harold (John Cho) as Sulu, but no Kumar – yet they’re effective overall. The only member who doesn’t fit seamlessly into the new milieu is Karl Urban, who as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy does a spot-on impression of the over-the-top histrionics of DeForest Kelley. Urban takes you out of the movie in each of his scenes, yet there’s something entertaining about watching the action lunk (Pathfinder, Doom) show his comic side.
The movie mostly rests on the work of Pine and Quinto – Kirk and Spock were always the yin and the yang of the series. Of course Shatner, with his lounge-lizard swagger, undermined every scene he was in, which means Pine’s task was both daunting and easy. He’s being asked to play an iconic character, yet he couldn’t possibly be worse than the actor who created the part. Pine’s approach is a simple, serviceable one: he keeps Kirk’s cockiness but loses the sleaziness.
As for Quinto, he makes Spock – whose emotional, human half is constantly at odds with his logical, Vulcan side – far more conflicted than Leonard Nimoy ever did, something that’s emphasized when Nimoy shows up midway through the film. (I told you time travel was involved, right?)
The movie, tellingly, begins to bog down with Nimoy’s appearance. It works for the plot, yet has the whiff of 1994’s Star Trek: Generations, in which the original cast awkwardly handed the series off to Patrick Stewart and his crew. By the time this new movie wanders toward its end and Spock has one too many conversations with, well, Spock, Star Trek is in full franchise-nurturing mode.
Which means Abrams has done his job – coolly, carefully, without any major missteps. He’s laid the foundation for 10 more Star Trek movies. Fans will be thrilled, though not nearly as much as Paramount Pictures shareholders.