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When a strange vessel appears out of nowhere, a young officer named Kirk takes command of his ship and gives his life to save his wife and his infant son. Twenty-five years later, James T. Kirk has to decide if he's up to following in his father's footsteps, but events in space are already unfolding that may take the decision away from him, and only the crew of the Enterprise can do anything about it.
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Star Trek has needed this kind of face lift for years. The camera's are shaky, the highlights are blown-out, the characters listen to something besides classical music or jazz. But it goes deeper than that. It's not safe anymore, at least not for the time being, and that's a good thing.
For most of the past two decades, the franchise has been in the hands of people with very specific feelings about it, and very firm limits on what it should and shouldn't do. And in the process, they've steadily dug it into a hole that only the hardest of hard core fans were really willing to follow it down. Pretty much the only way out is to bring in a seasoned professional from outside, someone with no particular attachment to the franchise, who can analyze its strengths and weaknesses and point the franchise in a new direction. It's served Star Trek well in the past and that's more or less what we've gotten here.
Director J.J. Abrams ("Mission: Impossible III," "Alias") is certainly a practiced, professional storyteller with a strong understanding of tone, pace and drama, even if real inspiration seems a bit beyond him. He's willing and able to approach "Star Trek" as just a story, bringing with him style and craftsmanship the franchise hasn't seen in quite a while, along with a healthy dose of melodrama, but that's okay. It's not like Star Trek is exactly unfamiliar with melodrama.
Thus you get moments like "Star Trek's" generally fantastic opening, as the USS Kelvin responds to a strange vessel suddenly appearing from out of nowhere and attacking with weapons they can't defend against. In a desperate last stand, Lieutenant George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) heroically pilots his ship to its doom to buy time for his wife (Jennifer Morrison) to get away, spending his last moments listening to his wife give birth to the son he will never see, one James T. Kirk (Chris Pine).
It's the kind of almost ludicrous, near operatic melodrama that Abrams as a storyteller has always loved, and that sort of thing fits "Star Trek" very well indeed. On the other hand, a lot of Abrams style tricks, which have served him well on television—especially the shows with major soap opera elements like "Felicity" and "Alias"—can be grating on the big screen. He's a manipulator of emotion, it's his chief story-telling attribute and the element that all of his scenes revolve around. How will this scene make the audience feel? It can be compelling and engrossing, and a lot of "Star Trek" has that strength. Unfortunately, done without an accompanying amount of thought, with a care only for making that moment work at that moment, it can become unavoidably silly if not stupid once a little distance is had. "Star Trek" has some of that weakness as well, particularly in its second half.
His, and his screenwriter's, Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci ("Transformers"), biggest problems usually center on characterization. They seem to have a small number of choices about characters inevitably troubled pasts that they seem to draw from… somewhere, and slap on as back-story. That sort of thing is built in with Spock (Zachary Quinto) but that wasn't enough I guess so they've applied it Kirk as well. Thus he's introduced to us as a surly child, dealing with a father he never knew and stepfather who doesn't really like him, all giving him a tremendous chip on his shoulder. Naturally, for these types of young male oriented, summer films, an older man (Bruce Greenwood) who 'sees' something in his bar-fight starting ways and tries to sell him on doing something with his life rather than just live an every day one, which as every young male knows (and has been reinforced by television and film) is the worst fate that can befall anyone.
Luckily, the first half of the film moves along at such a sturdy clip that Abrams worst instincts can't find a place and his best take over. The uninspiredness that brings down so much of his in-depth character work is nowhere to be found when he just has moments to fill in between large set pieces, and those moments are the ones that really sing. Kirk's introduction to Doctor McCoy (Karl Urban), his interactions with an annoyed Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and her very green roommate, Spock's decision to join Starfleet and McCoy's attempts to sneak Kirk onto the Enterprise—these as much as the big action moments are the reason to see "Star Trek." They're witty and clever in that unrealistic Hollywood way, and yet all recognizably human.
It helps tremendously that the film has been exceedingly well cast, from cameos like Winona Ryder and Ben Cross as Spock's parents to the main cast themselves, all young and somewhat non-recognizable, so they sink effortlessly into their parts. It can be a minefield, taking on a long lived character that is also singularly tied to one actor, trying to make them recognizable as the characters they are without doing an impression. Doing Kirk, without doing Shatner. Generally, they all pull it off, though it helps that they've both been cast to type and—more importantly—Abrams and his writers have allowed them to change and be different from their original incarnations, giving the actors room to move around in. They're certainly familiar, but also undoubtedly different.
As is the world of the film, which is the point of the film both as a reboot for the franchise and of the film's story itself. No sooner does Kirk decide to join Starfleet than we jet forward a few years as Spock's home planet, Vulcan, comes under attack by the mysterious Nero (Eric Bana), the same man responsible for Kirk's fathers death so many years before. These sort of incredible coincidences fill "Star Trek" (and much of Abrams other work) but the first half moves by so quick you hardly notice them. Captain Pike and his inexperienced crew hurry to rescue the planet, engaging in what is probably "Star Trek's" single finest action beat as Kirk and Sulu (John Cho) dive through the planet's atmosphere to take on the villains one-on-one while Spock races to save the Vulcan high council. The skill and craft on display is fantastic and Star Trek has needed it for a very long time. More importantly, Abrams and his crew hold nothing but the story itself sacred and will do whatever it takes to keep the melodrama melo. It is all quite excellent.
That said there is certainly a lot of fan love in the film, maybe a little too much for non-fans. It is intrinsically tied, on several levels, to all of Star Trek that has come before. Each of the characters gets a nice little introduction, including a moment when the camera swings up right in their face so they can announce their names. Moments from the mythology are expanded on, like showing Kirk actually taking the Kobuyashi Maru test, and how Dr. McCoy got his nickname (I always figured it short for Sawbones, but what do I know). Some of it is shoe horned in and some isn't, but a lot if it come across as a little stagy—a bit look at me, look at me—instead of maintaining the illusion that its all actually happening. In real life when stuff happens it just sort of… happens.
But maybe they can't help themselves, and maybe considering how much has been changed, a few moments for the fans isn't really a bad idea. It's usually a good idea to dance with the ones what brung you. Or maybe they're somewhat cynically trying to have their cake and eat it, too.
And there is a vague whiff of cynicism surrounding "Star Trek." Yes, it's trying to be fresh and new, but it's doing that by resurrecting the original characters and design and situations from 40 years ago and generally turning the nostalgia to eleven. Yes they've decided to finally aim the franchise at someone other than the long time fans, but the group they've picked is the same one every other franchise aims at—teenage and twenty-something males—and they're gunning for them using the same tricks every other franchise uses. There's a lot going on in "Star Trek" that is very familiar; it's just not normally associated with Star Trek. The business reasons why these decisions are made are certainly quite rational and understandable, but there's also not much less cynical than decisions based on business reasons, either.
It's more noticeable in the last act, which I unfortunately can't say much about, except that it is both slower and weaker than first two-thirds of the film. Emotion driven character beats are even more emotion driven (with less thought behind them), incredible coincidences are more incredible (Kirk ends up accidentally running into exactly the right cave he needs to be in) and the climax never really matches the intensity of earlier moments. It probably doesn't help that the break neck nature of the first half or so forces almost all of the films exposition to be shoe horned into the last 30 some odd minutes, which is usually death to pacing.
Still, it's the kind of shake up the franchise has needed for a long time if it was going to survive. Scott Chambliss and Michael Kaplan's set and costume design has reinvigorated the look of the universe (except maybe the engine room, which kind of looks like a factory), still recognizable and yet new and modern. Which is pretty much what the entire film was shooting for, and for the most part they hit it. Michael Giacchino's score is unfortunately forgettable, but ILM's visual effect work is as good as anything they've done. They whet the appetite for a full scale pitched space battle rather than the brief flashes we do get, but that's what sequels are for. And finally real, honest to god aliens.
It's not the best Star Trek film ever made, but it's keeping good company. Abrams' personal story-telling problems hold it back just enough, especially in the last act, but it's still immensely entertaining. Abrams has always been a much more self-confessed Star Wars fan than Star Trek, and he brings a lot of that sensibility to the film, which may turn off some long time fans. But the franchise has desperately needed something new for a long, long time, and Abrams "Star Trek" certainly fits the bill.