"Star Trek" the franchise is 43 years old. If it was experiencing a midlife crisis for the past seven quiet years after Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) it has now emerged with a flashy new vehicle and facelift to restore an impression of vigorous youth. The flashy new vehicle in question is driven by JJ Abrams, the television wunderkind behind Lost, and the youthful sheen comes from new actors all of whom, save John Cho (as Lieutenant Sulu), are younger than the actors who originated the same characters were in 1966.
Since Star Trek is so long in the tooth, we bring a lot of personal history into the theater with us. For my part, I grew up with it in heavy rotation. My entire family and several of my friends loved it. I did not. Unless the Lieutenants, Uhura and Sulu, were prominently featured in an episode I despaired that I couldn't watch something else. Maybe it's hard for anyone under, hmmm 28 (?), to contemplate but it's true: in the 70s and for most of the 80s there were not 100s of channels, DVRs, plentiful home computers, internet television ... there really wasn't a way to not watch what everyone else wanted to watch. Unless you went without TV... GOD FORBID! So I grew up resenting Star Trek and I bailed as soon as I could. I've only seen a few episodes of Next Generation, never seen an episode of Voyager or Deep Space Nine. My knowledge of ends 'round about the mid to late 80s... and if the new film makes any reference to movies Star TrekVI-X, I wouldn't know. I can only assume it does. One could even title the new movie Star Trek XI: Deep Space Punchine because it's very interested in poking fun at its own history.
Which is not to say that Star Trek (2009) is an winking self parody. It finds the right balance between action, drama and comedy. Since we didn't need another Star Trek movie, we should be very grateful that this one isn't heavy with portent. So many gazillion dollar spectacles are. It has fun with the concept of this particular universe rebooting, quite literally at that, given the time warp plotting.
The rebooting happens by way of a prologue in which the evil Romulan Nero (an unrecognizable Eric Bana) emerges in the past (our future) from the future (even more futurey!) and kills Captain Tiberius Kirk, Kirk's father. Nero seems miffed at which Stardate he's returned to and we find out a little later that he was a bit earlier than expected. Sound confusing? That's time travel for you! See he wasn't out to kill Kirk's father (like some Terminator on a Sarah Connor mission) but to wreak elaborate revenge on Admiral Spock (Zachary Quinto). This murderous kickoff is dramatic, action packed and if it's a touch over the top (Kirk Jr's birth has to be shoehorned in to up the dramatic ante) it's still an effective opener.
Cut to: Key shorthand bits from Spock and Kirk's childhoods (a bit extraneous given our familiarity with the characters) and then we're on to several scenes which reintroduce us to the half dozen characters we presumably know and love detailing how they came to know each other and join Starfleet. This is a lot for a movie to juggle before it's even approached it's major plot conflict but Abrams and his screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman keep the pacing zippy and the introductions wisely spaced out and interwoven with the larger narrative of Kirk and Spock's journey towards the bridge of the Enterprise.
For instance, Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is slipped into our first true chance to study Chris Pine's Kirk but we don't get Scotty (Simon Pegg) for a good long while. There are too many origin stories in genre fare (as if audiences hate using their imagination for back story) but this time it doesn't feel like a burden, partially because it's broadly sketched but also because the actors are encouraged to have fun with these familiar and, let's face it, limited personae. Star Trek is often clever and though some jokes are obvious or purely nostalgia based ("Dammit Jim I'm a doctor not a..."), the movie doesn't stop to admire any of this fancy storytelling footwork. It's too busy leaping and running through the scenes.
The production design is also wisely calibrated. This world is light and airy, immediately setting it apart from all the heavy handed and darkly hued genre fare we've been seeing for several years. It's shiny and modern enough to feel jangly and fresh but bright and colorful enough to feel a bit retro. Again, they've achieved a crucial balance.
But back to the storytelling. By the time the Enterprise crew is in pursuit and then direct combat with Nero the movie has clearly formed its identity as an action film first, a nostalgic dramedy second. The pacing in the second half is a bit more questionable with two action sequences (an alien monster chase and a comic piece with an endangered Scotty) that could have been discarded without a single effect to the narrative -- which probably means they should have been. The one "break" from the action, the entrance of old Spock (Leonard Nimoy), is that rare "exposition" scene that doesn't overstay its welcome and also fuses the action plot with the character journey in a particularly pleasing way. More action films should make sure these two elements work in tandem.
There are a few hints that they were really read to rethink the franchise -- I loved the early (red herring) suggestion that the USS Enterprise would have a different heirarchy of power -- but the movie mostly works as revival rather than as a reimagining. I'm not sure how much staying power the new Star Trek installment will have (though it will definitely power future installments making the question moot) but it's a breezy and entertaining two hour blockbuster. And remember, I don't even really like "Star Trek." Buy lots of popcorn. B+