Not very boldly going where many a Hollywood franchise has gone before, Alias and Lost creator J.J. Abrams’ already overpraised Star Trek “reboot” makes over Gene Roddenberry’s well-worn space opera with buffer flesh and younger faces — considerably younger than William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were when they first donned their Starfleet uniforms. Beyond that, Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman risk Trekker censure by making haste with the destruction of two iconic Federation planets, and by providing a time-traveling double for a certain pointy-eared Enterprise crew member. But fret not: There’s a giant black hole in space to conveniently allow this new Trek mythology to peacefully coexist with the one accrued by the franchise’s previous incarnations — a concept about as novel as the “dream” season of Dallas that ended with Bobby Ewing in the shower.
Still, this airbrushed Trek origin story — Starfleet, 90210, if you will — begins promisingly enough, by irresistibly parting the curtain on the adolescent lives of Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), here conceived as a bar-fighting, motorcycle-riding hellraiser; and the solemn, logic-minded Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto). It’s only once the movie’s warp engines are engaged that it starts to lose steam, as the newly minted Enterprise responds to a planetary distress call and finds itself in the grip of a genocidal Romulan warlord hellbent on destroying — what else? — Earth. Like one of the Trek franchise’s most enduring villains, the genetically enhanced conqueror Khan, Eric Bana’s Capt. Nero comes bearing a decades-old grudge, though unlike Ricardo Montalban’s flamboyantly psychotic star turn, Bana’s curiously muted performance fades from memory even while it’s on screen; the 1990s Next Generation television series offered more compelling baddies than this on an almost weekly basis.
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The bar has been raised significantly for this sort of movie by Christoper Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but even by the standards of its own predecessors, this Trek feels like it was made by a committee of logic-minded Vulcans (or franchise-protective studio executives) rather than a filmmaker with the singular personality of Nicholas Meyer, whose three Trek films as writer (and two as director) remain the series’ best and brightest by a mile. Abrams still hasn’t really figured out how to direct for the cinema screen — as in his Mission: Impossible III, he relies too much on close-ups and TV-style cutting, punctuated by a scattering of impressive (if not particularly exciting) action set pieces. The visual effects are predictably excellent — sometimes, in the case of a three-man free fall through space, unexpectedly lyrical — but most of the movie’s dramatic conflicts feel strictly pro forma, from Spock’s Vulcan/human identity crisis to his grafted-on romance with Uhura (Zoë Saldana), and there’s so much talk about people’s dead parents that you start to wonder if Dave Eggers did an uncredited rewrite.Nor is the movie helped much by the radically different acting styles of the principal players, from Pine and Quinto’s relative naturalism to the broad comic mimicry of Karl Urban (as the hypochondriachal doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy), Anton Yelchin (as the English-challenged navigator Pavel Chekov) and Shaun of the Dead’s Simon Pegg (as the redoubtable engineer Montgomery Scott). As a longtime (albeit casual) Trek fan, I’m willing to give Abrams and company the benefit of the doubt — the popular 1980s Trek film series got off to a similarly rocky start, and whether you count this as the first or the 11th big-screen Trek, it’s one of the famously troubled odd-numbered entries. My advice to the filmmakers: When you return for the inevitable sequel, don’t worry so much about placating the fanboys and instead set your word processors to stun. (Citywide)