After 8 years of films based on "The Next Generation," the STAR TREK
film franchise returns to the original television series not seen on the big screen since 1991. Rebooting the franchise and characters, J.J. Abrams' STAR TREK
seeks to expand the franchise to new audiences while bringing along existing fans. This required being at once faithful to the source material while carving out a new identity and destiny for familiar characters. No small task, so the difficult makes the overall success of the film that much more impressive.
The plot itself actually lifts heavily from the basic framework and themes of the best Star Trek film, THE WRATH OF KHAN
Star Fleet receives a distress signal from another planet, and the Enterprise with a new, young crew are the only ship able to set out to investigate. They arrive to discover a villain from another point in time has returned for revenge over the loss of his world and wife (the blame for which he places squarely upon a single main character), and he has an ultimate weapon (stolen from the Federation) that destroys planets in minutes. The main character blamed by the villain is marooned on a planet in order to cause him suffering and heartbreak (to "go on hurting him"). A main character is kidnapped, and a small alien "bug" is inserted into his head to control him and gain information. Throughout, the "no-win scenario" and Kirk's cheating at the Kobayashi Maru test are a prominent theme, Spock risks his life to save the Enterprise, Spock is confronted by another Vulcan about "lying" to trick someone into a course of action but Spock argues he merely exaggerated, and there are several other moments and themes with strong similarities to THE WRATH OF KHAN as well.
However, this rather long list of comparisons does not actually hurt the film at all, surprisingly, because it pretty much never feels derivative (aside from the insertion of the mind-controlling alien bug, which was a bit too obviously lifted). It is a testament to the strengths of the film that it is not dragged down by such things, nor by some rather glaring plot-holes that in a lesser film would've caused me to walk out midway through the film. So well directed, well paced, well acted, overall well written, and just outright exciting and fun is the film, that the criticisms sound pretty strong except that they fall away as ultimately beside the point when compared to the entire product.
The plot, beyond the basics described above in comparisons to THE WRATH OF KHAN is this: after his father's killed by a strange Romulan ship appearing out of a rift in space, James T. Kirk grows up seeking a chance to live up to his father's legacy. When the Romulan ship reappears decades later to attack the planet Vulcan, Kirk sneaks aboard the Starship Enterprise (commanded by Captain Pike) along with crewmembers Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov on a rescue mission to assist the Vulcans.
The Romulan ship is of unexpected origins, its commander out for revenge for a tragedy that has actually yet to occur. Using and "ultimate weapon" stolen from the Federation, the Romulan commander threatens not only Vulcan but the planet Earth and the entire Federation with destruction. When Captain Pike is taken prisoner, Kirk must figure out a way to take command of the Enterprise and save not only Earth but the very future itself.
We see Kirk's father sacrifice his own life to save his wife and the newborn James T. Kirk. We watch Kirk grow up as a reckless youth, while Spock attempts to fit into Vulcan society despite suspicions and resentment over his half-human origins. We witness Kirk's introduction to Star Fleet, and we see all of the main characters slowly circling one another until their destinies finally collide.
When that happens, however, it is both familiar and unexpected, because much of what "you thought you knew" has changed and changed for a specific reason, which is one of the things to appreciate here. The story seeks to explain why this reboot will not follow all of the expected paths for the characters, because something happens that changes their lives and their relationships. So be prepared Kirk and Spock have a much different relationship that you will expect, as will some of the other characters. I've seen the story criticized for these changes, primarily because of the method used to introduce them. However, I found it an effect and acceptable means of setting up a familiar world full of familiar characters in a brand new way that can diverge from expectations with cause, avoiding claims that it's not "faithful". In light of the frequent use or overuse of the same plot device in repeated episodes and films in the franchise's history, it seems to me a bit odd to call the use of the device a "contrivance" in this film.
What we get is a group of new young actors who embrace these characters and do a great job of laying their own claim to them. Quinto in particular is simply fantastic, and whoever thought to cast him as Spock should get a hefty bonus. His Spock is completely faithful to the original character, while also completely his own take and distinguishable from Nimoy's characterization. It takes a necessary self-assurance and commitment to a role to be willing to explore it from a new angle like this and not give in to temptation to lift heavily from the previous iconic characterization.
Likewise, Pike's portrayal of Kirk does a great job of demonstrating his slow shift from the initial self-destructive, cynical young man to a characterization that finally ends up very close to the early days of the original series. We see the hints of his inner humor, his strong certainty in himself, and as the film progresses and he opens up to the other characters while increasingly admitting (through actions, not words, which makes it even better) that his previous cynicism was a mask hiding a desire to believe in the world, the future, and himself. The progression of the character is interesting to watch, and by the middle of the film I was already starting to recognize the emergence of the Captain Kirk I know.
One other particular standout I want to mention was unexpected, which is why it stood out to me Cho's portrayal of Sulu. I was only familiar with his work in the HAROLD AND KUMAR films, so I wasn't expecting his role to be more than a small background one, and I definitely wasn't expecting him to display much in the way of subtlety. However, not only does he get more screen-time than I expected (including a terrific fight sequence that had "Sulu with a sword", a phrase fans of the series will immediately recognize), he has a few moments where he injects actual flashes of nice emotion and body language into what could have (and likely were meant to be) just small throw-away moments (his error when trying to fly the Enterprise out of dry-dock is a small thing, but his embarrassment and simultaneous attempt to maintain pride and dignity were all displayed in a flash of expressions and two lines, all within just a few seconds).
The sets are remarkable. My previous concerns that the Enterprise would resemble and Apple Store, and that the female uniforms would be campy in maintaining the "cocktail waitress" appearance from the original series, were swept aside and I fell in love with the design and look of this film. I can't rave enough about the costumes here I found myself smiling repeatedly at little things like the belts with phasers (yes, they are like pistols again!), the multiple colors for shirts, the pants flaring where they tuck into the boots. Faithful and updated, it was a feast for the eyes.
The use of sound effects from the original show from the phasers to the transporter were also nice touches. And the Enterprise... this is the first film in which the shape and design of the ship gives it a more updated, "realistic" appearance but is closer to the original design as well. The bridge and other interiors are more drastically altered, but the design is so original and beautiful to look at, and wrapped in such a familiar overall faithful look, that these alterations were exactly the sort that were needed. It demonstrates a very careful, thoughtful, and incredibly dead-on assessment of what to keep and what to change, and the right ways to do both.
The special effects are just spectacular to behold, among the best of any modern sci-fi I've seen. The shots in orbit around Earth look like secret NASA footage, so realistic is the appearance of Earth and the horizon. Space battles are big and spectacular (when they happen, which I'll get to momentarily). There's just so much here to love looking at, and not really anything negative to say.
The film moves fast when it needs to, slows down at just the right moments, and is so exciting and fun that it was impossible for me not to love it, and to overlook the problems that do indeed exist in the film. Those problems are with plot elements, and they are pretty significant plot elements. So they should've been enough to sink the film, or at least to drop it from an A+ to a B or B-, but they didn't. Why? Because they exist within a final product that is so good at what it does, so successful in being entertaining and of such high quality overall, that it became possible to give it so much suspension of disbelief that even extremely unscientific and admittedly ridiculous plot-holes in a Star Trek film (where such things tend to be verboten) don't reduce my A+ rating for the film.
So what are the problems? Well, the nature of the "space-rift" (I won't say what it actually is) through which the Romulans travel is, to the say the least, outrageously absurd and a scientific impossibility, not to mention that it's portrayed in absolutely internally inconsistent and dramatically contradictory ways in different parts of the film. At one point in the climax of the film, the nature of this "space-rift" and how it is used (and most importantly, WHERE) is jaw-dropping implausible and problematic (let's just say that our Solar System would certainly never be the same again).
The third really big problem is that the entire evil plot by the villain, and his plan to use his "ultimate weapon", relies first on the process of hovering over planets and using a huge laser-like drilling device that hangs from the Romulan ship all the way down into the atmosphere of the planet (that's thousands of miles, by the way). Why is this a problem? Because, as the film actually demonstrates at one point early on, a guy with a rifle can just shoot the big hanging drill and stop the Romulan plot. Thus it is incredibly unbelievable that the Romulans even come close to ever achieving their goals, at any point in the film, since it would be simple to render their plot impossible.
Other minor problems also exist, such as the fact that there's really no big climactic space battle and there should be, in light of the nature of the final climactic scene. But the Romulan plot threatening Earth and the Federation actually just fizzles out, and we don't even get a big battle in the end. The Enterprise in fact is relegated to hiding behind a moon until the bad guys fly past and then ambushing them in a pretty lackluster, extremely short scene. This is just one of several criticisms I have after-the-fact.
But it's indeed after the fact. Because I want to stress that these problems are many, they are often quite significant to the plot, but they just can never sustain themselves as "problems" because the film keeps pulling you in and making you smile.
I'm sure there will be fans who don't like the lack of more cerebral elements (not that the film is dumb, it simply lacks the more philosophical meditations of the "Next Generation" films, and instead fully embraces the space-western nature of the original series amid good characters), while other fans bemoan (or express some outrage) over certain pretty major changes to the world of Star Trek again, though, these alterations do in fact have a "reason" beyond the fact that this is a reboot. But I suspect that most fans of the show especially fans of the original series will fall in love with this film. And I am quite certain that mainstream audiences in general will embrace the film and the subsequent franchise that is sure to follow.
This is just great filmmaking, the summer blockbuster that really delivers and will probably get a lot of repeat business because it's tempting to walk right back into the theater and watch it all again. Great fun, made by people who clearly loved what they were doing and made so many right decisions exactly where it counted most, that anything they got wrong just falls by the wayside under the flood of enthusiasm and enjoyment. I give this film a BIG thumbs-up, an A+ grade, and it is the film to beat for the summer.