When Spock (Leonard Nimoy) learns of a villainous Romulan's (Eric Bana) revenge plot to execute a young Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) via Time travel, he races to the rescue. In meeting Spock of the past (Zachary Quinto), Spock hopes to teach his younger self to save his future best friend's life. With the help of Scotty (Simon Pegg), Chekov (Antoh Yelchin), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), and Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Spock and Kirk must stop the enemy before history is dangerously altered...  

8 Apr 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 8 Apr 2009 - 12:00 AM

A franchise is reborn, at warp speed.

In Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s inspired universe, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise set out to 'boldly go where no one has gone before." If only the same could be said of director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.

Considering the franchise began on TV in 1966, spawned the first theatrical release in 1979 and nearly expired with the last edition, Star Trek: Nemesis, a worldwide flop in 2002, the creative team behind the 11th movie faced two major challenges.

The first was to virtually reinvent the franchise to reach out to audiences who either tired of the intergalactic adventures of Spock, Kirk, Nimoy & Co., or who were never converts. The second was to pull that off without losing the remaining fan base of Trekkies.

For my money, Abrams and the writers succeed brilliantly in reinvigorating the concept with a fresh young cast and an intriguing and occasionally amusing narrative about how the Starship crew came together. But the prequel is less compelling or credible on several counts. Firstly, there’s very little that’s new or original in the space craft, the device of teleporting, the beasties and the pyrotechnics. Secondly, despite the best efforts of a snarling, tattooed Eric Bana, the Romulan villain Captain Nero is a caricature of evil, lacking real menace. Thirdly, after a couple of shocking mortalities in the prologue, I never felt any of the crew was in jeopardy: we know they’re all going to survive.

Avoiding spoilers, let’s just say the superbly-orchestrated opener explains what happened to James Kirk’s father and why Nero bears a grudge which, 25 years later, sees him trying to exact a terrible revenge.

We see the young Spock being victimized by other kids because he’s half human/half Vulcan. We first meet James as a boy when he’s hooning along in a car, and later when he’s a cocky, rebellious teenager who gets beaten up in a bar. The Starship Enterprise makes its maiden voyage under Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), responding to a distress signal from the planet Vulcan, which leads to the first of two encounters with Nero, major set-pieces with plenty of visual flair and explosions; however neither is what I’d call kick-ass.

At its heart, this is a story about Spock and Kirk, diametric opposites who initially distrust and hate each other before gradually forming a bond.

The casting is almost perfect, led by an outstanding Chris Pine as the conflicted Kirk, Zoë Soldana as the sexy but feisty Communications Officer Uhura, Kiwi Karl Urban as the sardonic Doctor 'Bones" McCoy, Simon Pegg as the hyper-active engineer Scotty, and John Cho as stoic helmsman Sulu. Anton Yelchin is merely OK as the teenage Russian officer Chekov, although I find his thick accent grated.

Given the most difficult assignment as the mostly cold and unemotional Spock, Zachary Quinto does a fair job in conveying the character’s inner turmoil and his affection for Uhura. The original Spock Leonard Nimoy brings a reassuring gravitas and dignity to his role as a futuristic Spock. As noted, Bana’s Nero is a weak link, but I blame that on the writing rather than any lack of acting skill.

In sum, Star Trek is a big, loud, fast-paced, spectacular and intermittently exciting sci-fi adventure. What it isn’t, in my view, is emotionally involving. Early US buzz indicates some Trek fans are hailing the latest incarnation for packing more thrills, energy and humour than anything the franchise has yielded since the 1980s. Paramount has already commissioned a follow-up.

8 Apr 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 8 Apr 2009 - 12:00 AM

A shiny but shallow overhaul of a classic.

In boldly taking the aged Star Trek franchise where it has never been before, director J.J. Abrams ends up in a place we are all too familiar with – the deep-space vacuum of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Charged with re-energising the big-screen adventures of the Star Ship Enterprise and reuniting the fractured fan base, which has been fragmented into DS9/Voyager/Next Gen camps, Abrams has chosen to give the series new life by giving the series a new life – a baby, called James Tiberius Kirk.

Born into outer-space adventure (literally – Mrs. Kirk goes into labour with lil’ Jim as they flee a Romulan attack), Kirk grows into a reckless borderline-drunk living in the shadows of Starfleet in Midwestern Iowa. Urged by father-figure and Starfleet Commander Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Kirk accepts the ill-fated nature of his life on Earth and takes to the stars, joining Starfleet recruits including Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Dr Leonard 'Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban).

An exemplary but rebellious student, Kirk (played with a jaunty, playboy glint-in-his-eye by apple-pie-American Chris Pine) is soon in conflict with the brilliant Mr. Spock (a terrific Zachary Quinto), himself outcast from a home life on planet Vulcan due to the duality of his lineage – a Vulcan father (Ben Cross) and a human mother (Winona Ryder). The two are thrown together, joining Uhura, Bones and fellow newbies Pavel Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) and Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) under Commander Pike on the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The film is starting to show the strain at this point. The father/son character-building subplots are well-handled but overstated; Pine’s Kirk gets a little too leery and insufferably cocky (he loudly chews on an apple while passing the toughest test the Academy asks of its students). Worst of all, it seems a long time since the film’s opening battle sequence and a restlessness settled in, as if the characters we’ve loved for the last 40 years were revealing themselves to be not very interesting or likable after all.

Thank goodness for the Romulan warlord Nero! Played by an unrecognisable Eric Bana with a venomous, reptilian stealth that instantly puts him in the pantheon of great Trek villains, Nero and his Romulan hordes unleash the might of their massive ship, the Narada, on Starfleet and in doing so, takes the film into that bigger, faster, flashier universe we all really came to experience. It is a superbly-designed movie, the special effects flawless and innovative, the unparalleled skill of Hollywood’s best craftsmen up on the screen in every detail. This 35-minute sequence, involving Kirk and Sulu parachuting to a drilling platform and culminating in Spock’s return to the Vulcan landscape one last time, is the film’s highlight – a pulsating, thrilling unfolding of action and the imagination.

Sadly, momentum suffers irretrievably when Kirk is sent off ship and the grand old man of Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy, is introduced. In a passage that stumbles awkwardly in pacing and exposition, there is some unnecessary Cloverfield-like monster action, we meet Scotty (Simon Pegg, playing to the back row with a loud performance almost from another film entirely) and must endure the convoluted machinations of an alternate-universe/matter-transportation subplot that is meant to conveniently explain away some illogical story threads (which it doesn’t really do).

The film veers back on track as the final conflict comes into focus, but it never fully re-engages. Character arcs are undercooked, especially Karl Urban’s McCoy, his performance worthy of more than the handful of reaction shots he is laboured with during the film’s latter stages (though he gets the biggest laugh in the film with his 'Dammit, I’m a doctor, man..." line-reading). Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is another part that promises early on much more than it delivers.

J.J. Abrams proved with Mission Impossible III that he could stage action set-pieces with aplomb and he doesn’t let the thrill-seeking audience down with Star Trek. But like the great ship The U.S.S. Enterprise, his film is very much constructed of a production line – this time, Hollywood’s. Its surface is shiny and it goes fast, but there is an over-reliance on little moments that create gasps or giggles at the expense of dialogue or character interaction that has resonance. Perhaps we should stop asking that Hollywood hits provide those deeper moments, but the old Star Trek is still loved not because of its hardware, but because of the camaraderie, the personalities and the integrity of its characters. In taking on the formation of these iconic 'people’, Abrams had a responsibility that most other action film directors never need to worry about. He succeeds in parts, maybe enough for the young, modern audiences for whom the film has been made, but old Trekkies may have some issues.

With all involved signed to three-picture deals, Paramount Pictures are confident the new crew of The Enterprise will live long and prosper. The final iconic shot of the crew suggests they are now, finally, ready to accept the adulatory mantle created by their older selves. I hope they discover the depth and maturity required of them as the series progresses, too.

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