When in doubt, just start the fuck over. It worked for Batman, it worked for Bond; why not give it a go?
I'll say right up front that I don't particularly consider myself a Star Trek fan, though I've nevertheless managed to see scads of it. An oft-campy and cheap but fun '60s TV show about flower-power ideals triumphant, Trek eventually spawned one genuinely good film (Wrath of Khan) as well as nine others ranging from decent to laughable, along with four spinoff series which devolved into mindlessly repetitive cases of deus ex machina of the week and ultimately gave us stories about how going really, really fast will turn you into a salamander, and Vulcan chicks taking space crack. If ever a franchise needed rethinking, it was this lumbering dinosaur, and thus the newest entry decided to go right back to before the start of the original series and tell the origin story, throwing in dozens of tidbits for the longtime fan to smile or smirk at while not really bothering to fit into the established continuity on almost as many fronts. By the end, we realize that this was deliberate.
Despite the quite numerous call-backs to the Trek stories of days past, this film feels nearly nothing like Star Trek, almost startlingly so. In terms of tone and style, it's very hard to reconcile the film with the familiar Trek of years past. Then again, much of old Trek wasn't all that good, so in many ways it's a welcome shake-up. This film could as easily been called James Kirk: Space Cadet. It's fun in a way that older Trek never even tried to be. It takes the cloying reserve and austerity with which the series had long since cloaked itself and chucks it to the wind. To a large degree, one gets the sense that newest director JJ Abrams realized, much like fellow Trek alum Nicholas Meyer had with Star Trek VI, that the show had become so embedded in the popular culture that it had turned into a bit of a joke at its own expense. There's no inherent reason why a man with a Scottish accent talking about "giving the engines all he's got" should actually be funny, and yet there it was, receiving both laughs and applause from movie-goers. I can't recall ever hearing quite so much laughter during a Star Trek film, with the possible exception of Star Trek V, which was for completely different reasons. It doesn't come off as true comedy, but it aggressively refuses to take itself seriously or adopt a worshipful attitude towards its origins. It is, unlike the last four films in the series, actually fun to watch.
One could almost, in gratitude for absolutely ditching the rampant technobabble and "traveling diplomacy lounge" modality of the latter-day Trek offerings, fail to notice the film's very real shortcomings, and the biggest of these is this: the film has essentially no ideas of any kind. If the presentation is new and fresh, the actual plot, about a generic madman who pops out of a time vortex and moves to destroy Earth at such a time that only the Enterprise can possibly stop it, is basically Trek-by-numbers. While the script does spend more time with the supporting cast (Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov) it doesn't tell us anything new about them beyond what the new cast brings in terms of a different acting style. Early on, crazed renegade Romulan Nero defends a despicable act by calling it an attempt to "prevent genocide." Beyond this brief assertion, there seems to be no other evidence that this claim has any validity. Nero is, unfortunately, a rather dull, cardboard character. Kirk, Spock, and the all-too-briefly-appearing Christopher Pike are fortunately not. Still, while it might be argued by some that a character with truly no emotions is a boring one to write or play, I can't help but lament the continual watering-down of Mr. Spock, who began as a committed rationalist with no envy or curiosity about "what it means to be human"-he knew, and was unimpressed-and has gradually morphed into a namby-pamby New Age elf who spouts homilies about faith. There's plenty of those about; the old character was more unusual, and by virtue more interesting.
Still, as the launching point for a new set of adventures, which is undeniably the purpose here, this film is a more enjoyable start than Star Trek has been able to give us since its premiere episode. The action, which is more central in focus than in any previous film in the series, is actually visceral and exciting; the days of that excruciatingly tepid battle with the Borg in First Contact are agreeably a thing of the past. With the set-up now out of the way, perhaps the next entry will make a serious foray into some real character interaction that doesn't depend upon riffing off of the viewer's expectations. Until then, we have Kirk disputing the notion of time travel with the succict argument of "Bullshit." In a way, that's good enough.
-review by Matt Murray