'Star Trek' prequel is a fresh frontier

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 8, 2009
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This is an edited version of a review that appeared in Tuesday's editions.

About two-thirds of the way into the ridiculously satisfying new "Star Trek" movie, there comes a brief shot of the crew on the bridge of the Federation Starship Enterprise. The film has been picking up familiar names as it goes, but you suddenly realize with a jolt that everyone, at last, is here: young, hopeful versions of Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and pilot Sulu (John Cho), Bones (Karl Urban) and Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Simon Pegg).

It's a throwaway image, yet you feel the final pieces of the puzzle snap into place with a witty and intensely fond reverence. I just about wept with joy, and I'm not even a Trekkie.

Neither, apparently, is director J.J. Abrams, and that may have made the difference. "Star Trek" - a.k.a. "Star Trek XI," a.k.a. "Star Trek the Franchise Reboot" - approaches the late Gene Roddenberry's original science fiction world not on bended knee but with fresh eyes, a spring in its step, and the understanding that we know these people better than they know themselves. Indeed, much of the vast pleasure of this movie comes from characters suddenly discovering things about each other that we learned watching TV four decades ago. There are flaws to pick at in terms of story line and other matters, but that can wait until the glow has faded. In the pop high it delivers, this is the greatest prequel ever made.

"Star Trek" isn't all fun and games. The universe has to be saved (again), and Spock has to undergo a personality crisis severe even by the standards of his half-human/half-Vulcan nature. A renegade Romulan named Captain Nero (played by Eric Bana with facial tattoos and a taste for waterboarding) has dropped in from decades into the future, and he's very, very angry about something the older Spock has done, or will do. Nero's first order of business is to attack a starship, in the process killing Kirk's father (Chris Hemsworth) just as Mother Kirk (Jennifer Morrison) is giving birth to our hero in an escape shuttle.

Conceptually, this is a genius move: It establishes the entire movie as an alternate, parallel "Star Trek" universe in which Abrams and his screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman can do as they wish, fanboys and the canon be damned. Kirk can grow up a rebellious hothead, only learning about his father through the paternal Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Kirk and Spock can meet not on the bridge of the Enterprise but as clashing cadets in training school. ("Who was that pointy-eared bastard?" Kirk mutters.) Spock can even have a simmering relationship with Uhura that occasionally involves long, steamy kisses. Heresy!

The editing, cinematography, and special effects work are state-of-the-art, as you'd expect - extra praise goes to an astonishingly detailed sound mix - but so are the same aspects of "Wolverine," and that film's a joyless bore by comparison. What lifts the Abrams film into the ether is the rightness of its casting and playing, from Saldana's Uhura, finally a major character after all these years, to Urban's McCoy, to Simon Pegg's grandly comic Scotty, the movie's most radical reimagining of a "Star Trek" regular.

That said, the appearance of Winona Ryder as Spock's human mother comes as a jolt, and in no known universe can I imagine Tyler Perry as a Federation elder. (Abrams is a fan, I guess.) Still, the movie's center holds. And when Pine sits down in the captain's chair with the exact macho sprawl William Shatner employed in the original series, you almost want to applaud.

The movie's not perfect. The final battle feels awfully "Star Wars" - later "Star Wars" - as does Scotty's sidekick, an Ewok knockoff in a lousy mask. Character, not plotting, is the film's strong suit, yet plotting takes over in the final half-hour. Still, "Star Trek" functions as a family reunion that extends across decades, entertainment mediums, even blurring the line between audience and show. Trading on affections sustained over 40 years of popular culture, "Star Trek" does what a franchise reboot rarely does. It reminds us why we loved these characters in the first place.

STAR TREK Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Eric Bana, Leonard Nimoy

At: Boston Common, Fenway, Jordan's IMAX, suburbs

Running time: 126 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (sci-fi action and violence, brief sexual content)