James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) enters the world just moments before his father George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth), a newly minted Starfleet captain, dies heroically, guaranteeing that baby Kirk, his mother Winona (Jennifer Morrison) and the harried crew of his attacked ship are able to escape death at the hands of the Romulan Nero (Eric Bana). You see, the senior Kirk was a man of honor, but we all know that James T. Kirk is the stuff of legends.
And that is precisely what J.J. Abrams aims to give us — the legendary back-story of one of Starfleet’s great leaders. Of course, the truly great leaders achieve that status thanks to the support of top-notch subordinates. Where would Kirk be without Spock, Chekov, Sulu, Uhura, Scotty and Doc “Bones” McCoy?
This prequel races right to the heart of that question, defining each and every one of these loveable characters in deft strokes. Spock (Zachary Quinto), the half human, half Vulcan child, becomes a willful and logical perfectionist — ever-conflicted but always seeking the truth. Bones (Karl Urban) is just a doctor, dammit, and he’s constantly letting us know it as only he can.
There’s not an engineer alive who can do what Scotty (Simon Pegg) does, beaming bodies in motion from one place to the next. Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) never commanded our attention the way some of the others did, but they still earned our love for their steadfast calm in the endlessly tumultuous seas of conflict that always sought to overtake the ship. And Uhura (Zoe Saldana), well, she always seemingly had a thing for somebody on the crew, but we couldn’t quite figure out the object of her affections until now (did anyone ever catch her first name?).
Nero has a huge grunge against Starfleet Federation and has cooked up a plan to destroy all Federation ships, while also exacting a more personal revenge on one specific figure in Starfleet history, which pits the new cadets and the first generation of the Starship Enterprise against a foe who has remade their history without even knowing it (or having any real concern for the impact of his actions on the space-time continuum). But the crew evolves into the characters they were always meant to be, which requires a degree of boldness unlikely to be matched this summer.
Each member of this new edition finds the perfect way into his or her iconic character and is able to make them their own. For example, Pine never attempts to ape William Shatner’s hammy mannerisms. He zeroes in on the fearlessness (and lustiness) of Kirk and takes quite a beating along the way, as Kirk always did. Urban, on the other hand, steps into the shoes of DeForest Kelley, capturing each and every manic inflection in a fabulous performance that’s completely unexpected in a movie like this and from an actor not known for such tricky and distinctive work.
The real gem, though, is Quinto’s Spock because for all the attention given to Kirk’s backstory, this installment truly belongs to Spock. His dilemma, as the ultimate bi-racial child of two worlds, is the closest the story gets to being topical, and Quinto breathes new life into the character by embracing what Leonard Nimoy brought to the character while also staking his own claim of ownership as the ongoing adventures with this new cast will certainly beam on into a bold and uncharted future.
One of the more difficult challenges laid down by series creator Gene Roddenberry in the initial conception of the show was his quite obvious desire to make the crew fit a post-Civil Rights utopian ideal. At the time, it was important to have blacks and whites, Asians and Russians, humans and aliens working together towards a common goal (although it goes without saying that the real leader was always the white dude).
The surprising thing with the update is how, while each character gets his or her brief individual spotlight moment, you never feel as if it is in the service of checking off a diversity box. There’s no contemporary angle demanding commentary, which means that the story doesn’t get bogged down in preachiness or its own good intentions. Abrams jettisons the extra baggage and hits warp speed much more quickly.
And boy does he ever. This is not your parents’ (or grandparents’) version of Star Trek. This first Abrams installment has added testosterone without the steroid rage that might come from a dependence on CGI for its own bulk-creating sake. Everything new is quite comfortably old, but the punch will happily rock your world. In the hands of Abrams and the new crew, Star Trek will definitely live long and continue to prosper. Grade: A
Opens May 7. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.