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The Next Generation

J.J. Abrams restarts Star Trek, with mostly thrilling results.

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There are moments in the furious new Star Trek iteration in which the young actors who play Kirk, Spock, Bones, and the rest resemble Baby Looney Toons doing old shtick in disconcertingly high voices. Yet there are other, transcendent moments—time-benders. Suddenly, I found myself back in the days when I (and you?) enacted Star Trek in the basement: “Phasers on stun.” “Mr. Scott, we need that warp drive.” “I’m a doctor, not an escalator!” If you care about this universe (and I do, damn it), you won’t sit passively through J.J. Abrams’s restart Trek. You’ll marvel at the smarts and wince at the senselessness. You’ll nitpick it to death and thrill to it anyway.

Because, in the end, what choice is there? The first generation of Trekkers is elderly or gone to that most final of frontiers, the next generation is up in years, and the most memorable thing about the generation after that was the Borg with big breasts whose distaste for sex clubs helped elect Barack Obama. Either we accept this “reboot” or watch The Wrath of Khan for the thirty-eighth time. And Abrams and his writers (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) have come up with a way to make you dig the souped-up new scenery while pining for the familiar—a good thing. When Kirk gets bumped from the captain’s chair and trades insults with Spock, it’s funny and surprising and wrong wrong wrong. Which is the point. We’re rooting for Abrams to be less original—to give us back our Kirk and Spock.

The gimmick is a black hole, one of those handy time-travel-enabling anomalies with which we sci-fi fans have a love-hate relationship. A spiky black behemoth from the future hurtles through said hole carrying a vengeful Romulan driller-killer called Nero (Eric Bana)—whereupon, presto, history is altered. In this alternate-universe, James T. Kirk’s father is dead, and Kirk (Chris Pine) grows up a daredevil ne’er-do-well. He doesn’t want to go to Starfleet Academy and abide by pesky rules until he’s shamed by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood)—the captain in the series’ first, failed pilot, now reborn as the authority figure who tells Kirk, “If you’re half the man your father was …” Pike defines Starfleet as a “peacekeeping and humanitarian armada”—four of the weightiest words ever spoken in a sci-fi picture. The original Trek gave us mixed-race, sexually active Cold Warriors (it was the Marshall Plan in space, with Klingons standing in for Soviets); the next generation was mostly Clintonesque policy wonks and technocrats (plus an unhappy post-Soviet/Klingon). What political assumptions prop up the newest armada?

Hard to say, since the focus is more on mismatched buddies: Young rule-breaker Kirk and young by-the-book Spock loathe each other on sight and spend much of the film as antagonists. We’re always on Kirk’s side, though. Behind those impudent baby blues, young Pine mugs like mad, but there’s wit in the way he seizes the space: He seems to be both channeling and poking fun at William Shatner’s mighty ego. He leads with his appetites. On the other hand, Zachary Quinto plays the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock as the kind of know-it-all even geeks want to slam into a locker. The problem might be as basic as Quinto’s physiognomy. Where Leonard Nimoy adopted a semi-scrutable (vaguely Eastern) mask, Quinto’s features settle into a sneer. Nimoy’s Spock would tell his colleagues, “I have no feelings to hurt,” and we knew it was a lie because Nimoy’s impassivity was so pregnant. But Quinto’s face telegraphs disdain. He’s Kirk’s competitor—which might be more realistic but which utterly changes the Star Trek dynamic. Kirk is no longer the virile leader trying to find a balance between coolly dispassionate logic (Spock) and urgent humanist emotion (Dr. McCoy). He’s hardly even a plausible leader. (How does he end up in the captain’s chair?) The doggone kids really have seized the Enterprise.

In fairness, it’s too soon to tell where the revamped Star Trek will go, since a lot of this first installment is foreplay: Get ’em grown up (out of Iowa, off Vulcan), get ’em out of school (bring on the final exam—the Kobayashi Maru!), get ’em onboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, and bring on the bad guy and space battles. The fights and photon-torpedoings are rousingly done, and since the self-inflating Shatner famously had scripts rewritten to make the other crew members ciphers, there’s room for actors to bring new stuff to the party. Is she (Zoe Saldana) Uhura? Yowza. Hey, look at that—Starfleet women in boots and miniskirts again! What’s Harold doing on the Enterprise without Kumar? Oh, he’s Sulu! Way to go, John Cho! Is the new Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) actually Russian? That seems odd, somehow. Why does the disheveled hipster McCoy (Karl Urban) talk like Owen Wilson, and would you want him treating your wounds? Is that Winona Ryder as Spock’s mom—with, like, three lines? Who’s this “Olsen” guy parachuting down to disarm the villain’s super-weapon with Kirk and Sulu? Oh, that’s right, he’s the guy who’s going to immediately get killed. (“Olsen is gone, sir.”) Where’s Scotty?

Scotty (the crackerjack comic actor Simon Pegg, of Shaun of the Dead) shows up an hour into the film, some time after Leonard Nimoy delivers the screen’s first exposition-via-mind-meld. That clarifies Nero’s motives, which turn out to be awfully thin. (It’s weird how Star Trek villains think nothing of blowing up planets to avenge their wives.) Nimoy, meanwhile, looks very old and happier than he has in years: He has finally decided he is Spock, and not even Zachary Quinto can deny him. So it’s in with the old and the new, and let’s give this crew another voyage.

IN BRIEF: Gael García Bernal reteams with Diego Luna from Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También in Cuarón’s brother Carlos’s Rudo y Cursi, an insipid but bearable parable of soccer-playing brothers turned rivals done in by their own celebrity. The morality play would be easier to take if the soccer were better … It’s unfair to call Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control the emptiest movie ever made, but I wrote that in my notebook as I struggled to stay awake. Even more ponderous than his first film, Permanent Vacation, the film follows robotic Isaach de Bankolé on some kind of diamond-smuggling mission through Spain not reacting to eccentrics Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Bernal, and oft-naked Paz de la Huerta. Finally, Bill Murray shows up as a Dick Cheney type and Bankolé turns out to be a supernatural avenger. I look forward to reading the rave reviews—I love science fiction.

Star Trek
Directed by J. J. Abrams.
Paramount Pictures. PG-13.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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