Truth be told, we weren't so sure that the world needed another addition to the whole Star Trek enterprise. (Yes, Trekkies, we know: Sacrilege!) There are far too many spinoffs and spinoffs of spinoffs in the pantheon of summer blockbuster hits. So been there, so done that.
Transformers 2. Really?
But this latest entree, rather than trotting out something tried and trite, is a testosterone-fueled, adrenaline-pumping, time-traveling romp of a prequel, filled with the requisite exploding spaceships, a viciously venal villain, snarky sci-fi jokes and a sexy green lady who can't keep her clothes on.
Which is to say: Star Trek is a hoot.
It's not really doing anything new, cinematically speaking. But Star Trek, directed by J.J. Abrams, is really, really well done, and somehow, it manages to feel fresh, shedding new light on characters that have occupied a prominent place in pop culture for 42 years.
This is no small accomplishment. After all, we're in the season of sense and sensation, of flash-pots and CGI pyrotechnics, of savvy superheroes, ear-thumping soundtracks and paroxysms of carefully calibrated violence. Box offices are saying “ca-ching,” as fans flood the multiplex in search of a little, or a lot, of mind-numbing escapism. If they're lucky, they'll be served something smart with their popcorn. (Think Iron Man.) If not, well, then, filmgoers can always console themselves with the pretty tricks in all those Transformers-type flicks.
With Star Trek, moviegoers get lucky. Very lucky. Fans of the series will revel in the inside jokes and the tales of how their favorite characters came into being. Meanwhile, there's enough plot, character development and all-out-fun to keep even the newest of newbies engaged.
Things get cranking right away with a little primer in how Capt. James Tiberius Kirk came to be: The senior Capt. Kirk is struggling to fight off alien forces, while his wife is giving birth in an emergency shuttle that's just been ejected from their ill-fated spaceship. The infant Kirk enters the world just as his father is exiting it.
Fast-forward a decade or so, to find a very young Kirk speeding through the cornfields of Iowa in a really antique (circa late 20th century) sports car. He can barely see over the steering wheel, and some adult at home is squawking at him through the speaker over the car phone thingamajig, telling him that if he doesn't bring the car home, right now, without a single scratch on it, he's going to be in very, very big trouble. Suffice it to say, the car ends up with more than a scratch—a lot more than a scratch. And trouble is found in the guise of a flying Robo-cop.
Kirk, played with cocky charisma by Chris Pine, grows up to be an angry young man carting around a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder. (Daddy issues for days.) After he comes out on the losing end of a bar fight with a passel of Starfleet cadets, Capt. Pike (Bruce Greenwood) invites him to join the Starfleet Academy, observing, "You're the [only] genius level repeat offender in the Midwest." In short time, he's rubbing shoulders with Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho) and Scotty (Simon Pegg). Until Nero, an evil and bitter Romulun (an unrecognizable Eric Bana) from the future decides to wreak all kinds of havoc on the present, one federation planet at a time.
The original series, created by Gene Roddenberry and starring William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols and Leonard Nimoy, provided cutting-edge social commentary and explored big themes: racism, war, sexism, identity. (And let's not forget that it was the place of the first black-white on-screen TV kiss, between Uhura and Kirk.)
This version upholds that tradition, examining the role of revenge and cheating. (In this case, Kirk reprograms the famed Kobayashi Maru test, where Starfleet cadets try to figure out how to win in a no-win situation. Trekkies, of course, already know this, from the 1982 Star Trek blockbuster, The Wrath of Khan.) But ultimately, this incarnation focuses on the inner workings of Kirk and Spock, young, bright and talented boys trying to figure out what it means to be a man. In short, it's about growing up and doing the right thing.
Kirk, of course, is all testosterone and bluster, charming his way into the bed of the green-skinned lady (an inside joke from Trek lore that Kirk was a bit of a dog), when the one he'd really like to get with is Lt. Uhura (Saldana), the brainy and beautiful linguist. The fact that Uhura is hooked up with Spock doesn't help.
Spock, on the other hand, played by the wonderfully creepy Zachary Quinto (Heroes), is far from the Zen-ified figure of the TV show and franchise flicks. Here, he's a mixed kid struggling with identity issues in a Vulcan world, and later, once he joins the Starfleet Academy, he's a mixed kid struggling with identity issues in a human world. He's a bit prickly, OK, a lot prickly, smugly self-important and a general pain in the ass. Even though he's half-Vulcan, he hasn't quite learned how to get a grip on those pesky, all-too-human emotions, much to the chagrin of his full-blooded Vulcan dad.
There are cameos along the way, from Tyler Perry as a Starfleet academic, to Winona Ryder as Spock's mother to Leonard Nimoy as the back-to-the-future version of Spock. And there are plenty of dazzling special effects, from a sea anemone-like spaceship, to spectacular explosions, jazzy slow-mo and snazzy space creatures. It's a gorgeously imagined world: the hologram classrooms on Vulcan, the West Point meets The Matrix vibe of the Starfleet Academy, the blindingly white, Arctic world that the future Spock inhabits.
But ultimately, Star Trek works because it relies on classic storytelling, of the external and internal odyssey into adulthood. Notwithstanding the beauteously feisty presence of Lt. Uhura—and Saldana acquits herself admirably here—this is, at heart, a love story between Kirk and Spock: They meet cute, clash on cue, and ultimately, become the bestest of friends, sailing off into the sunset together.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.