Ten years ago, a little show called Alias opened to little fanfare here in UK. A clear throwback to Mission Impossible, it was about a university student who was also a spy and it mixed soap-opera storylines with heists, costume changes and gadgetry. This wasn’t the show that made creator JJ Abrams the new coolest genre director around – that show was Lost – but Alias was always closer to his heart.
Now, as Lost enters its sixth season and with a clever-clever Godzilla remake under his belt (eventually called Cloverfield, but for a long time completely untitled), he’s been given the keys to one of scifi’s defining franchises: Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. From the moment the decision was announced, expectations were high. Could even Abrams make space-diplomats in pyjamas cool again? And could he make them appealing to modern, emotionally-intelligent audiences who like to see men like Jack Bauer cry?
Well, he’s certainly going to give it his best shot.
JJ Abrams likes his big-impact openings: his Mission Impossible opened with a helpless Tom Cruise tied up and watching his wife be shot point-blank in the face. Star Trek has an equally gut-wrenching opener: a woman giving birth during a space battle which ends with the baby’s father plunging on a collision course to his death.
The baby grows up to be one James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine), an arrogant, hot-headed, red-blooded youngster with excellent driving and fighting skills and no intention of throwing his life away in Starfleet the way his dad did. Meanwhile, across the galaxy, a young Spock (Heroes’ Zachary Quinto) is learning his equations and how to control his youthful anger and say “that is not logical” while raising one eyebrow. When the two meet they despise each other.
But when an attack is launched on on Spock’s home planet Vulcan by an avenging Romulan from the future (the ludicrously-named Captain Nero, easily the weakest part of the whole film), Spock and Kirk must work together. It is quickly and implausibly up to these fresh-faced cadets to save Earth – and their own futures.
As a reboot, Star Trek is clever and effective: referencing its earlier incarnations without being slavish. The early “here’s how they met” story morphs neatly into something more interesting thanks to a nice “all bets are off” plot-twist. Classic tropes are riffed on: there’s a great moment with a man in a red suit. There’s a good reason for phasers that can be set to stun. There’s an inertial damper. Klingons are mentioned but don’t get a look-in: the aliens are mostly people with pointy ears and painted faces with no need for translators.
The cast have a lot of fun imitating their predecessors. Pine is a great leading man after, at first glance, not really looking the part; and Quinto is an excellent choice for Spock, doing the same emotional detachment thing that he does as Sylar – calm, rational, but with a worrying undercurrent of dangerous psychosis.
The support is less successful: Simon Pegg does a Scottish accent but he’s still definitely Simon Pegg, wandering about on the bridge of the Enterprise looking utterly gleeful at being there. “Bones” McCoy tries for DeForest Kelley’s grumpy loveability and wonky-eyed stare but ends up as the worst kind of ham. And Uhura (Zoe Saldana), the cast’s only significant woman, is woefully underused: despite being estabilished early on and speaking all three dialects of Romulan she’s eventually relegated to “weeping woman” status a la Apollo 13 by the film’s finale. (Good thing, then, that all the Romulans speak English.)
Star Trek is big, it’s loud, and it never hangs about. It’s got spaceships, monsters, lots of punch-ups, a sword fight and free-fall without a parachute. It’s also a J J Abrams film, which means its got a mysterious levitating red ball (like the one in Alias), and a boy can pick up a girl in a bar by knowing the words “xenolinguistics” and “syntax”. The 12 certificate is fair: there’s nothing too gruesome here but some parts are scary. The main theme isn’t as good as the original, but it’ll do.
In fact, the only thing missing is a little of the original’s soul: Star Trek was about undiscovered countries, new life and new civilisations, not about stuff blowing up and saving the world. As the final credits roll we’re treated to a reprise of that classic original voice-over: “to boldly go…” and it bears strikingly little relation to the film we’ve just seen. Perhaps the old morality-tale formula has had its day – but if they’re aiming to make a sequel to this they might struggle to find a story that’s worth the telling. Here, the epilogue tries to sum up the film’s message and falls strangely flat. (A bit like Cloverfield, then; all very cool but in the end, what’s it for?)
Still, this is a far far better entry in an old franchise than any of the recent Trek films or any of Lucas’ attempts to recapture old magic. The script is intelligent, full of smart, detailed set-pieces coupled with enough deus ex machina to keep things going without a pause. It’s not afraid of doing comedy and there are several laugh-out loud moments. It has a lot of very beautiful special effects. It feels both fresh and familiar.
In short, Abrams has done something pretty cool: made a Trek with the potential to appeal to people who have never seen the series before.