The problem with “Star Trek” movies — as voiced by an admitted non-Trekkie — is that they feel too much like painstaking love letters to the die-hard fans and snarky reprimands to those who are not. Fans gobble up all the puns and inside jokes while even the most earnest newbies are left confused and hungry (and not in that good “hungry for more” way).
Director J.J. Abrams blows a big, flaming hole through that exclusive tradition with “Star Trek,” a clever, thrilling and fairly brilliant reinvention of an overtired and overdone series. How does he do it? Well, his approach is quite simple: Think outside the Starship Enterprise. (Yes, I did just resist the urge to make a “boldly go” reference.) And damned if he doesn’t pull it off. Abrams plays with the alternate reality concept in a way that allows the future — which includes one Leonard Nemoy as, of course, a wiser, more wistful aged Spock — to collide with present. The past makes a few appearances, too. Don’t quite follow? Go see “Star Trek” and watch this action-packed space opera work its magic.
It helps, too, that Abrams doesn’t take his movie too seriously. He makes a few major departures from “Star Trek” lore: Spock (Zachary Quinto, who delivers a beautifully subtle performance) is something of a Vulcan renegade who bristles when his teachers remark that his human emotions are a “disadvantage.” (His barbed delivery of “Live long, and prosper” is beyond priceless.) Capt. James T. Kirk, as played by the male model-handsome Chris Pine, has a nasty rebellious streak — not to mention a swaggering, James Dean-esque bravado — he can’t quite tamp down. Enter Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who persuades the boy to go where his departed father went: space. And so Spock and Kirk become fast rivals aboard a ship headed straight into the path of the vengeful Nero (the nearly unrecognizable Eric Bana), a bellicose Romulan. The characters are part of a prequel-of-sorts, which gives Abrams a chance to create an adventure moviegoers — including those who know Shatner more as the quippy Priceline.com hawkster than Capt. Kirk — can’t peel their eyes away from.
But Trekkies, fear not, for there are plenty of throwbacks, insider jokes that pay homage to the classic TV show. (Hint: When the first character meets his untimely demise, note the color of his shirt.) Dr. McCoy’s constipated, bristly humor remains intact, as does Chekov’s impenentrably accented English. The fight scenes have the carefully choreographed feel of a dance, recalling Shatner’s infamous tangle with Lizard Man. (Though, yes, at times they run a little long.) Grand pronouncements about destiny, choice, friendship and struggle abound, but under Abrams’ confident direction and his actors’ delivery they never feel tacked-on or hokey or campy. Once the characters get on Starship Enterprise, everything clicks.
Of course, said clicking is a task that could not be accomplished without some very careful casting. Here’s where Abrams’ sense of humor comes in: Winona Ryder? Tyler “Madea” Perry? Harold from “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”? The kid from “Charlie Bartlett”? In a “Star Trek” movie? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes and it all works, giving what might have been a staid production a sense of whimsy. John Cho/Hikara Sulu and Anton Yelchin/Chekov in particular dig into their parts with glee. Karl Urban nails McCoy’s wry observations and slapstick comedy in equal measure. And what doe-eyed Zoe Saldana (let’s all agree she’s moved past that dreadful Britney Spears flick) does with Uhura? Why, it tugged at my feminist little heart’s toughest strings. Smarts, not schmaltz, will do that to me.
Perhaps the biggest boons to “Star Trek” are its more-than-capable leads. Pine, who looks like he just wandered off a CK underwear shoot in New York City, has good comic timing and the ability — like Shatner’s Capt. Kirk — to seem supremely cocksure and vulnerable at the same time. But Pine’s Kirk never feels like a third-rate copy. Color me shocked: Pretty boy can act. That goes double for Quinto, who has the unenviable task of playing a character driven by strong emotions he cannot show. Quinto makes it look oh so easy, communicating young Spock’s anguish in the tiniest of gestures: a twitch of an eye, the imperceptible furrow of a brow, a slight crack in his voice. These nuances give Quinto’s Spock a humanity that sneaks up on us. It’s surprisingly touching.
Which is why this “Star Trek,” the 12th installment in a long, mostly forgettable line of “Trek”-based films, stands out: You don’t see it coming. The jokes, the dialogue, the characters — after so many years, it’s hard to believe they could seem new again. Prepare to be stunned.