The new "Star Trek" is an early summer thrill ride filled with gorgeous special effects, energetic performances from a talented young cast, a classic cameo from one of the original stars and enough in-jokes to satisfy hard-core Trekkers without the rest of us feeling left out. Plus Winona Ryder as Spock's mom, are you kidding me?!
It's also supremely goofy and befuddling, with a plot that makes "Lost" seem like an experience in linear storytelling.
Decide for yourself whether this is a confession or a boast, but here it is: I am not a Trekker. I've seen a few episodes of the old TV show, I've caught most of the "Star Trek" movies and I know about the catch phrases, but the show and its offspring have never grabbed me in the way it has captured a sizable slice of Pop Culture Nation. Director J.J. Abrams (one of the creators of "Lost") clearly has designed the new "Star Trek" to appeal to a mass audience----but he's ever-cognizant of the hardcore fans as well. There are probably a dozen or more nods to the show's origins, most often in the form of characters uttering famous catch phrases, e.g., "Live long and prosper." I'm sure there's other stuff that sailed right past my non-Vulcan ears.
Watching the film with an preview audience that included some serious Trekkers, I got the distinct impression they were loving the inside-baseball material, while we were all digging the special effects sequences and appreciating the performances, most notably Zachary Quinto from "Heroes" as the young Spock, Karl Urban as "Bones," a perpetually mini-skirted Zoe Saldana as Uhura and a Tyson-tattooed Eric Bana as the Romulan leader Nero, who looks like he could have been cast in "300." (I wasn't so enamored with Chris Pine's work as James T. Kirk. He's by no means terrible, but he's got the vacant, bland looks of a WB heartthrob and he often hams it up like he's doing an "SNL" riff on William Shatner's staccato line readings.)
After an exciting pre-credits sequence showing us the star-crossed origins of Baby Kirk during a tragic and epic battle in deep space, the new "Star Trek" takes up with Kirk in Iowa, first as a rebellious adolescent and then as a thrill-seeking, hard-drinking roustabout with unlimited potential and zero discipline. (He's the Maverick of his generation.) But, like most rebels, he comes to realize he's wasting his life, and he signs up for the Academy of Industrial Light & Magic, or whatever they call the training facility for future "Star Trek" icons.
On the maiden voyage of the Starship Enterprise, Spock and Kirk are adversaries----competing for Uhura's affections, battling for the captain's chair, arguing and fighting over every tactical decision. How are these polar opposites ever going to become the Butch and Sundance of the final frontier? There's very little of the existential pondering that was part of the original "Star Trek." Everyone is too busy figuring out their roles, getting to know each other and engaging in battle with Romulans to worry about the meaning of life in a very crowded outer space.
For the first hour or so, "Star Trek" cruises along beautifully, with some breathtaking special effects sequences, and lots of fun intros to younger versions of characters who were middle-aged and a little puffy in the original series and the early films.
SEMI-BIG-ASS SPOILER ALERT!!!! SKIP THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS IF YOU DON"T WANT TO KNOW SOMETHING A LOT OF YOU PROBABLY KNOW ALREADY.
But then there's a plot twist that is never fully explained and is rather poorly executed. As the Enterprise gears up for a seemingly suicidal battle with the Romulan spaceship, Kirk is literally removed from the ship and winds up in a very strange place, where he just happens to encounter----well, let's just leave it at that. Suffice to say that "Star Trek" hits a massive speed bump with that little detour and never fully regains its momentum. There are still plenty of exciting battle sequences ahead, and a couple of key characters will get their moment in the sun(s), but while all that's happening, we're trying to piece together the elements of a time-warping jigsaw puzzle that is utterly illogical---and logic goes a long way with certain Vulcans. And humans.
(Let me just say one more thing about the extended cameo, and I guess everybody knows we're talking about Leonard Nimoy: I love Leonard Nimoy. But he's playing a Vulcan of the future. And wouldn't Vulcans have better denture work than that? I'm just sayin'.)
THERE! YOU MADE IT. DON'T LOOK UP, DON'T LOOK UP!!!!
Like the out-of-chronological-order "Star Wars" movies, the new "Star Trek" is set before the TV show and the movies, but of course real-world technology means the stuff set in the past looks better than the stuff that takes place later in the fictional universe. (I'll give you a moment to let that sink in :) The old TV show was cheesy enough, but even the "Star Trek" features seem horribly dated compared to the cutting-edge effects on display here. (Even the dorky, kids' pajamas uniforms have been updated so that they're only semi-dorky.)
That aside, Abrams was wise to go back to the origins of the franchise. He's not messing too much with the "Star Trek" canon, and he's leaving himself plenty of breathing room for a whole new franchise featuring the younger versions of Kirk et al.
But any time you have a major character talking to an older version of himself who has managed to travel through time, you're dealing with headache-inducing plot turns----and space-time continuum material that has been done many times before, though rarely to any satisfying end. For its look and its spirit and its action sequences, for its cast and the back story, "Star Trek" is well worth seeing. As for the central plot, it's often incomprehensible and mostly terrible. (And let's not even get into the sequence where Kirk has puffy hands. It plays like a deleted scene from "Son of the Mask.")
For this less-than-casual fan of the TV show and the movies, the new "Star Trek" breathes new life into a franchise that keeps on discovering new frontiers. It's been an amazing run for an anthology that seemingly died when the TV show that was canceled with little outcry some 40 years ago.