Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood): One lonely grownup in a world of reckless young Starfleet crew members.
Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood): One lonely grownup in a world of reckless young Starfleet crew members.

Let us consider the most prominent franchises that begin with the word “Star.”

Star Wars and Star Trek have been famously different in their storytelling and style. Some moviegoers enjoy both of the beloved series, but I grew up hearing heated debates about which was the better sci-fi franchise. I had (still have) friends in both camps.

Me? I’ve always been a Star Wars man. The episodic nature of Star Trek, which meant you could watch the shows in almost any order without much trouble, didn’t appeal to me at all. In the same way, I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings more than The Chronicles of Narnia.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and George Lucas’s “galaxy far, far away” were vast and involving worlds of mythology. They told big stories you could get lost in, stories about characters and how they changed over time. And they were stories about bands of dreamers who strike out against an oppressive enemy.

By contrast, C.S. Lewis’s stories and the Star Trek tales were about a place ruled by a strong and good power which was occasionally disrupted by bad guys. Granted, the villians in Narnia and the Trek’s “final frontier” could be real threats, but by the end of each short episode, they were usually brushed aside, just in time for me to learn some kind of neatly packaged lesson about theology, science, ethics, or politics.

Thus, there was never much suspense in Star Trek, for we trusted that nothing would ever really change. Everybody’s favorite crew members would be back at their stations in the next episode. Meanwhile, in Star Wars and in The Lord of the Rings, people might die in their struggles. (This is why Star Trek II is, far and away, the favorite episode of the franchise: The characters paid a terrible price at the end. We lost Spock. But then, we sure got him back in a hurry.)

Anyway… all of this to say I’ve never been terribly interested in Star Trek. When the Next Generation television series took Star Trek to a more impressive level of drama and effects than I’d encountered before, I began to sit up and take notice. The scripts were skillfully imagined, and the cast held me attention. But the easy pattern of conflict and convenient resolution still failed to inspire me.

That’s all different now.

Director J. J. Abrams has done it: He’s made me a Trekkie.

Abrams’s new Star Trek is just as “fun and watchable” as The Onion’s brilliant spoof video reported this week. It’s better than that, in fact. Like his hit television series Lost, Abrams’s movie has a fresh, energetic cast with explosive chemistry. The movie is visually dazzling. The soundtrack, by Michael Giacchino, is fantastic. And best of all, it has a brilliant and efficient screenplay.

Not profound, but brilliant and efficient. Star Trek at its best was always about interesting social, political, or scientific questions. This film isn’t about any of those things. It’s about establishing a cast of characters to prepare us for all of the conflicts that await us in the sequels. (Thus the tagline: “The Future Begins.” And the movie does this very, very well.

Gook Kirk Hunting: J.J. Abrams's reckless new Enterprise captain watches his franchise under construction.
Gook Kirk Hunting: J.J. Abrams’s reckless new Enterprise captain watches his franchise under construction.

J. J. Abrams was crazy to take it on. In order to re-boot Star Trek without (excuse the term) alienating hordes of Star Trek fans, he needed to be faithful enough to their beloved characters to get them coming back or more. He needed to find a new cast who could re-establish the network of personalities and relationships that made the Enterprise crew engaging in the first place. To make newcomers feel welcome, he needed to re-invent the series in a style and format that would not seem worn out and recycled. He needed to avoid the talky, burdensome dialogue that sank the Star Wars prequels. And he needed to give people who found the original corny and off-putting a reason to get on board.

He’s done all of that. The theater packed with Trek fans erupted in cheers when the final credits arrived… and that was a the end of two hours packed with applause and big laughs.

This isn’t just the most playful, surprising, and sprightly action movie in years. It’s also the funniest. Where most action films are punctuated with gunfire, Star Trek has punchlines that snap, crackle, and pop like it’s the 4th of July.

The movie is burdened with the kinds of coincidences that are par for the course in serialized sci fi. I expected this. To slam Star Trek stories for being implausible and corny is to condemn movie snacks for being unhealthy. But I was happy to endure the lunacy because it was delivered with just as much unapologetic boldness as everything else.

And while the storyline concerning the villains and their threat to the galaxy is rather simplistic and disappointing, this is not a movie about the bad guys. It’s one of those rare movies in which the chemistry of the heroes is so entertaining that the villains, strong as they are, end up seeming petty and annoying. I’ve said it many times before: Villains are easy, but it’s hard to portray compelling heroes. I didn’t think much about the Romulans at all as I watched this movie; I was enjoying the company of the Enterprise crew too much. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman honor our favorite characters (and their signature lines) even as they revise them, opening up new possibilities and avenues for Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Uhura, and the gang. It establishes a firm foundation on which many sequels will, I hope, follow.

Abrams’s cast is fantastic. Chris Pine — where did they find this guy? — has just enough of Kirk’s stubbornness, recklessness, and frat-boy brashness to honor William Shatner’s character. But he’s also got a boyish charm akin to young Matt Damon. (Come to think of it, young Kirk is like Good Will Hunting: brilliant, gifted, and yet unwilling to discipline himself and apply his talents responsibly. He need to be coaxed into becoming the man he was meant to be.) Pine has an astonishing confidence in front of the camera, considering this is his first big feature film. Zachary Quinto is perfectly cast as Spock; he effortlessly brings back the look and feel of the character, even as he expands upon that to make the tension between logic and emotion much more interesting to me than it has ever been before.

The new Spock performs the song "Feelings" before a skeptical crowd of Vulcans.
The new Spock performs the song “Feelings” before a skeptical crowd of Vulcans.

I can’t say enough about the chemistry between these players. It’s as if they’ve been practicing for years. Karl Urban, who was Eomer in The Lord of the Rings, seemed an odd choice to play Dr. McCoy when I heard the news. But he does a better job than any of the actors at reminding us of the original actor, Deforrest Kelly. Simon Pegg as Scotty? Sensational. Reminds us of James Doohan, but makes the character even funnier and more exciting.  Zoe Saldana? For once, I care about Uhura. John Cho is a spirited Sulu. Anton Yelchin’s a rather goofy Chekov, and the jokes about his accent are pushed to the limit. I hope he doesn’t remain a one-note character, but you can’t develop too many complex characters the first time out, can you?

And it was a stroke of genius to give the underrated Bruce Greenwood such an important role as Christopher Pike. I hope they bring him back. He has an authoritative adult presence that helps the film avoid Star Trek 90210.

Eric Bana’s performance as Nero felt inconsistent to me. Wry and sarcastic one minute, generically maniacal the next. But the character wasn’t very interesting to begin with. Perhaps Bana’s fury is convincing because he’s frustrated with the script. Nero is certainly no Khan.

The action is filmed in extreme close-up a la The Bourne Identity, and although I wish Abrams would pull back and let us take in the scene more often, there are some wonderfully clever twists in the midst of frenzied adventure scenes. Otherwise, the film is non-stop eye candy. I’m impressed that they’ve created a style that builds on the strengths of the recent Battlestar Galactica relaunch, and upon Firefly. (As in those programs, it is very silent in space.) Abrams’s scatters colorful lens flares across the screen enthusiastically; they flash and zip like unidentified flying objects, and I keep expecting characters to dodge them. The outer space scenes look grand, if a little too digital, and the aliens, much to my surprise and delight, are just as corny-looking as they ever were. (Scotty even comes with a boy-in-suit sidekick that may become this year’s Halloween costume of choice.)

You’ll notice I’m saying little about the plot. There’s not much to say. The Romulan threat is cleverly designed in order to maximize the tension between the members of the Enterprise. Crises ignite their personalities and bring them into colorful conflicts, and so we see those familiar relationship dynamics fall right into their proper places. But will anyone really care much about what the Romulans are up to? Probably not. Abrams never slows down to make us care much about the billions of people who die along the way. (Somehow, the destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars affected me much more than this film’s planetary apocalypse.)

And that brings me to the realization that kept me laughing all through the movie. Orci and Kurtzman’s storyline has done something no other Star Trek tale has done before. It has created a space where the Star Trek and Star Wars camps can live together in harmony.

The characters, the relationships, the technology: It’s pure Star Trek.

But the story?

Come on! Does any of this sound familiar?

  • A farm boy who likes to zoom around on a sort of landspeeder stops and gazes up wistfully at a starship.
  • That farm boy is encouraged by a veteran warrior, who tells him about how great his father was.
  • The bad guys blow up planets. We watch this happen in an excruciating scene, where a hero must cope with the death of his home and the people he loves. After the destruction of one world, we know that the climactic scenes will involve the attempted destruction of another.
  • The cocky hero is chasing the same girl as the more principled hero. And the audience is rather surprised by who she ends up with at the end.
  • The secondary hero must learn to break his code and “have faith.”
  • The climactic sequence involves a ship blasting itself free from the destructive power of an explosive calamity.
  • It all ends with an award ceremony.

This is Star Wars territory, folks.

As in The Empire Strikes Back, when the hero crash-lands on a remote planet, he steps out of the spacecraft and who is the first person he meets? Why, it just happens to be the wisest mentor he could hope to discover! It’s an ancient and legendary figure with funny ears who will guide him on the path to wisdom! Familiar, this is! Convenient, this is!

I’m sure some Trekkies will complain about inconsistencies. (One of my friends has already convinced herself that this movie is a total betrayal of the series and refuses to see it.) I’m sure that the lightness and frivolity will cause some to shrug and say “Meh.”

But color me grateful for Abram’s light-heartedness. The trend toward ponderous sci-fi adventures (and BSG has been severest of them all) has been rewarding, but it’s also a little wearying. Too many of the franchises that used to be fun are turning grim and despairing. I’m so glad to discover that Star Trek can be this much fun. It’s a perfect summertime franchise flick: Fast. Smart. Fun to watch. Even more fun to listen to. Packed with characters who leave me wanting to spend more time with them.

You know the old slogan. This “New Crew Revue” say they’re going “where no man has gone before.” That’s not true. They’re going somewhere very familiar. But the way they go there… wow!