J.J. Abrams' young-turks refueling of Star Trek works very hard to project a cavalier, winking insouciance toward the franchise's conventions—never more wittily than when it introduces a gung-ho redshirt, Chief Engineer Olsen, who amps himself up for a mission by pledging to "kick the shit out of some Romulans." This is an inappropriately bellicose attitude for a member of a diplomatic agency, and it is only a matter of minutes before Olsen has an unfortunate encounter with a laser drill. "Olsen is gone," James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) reports perfunctorily. The crewman isn't the only one casually dispatched: In the course of a story that pilots the crew of the USS Enterprise to more or less exactly where it started in 1966, the collateral damage includes Kirk's father, Spock's mother and two globes, one with a population of 6 billion. To lose one planet may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like a careless peacekeeping effort.
But the Star Trek brand was in dire need of new blood, and if that meant jettisoning the high-minded sermonizing for world-smashing that feels more like (gulp) Star Wars, hey, anything's better than Star Trek: Nemesis, which I believe was made by placing Patrick Stewart in a cardboard command bridge and shaking it. A thorough rethink was in order, and so Abrams has rewound back to the future, casting the iconic Starfleet roles with fresh faces. The pipsqueak effect has led some online wags to dub the project Star Trek: Muppet Babies, which is unfair—it's far more like Star Trek: Lost. Its adventuring is fleet-footed enough to make you ignore implausibilities and mediocre acting until the credits roll. It may wind up being the best summer blockbuster we'll see this year—which says as much about our low expectations as it does about the movie's excellence.
J.J. Abrams is the Ray Kroc of current television and cinema: He makes only junk food, but you can't complain that he doesn't melt the cheese consistently. As the producer of Alias, Lost and Cloverfield, and in the director's chair of Mission: Impossible III, he's honed a reliable recipe. Braise one central gimmick, stir in generous helpings of mysterious gobbledygook, and garnish with bland actors who conform docilely to instantly recognizable types. His work was half done with Star Trek, since we already knew the characters, and he could plug in young performers who look like them. So we get journeyman Chris Pine as roustabout Kirk sparring with Heroes star Zachary Quinto as a priggish Spock, while Anton Yelchin swallows his W's as Chekov across from John Cho as Sulu (warp speed to White Castle!). A slimmed-down Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) is givin' it all he's got as Scotty, though the best lines go to beefcake slab Karl Urban as McCoy: "Dammit, man, I'm a doctor, not a physicist!" Is there any point in telling him physicists have doctorates?
If all of this reeks strongly of déjà vu, that feeling is exacerbated by a plot device—nearly identical to this season's developments on Lost—that sends Leonard Nimoy hurtling back through a black hole to explain some time-travel paradoxes that allow this Star Trek to serve not as an origins story but as an alternate history. The details of this contrivance are best left unexamined, but the fallout is that Kirk and Spock are not best pals but frenemies, and that Abrams' movie is a literal reboot, a pressing of the reset button so we can begin the whole game again. That's clever, but it also calls attention to the movie's disposable qualities. Abrams' Star Trek appeals to the two demographics whose tastes now rule Hollywood: the comic-con fanboys who want to see something familiar, and the teenagers who want to see something bigger and louder. So we get the same Federation characters, now with imploding planets. Star Trek is significantly better than the Indiana Jones movie we saw this time last year, but it emerges from the same impulse—a desire to go where we've gone before, over and over, faster and faster. Is there any point in asking whether the place we're going is any good?
is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Broadway, Cedar Hills, Eastport, Cinema 99, Cinetopia, City Center, Cornelius, Evergreen, Hilltop, Lake Twin, Lloyd Center, Moreland, Movies on TV, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Roseway, Sandy, St. Johns Twin Cinema-Pub, Tigard and Wilsonville.