The 'Star Trek' Franchise Moves Forward

Crew hidden

hide captionFresh Faces, Cool Outfits: The crew of the starship Enterprise prepare for the box office.

Paramount

The first generation of Star Trek actors is old or gone to the most final of frontiers, the so-called next generation up in years, and people barely recall the generations after that. So Paramount, eager to relaunch their franchise, tapped director J.J. Abrams for a new incarnation.

The ads for the new Star Trek movie say, "Forget what you know." Forget what we know? What we know is the point! Has Abrams dared to take Gene Roddenberry's sacred universe, fount of five TV shows and ten movies and thousands of geek conventions and change it?

Well, yes — and no. He changes it a little. Abrams' Star Trek features old characters — Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekhov — at a young age, as students in Starfleet Academy. But there's a key difference, thanks to a black hole. You know what happens when you travel through a black hole in a sci-fi picture, right? You go back in time. You change history.

Trek opens with a smashing prologue in which a ship from the future hurtles through a black hole carrying a vengeful Romulan called Nero, played by Eric Bana. I won't tell you why he's angry — that's explained later in the film — but before you can say, "Lock on photon torpedoes," the Trek we know is changed.

Kirk's father is killed moments after Kirk is born, so our hero, played by Chris Pine, grows up a fatherless ne'er-do-well. He doesn't even want to be on a starship, much less captain one, until he's shamed by his father's contemporary, Pike.

Kirk shows up for the shuttle, where he meets a disheveled hipster Dr. McCoy played by Karl Urban, who's funny even if he talks like Owen Wilson. But the biggest change is between Kirk and Spock. They loathe each other on sight; they spend most of the film as antagonists.

We're on Kirk's side, though. Chris Pine mugs like mad, but he seizes the space with a likable impudence, as if both channeling and poking fun at William Shatner. On the other hand, Zachary Quinto is hard to like. His Spock is a know-it-all even geeks would want to slam into a locker.

There's an issue larger than Quinto's lack of charisma: Do we want Kirk and Spock at odds instead of with that symbiotic rapport of the TV series, where the point was to watch Kirk, the virile man of action, navigate between Spock's cool logic and Dr. McCoy's passionate humanism? If you care about this universe (and I do), you'll argue with this Trek at every turn.

But you can nitpick it to death and still adore it. I mean, it's Star Trek! The action is furious, the banter bright. The real suspense isn't whether the crew can take down the villain Nero (who turns out to be quite a dull fellow), it's whether Kirk and Spock will be friends like before, and whether Kirk will captain the Enterprise. Yes, we want it sort of different but also sort of the same: a time-travel conundrum worthy of Star Trek itself!

The actors show tons of promise, even if they're sometimes like Baby Looney Toons doing familiar shtick in high voices. Zoe Saldana is a knockout as Uhura, and it's great to see Simon Pegg, Shaun of Shaun of the Dead, as Scotty, and John Cho — Harold of Harold and Kumar! — as Sulu. Best of all, Leonard Nimoy's Spock comes through that black hole; he looks very old but happier than he has in years. When he meets Quinto — as his younger self — and suggests being less of a prig, there's a wonderful subtext. I am entrusting you with Spock, he seems to say. Cherish him. And let the franchise live long — and prosper!

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