With Star Trek, director J.J. Abrams has raised the craft of rejuvenating a movie franchise to something like a fine art. Unlike Michael Bay on Transformers—who didn’t bother making a good movie because he knew he didn’t have to—Abrams seems to have gone out of his way to polish Star Trek to a high gloss.
The comparison is apt, because Abrams is working with the same writers Bay had (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) and, like Transformers, Star Trek is a venerable science-fiction franchise dripping with affectionate nostalgia and trailing a varied multimedia history. Yet Transformers was clanking, disposable junk, while Star Trek is a pop-culture gem that hums along with the delicate intricacy of a Swiss clock and the dazzling gleam of a brand-new Christmas toy. The difference is J.J. Abrams.
Abrams’ assignment was not enviable: to save the franchise, now that all the TV series have run their respective courses, and in the face of dwindling returns for the theatrical features (the last one, Nemesis, flopped in 2002 with an embarrassing thud). And Abrams is gambling a lot of Paramount’s money on one roll of the dice—his budget for Star Trek was $150 million, more than for the first six movies put together, and as much as the most successful, Star Trek: First Contact, earned worldwide.
Where Christopher Nolan saved the Batman franchise by making it darker and more solemn, Abrams takes the opposite tack: He returns Star Trek to its roots, not only in bringing back the original characters, but also in reviving its bright lights and sense of fun.
Orci and Kurtzman’s script bristles with all the lines Trekkies have come to cherish: Spock (Zachary Quinto) says “Fascinating!” Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) barks, “I’m a doctor, damnit, not a [fill in the blank]!” Scotty (Simon Pegg) shouts, “She’s givin’ ye all she’s got, Skippurrr!” Ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin) speaks in a Russian accent as thick as the Earth’s crust. Clichés by now, but beloved ones, and the audience chortles fondly at them.
What makes it all work beyond simple nostalgia is how Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman plant the lines organically in the story, giving us the feeling that we are hearing them not for the thousandth time, but the first time they were ever uttered.
The story line cleverly twists the “Star Trek universe” to its own ends. A renegade Romulan warlord of the distant future, Capt. Nero (Eric Bana), emerges from a black hole time warp to attack a Federation starship at the very moment James T. Kirk is born, and Kirk’s father (Chris Hemsworth) gives his life fighting off the assault long enough for his wife and newborn son to escape with the rest of the starship’s crew. This creates a whole new timeline for Kirk, Spock and the rest, throwing out everything fans thought they knew about how the starship Enterprise’s crew met and came to work together. The fact that they do come together, even in this altered time, playfully underscores a sense of destiny: This bunch was meant for each other.
A lot of the fun of Star Trek is in the casting, seeing these familiar characters played as comparative youngsters, and by actors almost uncannily suited to the roles (using Pegg as Scotty, for example, was a near-sublime inspiration). In a movie where casting could have been a minefield, Abrams and company never put a foot wrong. As the young Jim Kirk, Chris Pine is a generic pretty-boy leading man—likeable, certainly, but nothing special—which actually makes him a perfect analog for the William Shatner of 1966. And when he at last sits in the Enterprise’s command chair (where we all know Kirk belongs), Pine has Shatner’s posture and vocal rhythms to a fare-thee-well.
The movie’s intuitive masterstroke is Zachary Quinto (of TV’s Heroes) as Spock. It’s as much a star-making turn as the original Spock was for Leonard Nimoy, and Quinto manages to channel Nimoy while simultaneously making the part his own; a cameo appearance by Nimoy himself, as the aged Spock of the future, both underlines the richness of the casting and blesses the newcomer, literally wishing him luck.
If Star Trek earns as much as it deserves to, Paramount will owe Abrams more than just the money he spent on it. He’s made the franchise live again, with the vigor and confidence of youth.