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Boldly Revisit Where No Man Has Gone Before

MOVIE REVIEW
Star Trek (2009)

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Industrial Light & Magic/Paramount Pictures

Few cinematic ventures could be more fraught with peril than a revamping of the “Star Trek” franchise. No single pop phenomenon of the last half of the 20th century has amassed a more expansive, devoted following, and most ardent Trekkies tend to react to any changes to the canon as one might respond to the murder of a family member. Couple that with the fact that the most recent movies and TV spinoffs suffered a precipitous drop in quality and director J. J. Abrams can truly be said to have had his work cut out for him.

So it’s a great pleasure to report that out of those pressurized conditions, the filmmaker has crafted a rather exhilarating space drama. The movie reinvents “Star Trek” by adding a hip edge and a more fully realized psychological depth to the characters of James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), and to the universe at large. At the same time, it pays respectful tribute to the 40-year lineage that made Mr. Abrams’s venture possible. It’s filled with sly references to the past work (many of which I assuredly missed), imbues the exhortation “to boldly go where no man has gone before” with unexpected emotional weight and brings back Leonard Nimoy as a visitor from the future.

To best facilitate a reboot, screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman opt for the classic origin story template. The film begins with Kirk’s birth, on the same day his father dies a heroic death. Parallel action compares his rebellious childhood and young adulthood in Iowa with those of Spock on the planet Vulcan. The men cross paths at Starfleet Academy. Although a rivalry develops – with the meticulously ordered, logical Spock turned off by Kirk’s tempestuous disregard for regulations – both men find themselves working together on the maiden voyage of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Along with mainstays Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and, eventually, Scotty (Simon Pegg), they take on an evil, time traveling Romulan (Eric Bana) on a quest of planetary destruction.

The success of the modernization effort lies in the filmmaker’s rejection of the stilted soap-opera dramatics that often torpedoed past “Star Trek” incarnations. The world of Starfleet, some 300 years in the future, feels in large part like a naturalistic version of ours today, albeit transplanted onto spaceships and imbued with technical parlance. Abrams’s grounding in polished, highly technical television, shows like “Alias” and “Lost” that successfully add cinematic dimensions to the multipartite framework, surely helped. He avoids the trap of easy moralizing or stilted jokiness, and the Enterprise bridge feels more like an inhabited communal space than an elaborate set. His film comes across as a grand, fully realized space adventure happening to recognizable people, not one-dimensional archetypes.

The actors have been well-cast, with each incorporating welcome fresh takes on their iconic characters. Mr. Pine exudes charisma, slipping effortlessly into Kirk’s bad-boy makeup. His boundless energy and unpolished passion set him apart from his more dignified counterparts, but the actor’s willingness to adopt a rogue, rebelliously heroic demeanor provides the real key to a central focus of the screenplay, which not only reveals how Kirk became captain of the Enterprise, but why. Mr. Quinto is no less superb as Spock. He communicates the duality of his half-Vulcan, half-human existence with markedly subtle touches, as when he uses small facial changes in an extended close-up to reveal the tumultuous interplay of his Vulcanic passivity and unrestrained anger at a lifetime of difficulties. Though the men spend most of the movie at each other’s throats, the actors develop the foundations of the yin and yang onscreen chemistry shared by William Shatner and Mr. Nimoy, which adds such a crucial dimension to the franchise’s human story.

The picture looks like a credible 21st-century vision of the future, with the Enterprise given a slick update, the colors sharp and varied and the Earth scenes depicted with impressive epic scale. Rejecting the talky script work characteristic of lesser “Star Trek,” Mr. Abrams opts for several visceral action sequences, including one set atop a giant drill that comes complete with pulsating sound effects and a constant stream of violent obstacles. It’s hard to resist being completely swept up in the sheer thrill of long, helicopter tracking shots of a young Kirk zooming through the heartland or the camera placed closer in, behind the older Kirk perched on his motorbike, as he and we look up at the gargantuan specter of the Enterprise’s construction. The latter image, also seen in the film’s trailers, signifies what’s best about this new “Trek” and the cinematic franchise it portends: It brings back old friends with the promise of endless new worlds to explore and fresh, new adventures to be had. The final frontier of space is once again the place to be.

STAR TREK

Opens on May 8 in the United States and Britain.

Directed by J. J. Abrams; written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, based on “Star Trek,” created by Gene Roddenberry; director of photography, Dan Mindel; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Scott Chambliss; produced by Damon Lindelof and Mr. Abrams; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: John Cho (Sulu), Ben Cross (Sarek), Bruce Greenwood (Pike), Simon Pegg (Scotty), Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Winona Ryder (Amanda Grayson), Zoë Saldana (Uhura), Karl Urban (Bones), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Eric Bana (Nero) and Leonard Nimoy (Spock Prime).

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