Dir: JJ Abrams
Cert: 12A • US: 126 min • Paramount / Spyglass / Bad Robot • In Theatres
From the opening frames, JJ Abrams’ visionary reinterpretation of Star Trek grips on a visual, emotional and narrative level and it does not let up for a second. It is fast, loud, and designed to shake the audience to its core. “Forget everything you know, let’s start over,” Abrams has said of his version of Star Trek. That line would no doubt unsettle the fan base, although I think the term ‘audience’ would be more accurate: viewers of Star Trek are of greater number than the vocal few who treat it as a sacred object. Abrams achieves this feat through a plot device that creates an alternate universe. The result is that the events occur on a different timeline. This changes the underlying scenario of the Trek universe and enables it to start over. It is this audacity that is the key to Abrams’ achievement with this remarkable motion picture.
The events that bring about this alteration occur in an action sequence that is nothing less than a visual symphony. The action is so thick and fast that it is almost impossible to isolate the constituent elements. The captain of the USS Kelvin Richard Robau, (Faran Tahir), boards the Romulan vessel that has all but crippled his starship. Before doing so he hands his captainship to George Samuel Kirk (Chris Hemsworth).The Romulan captain Nero (Eric Bana) demands that Robau reveal the whereabouts of Ambassador Spock, of whom Robau knows nothing. The first suggestion that the ship is out of its time is when Nero asks what the stardate is. He then kills Robau and opens fire on the Kelvin.
What follows is nothing less than astounding. It is a superlative example of the power of cinema at its greatest. The birth of James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) in the midst of this attack, and the sacrifice of George Samuel Kirk to save his crew, his wife and his newborn son, adds an emotional depth to an action sequence that is already overwhelming. When the title appears the audience has been truly shaken and prepared for the idea that nothing in the history of Star Trek could have prepared them for this experience.
What Abrams does not “forget” – and this is the reason that his reinterpretation is an unqualified success – is that the most important element of the Trek universe is the characters. This is a film driven by character more than it is driven by story. The story is in the characters and what brings them together. I admit that when, after the first great action sequence, scenes from the youth of Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto) became the subject, that I prepared for a little necessary boredom in the set-up and exposition segment. I could not have been more wrong. These moments are essential to the two characters and introduce the wonder of the recreated Trek universe. The film shifts gear when Kirk and Spock come into conflict over the infamous Kobayashi Maru scenario, Starfleet Academy’s no-win simulation. Kirk tricks his way into winning by reprogramming the test. This classic piece of Trek lore, first referenced in The Wrath of Khan, has never been put on film. The story then vaults straight into the main action with the reappearance of Nero once the back-story of the conflict between the two key characters has been established.
As the events fall into place, and the allusions to the classic Trek world are established within a new context, the point of this re-envisioning is clear. “At a certain point it seems like Star Trek stopped trying to reach a larger audience,” JJ Abrams has said. “This movie is not meant to be a continuum of that mode of thinking.” Abrams had already proved his metal by delivering Mission Impossible III. His task was now to resurrect an idea that had started to falter.
Following the failure of the rather uninspired Star Trek: Nemesis, and the cancellation of the TV series Enterprise, the copyright owners went into Franchise Panic. After all, Star Trek had morphed from political allegory into big-bucks product by the 1990s. What Abrams has done is to bring it into line with the trends in ‘00s television and film entertainment. Dark, and more challenging three-dimensional characters are the key: witness the new Battlestar Galactica, and Daniel Craig’s Bond. This is everything the antiseptic Star Trek franchise was not.
Jane Espenson, a writer and producer on Battlestar Galactica, has commented that Sci-Fi “sometimes seems to have hard time finding new fans, perhaps because they shrink from the ‘nerd’ perception.” And there is that word again. Fans. Writers, actors and producers talk about the fans as if they are the primary ones who need to be catered to. It is the audience who needs to be addressed, and this is what Abrams understands.
It only remains to say that Abrams’ Star Trek is truly a motion picture event, and for that reason it stands out in the fast-food culture of the ‘00s. Go watch it. And prepare to be stunned.