If I had to compare JJ Abrams to any Star Trek crewmember, it would
probably have to be Scotty. Like the Enterprise’s engineer, Abrams has
shown himself to be a bit of a miracle worker with his new movie. But
instead of finding a workaround for the dilithium crystals or a way to
jump start the warp core, Abrams has taken a script that is so bad and
so dumb as to be almost a disaster and made a movie that’s a lot of fun
and actually quite good from it.

When I went in to my screening of Star Trek I figured I would have to
see the film twice to give a fair review. After all, I’m a big fan of
the original series and I’ve been quite vocally critical of the film
throughout the production process. I imagined I would need one viewing
to just get used to the new crew and the new look and the changes in
continuity and that my second screening would be the one where I could
actually view it as a movie. But after a marvelous opening sequence and
a rough patch of utterly unneeded prologue, Star Trek settles into its
groove and makes some things very clear: this crew is great, even the
dreaded Zachary Quinto; this is a Star Trek movie, through and through,
but filtered through a slightly more modern filmmaking sensibility; and
I would probably never need to see this film again. I mean, I’d watch
it if it was on television, but Star Trek is a one and done film, a
movie that’s barely a movie and more an elongated pilot episode. You
like what you see and what’s been set up, but you’re really more
interested in seeing where things go from here.

But that script. Jesus. It’s the film’s real villain (especially since
writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman have seen fit to feature what
might be the second worst villain in Trek movie history (no one will
ever top the sheer shittiness of Star Trek: Insurrection), and it’s
trying to derail the new adventures of the starship Enterprise almost
from the start. The script relies endlessly on coincidence and
happenstance. In one scene young Kirk is marooned on a frozen planet.
Chased by a succession of monsters (shades of going through the Core in
Phantom Menace, but thankfully the only place where Star Trek compares
to that film), he ends up in a random ice cave… where a Spock from a
hundred years in the future happens to have taken refuge. Oh, and they
find Scotty 14 miles away. Lucky! The whole movie is like that,
partially because the movie has a burning desire to be the most origin
story of all origin stories (we see Kirk born, for the love of God. I’m
shocked Abrams didn’t start us off at the Big Bang. And I don’t mean
Kirk’s conception) and partially because Orci and Kurtzman are the
laziest , hackiest writers going today. The uber-origin aspects means
that the movie can’t simply begin with the crew meeting on the bridge
by assignment or something, and the lazy writers means that they crew
meets one by one in a series of asinine reveals.

Even with that, Abrams makes it sing. He’s assembled a cast that is
terrific, and – for the first time in Trek history – actually gives
each and every one of them something to do that helps define them as
characters. They don’t always feel quite like the classic characters
(John Cho, for instance, really has his own take on Sulu, and I
wouldn’t even have guessed that Zoe Saldana is playing Uhura if the
movie hadn’t told me. Simon Pegg is hilarious as Scotty, but his
slightly manic version of the character doesn’t really gibe with the
laid back, always a little toasted version from the show and the
original movies. But whatever, he’s great and he makes the character
work), and they don’t always quite hit the mark (Quinto, while not
being bad, just barely works as Spock. A friend really nailed it: Nimoy
played Spock as a Zen master, while Quinto plays him as almost a
sociopath. He’s simply unsettling), but they’re all pretty damn good.
Karl Urban is astonishing as Bones; he gets the elements of DeForest
Kelly’s performance that made Bones so iconic and he nails those
things, but in his own way. And Chris Pine, after a shaky start (the
scene where Kirk beats the Kobyashi Maru (which, by the coincidental
way, was programmed by Spock. That’s a cheap, lazy screenwriter gimmick
to create tension between Kirk and Spock throughout the movie. There’s
one other, even worse, screenwriter gimmick that’s employed, but I
won’t spoil it. Suffice it to say that I hated it) is atrocious; it has
Kirk lounging in the captain’s chair eating an apple, being snotty. I
just don’t buy Kirk being a prick about that) really blossoms into the
role and makes it his own. At the end of the movie, as he walks onto
the bridge of the Enterprise in that yellow tunic, Chris Pine IS
Captain Kirk.

And Star Trek IS Star Trek. The film doesn’t go out of its way to throw
in a bunch of whiz-bang battles; the action sequences all grow
naturally from the story, and even when some action is shoe-horned in
(Scotty accidentally beams himself into the Enterprise’s coolant system
and gets sucked through a series of tubes) there’s a quality to it that
doesn’t violate the hard to define feeling of Star Trek. While the film
isn’t about exploration (a subject matter that almost none of the
movies have really addressed anyway) it does feel like classic Trek,
like it’s concerned with the characters first and foremost and about
adventure – and not action (and there is a difference) – second.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Star Trek looks like a movie.
There were a lot of problems with Mission: Impossible 3, but one of the
biggest was the limited scope of Abrams’ vision as a director. He had
simply spent too much time in TV and was looking at his frame from that
point of view. Even the big action sequences in that movie feel
constrained and small, but Trek never feels small. The film is huge,
and epic in scope. Abrams’ camera is active (maybe a little too active
– he puts the camera on cranes and rigs that allow it to rotate all
over the place for no good reason, simply because he can) and his shot
composition is expansive. The Enterprise’s bridge really lends itself
to widescreen imagery, and Abrams takes advantage of it. Sure, the new
version of the bridge looks like the SS Apple Store, but it’s a buzzing
SS Apple Store that feels like the command center of a huge ship. Star
marks a really big step in the career of JJ Abrams: on his second
feature directorial gig he’s finally become a filmmaker.

I can’t wait to see what he does next with the franchise. Hopefully
he’ll make sure his movie has a reasonable villain. For reasons that I
cannot even begin to fathom this movie was greenlit with a central
villain who is a space miner who ACCIDENTALLY comes back in time. He
doesn’t even have a plan; he simply shows up. The casting of Eric Bana
as Nero gave everyone some hope that we’d see a really formidable
villain here, but the actor is given almost nothing to do. I’m sure an
attempt to recreate the Wrath of Khan dynamic is why the script keeps
Nero on his own ship the whole movie, shouting at people over
viewscreens, but it just doesn’t work. Your villain simply can’t be
Some Guy. He needs to have something going on, something deeper and
more interesting. The movie actually gives him this – in the opening
scene of the movie Nero (coincidentally. Agh!) kills Kirk’s father,
completely changing the timeline and forcing the entire film into an
alternate continuity, but the script never uses this. Nero hates Spock,
and this gives Kirk a reason to hate Nero, but the movie seems
unwilling to give Kirk much in the way of angst or anger about the
whole matter; when Kirk and Nero meet face to face at the end the fight
feels perfunctory, and like any standard hero vs villain fight. It’s
very disappointing.

Also hurting Nero is the decision to cut a key sequence from the movie.
As the film stands now, Nero appears 25 years before the film’s present
and kills Kirk’s father. It then skips ahead 25 years where Nero comes
out of nowhere in an attempt to kill Spock from the future, who is also
time traveling by accident. Audiences have to wonder ‘What the fuck has
Nero been doing for the last quarter of a century? Just sitting
around?’ It turns out he was captured by Klingons and held on their
prison planet; test audiences didn’t like the scenes about the Klingons
so Abrams cut them, turning a villain who was already weak into a
villain who is also lazy and stupid. It’s a shockingly bad decision,
and I think indicative of the problems with the test screening process.

That said, cutting the scene probably did streamline the movie, and one
of Abrams’ goals with Star Trek seems to be to make a film that’s
almost breathless in its pacing. And once the really redundant series
of prologues end (honestly, why would anyone think we needed to see
kiddie Spock? The scene exists as lazy screenwriter shorthand to set up
a pivotal plot moment later, but it’s a scene that, in the hands of
better writers, would have been cut at draft two in favor of working
the necessary information into the film through character beats) the
movie takes off, rocketing forward with excitement and fun.

Star Trek is the quintessential pretty good movie. It works, it’s a fun
time in the theater, the cast is great, and the visuals dazzle. But
even now, weeks after the screening, my opinion hasn’t changed one bit.
The movie hasn’t sunk or risen in my estimation. It’s a movie that gets
the job done, often with more quality than it needed to bring, but it’s
just the table setting for the real films that come next. I wish that
there had been more time to work on the script before shooting (the
strike hit just as they started production), because with another two
drafts Star Trek could have been something special instead of something
that simply works. Please, JJ, keep Orci and Kurtzman away from Star Trek 2.

Note on the score below: I think that Star Trek is really a 7 out of 10 movie, but I’ve bumped it up to 8 because the elements that work work so well that while you’re watching it, before you’ve had a chance to think about the numerous and idiotic plot holes and writing deficiencies.

8 out of 10