Sci-fi origin stories, at least those that are launched decades after the stories themselves, tend to be disappointing. They’re usually more work than play. The acquiring of superpowers, and/or Defining Personality Traits, has a certain built-in roteness, whether the subject is Luke Skywalker, Batman, or Wolverine; since we know where we’re going, the getting there can be an elaborate filling in of blanks. But in Star Trek, the clever and infectious reboot of the amazingly enduring sci-fi classic, director J.J. Abrams crafts an origin story that avoids any hint of the origin doldrums. That’s because he rewires us back into the original Star Trek’s primal appeal.
Abrams revives the slightly tongue-in-cheek reverence that even those of us who aren’t Trekkies still feel for Kirk, Spock, and their human/Vulcan, emotion/logic cornball yin-yang. The ’60s series had its brain-warping concepts, plus all those ”special” effects (that tacky tilt-a-cam whenever the Enterprise got hit). It was tin-pot Isaac Asimov, yet the 40-year-old cosmic joke of Star Trek is that the delectable, overemphatic ham passion of William Shatner (those staccato pauses!), counterpoised with the poker-faced minimalist charm of Leonard Nimoy, created a kind of map of the spirit for geeks everywhere. Abrams follows that map to pop bliss.
Star Trek takes the two back to their boyhood, when the future Capt. James T. Kirk is a towheaded delinquent hot-rodding through Iowa farm country, and the half-human Spock is a conflicted nerd-rebel on the planet Vulcan. The movie really kicks in, though, when the two meet and butt heads at the Starfleet Academy. Kirk (Chris Pine), all cocksure deviltry, has figured out a way to beat a simulator that’s been programmed by Spock to make the cadets lose. As Kirk sits in his command chair, munching on an apple, he sounds sarcastically sure of himself — a deft tweak of Shatner’s slaphappy I-could-be-reading-the-phone-book bravura.
Newcomer Pine, with his slightly coarse sexiness — rough skin, thatchy hair, thick lips — evokes the young Brad Pitt, but he’s no pouting pretty boy; his verbal attack is light and fast. After Kirk beats the test, he comes face to face with Spock, who’s revealed to be a logical and fastidious…hothead. Zachary Quinto, the young actor cast as the shiny-black-banged, elfin-eared one, has softer features than Nimoy, but he makes a more volcanic Vulcan: This whippersnapper Spock is a cerebral control freak not by nature but by choice. (That’s what his training taught him.) Early on, we see him plant a kiss on the lips of communications officer Uhura (Zoë Saldana), and Quinto, without ever breaking Spock’s calm surface, always suggests the sensuality he’s suppressing. It’s as if Luke Skywalker had the Force not just with him but locked inside him.
On the Enterprise’s maiden voyage, Spock is part of the elite crew, and Kirk, on probation for his simulator stunt, sneaks aboard. The two don’t like each other — they trade insults with crack timing — and the tension is only heightened when they come up against Nero, a wrathful Romulan who’s getting revenge for the decimation of his homeland by blowing up planets. Nero is played by a shaven-headed Eric Bana as a cosmic biker thug, and the scenes of destruction have genuine grandeur: The giant, flame-tailed drill Nero uses to burrow into planets looks like a Mad Max version of the Space Needle. When the Enterprise’s captain (Bruce Greenwood) is taken prisoner aboard Nero’s ship — an event that echoes the fate of Kirk’s father at Nero’s hands years before — Spock gets to be the captain, and it’s up to him and Kirk to duel and jockey their way out of the villain’s grip.
There’s a time-tripping plot that, frankly, could have been trippier (not to mention a bit more, you know, logical). Maybe that’s because it’s basically an excuse to shoehorn Leonard Nimoy into the picture. Excuse granted: He’s as dry, and spry, as ever — a tribal-elder aristocrat. I do wish Karl Urban, as Bones, lit his short fuse with a bit more idiosyncrasy, but Zoë Saldana gives Uhura a sultry spark, and casting the puppyish Simon Pegg as the hyperkinetic Scotty is genius. As for Pine and Quinto, they really do feel, by the end, like Kirk and Spock. With a crew like this, you can welcome the future. A-