Star Trek is 43 years old this year, and like any long-running franchise from time to time it needs a reboot and reset, with fresh creative energy being introduced for a new generation of fans. In 1987 the concept and series was rejuvenated by moving the story a further 78 years into the future and introducing a new crew and a new ship. Star Trek: The Next Generation and its first spin-off, Deep Space Nine, were rousing successes, building on the foundations of the original but bringing plenty of fresh ideas and talent to the table. Unfortunately, audiences were soon bloated with Trek, and both the later Voyager and Enterprise series were beset by problems with the writers unable to break free of the cliches and hackneyed storytelling (although Enterprise was seeing signs of improvement when it was cancelled) that had grown up around the franchise. The movies were also running out of steam, with First Contact somehow screwing up the series' finest villains, Insurrection being Trek-by-the-numbers and Nemesis, despite plenty of good ideas, just being weak.
Now it's 2009 and there's been no fresh Trek on screen for five years. Enter J.J. Abrams, creator of Alias and Lost, recent director of Mission: Impossible III and producer of Cloverfield, with a mission to shake up and reboot Trek. Abrams' idea was to go back to the series roots with a new cast taking on the iconic roles of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty and Uhura and setting out on some new missions. It's a bold idea, unthinkable twenty years ago but now almost logical. Aware that the original Trek is still immensely popular, Abrams uses Leonard Nimoy as the 'older' Spock as a bridging mechanism: events in the familiar Trek/Next Generation timeline have compelled him to come back in time, but in doing so he has changed history and created a new, parallel timeline. It's a nice balancing act, which allows fans of the older series who don't care for this new iteration to continue digesting novels, comics and computer games set in the extant Trek universe, whilst new viewers aren't bogged down with a ton of continuity references to something that happened in an episode that aired in 1992 or something.
The question is, is it successful? And the answer to that is: sort of.
There is much to admire in Star Trek (2009). Critically, the casting is pretty damn good. Zachary Quinto is the younger Spock, with no trace of Heroes' Sylar in his performance. He has Nimoy's mannerisms down pat but doesn't feel like he's doing a slavish tribute or imitation. Even in scenes he shares with Nimoy, they look like the same person at different ages. It is almost uncanny. Chris Pine is less impressive as Kirk to start off with, but by the end has nailed that familiar mix of command authority and ego we know so well. Karl Urban is also excellent as McCoy, really nailing the role in a manner that some of his previous performances didn't really hint at. Zoe Saldana is also solid as Uhura, who has as much to do in this movie alone as Nichelle Nichols did in all six of the original ones. Anton Yelchin is a little too broadly comic as Chekov, John Cho disappears for large chunks of the movie as Sulu (despite a decent action sequence early on) and Simon Pegg hits a wrong note as Scotty. All the other characters are written reasonably closely to their original series portrayals in character and action, but Scotty isn't even close, instead being played for comic relief complete with a weird alien sidekick and a variable accent that's all over the place. Bruce Greenwood (perhaps best-known for his superlative portrayal of JFK in Thirteen Days) is also excellent as Captain Pike, the first commander of the Enterprise.
Eric Bana is less well-served in his role as the movie's villain, the Romulan commander Nero. Bana is a superb actor (probably never better than in Chopper, although he was the best thing in Troy by miles and was excellent in Munich) but here is badly served by limiting make-up, a nonsensical rationale, cheesy dialogue and very limited screen-time. The villain could have been played by anyone, frankly, as he's purely a plot device to get the crew together.
The film has an energy and verve that Trek hasn't really had before. This is good in that it keeps the action flowing and the pace never flags. This movie certainly cannot be called boring. However, it is also too loud and flashy for its own good. We never get a moment where events calm down and we can take a pause for breath. It actually feels like the writers were under orders not to let more than three minutes go past without jeopardy or action. This leads to some of the most insultingly contrived dramatic moments I've seen in a long time, such as the unnecessary water tube sequence and a totally bollocks moment involving a threatening creature stalking a character only to be eaten by a much bigger creature that then stalks the character instead that was ripped straight from the ocean scene in The Phantom Menace. When you're stealing from the Jar-Jar movie, something is wrong.
It's also a problem because Trek is not Star Wars. Trek's main selling point is that it's a more thoughtful, slightly more sensible approach to space opera than Star Wars and this has been forgotten in this movie, with the writers and director going for constant action, unnecessarily over-the-top CGI set-pieces, impossible-to-follow space battles and gaping plot holes that feel uncomfortably close to Revenge of the Sith at times. The science in this movie makes zero sense. Trek's always taken a relaxed attitude to this, despite its claims of having NASA advisors around, but they've never really gone as far as ignoring all pretence of logic and rationale as in this movie, at times even apparently forgetting about how something as basic as warp speed works (at one point the Enterprise apparently 'jumps' into a location in a manner more reminiscent of BSG or Babylon 5 than its own warp technology).
Also, the new Enterprise is one arse-ugly ship. Seriously, there needed to be some kind of line about how the change of the timeline resulted in the Enterprise now looking like a giant Tomy baby crib toy. I was wondering if it only looked lame as a picture and once you saw it moving it would work (as was the case with the Enterprise-D when that first appeared), but no, the new Enterprise is simply a bad design. There's no reason the Enterprise shouldn't look the same as in the original series or even the first six movies.
Back to the good stuff, there's some decent lines in there (Spock got a roaring audience laugh for the delivery of one iconic catchphrase), some good fights, there's a real sparkle between the crew-members and there's no doubt that the creators have put together something which has the potential to be something very special indeed. As a film taken on its own merits, Star Trek (***) is loud, brash, fast-paced, nonsensical, turn-your-brain-off entertainment, making for a decent movie but not necessarily very good Star Trek. The decision to go in an opposite direction to the tired last few movies and the later series is understandable, but in the process the slightly more philosophical and rooted-in-real-science approach of the series has been seriously diluted. With a more measured pace and some stronger writing, the inevitable sequel could be something much more interesting.