With Star Trek (2009), Director JJ Abrams has successfully rescued a franchise that should have been dead ten years ago. In injecting new life into the series, he has not only resurrected an American institution, but further developed his frenetic, easy, smartly crafted style of story telling, pushing narrative cinema in a new and surprising direction.
The most important scene in a film is the first one, and Abrams seems to understand this. We open on the USS Kelvin, a Federation Starship, as it does generic scientific research in orbit of a star. Suddenly, some kind of wormhole bursts opens in front of them, and out pours a gigantic alien spacecraft that resembles a poisonous flower. Unprovoked shots are fired, demands are made, and the Kelvin's captain goes to the enemy ship, leaving one George Kirk in command. The captain is killed upon the alien ship, more shots are fired, and Kirk orders all hands to abandon ship, including his very pregnant wife. What follows is a heartrending study in sacrifice and fast, decisive action in the face of certain death. The scene is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, and, if nothing else, Abrams has an uncanny talent for getting the audience to immediately care about characters we have never met before.
The film is fresh and new, and this starts with the cast. Leading the pack is douchy-looking Chris Pine as James T. Kirk, future captain of the Starship Enterprise. Despite his troubling resemblance to Disney teen star Zach Efron, Pine is actually quite good; his young Kirk is a bright, impatient punk kicking around in the desolate farmlands of Iowa when we first meet him, throwing one liners at every beautiful woman and punches at every dumb thug. He's plucked out of the Midwest by Captain Christopher Pike and joins Starfleet Academy, and proves to be quite the whizkid, but not without a little smarm and rambunctious sarcasm. His diametric opposite is one Mr. Spock, a half-human-half-Vulcan misfit who finds his place at Starfleet. Played by Zachary Quinto, this young Spock reminds us at first blush of Dwight Shrute from "The Office"; he appears a humorless, power-hungry rule-nazi. But as the film progresses, he is given some heart and just the tiniest glimmer of a soul.
Drawing from the Princess Leia archetype is Zoe Saldana as Nyota Uhura, a spunky, brilliant linguist who, upon her first encounter with Kirk, says "I thought you were just a dumb hick who only has sex with farm animals." Her affection is one point of competition between our "dumb hick" and Mr. Spock, who, throughout most of the film, completely despise each other. Some critics have bemoaned the film's villain (Nero, a Romulan... pirate, or something, from the future, seeking revenge for some nonsense that will be explained later by Leonard Nimoy) for being ill-conceived and lacking in screen time (strange complaints to come from one person's mouth, but many critiques are along these lines), but they fail to see that the real struggle, the real animosity is between Kirk and Spock. Nero is merely a catalyst; he's around only long enough to set things in motion. Kirk and Spock are constantly butting heads, and they even come to blows and one point. And Spock, as acting captain of the Enterprise, is so irritated with Kirk that he goes so far as to stuff him in an escape pod and leave him on some Hoth-like planet.
The rest of the principle cast is uniformly superb, though they are given scant screen time. Kiwi actor Karl Urban is an inspired choice for Kirk's best friend, Leonard "Bones" McCoy; he perfectly renders the curmudgeonly, acerbic Southern doctor, though his American accent can be heard slipping at certain points. Comedy actor John Cho is passable as Sulu, pilot of the Enterprise, and genuine Russian youngster Anton Yelchin is actually kind of hilarious as Pavel Chekov. Similarly, Simon Pegg, an actual Brit, is perfect as Scotty, a genius engineer who apparently moonlights as a comedian. The entire ensemble is great together, and we look forward to further installments with this new breed of intergalactic travelers aboard a shiny, new Starship Enterprise.