I’m not a fan of Star Trek in any of its forms. The original show struck me as kind of cheesy and clunky when I was a kid. As a young teenager starting to tussle with the idea that maybe movies and TV were capable of conveying ideas as well as entertainment, I soon realized and appreciated the fact that Star Trek at least tried to do that. It wasn’t bad at it, but it fell under the heading of what I’d now call “TV deep,” which is to say it put forth no ideas that couldn’t be basically resolved in 50 minutes. Maybe that’s why my personal favorite episode of Star Trek was “A Piece of the Action,” which at best might be seen as a satire on religion, with its concept of a society that patterns itself after a book—that just happens to be about 1920s Chicago gangsters. In other words, if it had any message at all, that message was hidden in a largely comedic story.
It’s that same approach that makes J.J. Abrams’ film Star Trek such a pleasant viewing experience. The movie takes itself seriously without taking itself too seriously. It’s not a major work of art. It’s not slated to become one of the “great movies.” It has some significant flaws and missteps, but on its own merits, it’s entertaining—and in one instance, it’s even a little more than that.
The basic notion of doing a Star Trek origins story is fraught with pitfalls, and this movie falls into as many as it sidesteps. There’s an inescapable sense of watching kids playing dress-up throughout—a kind of Muppet Babies aura. It’s hard not to imagine these young Trekkers arguing over who gets to play whom, which is echoed (probably unconsciously) by the musical-chairs business of who gets to command the Enterprise at various points in the narrative. The business of jamming all the characters—many of whom were originally of diverse ages—into Starfleet Academy at the same time is awkward at best, risible at worst. The joyride in an unlikely 200-plus-year-old Corvette by young James T. Kirk (Jimmy Bennett, Evan Almighty) feels like a prepubescent piece of warmed-over Shia LaBeouf-dom from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).
Some of the casting is less than perfect. While I liked Zachary Quinto’s Spock, I was less enthused by Chris Pine’s Kirk. Even while granting that Kirk as embodied by William Shatner could be both smug and annoying, Pine is just too smirky for my taste. I don’t find it a plus to spend large chunks of the film wanting to slap the lead actor. Bringing in Tyler Perry for what amounts to a cameo is simply distracting to no real point. That said, the bulk of the new cast is pleasant enough without being particularly remarkable, while Eric Bana shows just the right attitude for a Star Trek villain.
Then there’s Leonard Nimoy as Spock Prime. He brings such a sense of gravity leavened with humor to the film that he makes Star Trek seem more than it is. Nimoy has the ability to spout the most outrageous faux scientific pronouncements and make them sound plausible, while hinting that he knows it’s nonsense. (The script has the wit to suggest this, too, in his last appearance in the film.)
Frankly, I was taken aback by the degree of emotional resonance he brings to the film. I may not be a fan, but Nimoy taps into the broader sense of our collective pop-culture consciousness that makes Star Trek a part of our lives regardless of personal considerations. It may be as simple as the fact that Nimoy’s Spock is a piece of my childhood, and his 77-year-old self makes my childhood feel so very long ago. Whatever the case, there is an elegance to his performance here, and his recitation of some very familiar words at the end affords the film an emotional punch it would otherwise lack. His casting was just as much a stroke of genius as was not casting William Shatner.
Overall, Star Trek is probably best viewed as big-budget summer entertainment. J.J. Abrams’ direction is hardly groundbreaking (that it’s better than his work on Mission: Impossible III (2006) isn’t saying much). The screenplay by Robeto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (both of Transformers (2007) fame) is more concerned with connecting the dots—and cheating to do so—than with crafting much of a story in its own right. But the results are undeniably entertaining—and Nimoy takes it one step beyond that. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, and brief sexual content.