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Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009, 127 min.)

J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot would be passable as a sci-fi film if not for the title: this is supposed to be a Star Trek film, and this is a long, long way from anything that Gene Roddenberry imagined. Star Trek is supposed to ponder and consider; this film smirks and explodes. (It also shines bright lights into the camera, but more on that later.)

And it all started out so freaking well. In two rip-roaring adventure/suspense sequences, Abrams kicks things off so well that the rest of the film felt like that much more of a letdown. Captain Kirk’s father, the captain of a Federation ship for a handful of minutes after his boss is killed, confronts a mysterious, gigantic Romulan craft that seems to be from the future. Its commander, the tattooed Nero (Eric Bana, giving one of the only creditable performances in the film), demands to know the whereabouts of Spock (who hasn’t been born yet), then destroys Kirk’s ship. In what will become a legendary feat of heroism, Kirk pére remains on the ship in a hopeless battle against the Romulans in order to give the rest of his crew and passengers, including his pregnant wife, time to escape. Kirk and wife bid each other farewell in a radio dialogue reminiscent (and almost worthy) of the opening scene of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death—and that’s extremely high praise. The second sequence is simpler, just a deft, expertly rendered chase scene that introduces us to the youthful James T. Kirk, who steals a classic Mustang Corvette (sorry!) and eludes a cop on a hoverbike until he runs out of land. It’s not as elaborate as the opening, but it’s such a celebration of crackerjack editing and fluid camera work that it’s nearly as exhilarating. So far, so great.

But as the poet said, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and mere Abrams is loosed upon the world. It becomes barely competent, overexplained, underexplained, and laughable by turns. The performances, which were seldom this venerable series’ high point, range from the acceptable (Bana, Zachary Quinto’s take on Spock, Bruce Greenwood) to the regrettable (Chris Pine’s cocky, surface glance at James T. Kirk). Unnecessary padding abounds in little bits of artificial suspense that seem designed only to pad the running time (perish the thought of a sci-fi adventure film clocking in at less than two hours!)—otherwise how can you explain Kirk’s excursion to what’s basically Star Wars‘s ice planet Hoth and his runin with the big furry whatsit? (And that’s not the film’s first, last, or most egregious pilfering from Lucas’s films.) Or the abjectly stupid sequence where Scotty (Simon Pegg) is stuck in the plumbing? And of course, Abrams is a terrible, terrible director who seizes on an idea that has some merit when done for a reason and with moderation and then overuses it to the point we’re hoping for a black hole. Examples: lens flares are cool! closeups are the best! swish pans help! And you just know his thoughts come with exclamation points.

But even notwithstanding the crapful filmmaking, the undercharacterized characters, and the padding, Abrams doesn’t get the franchise that Roddenberry created, at least as I understand it (note: I haven’t bothered with several of the films, and haven’t watched any of the series aside from the original one). It used to be about something, even if that something was different in every episode. Kirk and Spock and the rest of the gang wrestled with big issues in their travels through galaxies populated mostly by humanoid bipeds; sure, Kirk often ended up in death matches against alien warriors, but just as often he thought his way out of a fix, pondered the meaning of his actions, and discussed philosophical points with his crew, even if it was a semi-stupid pop philosophy. He used his fists and his brain.

Here, the emphasis is far more on action and explosions (and bright lights shining into the camera). Instead of prompting deep thought on identity and self, the appearance of Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) prompts more plot development and exposition. Nero’s deluded in his reasoning—Spock merely failed to prevent something that would have happened even if he hadn’t attempted to stop it—but there’s no commentary on it. There’s precious little commentary on anything, because the principals are too busy running around, dodging sparks and flashing lights, and tumbling to the ground yelling to discuss things. Sure, those things happened in the original series, but they weren’t the soul. Chris Pine’s take on James Tiberius Kirk is a textbook example of what’s wrong: his Kirk is a cocky, smartass ruffian who may be an expert strategist but has clearly never thought anything deeper than how to get alien babes into his bed. Come to think of it, I guess that makes him perfect for this version of Star Trek.