In the featurette “A New Vision”, it’s all summed up perfectly: Star Trek is like classical music, while Star Wars is rock ‘n’ roll. What J.J. Abrams wanted to do with his 2009 reboot of Star Trek was just bring a little bit more rock to the Enterprise.
Does that mean adding some widescreen George Lucas magic to the House that Roddenberry Built? According to Abrams during the commentary to this highly-anticipated DVD, absolutely. At multiple points, Abrams references the original Star Wars trilogy as an inspiration, nothing how the scene where Kirk (Chris Pine) views a Starship under construction is his own “Luke looking at two suns” moment. While certain purists may call this blasphemy, the truth of the matter is simple: Abrams is a genuine master of populist entertainment, capable of mixing actual human emotion with big-screen spectacle (even in his TV shows) and pleasing just about everyone in the process. Although his Star Trek was somewhat divisive against hardcore Trekkies, few can deny the sheer Iron Man-level popcorn thrills that Abrams and co. were able to reach with their own entry into the cannon …
… which, let’s be honest, was desperately needed. Before rebooting another sci-fi warhorse on his own terms (Battlestar Galactica), writer Ronald D. Moore worked on many of the ’90s Star Trek TV shows, and he pointed out the main problem that each program was running into: they were getting bogged down in their own history. Writers kept going back over older episodes again and again to make sure they weren’t contradicting themselves, which — over the years — definitely put a strain on everyone involved. While the TV writers muddled through to the best of their abilities, the Star Trek films suffered from similar problems, and it wasn’t long before people acknowledged that something had to be done to get Roddenberry’s original vision back on track.
When Abrams (along with his standby writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman) decided to tackle all-things Enterprise, he didn’t tread lightly. Instead, his creative crew made a bold artistic move, using a time travel narrative device to essentially rewrite the entire Kirk/Spock timeline as they saw fit. This way, not only could they bring in an entirely new audience to what was essentially turning into a fan-driven film franchise, but they could open up new storylines with familiar characters, expanding the Trek universe instead of being restrained by it. The result? Abrams can now claim to helming the single most profitable film in the entire Star Trek canon.
Abrams’ Star Trek is an origin story, plain and simple. James T. Kirk is the son of a brave man who — during the few minutes he helmed the U.S.S. Kelvin in the midst of a brutal Romulan attack — saved hundreds of lives. Smart as a whip and an adrenaline junkie to boot, Kirk seems to be content with having the highest IQ in all of… Iowa. A chance encounter with a girl named Uhura (Zoe Saldana) leads to a brutal barfight which — along with a chance meeting with the noble Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) — leads Kirk to join Starfleet Academy.
It is there that he meets a half-human, half-Vulcan named Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is logic-bound to the nth degree, deeply loyal to his family (if not his race), and an unexpected bargaining chip for the revenge-obsessed Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana), who — through that aforementioned time-travel craziness — is actually responsible for the death of Kirk’s father. Kirk and Spock meet and immediately spar with each other, but it isn’t long before a distress call from Spock’s home planet prompts them to work together, whether they like it or not.
When you break down Orci and Kurtzman’s script, the themes and actions are actually all familiar and quite simple. What makes them work, however, is the wit of the dialogue, Abrams’ breathless, non-stop direction (which has a distinct rhythm that fortunately never gets overwhelming), and the positively ace casting decisions for every role. Pine brings a genuine cockiness to his Kirk, but not without a sense of moral responsibility, just as how Quinto is able to show his conflict between being logic-bound yet emotion-rooted with just a few facial cues. Toss in Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy (unquestionably his best performance in years), Simon Pegg as Scotty (Abrams notes how Pegg was the only name on his list of potential actors for that part), and a brilliantly-utilized Leonard Nimoy, and you end up with one of the strongest (and most surprising) acting ensembles to emerge from 2009.
The relative simplicity of the plot allows Abrams to stage one elaborate set piece after another, ranging from sword fights on giant drilling modules to interstellar fleet battles involving manmade blackholes. In between these sequences, our characters learn, develop, and challenge each other, and some of the most involving action sequences take place directly on the bridge of the Enterprise itself (especially the moment wherein Kirk has to “emotionally compromise” Spock in order to relinquish his command). Dan Mindel’s ultra-sleek cinematography and a brilliantly emotive score from Pixar’s Michael Giacchino (which doesn’t even touch the original Star Trek theme until the end credits) only add to the already-thrilling atmosphere that Abrams has created, resulting in a movie that’s based in story but delivers in spectacle, making for one of the most giddy summer crowd-pleasers in recent memory.
Although the special features on the single-disc DVD are relatively scant, the sheer quality of said features more than makes up for it. Abrams’ commentary with his crew is very light-hearted but very insightful, as well: throughout, the group dolls out secrets about alternate openings, cheap-yet-effective special effect techniques (having Pine stand on a mirror for his skydiving sequence being chief among them), what went into their casting decisions, and how they went about emotionally rooting their characters so that the audience can relate to them. It never once comes off as too self-congratulatory, which, unfortunately, cannot be said about “A New Vision”, a lengthy featurette which is essentially a tribute to J.J. Abrams from everyone involved in the film. Though some incredible behind-the-scenes techniques are revealed (like how they got the CG sequences to have that hand-held “shaky cam” effect that Abrams frequently uses for the live action portions), all things pale in comparison to one of the most brilliantly-produced gag reels to come along in some time (which is just downright goofy in the best way possible).
When all is said and done, Star Trek accomplishes exactly what it set out to do: reviving a history-weighted franchise by rewriting all of its rules from the ground up and making the whole thing one helluvan action thrill-ride to boot. By borrowing a couple of tricks from Lucas, Abrams has reignited interest in all things Starfleet without having to smother the original spirit of the show to do so. Or, to paraphrase production designer Scott Chambliss’ description in the “New Vision” featurette: what J.J. Abrams brought to Star Trek was J.J. Abrams. ’nuff said.