Movie review: Stellar cast boldly brings ‘Star Trek’ to where it’s never gone before

Al Alexander

With “Star Trek,” J.J. Abrams boldly goes where no director has gone before in taking a moribund Enterprise and turning it into a ship liable to launch a thousand sequels.

Well, OK, not a thousand, but it’s certainly good for two or three, minimum, given the enormous appeal of a cast that more than makes up for its lack of name recognition by infusing the thing with large doses of talent and charisma.

They don’t take long to win you over, either, as Abrams thrillingly chronicles how the crew of the Starship Enterprise came to be way back in the middle of the 23rd century. But Abrams’ heart goes back even further – to the 1960s, when the “Star Trek” TV series offered an appealing mix of kitsch and substance in telling metaphorical tales of war and injustice at a time when America was coming apart at the seams.

In case you haven’t noticed, the country is coming apart again, and again “Star Trek” offers the perfect antidote, as it bubbles over with the hope and optimism in a stirring depiction of what can be accomplished through ingenuity and teamwork.

And what a team it is, right up there with the 1972 Dolphins, 1986 Celtics and the 1998 Yankees in its pursuit of perfection. And like all great teams, it all begins with the captain. In this case the estimable James T. Kirk, the quick-with-a-quip ladies man who seldom, if ever, sticks to the book.

It’s a character William Shatner made so indelible, it’s nary impossible to match his mix of brains and chutzpah. But Chris Pine (“The Princess Diaries”) is more than up for the challenge.

Chris who, you say?

Chris Pine – and you won’t be asking that question once you’ve seen him command both the role and the movie.

He fills Kirk’s space boots with a brashness that easily matches the size of el capitan’s ego. You simply cannot get enough of him, whether he’s skydiving through space, striking down raucous Romulans or locking lips with Zoe Saldana’s hot-as-the-sun Uhura.

Equally inspired is the choice of “Heroes” star Zachary Quinto to fill out the famously pointy ears of Spock, the even-tempered, Obama-like Vulcan destine to be Kirk’s closest confidant and friend.

You’d never know that here, though, as “Star Trek” finds them in a mostly adversarial mode, with Kirk’s antics as a student at the Starfleet Academy driving the unflappable Spock crazier than a Klingon. Their chemistry isn’t quite as potent as that shared by Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (making a pivotal cameo in the film), but it’s more than a reasonable enough substitute.

Ditto for the rest of the Enterprise crew consisting of a funny and witty Karl Urban as eternal-pessimist Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, John Cho as the stoic Sulu, Anton Yelchin as the thick-tongued Ruskie, Chekov, and especially Simon Pegg, hilariously beaming up the ship’s chief engineer, Scotty.

They may not bear as strong a resemblance to the original actors as Pine and Quinto do, but each is instantly recognizable and immediately likeable.

You also appreciate how Abrams doesn’t throw them at you all at once, as he works like Hollywood’s version of Theo Epstein in building his team piece by piece around a nucleus of Kirk and Spock. And he does it so methodically that it’s not until about 90 minutes in that we’re finally introduced to Scotty, the last, but certainly not least, of the featured players.

Abrams also avoids the pitfalls of  the three “Star Wars” prequels, by making it a thrill to meet these familiar characters before they  became the stars of the stars. Credit a lot of that to a solid script by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (both veterans of Abrams’ TV series “Alias”) that consistently places character development ahead of action and plot.

Abrams, who’s made back stories one of the most intriguing elements on his hit TV show “Lost,” employs much the same techniques here, including the opening scene depicting Kirk being born at precisely the same moment that his father, a Starship commander, loses his life heroically in battle.

The only character who remains pretty much an enigma is the Bin Laden-like Nero (an unrecognizable Eric Bana), a rogue Romulan planning 9/11-like terrorist attacks on Federation planets. Those attacks, the next one planned for Earth, set the stage for unleashing some pretty special special effects.

But it’s the crew of the Enterprise and how the members relate to one another that holds your interest and regains your respect for a franchise that long ago seemed to forget that having fun and making lofty statements about the state of the universe were not mutually exclusive.

And while “Star Trek” sidesteps any bold political metaphors, it sends enough signals to indicate that won’t be the case in future installments.         

And I, for one, can hardly wait.

The Patriot Ledger

STAR TREK (PG-13) Cast includes Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, John Cho, Anton Yelchin and Simon Pegg. Directed by J.J. Abrams. 3 stars of 4.