FINALLY, WE KNOW the answer to the conundrum that has plagued philosophers and scientists for decades: Will the disenfranchised youth of the 23rd century still listen to the Beastie Boys?
The answer, so obvious in hindsight: Yes.
So we learn in the opening moments of Star Trek, in which a bratty Iowa farm boy named James Tiberius Kirk blasts "Sabotage" as he gleefully slams down the accelerator during a joyride, fishtailing a stolen convertible with enough gusto that even a robot cop on a flying motorcycle has trouble keeping up. Meanwhile, on the planet Vulcan, a dweeby honors student named Spock gets teased for being half-human—at which point he puts aside the teachings of his stoic father for just long enough to beat the shit out of his pointy-eared bullies.
If it wasn't clear before, it is after these opening moments: This is a new Star Trek. Director J.J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III) and writers Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci (Transformers) have dusted off a doddering, weary franchise, injecting it with verve, punch, humor, and spectacle. Abrams & Co. have kept all that worked about Star Trek, but they've thrown aside everything that didn't—and the result is an epic, exuberant Trek that's remarkable for how much goddamn fun it is.
Which is great, but also kinda weird—if I only had one word to describe the sprawling Star Trek franchise, "fun" wouldn't be it. In 1966, when NBC first aired Star Trek, the show captured the optimism of the '60s to an insane degree. With a deceptively simple concept ("Wagon Train to the stars"), a then-revolutionary interracial cast, some heavy-handed allegories, and dozens of cut-rate guest stars in stupid alien makeup, creator Gene Roddenberry told some fantastic stories. Roddenberry's futuristic utopia was one in which humanity had outgrown money and war, eliminated disease and poverty, and also found the time to build some badass spaceships. In short, the ethos of Roddenberry's Star Trek could be boiled down to one word: optimism.
Abrams' Star Trek contains that brightness, too, albeit sometimes more literally than figuratively. ("I love the idea that the future was so bright it couldn't be contained in the frame," Abrams said in a recent interview, when asked about the approximately 80 million lens flares in the movie.) From the polished bridge of the Enterprise to the fresh-faced crew, this Star Trek literally gleams, both visually and tonally. (It's worth noting that last summer, in the waning days of the Bush administration, multiplexes were crammed with people reveling in The Dark Knight's grinding, insistent nihilism, while this weekend, those theaters will be full of people wanting to see not what humanity is, but what we could be if we ever get our shit together.)
But this Star Trek isn't all wide-eyed optimism—it's also a balls-out action-adventure that delves into the origins of the Enterprise's crew. (Plus, there are explosions! And ray guns!) After brief forays into Kirk and Spock's childhoods, we catch up with the rebellious, womanizing Kirk (Chris Pine) and the grumpy Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) as they finish their studies at Starfleet Academy, where one of their instructors is the tight-assed Spock (Zachary Quinto) Naturally, trouble arises almost immediately, when Nero (Eric Bana)—"a particularly troubled Romulan," as Spock dryly characterizes him—starts destroying planets. Pressed into service entirely too soon are the Enterprise's crewmembers: Kirk, Spock, and Bones, along with communications officer Uhura (Zoë Saldana), engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg), navigator-with-a-goofy-accent Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and helmsman/occasional swordsman Sulu (John Cho). Soon enough, that dickhead Nero is making subtle remarks like, "SPOOOOOOOCKKKKKKK!" and "FIRE EVERYTHING!", there are frenetic action sequences and kickass space battles, and wrinkly ol' OG Spock (Leonard Nimoy) even shows up to bless the whole endeavor.
The key to Star Trek's charm over the years has always been its core characters: William Shatner's cocky Kirk, DeForest Kelley's cantankerous Bones, and Nimoy's austere Spock. That's a key element to why this Star Trek works so well, too: This cast captures the spirit of their long-established characters, while also making the roles their own. (After seeing them in action, it's hard to argue with Shatner's grumble, in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, that "Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young.") The excellent Pine, in particular, comes across exceedingly well, nailing Kirk's swaggering charm, yet never stooping to do a too-easy Shatner impression. Quinto and Urban are similarly adept at embodying Spock and Bones, while Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead's Simon Pegg brings a flustered, giddy joy to Scotty.
Like his actors, Abrams is respectful of what's come before, but never slavish: There's still technobabble ("Divert auxiliary power from port nacelles to forward shields!"), dudes dressed in red who you know are gonna bite it, and mind-controlling alien slugs, but there's an enthusiasm and freshness to all of this that too few of Star Trek's previous 10 (10!) films or over 700 (700!) TV episodes captured. With two exceptions—Wrath of Khan and 1996's Star Trek: First Contact—Star Trek movies have always just felt like over-budgeted TV episodes, but thanks to Michael Giacchino's majestic score, Daniel Mindel's visceral cinematography, and Abrams' solid storytelling, this fast-paced Trek feels like an honest-to-god movie.
Like the only other feature Abrams has directed—2006's way-better-than-it-should've-been Mission: Impossible III—Star Trek isn't anything groundbreaking or earth shattering. It's just some extremely enjoyable and well-made pop, and an experience that feels far more original and resonant than it has any right to. For all its appeal, I'm not convinced Star Trek's sci-fi utopia is any more realistic of a goal for humanity now than it was in 1966—but if nothing else, Abrams has made Roddenberry's shiny future one hell of a place to visit.
DEPT. OF CORRECTIONS: The original article mistakenly stated that Star Trek debuted on CBS in 1966. The show actually aired on NBC. The Mercury regrets the error.For his failure, the writer of this article has been subjected to the Klingon ritual of discommendation. He is now without honor, and his offspring shall hang their heads in shame for the next seven generations.