In many ways, I'm precisely the kind of movie fan J.J. Abrams' big-budget Star Trek reboot will need to attract in order to be a hit. While I love science fiction, I've never been much of a Trekkie (or Trekker, if you prefer). I've watched bits and pieces of Gene Roddenberry's original series and its various spin-offs, and seen only two of the feature films, Wrath of Khan and First Contact, in their entirety, and while I generally liked what I saw, I was never inspired to join the ranks of the Star Trek faithful.
Armed with a limited knowledge of the Trek universe, I attended Paramount's presentation of 20 minutes of footage from their much anticipated reboot with the goal of finding out whether Mr. Abrams could successfully reinvent the storied sci-fi franchise.
All told, Abrams showcased four scenes:
Scene One -- Kirk's Bar Fight
The camera follows Uhura (Zoe Saldana) as she enters a futuristic nightclub and flirts with Kirk (Chris Pine), who, despite his obvious drunkenness, manages to impress her with his intellect. Just when he's starting to get somewhere, however, Kirk is confronted by a quartet of Starfleet Academy meatheads, and a nasty bar fight ensues. With Kirk on the verge of a serious a**-whooping, Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) intervenes to save him.
Impressions: Pine's portrayal of Kirk reminded me a lot of Matt Damon's character in Good Will Hunting: Bright, confrontational, and self-destructive, his brash machismo betrays a certain deep-seated insecurity. Playing the part of Robin Williams' therapist character is Greenwood's Pike, who sits down with Kirk and implores him to not allow his prodigious talent to go to waste. Duly inspired, Kirk enrolls in the Academy the next day.
Scene Two -- Kirk the Stowaway
Left off the crew for the U.S.S. Enterprise's maiden voyage -- a rescue-reconnaissance mission to planet Vulcan -- because of recurring disciplinary problems, Kirk manages to stow away on the ship by exploiting a rule allowing for cadets in a physician's care to accompany their doctor on missions. Sensing a Romulan trap, Kirk tries to convince Captain Pike to halt the mission and avert certain disaster.
Impressions: There's a lot of humor in this scene -- much more than I would have expected from a Star Trek flick. Injected with a vaccine by Bones (Karl Urban) as part of his scheme to join the mission, Kirk experiences some unanticipated side effects, including extreme swelling of the hands, as he hurries to the bridge to warn Pike of the Romulan trap. There's also a gag involving Russian native Chekov's (Anton Yelchin) inability to properly pronounce the letter V.
Some of the humor seemed a little broad for my taste, but none of it was too off-putting. What bugged me the most was Zachary Quinto's portrayal of Spock. Among the young cast, his challenge is perhaps the greatest -- veer just a little off-course and the performance too easily becomes a caricature -- and at this point it's unclear whether he's succeeded. We saw less of him than any other major cast member in the four scenes that Abrams debuted, and I'm wondering if that's not a coincidence. Because when we did see him, it was somewhat distracting. On the plus side, Trek fans in attendance raved about Urban, who seemed to establish a nice chemistry with Pine.
Scene Three -- Meet Young Scotty (and Old Spock)
After Spock is made Captain of the Enterprise, his first order of business is to banish his rival Kirk ("Kirk and Spock don't get along," Abrams explained) to a remote ice planet, where he first encounters an elderly Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy) and then a young Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg), a fellow exile who is hard at work developing a method for "trans-warp beaming" that will allow them to rejoin the Enterprise crew. Old Spock is all too happy to assist them in their efforts, but not before lending Kirk some useful advice.
Impressions: This was probably my favorite scene. Of all the actors portraying classic Trek characters, Pegg seems the most capable of making the role his own. He was the first among the cast who I didn't view as someone playing a younger version of a character from the series, but rather just a character. And seeing an aged Spock impart some wisdom on a young Kirk didn't feel as contrived or forced as I anticipated. It was kind of touching, actually.
Scene Four -- The Space Jump
Their invasion of Vulcan an apparent success, the Romulans have begun using a massive drill to bore a giant hole in Spock's home planet. Kirk, Sulu, and a red-shirted cadet named Olson are sent to disable the drilling platform via a "space jump," a kind of futuristic, high-speed parachuting maneuver. Needless to say, Olson doesn't make it.
Once atop the platform, Kirk and Sulu are confronted by a pair of Romulans. Sulu wields a kind of portable laser-sword (don't call it a lightsabre), while Kirk pulls out a phaser. After a fierce tussle atop the mile-high drilling platform, the two Romulan adversaries are eventually overcome, but not before their superiors are able to unleash a planet-destroying black hole device within Vulcan's core.
Impressions: This was by far the most-intense, action-packed scene of the four that Abrams unveiled. The visual effects, which can so often overshadow the action in a big-budget flick like this, were absolutely perfect. The hand-to-hand combat, on the other hand, was thoroughly unremarkable.
Conclusion: Watching the footage, I couldn't help but be reminded of another sci-fi flick that came and went with little fanfare three years ago: Serenity, Joss Whedon's ill-fated big-screen adaptation of his ill-fated TV series. Like Serenity, Abrams' Star Trek involves a crew of attractive young people making their way around a dangerous galaxy. Both feature lots of snappy dialogue and heavy doses of humor. But whereas Whedon's film had this oddly inert, vaguely asexual vibe to it (Nathan Fillion's character struck me as sort of a neutered Han Solo), the new Star Trek feels like a muscular, edgy action movie -- thanks largely to what looks like a star-making performance by Chris Pine. Pine doesn't attempt to mimic William Shatner at all; in fact, long-time Trek fans will be hard-pressed to find any traces of the old Kirk in his version. Which, in my opinion, is a good thing.
Though I'm no closer to becoming a Trekkie (or Trekker, whatever), I am sold on Abrams' vision for Star Trek, and I look forward to seeing it next May.
Check out the Star Trek Trailer: