Blasting onto the screen at warp speed and remaining there for two hours, the new and improved “Star Trek” will transport fans to sci-fi nirvana. Faithful enough to the spirit and key particulars of Gene Roddenberry’s original conception to keep its torchbearers happy but, more crucially, exciting on its own terms in a way that makes familiarity with the franchise irrelevant, J.J. Abrams’ smart and breathless space adventure feels like a summer blockbuster that just couldn’t stay in the box another month. Paramount won’t need any economic stimulus package with all the money it’ll rake in with this one globally, and a follow-up won’t arrive soon enough.
“Star Trek” here joins the James Bond series as the long-term ‘60s franchises that have been most successfully rebooted, although the current accomplishment is the more surprising since, after 10 films and a succession of TV series, “Star Trek” was widely thought to have exhausted itself. While respectfully handling the Roddenberry DNA, Abrams and longtime writing cohorts Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have transferred it to a trim new body that hums with youthful energy.
As happened with Bond and “Casino Royale,” the Abrams team decided it would be best to go back to the beginning — earlier, in fact, than the first TV show did in 1966 — to show the origins of James Kirk and Spock and the launch of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Stir in a well-chosen cast of relative unknowns, a strong new villain, vastly updated special effects and a dynamic style that makes “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” look 60 years old rather than just 30, and you’ve planted the seed for a whole new generation of Trekkies.
A wham-bang 12-minute action prologue both clears the palette of residual series expectations and sets the table for the kind of excitement that’s amply in store. The script brims with backstory and future-story but never loses track of the present, in which young James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine), a wild Iowa boy whose father sacrificed himself at the helm of a spaceship at the very moment the child was being born, is convinced by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) to attend the Starfleet Academy with an eye to joining the crew of the Enterprise.
Headed for the same destination is Spock (Zachary Quinto), whose troubled background as a half-human, half-Vulcan is deftly sketched in. If the script has an overriding concern, it’s to map out how these two very opposite figures become mutually trusted colleagues, a key not only to this film but the entire series, past and future.
By the time Captain Pike says “Let’s punch it” at the 40-minute mark, the key crew is rounded out by professional pessimist Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), nobody’s fool Uhura (Zoe Saldana), the valued Sulu (John Cho) and a 17-year-old Russian brain named Chekov (Anton Yelchin).
Longtime fans will feel comfortable onboard the new Enterprise, which might be compared with the new Yankee Stadium; it’s spiffier and technically more up-to-date, but has a familiar ambiance. The costumes are similarly not out of place, but have been stripped of the dorky look that always seemed borderline laughable on TV.
More adventurous is the design for the space-borne behemoth called home by the ferocious Nero (Eric Bana). Resembling a tattooed, grizzled brother of Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” series, Nero wants to annihilate the Federated planets, most notably Vulcan and Earth.
Unfortunately, Nero has the means to accomplish this in the form of drills that can cause a planet to implode. One of the film’s most spectacular setpieces has Kirk leading two others in a free-fall dive from space for one of these drills, then fighting off two big goons as the fate of a heavily populated planet hangs in the balance.
Exile to an ice planet, Delta Vega, enables Kirk to do some inadvertent time-traveling and meet an older version of Spock (Leonard Nimoy, in much more than a brief cameo), a happenstance that complicates matters on the space-time continuum.
“Star Trek” rockets along like a beautifully engineered vehicle you can’t help but admire for its design and performance. It shifts gears often but always smoothly, and accelerates again and yet again when you suspect it might be tempted to ease up for good.
Pine’s Kirk exhibits an early tendency toward undue cockiness but suffers enough setbacks and rough surprises that the actor is forced into more varied and thoughtful responses. (Someone should decide about his hair color, however, as it varies from reddish to blond in different scenes.) Quinto makes for a very good young Spock, a man trying to define and perfect the kind of man he wants to be. Urban shows comic promise as the medic; Yelchin and Simon Pegg, the latter as a reputedly brainy engineer, prompt some real laughs; and Saldana is vibrant as the female crew member who bestows her favors on one officer to the exasperation of another. Bana is memorably scary as the villain.
Production and effects values are top-notch. Michael Giacchino’s score soars — occasionally a bit too much, perhaps — with real character and vigor.