Reboots are a funny thing. They take a movie that once worked but maybe no longer does and tries to make it again. But this time, in such a way that it resonates more with modern audiences than its predecessor does. It’s an idea that looks good on paper until one realizes that fans of the original version die hard, and if the reboot isn’t a bona fide improvement over the original—and let’s face it, a lot of them aren’t—then it gives rise to some pretty pointed questions. Namely: “Has Hollywood run out of ideas?” and “What idiot thought this movie really needed to be remade?” The thing is, reboots aren’t intrinsically doomed to fail, nor do they have to be cynical exercises in milking a franchise long after it’s run dry. Done right, they can be a worthy reinterpretation of something great that becomes great in its own right. And for that, we might be hard pressed to find a better example in recent years than J.J. Abram’s 2009 reboot of one of the most iconic science fiction franchises in television and motion picture history, Star Trek.
The story takes place in the 23rd century, long after humanity has journeyed to the stars and helped to establish the galaxy-spanning Federation of Planets. On a routine mission, the USS Kelvin runs afoul of a hostile Romulan starship run by a grimy warlord named Nero who is searching for an (aha!) Ambassador Spock. Not finding him, Nero destroys the Kelvin, but not before its passenger Winona Kirk escapes and gives birth to her son, and one of our heroes, James. Fast forward almost twenty years, and young James is a Starfleet Academy washout, too reckless and burdened with emotional baggage to become the kind of officer he knows he could be. But when fate puts him, the science officer Spock and other cadets on the USS Enterprise to investigate an emergency on Spock’s home world of Vulcan, Nero arises once again as the architect of a time-spanning plot to destroy Vulcan, Kirk and the Federation itself. Untested and unproven, Kirk, Spock and their fellow would-be officers McCoy, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov and Scotty must adapt, improvise, overcome, and prevail in what will be the first of their many, many adventures as they boldly go where no one has gone before.
It feels kind of stupid even summarizing this movie, for it presumes nobody reading this has the faintest clue what Star Trek is. After all, who hasn’t at least heard of it in the last 50 years? Who hasn’t heard the word Spock and thought of an emotionally distant, overly logical alien guy with pointy ears? Who hasn’t heard lines like “He’s dead, Jim,” and not have them register on some level? That is the true challenge of this movie: to start the entire Star Trek journey afresh while threading through several decades’ worth of canonic needles. Revere the franchise’s rich history, but don’t be its prisoner. Try something new, but don’t deviate too far off course. Take chances with theme and tone, but don’t forget what made this thing resonate in the first place. Up against these kinds of challenges, one might be forgiven for never rebooting Star Trek at all. (And indeed, there are surely fans out there who wish it had not been.)
And yet, this Star Trek creates a set of rules for itself that does not feel like an imposter or a mistake. It pays homage without paying through the nose. And it establishes a new mythos for some of the world’s most famous characters that reminds us why we have followed them for so long in the first place. First and foremost, this Star Trek rests on the shoulders of its heroes and the things that drive them. Kirk is still an impulsive daredevil, Spock is still too logical, Scotty a puzzler of problems. McCoy the cranky sawbones, Uhura the master communicator, Sulu the wayfinder, Chekov the technical jack of all trades. But each is played with a fresh humanity by their actors, each taking this opportunity to examine new facts of who they are, explore new conflicts and challenges, and establish new ways of making them matter. This is where the movie succeeds most, in watching each of these nearly-too-familiar people both reunite with us and introduce themselves to us anew. Very rarely do we get a chance to meet old friends for the first time again. It is an experience to savor.
Where the movie deviates most from its extensive predecession is how it trades social commentary and ethical dilemmas for action-adventure and special effects. This is the Star Trek for everybody who ever watched the earlier shows or movies and wished somebody would just stop talking and blast something already. There are a lot more Kirks in the audience than the creators liked to admit. Or maybe they knew it and reined things in for their own good. Either way, the safeties are off now, and what we see, delightfully, is that when you give Star Trek all of the phaser fire, lens flare and motion blur it can handle, it really is the sort of platform that can accommodate outstanding space opera.
If you want it to, that is. Ultimately, the greatest triumph of this movie is in its moment of truth, when at its conclusion, we get a literal meeting of Star Trek both old and new in an exchange that is both a masterfully done passing of the narrative baton as well as a comment to the audience itself. Here, we see a Star Trek handover done with far more skill than ever before, with one version refusing to obviate the other. We know that even if this Enterprise isn’t the one we grew up with, it—and its crew—will explore and seek out new life and new civilizations. The stars are calling. Let us rise to meet them.