I am not a Trekkie. It's important that this be clearly established before we move on. Yes, as a boy I was a fan of the original "Star Trek," to the point where I could distinguish a Saladin-class Destroyer from a Ptolemy-class tug--an admission I'd be loath to make if my wife weren't already bound to me by marital vows, two children, and a large puppy. But I never cottoned to the subsequent Trek series and bailed out on the movie adaptations shortly after the Enterprise started rescuing whales in the mid-80s. I am not, in other words, someone who approached director J. J. Abrams's new Star Trek expecting to be perturbed by--or even aware of--its canonical deviations.
Yet there is something about the heedless enthusiasm with which Abrams dismantles his inherited universe that feels a tad ungenerous. He doesn't merely revise his predecessors, he erases them and, to some degree, the original rationale of the franchise. Kirk and Spock and all the other familiar faces are here, but an accidental time traveler from the future (two, in fact) has shown up to radically alter the past. It's Abrams's "Lost," but in reverse: In the delightfully confounding ABC series, the elaborate time-travelling narratives are pieces of a puzzle that need to fit together at the end--at least if Abrams doesn't intend to spend his dotage in the witness protection program; in Star Trek, by contrast, the temporal shenanigans serve to wipe the slate clean for Abrams (and "Lost" partner Damon Lindelof, who produced) to do whatever the hell they like. Kill off a few characters' parents to give them the oedipal issues with which "Lost" viewers are so very familiar? Blow up the planet Vulcan as a down payment on a still larger climax? Introduce a little hanky panky among the series regulars (no, not Kirk and Spock, whose mutual longings remain sublimated)? Done, done, and done.
Still, for all its faults--and it has plenty to go around--Star Trek is nearly impossible to dislike. In his daft, dizzy reinvention of a moribund franchise, Abrams has found a way to be referential without being reverential, to conjure nostalgia without being constrained by it. He may play fast and loose with the world he's been bequeathed, but at least the movie he gets out of it is itself fast and loose.
Abrams puts his stamp on the proceedings quickly, offering up Dead Parent Number One in the very first scene. Investigating what seems to be a "lightning storm in space," the Federation starship U.S.S. Kelvin abruptly finds itself phaser-to-phaser with an immense claw-like dreadnought piloted by the surly Romulan captain Nero (Eric Bana, looking as though he just got back from an unsuccessful audition for Road Warrior! The Musical). When the encounter goes poorly and the captain of the Kelvin is killed, it falls upon First Officer George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) to evacuate the crew, including his own wife, Winona (Jennifer Morrison), who is in the process of delivering a baby boy. As the lifeboats flee, George realizes that the only way to ensure their safety is to stay behind and kamikaze the Kelvin into the Romulan maw. In his last moments, he and Winona have a sorely belated ship-to-ship discussion of baby names. Tiberius? Nah, the kid would never forgive them. Jim? Bingo. And then bang-o: One space-faring Kirk departs the world, another arrives.
Born under so unlucky a star, it's hardly surprising that James T. Kirk (played as an adult by Chris Pine) grows up with issues, which Abrams dramatizes by having adolescent Jim drive his stepdad's vintage convertible off a cliff, and twentyish Jim pick pyrrhic barfights across rural Iowa. Flipping back and forth to the planet Vulcan, we also meet the mixed-race Spock (Zachary Quinto), whose rebellions against authority are less rowdy but no less deep. Both men of course make their way to Star Fleet, thus beginning the oddest couplehood since Felix Unger showed up on Oscar Madison's doorstep with a suitcase and a frown. Soon enough, there is another "lightning storm in space," and the Enterprise is sent to investigate, with Kirk and Spock on board.
I'm not going to describe the rest of the story in any detail because, if I did, you wouldn't believe me. It is not without reason that the movie itself withholds its explanations until about the 90-minute mark and, even then, delivers them by expository Vulcan mind meld, presumably to avoid the otherwise inevitable "You have got to be kidding me" response. Suffice to say that the script (by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) may be the most preposterous since Lex Luthor decided to take over the world by way of kryptonic real estate: This is a film with, literally, a black hole where its plot should be. There were moments when I couldn't help but wonder whether George Lucas had somehow gotten his cinematic butterfingers on yet another iconic movie franchise.