After 43 years, our relationship with the Franchise had grown so familiar and worn that we’d quietly moved into separate bedrooms. If we’d had the energy, we might have signed divorce papers. Nonetheless, every few years, the Franchise put on a new outfit and twirled around hopefully. This usually won it some new admirers, although those of us who remembered the deep past most fondly were less enamored of its new permutations. We wished the Franchise no ill will, but at the same time we occasionally thought: Give it a rest, darling, you’re showing your age.
Not any more. Director J.J. Abrams’ version of Star Trek, the 11th movie to spin off from the original 1960s television series, catapults us into the Land Before Star Trek Began with a brisk, joyous romp that makes us consider renewing those vows. It’s a real family film, relatively light on the violence and funny without being overly crude; it even has some touching moments. Those with encyclopedic knowledge of all things Trekkian may sputter over tinkering with the mythology, but it’s all justified not particularly tidily, but handily under the kind of time-traveling clause you might expect from the guy who created Lost.
To begin, we go back to the womb, to the day of James T. Kirk’s birth in deep space, when his father makes a noble sacrifice to save the lives of others, including that of his infant son precisely as he makes his way down the birth canal. The next time we see young Jim in an energetic Spielberg-influenced sequence he’s a bratty Iowa farm boy of about 11, stealing a car and fulfilling every stereotype of a kid lacking a proper father-figure . Flash forward another decade and Kirk is a townie, living in the shadow of a Starfleet campus, which looms over the cornfields like a scarily large silo. He’s still a brat, but also brawny and possessing a William Shatner-esque swagger. No wonder he catches the eye of a recruiter.
With impeccable timing, Abrams welcomes the rest of the old crew of the Enterprise, young and fresh again, one by one to his dance floor. First up is Spock , who was bullied on Vulcan for having a human mother and chose to take refuge in the Starfleet Academy. Then comes Uhura , who rejects Kirk’s leering come-on with just the crisp efficiency you’d expect.
By the time Leonard “Bones” McCoy introduces himself to Kirk on a transporter full of new recruits, my grin had settled in for good. In terms of casting, Ryder is Abrams’ only blunder. John Choo as Hikaru Sulu Perfection. Simon Pegg as Scotty Genius. I didn’t recognize Anton Yelchin, who makes a charming 17-year-old Chekov, from his role in Hearts of Atlantis but I was mentally clapping him on the back as well.
Very often the updating of an older franchise leads to a shrieking mass of technological bells and whistles . Star Trek certainly looks as lively as an ambitious, action-oriented summer blockbuster ought, but Abrams is more interested in the characters than he is in showing off the ship, or the Big Bad, a fellow named Nero with a Black Hole complex. Abrams also pays homage to the original with a cameo by one of the old gang. That special guest has one scene too many, but there’s a sweetness of intent that makes it forgivable.
There are many satisfyingly sly flourishes in Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s script. You probably always assumed, as I did, that McCoy was called “Bones” because he was a doctor. But as he meets Kirk, he’s half-drunk and grumbling about how his ex-wife just cleaned him out in a divorce. “All I’ve got left is my bones,” he says woefully. Now there’s some back-story.
But the ultimate back-story, and the heart of the movie, as it should be, is the love story between Kirk and Spock. It’s a tumultuous affair, full of insults , jealousy and even an expulsion from the Enterprise. It’s a good thing that we already know that they live long, prosper and bicker together for years to come.
Read Lev Grossman’s story “Back to the Final Frontier.”
See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.