Under the swoons of the orchestral dirge, you can hear J.J. Abrams stride onto the deck of the Enterprise and shout, “Welcome to my galaxy!”
For the devout shocked that James T. Kirk is here fatherless, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have an answer: That Romulan ship was from the future. And we’re not just dealing with piffling time travel, the kind resolved in an episode or three—by prematurely stripping Kirk of his dad, it altered his personality and thus the future for him and everyone on the Enterprise. In short, this reboot orders geeks to throw away their timelines and trivia.
Slapping the canon in the face feels like a proletarian high five, as though the film is saying the grazing fan has an equal stake in what’s sure to be a franchise. It also feels like a lazy dodge, but I’m on its side. This Kirk (Chris Pine) is untamed. He has the qualities of the classic—bravery, charisma, the ability to score with Orion slave girls—cranked up until he’s the most obnoxious frat guy at the party. When we meet him as an adult, he’s already several steps behind the rest of the crew. He’s an un-enlisted repeat offender while they’re hard at work at Starfleet Academy, which condescends to the surrounding Iowan townies like the prep school jerks in ’80s teen flicks. After a bar fight, he catches the attention of a Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who remembers Kirk’s father and urges him to straighten up and fly right. He, in turn, condescends to join them, and we’re both surprised that he’s the school screw up. The first thing Kirk does when he enters the Enterprise is bang his head on a beam. Later, he’s frozen out from leadership literally when Spock (Zachary Quinto) ejects him onto an ice planet.
In this alternate history, Spock reigns supreme. He’s first in line for the captain’s chair and the heart of Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Adios, first interracial kiss! “Who is that pointy-eared bastard?” grumbles Kirk. The antipathy is mutual. Even for a Vulcan, the film has an undercurrent of young heat; “Let’s kick some Romulan ass!” is a popular battle cry.
As they were in Cloverfield, said battle scenes are incoherent, even with the benefit of this handy tool called a tripod. Abrams cuts and jiggers his punches, but the brawls are a deflated mess that tend to end with a strangling. Though he’s taken pains to make the camerawork feel cinema-natural—complete with lens flares that harken back to actual sets predating green screens—his monsters are still a CGI disaster, all shiny and improbable. We’re doubly relieved that this installment speeds along on character, not action. Kirk and Spock helm the spring’s second bromance (Uhura’s kisses are just frosting.). Over one totally kick ass day, dude, they learn to join forces and set the world we know in motion, even though the gears underpinning it have changed. This top tier popcorn film’s focus is itself; it’s content to eschew secondary themes like justice or inhumanity or bruised heroism. Darkness has engulfed Batman and James Bond. Here, James T. Kirk isn’t out for philosophy, he’s out for his own ego, and we’re happy to come along for the ride.