Every generation gets their version of Star Trek. I can think of at least three iterations (and one could argue there are more) of the venerable franchise - namely the original series (1966-69), the feature films (1978-91) and the Next Generation (the series, the films and the 3 spinoff shows, 1989-2005). Each had its own vibe, its own plusses, and its own pitfalls. But each was a re-imagining in its own way. It is easy to cite "Wrath of Khan" as the greatest of the films (and surely it is), and it is credited with reinvigorating the spirit of the original series, but the reality is that it added so much to the canon, taking it in a new direction (Meyer's vision of mankind as essentially unchanged, in terms of his basic passions, was in direct opposition to Roddenberry's utopian vision). Next Generation was as cheesy and set in its context, the 1990s, as the original series was in the 60s (instead of go-go boots, beehive hairdos, and miniskirts we got technobabble, "synthohol", and a therapist on the bridge). Yet it all now fits into the canon we know as "Star Trek".
This is all a way of saying that I was prepared to give JJ Abrams and the teenagers he'd hired (who look like they've wandered off the set of Disney's "High School Musical") to fill these iconic roles, a fair amount of leeway. After all there are three types of reinvigorations of beloved franchises: a reunion (often a 4th film tagged onto an existing trilogy, years later for the purposes of squeezing a little more money out of fans - think the horrendous 4th films in the "Indiana Jones", "Lethal Weapon", or "Die Hard" series); a parody of said franchise (think "Starsky & Hutch" or "Charlie's Angels", or the upcoming "Magnum" movie); or a new look at the series, with new people involved, who are able to bring a fresh approach, but hopefully not mess too much with the things people loved about it in the first place. JJ Abrams oft reported that Trek would be the third of these. He'd keep the things people loved (the characters and canon, as much as was possible), while updating things that needed to be updated (ie, state of the art effects and modern sensibilities). When it works it looks something like "Batman Begins" or "Casino Royale" which seem to be the gold standard for reboots (boy is that term overused in film reviews).
Let me then cut to the chase and say that Abrams' "Star Trek" is good. In fact, it's very good. And if it isn't quite MY Star Trek, let me say that it does bear a much stronger resemblance to my Star Trek than I would have thought. Let me go one step farther and say that it probably is exactly the Star Trek that Gene Roddenberry would make if he were starting his franchise in 2009. I have facetiously referred to this film as "iTrek" - Apple, Gap, Nokiu, and Facebook tie-ins seem to abound, even when they're not obvious. The cast do look like teenagers to me (although a later complaint of the original series is that they hired actors in their late 30s, which became a problem when the series was still going strong 25 years later), and the frenetic editing, effects and camera work makes even the exciting "Wrath of Khan" seem like a Masterpiece Theatre stageplay by comparison. But don't compare quick editing with pacing - as far as moving a story along briskly, the prize still goes to Jonathan Frakes, with "First Contact" and "Insurrection". This new Star Trek drags a little in places, not least of all because there are one or two gratuitous action sequences. These scenes fail to impress us, because we've seen it all before. CGI's unintended consequence is that no one asks "how did they do that??" anymore. These sequences could have been trimmed with no impact on the story - think of Kirk's landing on the ice planet, and encounter with two of its denizens. On the other hand, one setpiece - the freefall onto the mining platform - is genuinely thrilling.
But that is a minor quibble - what matters is story and characterizations, and Abrams gets a B+ on the first and an A+ on the second. The story is necessarily convoluted. The writers, Kurtzman and Orci (and these are the guys who have not had a stellar resume to date. "Transformers" anyone?) needed to figure out a way to reset the timeline, which would allow them to change the canon, but keep the characters essentially intact. This leads to a plot which frankly, has been done to death in Trek (especially in the series, post TNG), and is a bit silly. But it brings us Leonard Nimoy as Spock, which is a fabulous move. And the plots of most Treks (especially when you throw time travel into the mix) cast some logic and plausibility out the window. We can overlook those, because there is plenty of drama, humour, and a good adventure story to follow. And this is where Abrams surprises me. Trek has been known to recycle its ideas before. "The Voyage Home" was basically a remake of "The Motion Picture", which was a remake of the original series episode, "The Changeling". "Nemesis" and "First Contact" were inspired by "Wrath of Khan" which was, itself a sequel to the original series episode "Space Seed". Abrams goes back to the Khan well yet again - sometimes slyly, and sometimes overtly (one of the best sequences actually shows Kirk beating the Kobayashu Maru test, while simultaneously explaining why Spock never took it). Oddly, the villain, Nero, and his ridiculous spaceship were stolen from "Nemesis", which is probably the worst of the films to date. The fact that it works here is more a testament to the story/characters surrounding it, then to say it was a good idea. We can easily forgive these things if we think of this movie as a "best of" compilation.
Where this film really soars is in its casting and understanding of the characters. There really isn't a misstep here, in my opinion, with the possible exception of Chekov (used primarily for lame comic relief). Quinto not only looks like Spock but he plays him to perfection. Pine's Kirk could have been a punk, and yet we find ourselves rooting for him and sensing the future greatness he embodies. Those two needed to be done right, and they are - possibly because they aren't playing the characters we knew even from the original series - they are playing those characters as they would have been 10 years before that. So Kirk is more cocky, and unburdened from the responsibilities of leadership; Spock is more emotional, as he wrestles with his dual nature. Karl Urban is the only one who seems to do a straight imitation, of DeForest Kelley as McCoy, but that seems to be okay. It's reminiscent of Ewan McGregor's take on Alec Guinness in the Star Wars trilogy. Pine copying Shatner's mannerisms would have been ridiculous, but copying Kelley's seems to work just fine. This McCoy brings warmth and compassion to the screen, despite not having a whole lot to do. The other standout is Uhura, who is given more to do here, and she comes across as ethereal, sexy, and mysterious. It may be a mild spoiler alert to hint at her relationship with Spock, but it works too - it's very much in keeping with the teasing that she sometimes gave Spock in the original series. We always sensed there was some sort of connection there. Here we see it. Sulu and Scotty are both fine in their roles. I actually can't think of a single casting decision I'd change. Geenwood is great as Pike (and more importantly puts a Canadian in the cast), and if Tyler Perry as a Federation leader seems like an inappropriate choice, let me just say that it doesn't impact me, because I have no idea who Tyler Perry is (as opposed to the Christian Slater embarrassment in Trek VI). And Nimoy could play Spock well into his 90s if he chose, as the character just gets more and more interesting.
It is a shade less cerebral perhaps than some of the films, certainly. But this is meant to be a popcorn picture. And where the original Trek series and films quoted liberally from the works of Melville and Shakespeare, this film is actually quoting earlier Trek. Which has become literature at this point, right? The biggest moments come from hearing new actors in familiar roles uttering those catchphrases we have come to love. But it's done honestly. When Scotty yells, "I canna give ye any more, Captain!" it happens in the heat of the battle, and seems as authentic as when Doohan said it, long before it became parodied. When McCoy says, "Dammit, I'm a doctor, not a physicist", we can't help but smile.
Largely on the strength of the actors, the film works. Abrams knows how to hit all the high notes. He draws on Star Trek's fabled past much more than I thought he would. If you never liked Star Trek but find yourself liking this movie, you've unwittingly bought into the myth that it's better because it's hip and young (you're also probably the type that can't watch black and white movies because they're in black and white). Original series Trek never got old and tired. The final film with the original cast was one of the best. This new Trek is actually very much like the Trek that has gone boldly before. It didn't exactly feel like my Star Trek, but it came pretty darn close.
When asked, after the film how I felt, I responded, in Kirk-like fashion: "I feel.....young.". The teenagers did all right.