It was once noted that “Casablanca” was perhaps the one movie to emerge from the studio system that accomplished everything that most studio films of the era tried to do: There’s a love story, intrigue, comedy and even a dash of torn-from-the-headlines current events. Seeing what “Casablanca” does perfectly with such seeming effortlessness throws its lesser contemporaries into sharp relief.
And while “Star Trek” is no “Casablanca,” it sets a new standard in various categories of its own: As a summer blockbuster, it delivers on pyrotechnics, fist-clenching excitement and three-dimensional characters. As a reboot of a popular franchise, it takes us back to square one in a way that feels both familiar and fresh. (As opposed to, say, the muddled “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”) And as a remake of a TV show, it captures the essence of the original while allowing the big-screen version to expand in new and thrilling directions.
“Star Trek” is easily the summer tentpole movie by which all of 2009’s summer tentpole movies will be measured. And I say this as someone who’s not a fanatic about the original show or about the nerd-friendly work of director J.J. Abrams. (For what it’s worth, the hardcore “Trek” fanatic on one side of me and the person on the other side of me whose only exposure to the “Trek” movies was “the one with the whales” loved it just as much as I did.)
One of the smartest moves that Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (working from the original Gene Roddenberry blueprint) made was to place this new “Star Trek” both into the saga’s original continuity and outside of it at the same time. (Doing so involves black holes and chronological disparities that make perfect sense during the movie; just don’t ask me to explain them here.) This wormhole-loophole allows the creators to placate old-school Trekkers while simultaneously freeing themselves up to do what they want.
And what they want winds up being exhilarating and intelligent from start to finish. We begin with Romulan madman Nero (Eric Bana) opening fire on the USS Kelvin and taking its captain hostage; assuming command is the first Captain Kirk, who sacrifices his life and his ship so that the Kelvin’s refugees — including his wife, who gives birth to young James Tiberius Kirk during her escape — may live.
Jump forward to troubled adolescent James (Chris Pine), who decides to attend Starfleet Academy after flirting with alien-languages major Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and getting an affectionate talking-to by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who studied the Kelvin incident and thinks the younger Kirk could do his father proud.
Meanwhile, on Vulcan, Spock (Zachary Quinto) turns down an opportunity to join the Vulcan Science Council when he realizes they will always judge him for his half-human heritage, choosing instead to join Starfleet. He and Kirk square off at first, but…
I’m shutting up about the plot now, because “Star Trek” (again, unlike “Wolverine”) is loaded with surprises even though the whole movie is about getting Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Bones (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Scotty (Simon Pegg) and the whole gang together again for the first time.
While “Star Trek” certainly represents a triumph for the franchise — these characters are rounded-out and complicated and fully-formed rather than just being charmingly wooden — it’s also a flat-out satisfying movie, even if you come to it with no “Trek” baggage. Whether it’s a breathtaking sequence involving parachutes and a sword-fighting Sulu or outer-space battles that accentuate the terrifying and silent void of the universe, the film balances amazing action with human interactions that are similarly engrossing.
Video: ‘Star Trek’ worth the hype? When Pike goads Kirk with the line, “Your father was captain of a starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives, including yours. I dare you to do better,” I could feel the hairs on my neck standing up in a way usually reserved for well-written, powerful dramas and not mass-market genre movies.
This new “Star Trek” made me unpack my adjectives: It’s exciting, moving, hilarious, action-packed, sexy (a romance pops up between two very unexpected characters) and suspenseful — in short, exactly what big, fun summer popcorn movies are supposed to be and yet so rarely are. I’ve never glued on pointy ears and attended a “Star Trek” convention in my life, but this is a “Trek” I could get geeky about.
Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.
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