Why do people obsess over Star Trek? It was a Day-Glo show from the Quaalude-end of the Sixties. The cast couldn’t act. The effects looked cheap. But it spawned a legend that has lasted forty years. Obviously this has nothing to do with the scripts (which were terrible) or the creator (who was an idiot). It can’t even be down to the star (who was the worst actor of the lot). So it must be the characters that saved the show: Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock; two Etch-a-Sketches of the male psyche. The one led by his loins, the other by his frontal lobe. The new Star Trek throws out the forty wasted years between then and now. It sticks with what works.
James T. Kirk is born in the midst of a space battle. His father is a star-ship captain, on the losing side. Kirk Sr. dies so that his wife and son can evade capture. Twenty years later, on Earth, James T. is anchored to a bar stool. He’s trying not to compete with his father’s name. But – since that’s no way for a movie star to behave – he signs up for Star Fleet, where, lo-and-behold, his first mission is to take-on the guys who turned his daddy into space dust. He’ll get help along the way from an eccentric Scottish engineer, a cantankerous ship’s doctor, a sexy radio operator and a pointy-eared First Officer who’s half alien, half Winona Ryder.
The good news is: they found the right Kirk. Unfazed by the legend of William Shatner, Chris Pine owns the role. Those who fretted that he looked like an underwear model can relax. He does look like an underwear model, but he can act too. Pine has charisma. He makes a pass at a girl and you either want to be him or to be in bed with him. Life is present in his face. He isn’t Paul Walker, with bath-plug eyes and soap in his mouth. He’s witty, passionate, an iconoclast. Pine knows the icon he’s playing came out of a campy TV show, so he doesn’t let undue reverence bog him down. He plays Kirk the way Kirk ought to be played: like a man who doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario. You don’t act Kirk, you star.
Being Spock is all about being logical. Or as logical as you can be when your character is an alien with an altar-boy’s haircut. Zachary Quinto acquits himself admirably. Even when faced with Leonard Nimoy, he doesn’t falter. The storyline of the new movie gives Quinto’s Spock perhaps the best scene too, when a certain planet is obliterated. Quinto’s severed expression (when disaster strikes) is like a window knocked out of its frame. He gets that Spock should be someone trying always to be like glass and never succeeding, always undone by what’s behind the act. The secret of Spock and Kirk’s friendship is that Kirk sees Spock for a bullshit artist and calls him on it (N.B. this is the way that men become great friends).
There are plenty of space battles, last minute escapes and breath-taking kisses in Star Trek, but if the chemistry between the male leads was off, the movie wouldn’t work. We don’t buy the revenge story, and we’re not supposed to. Star Trek is a summer movie. That means: you can laugh. We’re off on an adventure when we set off with these characters. As long as we like them, it doesn’t really matter where they go. Witness Kirk – with his hands temporarily ballooning (don’t ask) – trying to warn his comrades they’re flying into a trap! Or the scene where Spock beams down to a planet thirty seconds from catastrophe! It’s all popcorn.
Two things got lost in all the years of Star Trek: The Next Generation movies. The first was scale and the second was a sense of fun. Patrick Stewart never looked right holding a laser rifle. You always knew Star Trek wasn’t for him. William Shatner may never have learned to act, but he came to understand. His Kirk is someone who knows he’s both iconic and kitsch. Best line in any Star Trek movie (from Star Trek IV): “I’m from Iowa. I only work in outer space.” That’s what’s best about Star Trek; the sense of play the characters possess. We all know that po-faced sci-fi is worst genre in the world. The new Star Trek works because it’s made for big kids.