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Abrams Delivers a Solid, If Not Stellar, 'Star Trek'

If J.J. Abrams aimed to boldly go where no man has gone before with Star Trek, his long-anticipated franchise reboot that traces Capt. James T. Kirk’s roots back to his wildly undisciplined youth, give the man some credit. While there’s no denying that his contribution to the cult creation of the late Gene Roddenberry is cleverly executed, this latest Star Trek sometimes feels more like a winking homage than a new beginning.

Perhaps that was inevitable. After 79 episodes and six motion pictures involving the crew of the original Starship Enterprise, a full-scale reinvention would be out of the question. Kirk, Spock and the rest of the inhabitants of Roddenberry’s universe for four-plus decades are too firmly entrenched in our consciousness to be erased by Zachary Quinto’s reasonable facsimile of Leonard Nimoy, much less Karl Urban’s too-hammy impression of DeForest Kelley. Abrams’ cast plays on our familiarity, often for knowing laughs, but I wonder if that approach can sustain a series of new adventures.

Here, it works. The new Star Trek effectively recounts the formation of the core Enterprise crew, from the short-lived tenure of original captain, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), to the first mission under Kirk’s impetuous but sure-handed command. Through it all, young Kirk (Chris Pine, who brings boundless energy to the role) and young Spock remain the focal points – their friendship, it seems, began as anything but – though there is plenty of space-opera intrigue thanks to a Romulan terrorist played by Eric Bana. There is also a welcome appearance by Nimoy, whose aging Vulcan pragmatist (on loan from the future) provides the movie’s most engaging presence.

We learn much. Kirk, a hell-raiser since adolescence who would become a dashing ladies man, grew up an orphan and seemed destined for a life of barroom brawls in small-town Iowa before a chance encounter with Pike led him to the Starfleet Academy. Spock, on the other hand, endured a mostly humorless childhood, the butt of many an unfunny Vulcan joke thanks to his half-human bloodline. To call these two an odd couple would be understatement, but similarities emerge – among them, fierce tempers and a knack for high-pressure heroism.

Gradually, the crew comes together: Bones McCoy (Urban), the ship’s doctor with a flair for the melodramatic; Scotty (Simon Pegg), the gregarious engineer best known for working the beams; Chekov, the blandish navigator played by the equally blandish Anton Yelchin; Harold and Kumar’s John Cho as the swashbuckling physicist Mr. Sulu; and Zoe Saldana as the miniskirted Uhura, who arouses Spock’s semi-human passions on multiple occasions.

Their latest adventure together may seem as familiar as galaxies already traversed, but it is tightly constructed and suspenseful even when its outcome is less than in doubt. Bana’s raging Romulan has designs on destroying the Starfleet Federation’s planetary allies, and it’s up to the newly formed crew to reign him in. The action is fast, flashy and sometimes difficult to follow thanks to Abrams’ dizzying camerawork, but rarely does Star Trek fail to entertain.

That it fails to challenge the intellect as much as it could have, resonate on any meaningful emotional level or break new ground may appear a gratuitous complaint – this is a respectable addition to the Trekkie canon – but if your expectations are just a bit loftier, the joys of reunion may not seem unqualified.