There is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where they go to an alternate universe where Tasha Yar did not die and everything was super dark. It is to date the only Star Trek episode I think about fondly. The lesson is I only like Star Trek in an alternate universe.
I have always hated Star Trek in its various incarnations, mostly because it includes two of my least favorite things: hard science, and ham fisted allegories for contemporary problems, like a planet full of Native Americans or whatever. When people talk about Abrams streamlining, this is the fat he cuts out. You can argue that hard science and social relevance are not fat but rather essential parts of Star Trek, but you can't deny that Abrams' movie is a good movie in its own right.
Star Trek was the perfect summer popcorn blockbuster, no question. It has the essential quality for Summer blockbusters that Dark Knight sorely lacked -- it was brisk. Dark Knight was 2 hours and 40 minutes and felt like 4. Star Trek was less than 2 hours and felt like 70 minutes. And it showed a lot of economy -- not a wasted sequence. Brad pointed out a tiny detail that really captures the whole well: young Kirk, driving a stolen car, hangs up on his step-dad on a futuristic iPhone. You hear that guy's voice for maybe three sentences -- and never see him -- and that is all you need to know about the man who raised Kirk after his father died and how he became a different man as a result. The humor -- the sequence in which Bones keeps injecting Kirk with things was a particular standout.
My favorite example of economy was the simplicity of introducing the idea of the alternate time line -- two, maybe three sentences on the bridge. This guy went back in time and killed your dad. If that had not happened all this would have happened differently. Then off to the next sequence. It does an excellent job situating itself -- neither a sequel nor prequel nor reboot, it is part of the canonical but also basically free from it. That is exactly the distance Abrams needs to tell a good story -- enough room to have his own thing, but enough closeness so that the decisions he makes matter because they are perceived as moving against, or paying homage to, some established original. Poetic freedom only makes sense in opposition to something, says Harold Bloom, and he is totally right.
My Trekie friends told me that in the original series there was an episode in which Spock made out with Uhura, so the alternate universe made explicit something implicit in the original, which is a nice detail if you care about that kind of thing. Brad pointed out to me that in the Next Generation movie in which Shatner plays a role he dies falling off a cliff: the sequence where kid Kirk sends the car over the cliff without falling himself is Abrams saying My Kirk will never die by cliffs because that is the wrong ending for that character. Spock on the other hand -- that character was handled perfectly in the films, so he literally gets to survive in Abrams new universe. (Side note: did anyone think it was interesting that the number of Vulcans killed in this movie was said to be either 6 billion or 6 million, and Spock found a new home for the surviving 10,000 -- I felt like maybe this was drawing on Nemoy's Jewish identity, obviously an important part of his career, connecting the destruction of his planet with the Holocaust). Nemoy in the alternate timeline also pays tribute to the past show in a reserved way -- it would have been easy to load this movie up, so that every extra would have been from the various franchises.
Abrams knows what matters. He has a great structure, which is the most important thing for a movie like this (though that subject will require more than one viewing for me to discuss properly. I cannot remember the last time I saw I movie twice in the theaters but this one may deserve it). And he understands how to hang a movie on character, which is the other thing a good movie needs. The destruction of planets and so forth is all style -- and what communicates its status as style more than the fact that the mega death weapon is the "red matter" which like similar spinning red ball on Alias or even the rabbits foot in Mission Impossible 3, gets no explanation because it needs no explanation. Because that is not what this is about. This guy killed Kirk's Dad. Then he killed Spock's mom. Spock and Kirk develop a friendship in the course of getting revenge. And that is what the movie is about. That may seem obvious but the Matrix sequels are not the only examples of science fiction getting caught up in its own mythology and forgetting the fundamental truth that you are telling stories about people. That is why Lost will not explain the numbers, and why BSG should not have made its final sequence about being kind to robots. Just as Abrams learned (by counter example) from the Matrix sequels to focus on character first and avoid explanations of mythology he also picked up camera work (shaky cam in space, lens flair even in conversations) and a good sense of dirt from Firefly -- while still paying homage to the cleanliness of the original series by having the Enterprise look brand new because it actually is brand new. (Also in the spirit of Firefly, a joke in which the Enterprise fails to launch after a dramatic build).
The score from the guy who does the music for LOST, was wonderful too I thought, though this sentence lacks a paragraph to be in. Sorry.
The woman painted green seemed false to me -- the effects seemed crude (she literally seemed painted) -- but a Trekie friend pointed out that the effects seemed an intentional throwback to the original. This was a point that was made when the trailer revealed the Enterprise being built on a planet rather than in space where it would have been more practical. Star Trek is partly about an older generation's vision of what the future would be like, and that is part of the fun. The casting of Trek fans Simon Pegg and John Cho in right in the spirit of pure fun, and I loved them both.
The only complaint I had about Star Trek -- the only moment when I could not even understand what they were TRYING to do was Why on earth would you cast 37 year old Winona Ryder as Spock's mom? That seriously lost me. No sense at all. Until in talking to Brad I recalled the Frasier episode in which he and Niles go to a restaurant and had the perfect meal -- except for one tiny flaw. Ironically, of course the tiny flaw is part of their perfect evening as no night out for them could be perfect without some tiny flaw to enjoy picking at for the rest of the night. Star Trek fans I think are right on the same page, so maybe this is the perfect movie.
Notice also: Klingons mentioned but never shown. Abrams also knows how to keep something in the bag for the sequel. Nice.