First impressions of a 'Star Trek' virgin

CNET News' Caroline McCarthy went into an advance screening of the new "Star Trek" prequel barely knowing what a Vulcan is. Can a total newbie enjoy this film? Heck, yes.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read

Please note: Friendly seas ahead! This is a spoiler-free review.

NEW YORK--When I walked into a theater at Viacom's midtown headquarters for an advance screening of the new J.J. Abrams-directed "Star Trek" prequel on Wednesday night, I felt like that kid who hadn't done her homework--for an entire semester.

And yet that was crucial to my assignment: to see if it was possible for someone completely new to the "Star Trek" universe to understand, process, and more importantly enjoy this new film.

Here's my background. I had never seen any of the prior "Star Trek" films or television series. I knew little more than the fact that it's all about a bunch of people flying a spaceship called the Enterprise, that Leonard Nimoy played an extraterrestrial named Spock who had funny ears and liked to say "Live long and prosper," and that the Klingon language has such a rabid following that the Bible has been translated into it.

Technically, the closest I'd come to seeing anything related to "Star Trek" was the 1998 parody "Galaxy Quest," in which the actors from a washed-up Trek-like TV show are enlisted by benevolent aliens who think they're the real thing (Little-known fact: That was the first movie role for Justin "I'm a Mac" Long). But I'm also a huge fan of Abrams' hit series "Lost," so I suppose I had a leg up there.

So here is my verdict: This movie is awesome.

The new "Star Trek" film is less an homage to a legendary science fiction franchise than to storytelling in general, back through decades of cinema and television and beyond. A deep respect for literature, pop culture, and epic storytelling is something that Abrams has proven time and again to fans, from the litany of film-rooted "Sawyer nicknames" on "Lost" to the tradition of Japanese monster movies that powered last year's "Cloverfield." This is a movie that will probably be well-regarded by anyone with an appreciation for epic adventure and drama, not to mention fast-paced and often witty dialogue.

And that's what the "Star Trek" prequel needed, considering the hand-wringing that surrounded it from even before it was officially greenlit.

Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman was on hand before the screening to greet the audience and explain a bit about the film's origins: that Paramount, the Viacom-owned studio that is releasing the new film, was well aware of the complications and potential pratfalls of adapting "Star Trek, especially in a prequel form, and especially with the goal of reaching out to both "Trekkies" (or "Trekkers," as I hear there is a difference?) and potential new fans. He said that cinema luminaries, including Steven Spielberg, had warned Abrams that undertaking a project with such a history and legacy of loyal fans could be risky.

But the director went ahead, a second Abrams-helmed "Star Trek" picture was greenlit almost immediately, and his contract with Paramount was extended another five years. Obviously, this is a franchise in which the studio has some real faith.

Pretty early on, you can tell that this isn't the "Star Trek" of the '60s, even though I admittedly don't really know what that is. The first 20 minutes contain not only ear-splitting action sequences, but brand-drops of both Nokia and Budweiser (as well as 'Slusho,' a fictional brand from "Cloverfield"), one very Abrams-esque "gotcha" character reveal that will take most newbies like me by surprise, and the oddly effective use of the Beastie Boys' 1994 song "Sabotage."

There is a pivotal bar fight, which I first took as a nod to "Star Wars," but on second thought, the cinematic barroom confrontation really goes back much further than the Mos Eisley Cantina. (I need to brush up on my knowledge of Westerns.) Again, this is a movie deeply rooted in generations of storytelling both onscreen and off.

I can see why some hardcore "Star Trek" fans may have been nervous about the casting decisions: the Internet Movie Database informs me that Chris Pine, the young actor cast as Captain Kirk, was starring opposite Lindsay Lohan in some tepid romantic comedy a few years ago, and Sulu is played by John Cho, best known for playing Harold in the spliffed-up "Harold and Kumar" movies. I must say that Cho wields a retractable sword just as well as he does a joint, and Pine's Kirk keeps the frat-boy attitude to a relative minimum.

But more importantly, "Star Trek" is just plain fun. And I came to appreciate the fact that I was sitting in that theater without prejudice. I was concerned less about whether the cast would live up to the actors who originated their roles, and more about holy whoa, that spaceship just blew up!. There is, however, a flip side to the universality of the new "Star Trek" that Paramount might not love: The fact that it stands so well on its own might mean that it doesn't mint a new generation of Trekkies.

Like me, for one. As much as I enjoyed the prequel, I can't see myself Netflixing all the DVDs of the past "Star Trek" TV series and movies. I've already got "Lost" to deal with, and one fictional universe and canon is enough for me, thank you very much. Seriously--what does lie in the shadow of the statue? Losties, can you help me out here?