There are MAJOR spoilers about the new Star Trek movie below. If you don't want to know the shocking details stop reading now!!
First of all, let me start this review by stating that I was very suspicious of this new movie. The only "prequel" the Star Trek franchise attempted was the TV series Enterprise, which was so bad that I couldn't even watch it. (I heard that it got good right before it got canceled, but it was too late -- it had grounded "the franchise.")
The new Star Trek is nothing short of brilliant, however, and all viewers with a pulse and a brain will absolutely love it, whether they are traditionally fans of "the franchise" or not.
You've probably noticed by now that I'm putting "the franchise" in scare quotes. That's because I disapprove of the lumping together of all things Trek. Mainstreamers tend not to get subcultural things, but Star Trek is the most mainstream of subcultures: not because it has the most members, it does not, but because it's the subculture that everyone's been at least a little exposed to, no one's scared of criticizing (Trekkies, Trekkers and otherwise being, of course, dangerless nerds), the one that everyone feels like they "own" a little, even if they've only seen parodies and references, and never actually watched an episode. (Or they watched a movie, but it was 1, 3, 5, 9, or 10, which everyone knows do not count. The only real Star Trek movies are The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, The Undiscovered Country*, Generations, and First Contact -- and now 2009's STAR TREK).
The many worlds of stories that have been told under the name of "Trek" vary in their intent, theme, politics, and fan base. For example, fans of Star Trek: Voyager and of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are virtually exclusive groups with very little in common. Your average DS9 fan is more politically to the right and has more interest in war, politics, and vice (the ideal DS9 viewer is the person who, upon first seeing the concept of the holodeck in The Next Generation, thought "sex with holograms!" and then immediately started musing about who on the ship was low enough on the totem pole to be the one to mop up the spooj). The average Voyager fan is more politically to the left (is okay with a woman captain, for starters), and can embrace a plotline less about war than about bringing old enemies together and making them learn to live in peace.
That's just one contrast (I don't want to get too obscure for a non-Trek fan, here). The point is that every series has attempted to take parts of what is established in previous "Treks" and then create a whole new world of stories with it. The new movie does that too. But the reviewers seem to believe that the new movie is the first "reboot," the first "reimagining," the first time someone kicked a bit o' modernity into that dusty ol' relic from the 60s. Which is simply ignorant.
The various series have also all been the products of their times. To use the examples above, DS9 premiered in 1993 -- after a time of recession and overseas war. Voyager premiered in 1995 -- and reached its creative peak in the openness of the Clinton-era late 1990s. The Next Generation had the optimistic self-confidence of a 1980s America that saw itself as the beacon of light for the world. The original series wielded the cowboy socialism of 1960s sci-fi. The new Star Trek is ALSO very much a creature of its time, and so it seems new and fresh and far more relevant than any of the others.
My point is, I object to this sense that this movie is some huge break with how things have been done with "the franchise" in the past. Star Trek movies and TV shows are always changing, evolving to reflect their time and the visions of their directors and writers. That all said, I believe this is probably the best "Trek" film to date.
~~Spoilers get really bad now, Beware!~~
The new Trek takes a bolder step than most because it creates an entirely alternate timeline. Because of an intervention from the future Trek universe we're more familiar with, the life histories of Kirk, Spock, Uhura, hell, the Planet Earth (and especially the Planet Vulcan), deviate WILDLY from what has been established before. In other words, this movie re-writes Trek history. In the new version, Captain Pike (of the original series' pilot, and "The Menagerie") still ends up in a wheelchair, but in a completely different way (and he's neither disfigured nor mute). Kirk and Spock still end up friends, but again, how they get there is different (Spock's the captain, Kirk a nobody), and what led them to this point (especially what happens to their parents -- Kirk's father killed the day he's born, Spock's mother killed the day that the planet Vulcan is destroyed -- yes, destroyed, obliterated, Vulcan is no more) is all changed. Kirk especially is a very different person from who he would have been had the universe unfolded the way "it was supposed to."
There is a point in the movie where you might be tempted to believe that all of this damage is going to be undone, that they will go back in time (well that's what they would have done in TNG!!) and prevent the new timeline from forming in the first place, but that does not happen. So this movie ends not by adding to the Trek universe, but by replacing it, fully, with an entirely new timeline in which anything could happen. This is bold, this has never been done before, but it is certainly in keeping with the kinds of things that happen in the world of Trek. (When I saw how badly they'd screwed with the timeline, my first thought was "Janeway would be proud" -- Captain Janeway, of Voyager, never met a timeline she thought was above a little improvement.)
Now if I may geek out for a moment: this new timeline is almost assuredly a closed loop. The new timeline was created when Spock failed to save Romulus from the nova of its sun and an aggrieved and bereaved Romulan ends up in the past, ready to make Spock pay for what he'd done. But knowing, now, 120+ years in advance, that such an attempt to save the sun will fail, every life-loving man, woman, and child on Romulus will surely flee, which means that the trauma that starts the timeline will not happen, which means that the timeline will not happen, but it must happen for if it doesn't happen it will happen (paradox), which creates the closed time loop.
In other words, the Star Trek universe as we know it still exists outside of this closed time loop, and the time loop is very much sealed off from what happens in the regular universe, unless a door is opened -- hm. "Mirror, Mirror" anyone? Perhaps this is how "evil Spock" and "evil Kirk" got their start. No matter. Evil Spock went soft and screwed all that up, and Cardassians make unsavory overlords. Done geeking out now. Back to the film.
What this film does BETTER than any other Trek film is to truly make characters out of Uhura (finally giving her a first name was a good start!), Chekov, and Sulu. Scotty remains a bit of comic relief, but these three are much better developed than usual, especially Uhura. Chekov is just delightful as an underaged cadet thrown onto the bridge controls during an emergency, and Sulu... ah, Sulu. Skydiving, fencing Sulu. John Cho, Harold of Harold and Kumar Sulu. Harold and Kumar go to Vulcan. Sulu and Chekov go to White Castle. The jokes are irresistible, but the man plays this role like a pro. Traditionally the movies have centered on Kirk, Spock, and Bones, "The Triumvirate" Brian calls them, with very little left over for these other characters. The new movie is still centered on Spock and Kirk, primarily, but somehow they still found enough for the other characters to seem real and whole.
All of the roles are played well: Brian thought the Spock was dead-on and the Kirk a bit forced. I thought the Kirk was dead-on and the Spock a bit forced. In the end I just have to conclude they were all great. But there was one actor, a man I've never heard of before tonight called Karl Urban, who should get a frickin medal -- or an oscar -- for his portrayal of Leonard "Bones" McCoy. He owned, owned, that role. He was a thing of beauty. He made me love him.
The movie is brilliant, you simply must see it. But when you see it, do not think it is brilliant because of how well the director and writers "escaped" the past Star Trek films. Recognize instead the truth: that when these stories are done well, they are always new and always true. This story is both. It is incredibly well-executed at every imaginable level, and it is bold and it is brilliant. Did I mention it's brilliant? Go see it. Right now! :-)