Are you familiar with the term "retconning"? I wasn't either, but it's amazing what a few moments on Wikipedia can teach you. It means "reactive continuity" – the changing of previously established facts in a work of serial fiction. I'm not sure if J J Abrams's relaunch of Star Trek is technically a "retcon", but the term sounds so futuristic I'm betting it must be.
The retcon in Star Trek is this: Captain James T Kirk, commander of the starship Enterprise, is no longer the staunch, affable authority figure incarnated on TV by William Shatner. As played by Chris Pine, he's a tearaway, a mouthy, boozy delinquent who has to learn respect before he can earn respect – and who blags himself on board the Enterprise in the first place.
Under the aegis of American TV whizz Abrams, creator of Lost and overseer of monster movie Cloverfield, the new Star Trek proves that no franchise, however weary, is beyond resuscitation. After decades of films and spin-off series, you might think Gene Roddenberry's space saga had been mined to exhaustion. But Abrams and his team have retooled the original mythos more than handsomely, with dignity, abundant energy and canny visual invention.
There are a few routine splashes of facetiousness, notably when Simon Pegg turns up as Scotty, with a tiny cabbage-headed alien as his straight man. Otherwise, things are played cannily straight, and the humour that works is of a decidedly Vulcan variety: exceedingly dry and delivered with the merest lift of a tapered eyebrow. The child Spock – in Vulcan school, being hothoused on ethics and quantum mechanics – is taunted by his pointy-eared fellows on account of his having an Earthling mother. "This is your 35th attempt to elicit an emotional response from me," bristles the youth – then proves that it's 35th time lucky.
This is the only Hollywood action movie I've seen that features an intellectual tragic hero. Set at the start of the Trek saga, this is very much Spock's story, and tells how it happened that Kirk, rather than the better-qualified Vulcan, came to command the Enterprise. It's all to do with fate, apparently, with an ancient Spock (Leonard Nimoy himself – there's class) returning from the future to ensure that destiny takes its course and that his younger self (Zachary Quinto) gives up the captain's post. (You might see the film as a spacebound remake of The Deal, Stephen Frears's TV account of the pact whereby Brown the chilly Vulcan ceded command of Starship Labour to the tearaway James T Blair.)
Quinto, the scowling evil genius in TV's Heroes, is by far the most compelling player here, not only because he so perfectly channels Nimoy in his prime. With his glacial humour and laconic broodiness, Quinto's Spock provides terrific propaganda for making cerebral introversion hip among young Americans.
He's certainly a lot more interesting than Chris Pine, who plays Kirk as much the same goofy, callow hothead as Chris Evans's Human Torch in the Fantastic Four films. Still, this might be the only Kirk sellable to the teenage demographic: a grumbling malcontent retooled to Fast and Furious specifications, as opposed to Shatner's stolidly dashing cosmic dad.
Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the story starts with the birth of Kirk, coinciding with his father's death in battle. Blasted to earth, like the infant Clark Kent, little Jim grows up in Iowa as a prepubescent car thief, and joins the Starfleet only because he gets into a bar brawl after hitting on Uhura (Zoë Saldana). For all his notorious smoochiness, we would never have seen Shatner's Kirk in a near-naked wriggle with Uhura's green-skinned roommate.
But let Trekkers quibble about rewriting history. Beyond all this, beyond the skin-deep agonising and the territorial face-offs, the film's true appeal is in its sleek upgrade of the space opera genre. There's plenty to enjoy: a terrific sky-diving sequence; a memorable ice-planet monster, red, floppy and gruesomely akin to Tenniel's Jabberwock; plenty of groovy light-show stuff flickering on every available background screen. Scott Chambliss's design is inspired, especially the spiky scrap-metal look of the Romulans' ship, perfect for these Maori-tattooed space bikers. And few sci-fi films have shown such a feel for the abstract majesty of spiralling space debris. All in all, this hyper-streamlined product knocks George Lucas's staid astral franchise into a black hole.
Trek traditionalists may not approve of other reimaginings of the original characters, such as a swordfighting Sulu and a baby-faced Chekov with a borscht-thick accent. But they'll surely welcome the return of the traditional Enterprise uniforms in their primary-coloured nylon-look glory; cheer at the traditional Alexander Courage theme tune and the famous "boldly go" speech; and weep at Leonard Nimoy's altogether touching appearance as Spock's self from the far future. Who knew this son of a Vulcan would turn out an elderly Jewish man with false teeth and Sean Connery diction ("Live long and proshper")? Oh, and Spock gets to snog Uhura. The young Spock, that is – how revisionist did you think Abrams could get?