by Thom Yee
We hit a bit of a snag this week, so while this may not be THE Star Trek review we’d planned to post today, it is at least A Star Trek review.
J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek is my second favourite movie of all time and is constantly vying for first place. I say that as somebody who grew up neither a Trekkie nor Trekker, without much thought towards Star Trek vs. Star Wars, and with no real opinion of Kirk or Picard. Unlike generations of fans who grew up on the show and became engineers because of Scotty, cold, logical scientists because of Spock, or fan fiction writers because they’re losers, I watched some Star Trek (but only a bit) simply because it wasn’t usually bad and my dad watched it. But — through The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and whatever else followed — I never really liked any of it. Before the summer of 2009, when I thought about Star Trek in general, I mostly thought of cramped, sparsely decorated sets, boring protocol, and older men using strained metaphors, talking about prime directives and like that.
And then I saw Abrams’ Star Trek. Twice in theatres and then three times a day, five days a week for two weeks in an A/V shop I worked at. And I loved it every time. For me, even at my advanced age of “somewhere over 20”, Abrams’ Star Trek was a revelation on the level of what I imagine many felt when they first saw Star Wars and were completely, utterly, and inexorably submerged in the hero’s journey.
Seriously, seriously — f*cking chills down my spine every… f*cking… time.
I don’t need to tell you what Star Trek is. If somebody tells you they’re giving something all she’s got or that damnit, they’re this and not that, you know what they’re talking about. Alongside Superman, Mickey Mouse, religious deities (I won’t get too specific here), and other fictional creations, Star Trek is just one of those artifacts of culture that’s so ubiquitous that you’ve already got an idea and, probably, opinion of it no matter how sheltered or disinterested you may be.
I, of course, never cared (as I am wont to do). I’m sure a small part of that was simply cognitive resistance to becoming a full-on nerdbag — I already read comics, and that was as far as I was willing to go in that direction. More importantly, though, I never felt there was anything to latch on to. Probably my biggest initial exposure was from watching The Next Generation, but many of the plots from that show were a little too… I guess, cerebral. It wasn’t a problem of comprehension, I just didn’t care. When I think back on The Next Generation, there’s a small amount of fondness, but mostly I just hear that mellow, boring roar of the Enterprise engines as it listlessly drifts through space, nothing really happening.
Abrams’ Star Trek is the polar opposite of that. Though we’re brought back to the formative years of the first starship Enterprise, we’re presented with a reboot of the franchise through an alternate timeline, set up from the beginning with a brilliant scene showing us the self-sacrifice of father George Kirk that saved baby Jim Kirk, his wife, and the rest of the U.S.S. Kelvin’s crew from villain Nero and his travelled-back-from-the-future crew, crescendoed with some of the best orchestral scoring of any movie I’ve ever seen. The score in general in this film is amazing, strongly adding to the tone and feel, and fully supporting the movie’s themes.
The James Tiberius Kirk we then find, without the hand of his father to guide him, is an even more rebellious young man than he would have been. It’s a loss that haunts the rest of the movie as we find other major and minor differences to the previous continuity. Differences that I won’t get into because I… don’t really know that much about the previous continuity. We’re then introduced to Spock, whose Vulcan-human heritage proves to be a significant source of frustration for the supposedly emotionless science officer who defiantly refuses a spot in the Vulcan Science Academy in favour of Starfleet.
That “I dare you to do better” scene from earlier in the review is really the catalyst for the entire film (well, other than the original time disruption). Soon after, we see Kirk staring up at the Enterprise being built, and it’s so overtly the type of hero’s-first-step-towards-greatness moment that I immediately thought of Luke staring up at the twin moons and realized that this scene was almost a complete lift. Of course Kirk enlists in Starfleet, nary academic transfer papers or even a bag of personal items in sight as the shuttle takes off towards his future, leaving his less-than-ordinary life behind. Through various circumstances, Kirk finds himself on the Enterprise as it faces off against the returned Nero (the man who murdered his father and has been unexplainedly absent for more than 20 years), and we’re off.
There are lots of great moments throughout the film, including seeing how Kirk beat the Kobayashi Maru, McCoy successfully smuggling Kirk aboard the Enterprise, Kirk, Sulu and Engineer Olson’s space jump (Olson’s the one in the red space suit), Sulu’s “fencing”, the total destruction of Vulcan (and that definitely didn’t happen in the normal timeline), Chekhov’s manic, youthful genius (and I don’t think Anton Yelchin gets the respect he deserves for his Chekhov), parking brakes (and what do you expect from an Asian pilot?), and a final set piece that puts the commanding officers in direct peril in a way that actually makes sense.
Of all the cast members, I enjoyed Bruce Greenwood’s Captain Pike, the Enterprise’s first captain, the most. An obvious stand-in for Kirk’s now absent father, Greenwood brings such a level of gravity to the character and weight to the situations that I could feel the authority and respect of a high-ranking officer for whom cadets would immediately stop their fight at his merest whistle. He’s not a major part of the movie in terms of screen time, but he’s at once authoritative and approachable, and so completely sells “I dare you to do better…” alongside smaller lines like, “Well I guess you’ll have to come get me” after outlining a plan putting himself in terrifying and potentially lethal danger. He knows the terrible position he’s putting himself in for the sake of his crew and he’s fully prepared to do what he needs to do.
Karl Urban’s McCoy is shockingly good as well. The line delivery is obviously there, but what really sells his portrayal is the way he contorts his face — highly reminiscent of Deforest Kelley without actually looking like him. Of particular note, I thought the contrast between the borderline-mentally-unfit-to-serve lunatic of his first appearance against the mellowed, measured, but still passionate “Bones” he was throughout the rest of the film was particularly brilliant. He’s not given nearly as much to do as Kirk and Spock either, but he has a huge impact on the overall film that really makes you forget why a medical doctor spends so much time on the bridge.
What’s astonishing about Abrams’ Star Trek is that, when you think about it, there’s almost nothing that’s all that original or revolutionary. What Abrams and his team have constructed is a new reality built on classic screenwriting tropes: mentors, romances, sacrifices, the hero’s journey. The whole thing is surprisingly conventional if not downright hacky, but the pitch-perfect cast, strong scripting, dynamic camera work, and general air of excitement makes you completely not notice. And as unlikely as some of the events in Star Trek seem — Kirk being found in a bar by Captain Pike or being marooned on the exact planet Scottie and future-Spock had been exiled to, Sulu replacing the normal pilot who had lungworm, Uhura replacing the normal translator who proved himself incapable — I continue to view that as the universe, even so disrupted, course correcting itself to the way things should be and were always meant to be. In this way, the film takes on a mythic quality that I never felt from The Original Series.
If there’s one major criticism I would level against the film, it’s that it’s very much Kirk’s story. Obviously it would’ve been a pretty disjointed movie if we had seven separate origin stories to tell, but nobody really gets the kind of screen time or focus that Kirk gets. Yes, we do get almost as much time with Spock, but he really doesn’t get the same level of focus. I don’t have a problem with that, really at all, but if you somehow don’t like Kirk or, more likely, wanted to see other characters given more to do (*cough* Uhura *cough*) then I’d imagine that this wasn’t as great an experience. Another flaw is Eric Bana’s Nero, who’s largely a villain-type device rather than a full-fledged and/or nuanced threat. Despite having the upper hand on several occasions, he loses badly, perhaps another example of the universe trying to correct itself. I don’t think it’s Bana’s fault, he’s just not given that much to do other than service the story, though he does give a really weird delivery when he introduces himself to Captain Pike.
God… Star Trek. It’s a film I hold in such reverence that there’s a part of me that never wanted to review it, knowing that whatever I wrote wouldn’t be the equal of it. And if my back wasn’t against the wall for this week’s review, I might not have. It’s been out for a while now, most who were planning to see it have no doubt done so, and we’re now onto its sequel and questions about the franchise’s continuing mission. If you haven’t seen it and there’s any part of you that enjoys big, exciting movies, the human spirit, and/or pretty people doing pretty, cool things, then do yourself a favour and watch it. In fact, watch it again, right now, even if you have.
Star Trek (2009) final score: 10
On the Edge
- “Polarize the view screen.” Yeah. Idiots.
- Even though he’s broken away from the role and done a great job as Thor, I still primarily refer to Chris Hemsworth as “Kirk’s dad”.
- Jennifer Morrison!
- Rachel Nichols!
- Winona Ryder!
- Numb tongue?
- The Nerada seems like a pretty dangerous ship to serve, evil vengeance-driven captain or otherwise. I mean look at all those platforms, no railings or nothing.
- I never talked about Simon Pegg’s Scotty in this review. See our Star Trek Into Darkness simul-review coming next week to find out why.
- It’s not necessary or even really that great (it’s not bad), but fans should make sure to read Star Trek: Countdown, a comicbook mini-series that had been put out by IDW in the months before Star Trek’s release that synchs up Abrams’ movies with the normal timeline. Along with expanding on Nero’s backstory, there are nice little elements like finding out that Ambassador Spock’s ship was designed by Geordi La Forge.