RECAP: Star Trek

Star Trek (2009): J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams finished his landmark TV show Lost and took the reigns of another legendary sci-fi TV show called Star Trek. The 2009 version was a reboot, as well as the eleventh film in the series.

Up until about two weekends after opening, the highest gross in the franchise came from 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which made about $110 million. Turns out having a hero director attached can add to your box office. Add a lot. The Abrams vision passed a quarter-billion domestic just before it petered out of theaters. That’s the movie discussed here.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A crew on a space battleship fights a threatening enemy…from the future.

Hero (6/10)

When creating a mythic hero, begin the story at his birth. Star Trek understands this ploy, and uses it as the film opens. The USS Kelvin is under attack from a mysterious ship.

Kelvin’s captain (look out, that’s a cameo from Chris Hemsworth) decides that to fight the alien ship, he’s gonna have to ram it and go down with her. All’s well and good with that, except his pregnant wife is giving birth to his son as the ship is crashing. Brings a whole new meaning to the term “birth pangs” doesn’t it?

Captain Kirk, Sr. is the one who, in his last act, names his son James. The mother adds the “Tiberias.” The Kelvin sails into the mysterious ship. Thus a hero is born.

How many countless times have we seen James Tiberias Kirk (Chris Pine) getting into sticky situations and getting out through guile, charm, and a little derring-do? A lot. We’ve seen it a lot of times.

Spock and Kirk both captain the Enterprise in this movie.
Spock and Kirk both captain the Enterprise in this movie.

Star Trek the TV show ran for three years and 80 episodes. BUT. Have you ever seen Kirk…as a child? Maybe. I haven’t watched the entire series. But I’m sure you haven’t seen Kirk as a kid on the big screen. OK, maybe you have. I haven’t seen all the movies either. God. Let’s move on.

Kirk is a little hellraiser even as a boy, joy-riding in a car. As a young man he gets in fights. No matter the odds, Kirk is ready for a scrape. Hey, Kirk, do we have just the service you! Starfleet Academy. Kirk joins and meets a bunch of disparate folks who he butts heads with. But, when the fate of the Earth rests with them, they band together. 

Kirk has more bravado in his pinky than most have in their bodies. He nearly died when he stole his stepdad’s car in Iowa, bailing out moments before the car careened into a chasm.

At Starfleet Academy, Kirk cheats on a test Spock designed to be impossible to win. These are the moments when choosing Pine to play Kirk seem inspired. During the test, Kirk eats an apple, spews sarcasm and scorn for the test, and points finger guns at the virtual ships on screen.

Young Kirk has eyes for every woman he sees, regardless of his current physical state. He’ll bend any rule he can find, and does so to board the USS Enterprise twice in this movie.

Most of Star Trek shows Kirk not captaining the Enterprise. This is an origin story, after all. Kirk’s running from ice monsters and meeting future-Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and making his father’s ghost proud. He defends an argument with Spock (Zachary Quinto) using the word “logical” and tells future-Spock that traveling through time to win a fight is cheating.

Kirk’s strongest scene comes when he’s dressing down Spock. Future-Spock wants Kirk to seize his destiny and command the Enterprise. He tells Kirk about Starfleet regulation 619: an officer emotionally compromised must resign.

Spock, acting captain of Enterprise, has just watched his home planet destroyed. Seems like a good reason to recuse oneself from command. Kirk, however, must get Spock to show his compromised emotions. “You were the one who said fear is necessary for command,” Kirk says.

Throwing Spock’s arguments back in his face is a Kirk specialty. He verbally batters him again and again. His father is dead, his mother too. “You never loved her,” Kirk says to Spock. That’s the trick that does it. Spock nearly chokes out Kirk (one of several lost fight for Kirk) before relieving himself of his duties.

This is the moment when Kirk finally captains the Enterprise, and he never looks back. The ship flies toward Earth to stop Nero. “Either we’re going down, or they are,” he says. When Uhura sarcastically tells Kirk “I sure hope you know what you’re doing, captain,” Kirk responds humbly. “So do I.” The hero, born seconds before his father died, is ready to command.

Villain (3/10)

Eric Bana plays Nero, a Romulan from 129 years into the future. No surprise here: the guy named Nero is the bad guy. Nero was working at a mine far from Romulus when a nearby star went supernova. (Supernovaed? Supernova should be a verb. Let’s make this happen.) The star destroyed Nero’s home world. 

Ambassador Spock (Nemoy), who calls Nero a “particularly troubled Romulan,” was sent to prevent the star’s explosion with Red Matter, but he didn’t make it in time. Oh well. One wonders if planetary explosions are common in Federation times.

Nero, aggrieved Roman from the future.
Nero, aggrieved Roman from the future.

We get snippy about a few thousand people dying in a plane attack. How do the people of our future feel about planets like Vulcan imploding? If they are Vulcans, they don’t feel anything because they are mostly dead and in seconds. Humans seem not to worry about it much. You thought a cold war with the threat of nukes was scary? Try a hot war with a future ship carrying planet-destroying-level antimatter.

Getting back to Nero, he’s an angry guy. Watching your planet collapse will do that. He’s also had a few decades to cool his rage. Bana plays Nero with the calm enthusiasm of a guy working a job. Sure, his job is genocidal, but it’s still a job that needs doing. He doesn’t much care about the self-absorbed Kirk, even though he killed Kirk’s father. Nero does care heaps about young Spock, and so allows the Enterprise to survive his fearsome future weapons.

Unfortunately for Bana, this is not his show. Nero functions as dark window dressing to Kirk’s stained glass and Spock’s functionally clear glass. I’m a Bana fan, and feel he was underused here, but such is the nature of the biz: Bana’s a strong but not overwhelming presence, and he was used as he was supposed to be used. Most of his lines are of these likes: “Start the drill,” “Retract the drill,” and “FIRE EVERYTHING.” 

Action/Effects (4/10)

Earlier I discussed the opening scene. Its action is kinetic and necessary, as it doubles as the birth and naming of the more familiar Captain Kirk, Jr. Parts of the ship careen across the screen. People scream. Space lasers are fired. Such excitement. Later, we get into the story.

Action scenes are missing from Star Trek. This is not a bad thing. Trek is about disparate people working together to logic-out solutions, not about which ship has more and bigger torpedoes.

Nero commands a massive ship often contrasted with Federation ships. Nero’s ship is made for mining, but its century-and-a-half technological advancement help close the gap with Federation ships made for battle.

You can barely see the Federation ship on the left.
You can barely see the Federation ship on the left.

Visual effects excel in the movie. (Look out for lens flare; it’s everywhere.) The Enterprise flies through wreckage as it leaves warp around Vulcan. The movie’s beam effects are a touch unnecessarily theatrical.

Sidekicks (7/8)

Kirk’s foil is an alien. Although I guess Kirk is an alien from Spock’s point of view. Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan, which is really shocking when you consider that sentient species evolving on different planets reached interstellar technologies at almost the same moment in history and were able to create (likely) non-sterile offspring.

Spock hails from Vulcan, a planet that will be destroyed in the middle of the movie. Spock feels some emotion, since he is half-human. But he also thinks some logic, because he’s part stone-cold statue. Aren’t you Spock? Can’t you ever feel, dammit? Why won’t you feel?!?

The gang's all here.
The gang’s all here.

Spock’s lack of emotion makes him a more interesting character. His logical decisions are devoid of compassion, and so we see him as slightly villainous at times, when he’s willing to sacrifice others for the “greater good,” and equally heroic when he’s willing to sacrifice himself. Spock allows us to reflect much on what we consider heroic and villainous and logical and emotional decision-making.

All the classic buddies are assembled for this ride. Dr. “Dammit man I’m a doctor not a physicist” Bones (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin).

Uhura is the woman Kirk flirts with in Iowa. She’s a xenolinguist, meaning she has a talented tongue. Cue an eye roll. She’s in love with Spock for some reason, and demands her boyfriend put her on the Enterprise because she’s the best student in the academy.

Scotty joins late, when future-Spock gives him the equations for beaming people aboard ships traveling at warp. Pegg is funny as Scotty, but we’re fortunate to get only a few bursts of his humorous energy.

Kirk getting LIT by Spock
Kirk getting LIT by Spock

Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) is a bright star in a role that won’t go forward. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Starfleet commander walks into a bar…finds the talented son of a comrade who saved 800 lives during the 12 minutes he captained a starship…says to the son, “I dare you to do better.”

Not much of a punchline for laughs, but it’s enough to convince Kirk to join Starfleet. Much later, as Enterprise captain, Pike will knowingly sacrifice himself to Nero so the ship can escape. That Pike actually survives is a testament to his will as much as Kirk’s.

The Star Trek franchise is strongest when its supporting players are strongest. Every good captain needs a better crew, and all these actors are atop their game.

Henchmen (0/8)

Star Trek is a movie that barely has screen time for its villain. The henchmen are present, but they get practically no screen time. I’m not sure they even have names or lines. Spock and Kirk do better jobs of foiling each other’s schemes than anything the henchman do. Nero’s henchman are forgettable.

Stunts (1/6)

James Kirk is a big time talker. At a bar in Iowa, hitting on Uhura, he gets caught up in a fight with for Starfleet goons. Kirk tells them to “get a couple more guys” to make it a fair fight. They don’t listen. Instead, the four of them beat Kirk bloody.

Beating Kirk bloddy is a major theme in Star Trek. For all his bravado, Kirk loses most of his fights. The Iowa fight ends with him on a table and bleeding from his nose. Later, he finds himself battling Romulans on a space drill.

High above Vulcan, on a wobbly platform that spits fire, Kirk and Sulu nearly fly off the platform, thanks to their high speed and parachutes functioning as sails. Nevertheless, they board. From hatches pop two Romulans. Kirk attacks with full fury, while Sulu (second to land) takes time to gather himself, draw out his retractable sword, and fight a guy with an ax.

Getting ready to parachute onto a platform above Vulcan.
Getting ready to parachute onto a platform above Vulcan.

One terrific camera shot comes from above, the camera swooping around the platform to catch both contests in full swing.  Sulu uses his fencing training to block the ax swings at his head. He does a nifty flip over his opponent. Meanwhile, Kirk’s getting tossed around and eventually over the edge, gripping it by his fingers.

Kirk’s Romulan opponent tries that age-old trick–stomping on fingers. Kirk counters by moving one hand just before it’s stomped upon. I’ve seen these moves countless times in old cartoons. Totally valid fighting style.

Sulu, meanwhile, finishes his fight by blocking, punching, and kicking his opponent onto one of those grates that flames on at random moments. Hard to believe Sulu thought of that before the Romulan did. Sulu plunges his sword through the other Romulan to save Kirk.

The space drill
The space drill

That’s two times Kirk lost a fist fight. How about a third? Late in the movie, aboard Nero’s ship, Kirk lets Nero and his underlings wallop him around their precarious platforms. Kirk again finds himself hanging from a ledge. The Romulan second in command lifts Kirk by the neck with one arm, choking out Kirk’s next words.

Kirk informs his opponent of some helpful information. “I got your gun,” he says, blasting the goon in the gut. Technically, Kirk won that fight, but he lost the fisticuffs part.

Star Trek offers nothing special in stunt work. It’s nice that they threw us some fights. The spectacle of space, of fighting on a drill platform high above a rocky alien planet, and the terror of laser weapons make for Star Trek‘s impressive parts.

Climax (3/6)

Earth is danger! The Romulans are coming, and they’re bringing their planet-destroying technology and will use it! Kirk and Co. couldn’t foil the destruction of Vulcan, so how can they save Earth?

The Enterprise stops warp around Saturn, to mask their entry into Earth’s system. Kirk and Spock beam aboard Nero’s ship. Kirk is the Enterprise’s acting captain, so that’s crazy. “I would cite regulation,” Spock says, “but I know you will simply ignore it.”

What they thought would be a cargo area turns out to be the most populated part of Nero’s enormous mining ship. Immediately Kirk and Spock run and shoot. A couple guys get shot and the heroes are missed. Kirk stuns one Romulan so Spock can do his mind meld trick and learn where the red matter and Captain Pike are.

First they find the red matter, still on Ambassador Spock’s ship. Spock speaks, and the ship recognizes his voice. Spock immediately figures out that he piloted this ship from the future, and Kirk met future-Spock. Wow, there’s so many hoops to jump through to reach that conclusion, but it is logical. “Wow, that’s weird,” Kirk says.

One drop of this stuff can create a black hole.
One drop of this stuff can create a black hole.

Spock flies the ship into space, shooting his way out. Kirk sneaks through tunnels. He finds Nero perched above him. Nero knows Kirk from Earth’s history. He beats up Kirk, again. Everyone beats up Kirk in this movie. He doesn’t win a single fight except by getting lucky.

Spock, in Earth’s atmosphere, destroys the drill. Nero abandons plans to kill Earth, instead trying to kill Spock. Three more guards are shot, two by the now-rescued Pike. With the drill off, Kirk orders Enterprise to beam him, Spock, and Pike back to the ship.

Just before leaving his ship, Spock turns it and its Red Matter toward Nero’s ship. All three are beamed back to the Enterprise as Nero begins to descend into a black hole. Kirk offers Nero assistance. “I would rather die in agony than accept assistance from you,” the Romulan says. Kirk says, “So be it.”

The Enterprise nearly collapses into the black hole, but some crafty engineering gets them free. All smiles on the bridge, the Federation is safe again.

Star Trek keeps its climax mercifully short. Nero has a huge ship to command, but few weapons and crew to fight the Federation. His trump card is the ball of Red Matter captured in Ambassador Spock’s ship. These factors prevent any all-out mega conflicts that beset so many action movies but are not staples of the Trek universe, which often required wits over brawn to succeed, as it does in this movie.

Jokes (3/4)

Star Trek, the rebooted version, leans toward the Star Wars end of the spectrum with zooming spaceships and spirited, humorous dialogue. The dark philosophical brooding is still present, but, much like the villain nero, it rides in back. Enter Simon Pegg. That Pegg is in this movie might tell you everything about the direction the producers steered toward. Kirk’s actions help us to laugh, and Pegg’s speeches help do the trick.

Look at these hands!
Look at these hands!

Setting (3/4)

“Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.” You know voice over. You know about space. We love space. Space is one of my favorite settings, right after “area” and “region” and ahead of “location,” depending on that location.

Of course the Federation would place heavy industry amongst Iowa's corn fields.
Of course the Federation would place heavy industry amongst Iowa’s corn fields.

Unlike the TV show, much of Star Trek takes place on Earth. How jarring it was to see Kirk tooling around on a land-based vehicle in corn-based Iowa? For me, very. Kirk winds up in Starfleet Academy, located in San Francisco. San Fran now has a bunch of huge skyscrapers, making the city look a lot like the ones you used to build in SimCity 2000. I enjoyed these settings for their aesthetic quality more than anything, and I never fully adjusted to seeing Star Trek take place partially on Earth.

Rocky Vulcan landcsape
Rocky Vulcan landcsape

Vulcan is a rocky planet of stark landscapes. The place mimics the personalities of its people. It’s too bad the place was destroyed. Beautiful shots of space and alien planets sear Star Trek imagery into the mind. The deck of the Enterprise is bathed in white, making the uniform colors pop. Lasers are brightly colored. Nero’s ship oozes green in its hazy atmosphere.

Commentary (0/2)

Star Trek most interesting scenes take place on Vulcan during Spock’s childhood. Spock and Kirk are contrasted. Kirk spent his childhood stealing cars and fighting, Spock was raised as the planet’s biggest nerd.

Young Spock confronts some school bullies, as all children must do at some point. Faced with more insults, young Spock says to three bullies, “I presume you have prepared new insults for me today?” No human would ever say that, only the weirdos with pointy ears on Vulcan.

History's nerdiest child.
History’s nerdiest child.

Vulcans worship logic and purge emotion after some sort of trials. They contrast their lifestyle with humans, the more emotional species. Yet these races can interbreed, so they aren’t really species. But they must be, because they evolved on different planets. Getting confused now.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

There could be some specism in the film’s depiction of green-skinned bimbos. Kirk gets freaky with one in his Academy dorm room. Green-skinned aliens of her planet are rarely seen in film. But for all we know, her species of alien could be promiscuous. They could be on their last legs as a planet, and need to propagate quickly. We just don’t know. 

Seriously though, Star Trek has one of the more diverse casts in Hollywood, big-budget, sci-fi action flicks. Zoe Saldana and John Cho receive prominent roles. There’s a Russian guy. Spock is gay. Ehhhh, my argument is losing ground faster than a crashing future Romulan warship. At least Zoe Saldana’s character isn’t green-skinned (cough Guardians of the Galaxy cough). Despite these initial setbacks, I can’t think of much to take issue with.

Others

  • Great use of crazy engine rooms at Stanford for the set of the Enterprise’s engine bay.
  • Simon Pegg is just the right kind of funny.
  • Leonard Nemoy is in it!
  • Tyler Perry is in it?
  • (1) The credits begin in near silence, the silence of space. The music builds, but so softly and slowly that any ambient noise drowns it out. The crescendo continues until the USS Kelvin appears. It’s a terrific opening sequence in which the music really sets it apart.

Summary (31/68) 46%

Star Trek is a perfect popcorn movie. If you have a definition of “popcorn movie,” that’s great. Use that. The movie has great effects, a fun story, awesomely slick sets, and funny dialogue. It’s the right mix of action and comedy, with a little bit of zest and Eric Bana. The movie blends like an aromatic delight that you can’t quite name, but, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart-like, you know it when you see it.