It occurred to me recently that I’ve not yet done a post on the three Bad Robot-produced “Star Trek” films. I’ve discussed them so often with friends, random strangers at conventions and in online message boards that I feel like I’ve already covered them extensively. Initially I was going to do a single post on all three movies, but there’s just too much material for each one, so I’m going to make this a three-part series of posts, beginning with the simply-titled, JJ Abrams’ helmed “Star Trek” (2009; aka ST09).
I’m also going to skip any lengthy, space-wasting plot synopsis (though I will discuss specific plot points, etc) as I assume anyone reading this has already seen the film.
Though I will put my customary spoiler warning…
****** STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD! ******
… just in case.
Star Trek (2009)
While this film is somewhat divisive among Star Trek fans, I personally enjoy it very much. It has a high ‘rewatchability’ factor. In fact, I find myself rewatching this movie more times than I care to admit. I initially went to see it in the summer of 2009 (with about 8 or 9 of us in a group) on opening night. I cynically half-expected “Muppet Babies In Space,” but as a longtime Star Trek fan, I was also very curious to see just how producer/director JJ Abrams was going to pull himself out of this black hole he’d made for himself by daring to reboot classic Star Trek.
I was wrong.
Despite a few gripes here and there (that engine room, for one) I found myself really enjoying the cast’s charm and an overall enthusiasm with which all involved seem to imbue the project.
ST09 isn’t the most plot-driven or intellectual Star Trek story ever produced; then again, either were “Search For Spock” or even TOS’ “Doomsday Machine” for that matter, and yet they still work. Contrary to popular mythology, Star Trek wasn’t always an intellectual chess game… every once in awhile it played some football, too.
The timeline reset (which somehow didn’t erase all of my old Star Trek DVDs) was maligned by some fans as a continuity cheat. Personally, I thought it was a nice way of loosening the leash of continuity a bit without contradicting the vast lore of previously produced Star Trek. A reboot within continuity, which allows all-new stories with our familiar cadre of characters. For us older fans, ‘our’ prime Star Trek still exists as a parallel timeline; separate, but intact (as evidenced by the fact that Leonard Nimoy’s “Prime Spock” returns to tell us so). The movie doesn’t erase Star Trek’s past; it merely creates a new lore to exist alongside of it.
Having Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in the film was also a nice way for producer/director JJ Abrams to acquire the ‘blessing’ of the original series in some way.
While I wouldn’t want an original cast member to appear in every new Star Trek movie, having Nimoy for the inaugural launch was a smart move. If the classic cast were used too often they’d become a crutch, but for the first new of these new movies it “feels right” (to quote Prime Spock). It also has a precedent; a 137-year old “Admiral” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) came aboard the USS Enterprise-D in the 1987 pilot of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Encounter at Farpoint.”
Things I liked about “Star Trek” (2009):
* The cast.
The casting of Star Trek 2009 (ST09) is a minor Hollywood miracle. The actors ooze charm in their recast roles, and light up the screen in a way that is just plain fun to sit back and watch.
Chris Pine walks a tightrope of playing the iconic James T. Kirk without ever lapsing into a William Shatner impression. While his Kirk was raised under different circumstances than Shatner’s version (beloved father George Kirk dies on the day of his son’s birth in the new timeline), he has Kirk’s ego and waaaay too much of his skirt-chasing libido (Kirk only flirted/slept with a couple of alien women during the original series). While the new Kirk is too overly alpha at times, it’s important to remember the different circumstances of his upbringing and the lateness of this Kirk’s Starfleet education (which arguably led to Prime-Kirk being a bit more ‘by the book’). By the end of the film, this Kirk seems to be leaning a little bit closer in temperament to Shatner’s Kirk. I love his line, “Bones…buckle up.” Delivered with similar aplomb to Shatner’s line from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, “Out there…thataway!”
Zachary Quinto’s Spock is equally successful for different reasons. Quinto’s Spock is a Spock similarly altered by events of this new timeline; specifically the death of his mother (Winona Ryder) and the destruction of his home planet Vulcan (on the same day, no less!). Naturally, his usual Vulcan emotional restraint is a more frayed than that of his Prime counterpart, whom he interacts with by the end of the movie (Quinto and Nimoy could easily pass for father and son; they look so right together).
I also bear in mind that this is a younger Spock, and as we saw in the original pilot episode “The Cage” (which took roughly the same era in Prime Spock’s lifetime), the character used to shout, and show visible worry. He’d even smile at singing plants.
The new Spock’s relationship with Uhura threw a lot of fans for a loop, but I also remember the characters’ many little flirtatious moments throughout TOS (“Charlie X” “Man Trap” and “Who Mourns For Adonais?”). Is it really so hard to believe that under different circumstances that relationship might’ve budded into something more? It’s not too improbable, in my opinion. As we see in their turbolift scene together, the traumatized Spock (following the loss of his mother and home planet) is still somewhat guarded about public displays of affection. In fact, he reverts to his ‘old self’ the moment the lift doors open. Though later, Spock and Uhura share a not-so-private kiss in the transporter room before he beams down to what could very well be a suicide mission aboard Nero’s ship. An understandable bit of PDA, given the circumstances.
Karl Urban’s Dr. Leonard McCoy is perhaps the closest to his original series counterpart, and there are moments when I could easily picture a younger De Forest Kelley saying the dialogue almost exactly the same way (“I might throw up on you”). He aces the late De Kelley’s relaxed southern accent, as well as his curmudgeonly demeanor. If I had any complaint, it’s more about the writing; as this McCoy is rarely shown to have Kelly’s seemingly bottomless well of compassion. But Urban really nails the overall characterization and his McCoy is easily the closest one to the originals (and again, without lapsing into an impression).
Nyota Uhura is also well-cast with Zoe Saldana (Saldana’s face echoes the grace of a young Nichelle Nichols), and I enjoyed her scenes with Spock. While the relationship arguably made her ‘the girlfriend’ role of this movie, it also pulled the character a bit deeper into the core action. This Uhura has a lot more to do than her original counterpart would in a given episode (The Animated Series gave her more to do). Though I still think making her a linguistics prodigy as well was a bit much. Uhura’s newfound ‘xeno-linguistics’ gift reminds me more of “Enterprise”’s Hoshi Sato (Linda Park).
One could argue that her new ability was due to some unexplained change in the post-Kelvin Timeline, but I recall an older, more experienced Commander Uhura who still struggled to speak basic Klingon from an old Klingon dictionary in “The Undiscovered Country” (1991).
Much like George Takei’s version in the original, helmsman Hikaru Sulu has the least to do in the film; but he is also well-cast by “Harold and Kumar” star John Cho, and he gets some nice heroics during high altitude, hand-to-hand combat on a Romulan drilling platform above Vulcan. His talent for fencing is a nice nod to the original series’ episode “The Naked Time” which established the character’s mad skills with a rapier (though in this film, it’s a futuristic katana). Cho certainly does the role justice.
Simon Pegg’s talented engineer Montgomery Scott (“Scotty”) is a mixed bag. While I appreciate the more realistic-sounding Glaswegian accent, I think Pegg’s more sardonic portrayal lacks the warmth of the late James Doohan’s version. I think Doohan’s Scotty would feel a lot worse about accidentally transwarp-beaming a dog into oblivion than Pegg’s, but that’s arguable I suppose. At any rate, the character comes into his own a bit more in subsequent Star Trek films (particularly Star Trek Beyond).
The tragically late Anton Yelchin’s Ensign Pavel Chekov is the most problematic interpretation of the bunch; and this is in NO way a slant on the Russian-born actor’s ability. While I’m certain he could’ve effortlessly nailed the Russian accent (duh), Yelchin does an accent much closer to Walter Koenig’s TV version of Chekov; which was one of the worst Russian accents I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard more than a few in my lifetime). Chekov, like Uhura, is also a genius now (“Russian whiz kid”) who really doesn’t look or feel anything like his original series’ counterpart. If they were going to stray that far from the original characterization, I’d have rather they let Yelchin use a more realistic Russian accent, at the very least. To his credit, the late Yelchin gives the role all the energy and enthusiasm he can muster. Like Pegg’s Scotty, his best material comes in 2016’s “Star Trek Beyond” (which I intend to devote a post to someday).
Also of note is Bruce Greenwood’s Captain Christopher Pike. His role is reimagined into something closer to an Obi Wan Kenobi-ish mentor role for the fatherless Kirk, rather than the moodier, more conflicted Capt. Pike played so well by the late Jeffrey Hunter (“King of Kings”) in “The Cage.” Greenwood has Hunter’s rugged, natural authority, but also some of his vulnerability as well.
There’s a bit of gallows’ humor in seeing the newly promoted and still-recovering Admiral Pike temporarily wheelchair-bound at the end of the film; a grim foreshadowing of character’s alternate fate in the classic two-part Trek episode, “The Menagerie.”
* Leonard Nimoy as Prime Spock.
I won’t lie; I truly grok Spock. Leonard Nimoy’s Spock was an unofficial role model when I was a kid tolerating the slings and arrows of middle and high school. His stoicism in the face of adversity and intolerance was inspiring, to say the least. Not to mention the character’s valuing of intellect and curiosity.
Meeting actor/artist Leonard Nimoy at San Diego Comic Con 2009 was one of the truly dry-mouthed, belly-quivering fanboy moments of my life; made even more surreal by Nimoy’s seeming kindness and easygoing nature. It was a quick meet-and-greet, but it was a moment I’ll never forget (with my advancing age and forgetfulness, that’s saying a lot). Seeing Nimoy’s Spock Prime in the film (and this is NOT a slant against Zachary Quinto) made the whole ‘reboot-within-continuity’ concept feel both legitimate and a ‘logical’ step for the Star Trek movie franchise. It was also significant in that his appearance wasn’t just a cameo (like Admiral McCoy in TNG’s pilot). Spock Prime is a critical part of the film, and a part of the reason for the existence of the alternate timeline itself. I also appreciated that Spock Prime is the one who helps to bring the reboot crew together (namely Kirk, Scotty and his younger self). Fitting and well done.
If the late Leonard Nimoy had never again donned the pointed ears, this film by itself would’ve been a fitting swan song for the Spock Prime character.
* The opening prologue with George and Winona Kirk aboard the USS Kelvin.
I have to admit; hearing a soon-to-die George Kirk (future “Thor” Chris Hemsworth) ask his wife Winona (“Once Upon a Time” costar Jennifer Morrison) to describe their newborn son to him as she and the baby flee in a shuttlecraft is a true lump-in-the-throat moment. His last words to her are simple, powerful and effective (“I love you so much!”); as is the traumatized expression on Winona’s face as her husband plows the USS Kelvin right into the Narada’s hull so that the escaping shuttlecraft of the ship can survive. Young James Tiberius Kirk (“Tiberius? No, are you kidding me? That’s the worst”) is off to one hell of a shaky start in this new version of his life.
It’s no wonder that the ‘Kelvin incident’ becomes this timeline’s 23rd century equivalent of 9/11. It’s one hell of an opener for the movie…
* Spock’s troubled childhood on Vulcan.
Some of the best parts of the movie for me (as an admitted Spock-geek) were seeing the trials of the young Spock. The school bullying scene is very familiar to fans of the The Animated Series episode “Yesteryear” and the live-action classic “Journey to Babel” (both written by the talented Dorothy Fontana).
Actors Ben Cross and Winona Ryder also do quite well as Spock’s parents; the Vulcan ambassador Sarek and his human wife, Amanda. But much of the credit has to go to the young boy who plays the pre-teen Spock, Jacob Kogan; the pain of the internally-conflicted young Spock is very evident in his performance.
It was gratifying as a longtime fan of The Animated Series to finally see events of my favorite episode “Yesteryear” more or less ‘canonized’ on the big screen.
* The film’s “Star Wars”-vibe.
ST09 feels a bit more like “Star Wars” than “Star Trek” at times, and as a fan of both franchises, I’m okay with that. I think at that point in the Star Trek movie franchise’s lifespan (post “Insurrection” and “Nemesis”; arguably two of the worst ST films), it needed a nice shot of Star Wars-adrenaline to the heart.
There are many moments in the film that either subtly or overtly recall the original “Star Wars” trilogy; the Iowan Starfleet bar full of exotic aliens (like Mos Eisley), an Obi-Wan style mentor (Pike) for young Kirk, battling deadly monsters on the ice planet Delta Vega (similar to Luke’s battles on Hoth in “Empire Strikes Back”), and a planet-killing super-weapon (Narada/Death Star) that is stopped in the nick of time by a giant explosion (okay…implosion. Don’t get technical with me, Artoo).
We even see newly promoted Captain Kirk getting a commendation medal at a ceremony at Starfleet HQ in San Francisco right before the end of the film.
Is any of this a bad thing? Not really.
Star Trek arguably needed a bit of jazzing up to make it more viable for modern audiences. And Star Wars has generally been a lot more successful at the box office than Star Trek. Star Wars is primarily a creature of the silver screen, first and foremost; whereas the more bookish Star Trek has traditionally been more comfortable on episodic television. So it makes sense that the powers-that-be at Paramount would want to splice some of that bolder, brasher Star Wars DNA into their faltering child. Granted, that’s more of a business decision than a creative one, but pop art is (for better or worse) a commercial endeavor; and even the best-intentioned films won’t matter if no one ever sees them.
It was not at all surprising to me that JJ Abrams (who’s my age, incidentally) would eventually go on to take the creative reigns of the Star Wars franchise for “Episode VII: The Force Awakens” (2015). ST09 is practically his audition tape.
* The movie is all about character, not originality.
Given ST09’s damn-near heroic recasting effort, I’m also surprisingly okay with a bit of a lackluster plot/story. Let’s face it; the Star Trek movies were never quite as thoughtful or intellectual as the best of the TV series. They’re more about putting butts in theatre seats and selling popcorn than stimulating new neural pathways. It’s extremely unlikely we’ll ever see another Star Trek: The Motion Picture again, as the big-ticket ‘crowd pleaser’ movies become increasingly kinetic and less contemplative. But it’s nice that ST09 offered richly-realized, familiar-but-new characters as compensation for a weak revenge story that steals from “The Wrath of Khan” and even the previous TNG film, “Nemesis” (which also involved Romulan/Reman rebels aboard a planet-killer weapon). Not an ideal cinematic bargain, but a compromise I could live with.
* Michael Giacchino’s score.
Took me a while to get used to it, just as my 13 year old self took a while to warm up to Jerry Goldsmith’s all-new score for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” but I did. Now, I’ve come to love it. It is energetic and dynamic. The opening theme almost sounds a bit too bombastic (very ’new frontier’), but it’s also in-keeping with this more Star Wars-ish version of Star Trek (it’s not a wonder that Giacchino would go on to score “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” 7 years later). I also enjoy the waning strings used to echo Spock’s feelings of melancholy in the film. Giacchino also does a bold, full-orchestral remix of Alexander Courage’s original series’ main title theme at the start of the end credits and it brings the house down.
Giacchino has since gone on to become a very much in-demand composer these days, and also won a much-deserved Oscar for his brilliant score for “Up” (also released in 2009); I have the soundtracks to both ST09 and “Up” and so help me, Track 3 of “Up” makes me well up with tears every time (and that’s just from Giacchino’s music alone; no imagery).
* Dan Mindel’s cinematography.
This one may get me uninvited from a few Star Trek fan circles, but I stand by it. Yes, there is an overuse of lens flaring in the frames, and the fact that it calls attention to itself with average filmgoers is arguably a problem. But is it really that bad? “Blade Runner” (1982) and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) also had a lot of lens flare and I don’t recall fans raking those films over the coals for it.
Yes, arguably there is an overuse of lens flare in ST09. I concede that point. But it certainly doesn’t diminish from the rest of the nicely-framed images and the overall gorgeous color palette of the film.
From the golden warm hues of Iowa and Vulcan to the cool, harshness of Delta Vega. If I have any complaint, it’s that the images don’t linger on the screen for a bit longer, to better allow an audience to take it all in. The Bad Robot Star Trek movies are arguably the best looking in the series since The Motion Picture, thanks to their healthier-than-average budgets.
* Creative use of real-life locations for filming.
The campus at Cal State Northridge makes for a believable Starfleet Academy locale, and Long Beach City Hall makes for a great assembly hall set. The interesting latticework architecture of Skyrose Chapel in Whittier made for a believable (and logical?) Vulcan Science Academy.
Also enjoyed seeing Vasquez Rocks used for Vulcan (again; they were also used briefly as a Vulcan exterior in “The Voyage Home”). Vasquez Rocks was a location used multiple times in the original series as well, including the classic “Arena” (when Kirk went mano-a-lizardo with a Gorn).
* The USS Enterprise exterior.
This next one gets a LOT of internet hate, and I don’t really understand why. The new version of the ship more or less echoes the silhouette of the original (the saucer is pretty much a 1:1 of the Enterprise saucer seen in “The Motion Picture”), with the biggest changes being the scale (the new ship varies in scale; at times seeming frightfully larger than the original) and the warp nacelles, which look a bit larger and over-designed but not grotesquely so.
Which brings me to…
Things about Star Trek (2009) that I’m not as fond of:
* The Enterprise’s interiors are a bit more problematic.
The bridge does look a bit like a 2007-era iMac demo room (as a longtime Mac user, I’m generally okay with that).
The corridors have a nice, clean “2001: A Space Odyssey”-aesthetic that I appreciate as well, but….
…the engineering section (shot on location at a Budweiser/Anheuser-Busch plant in Van Nuys) is the movie’s biggest production design fail; it looks precisely like what it is; a redressed brewery. And the notion of Starfleet’s newest and finest matter/antimatter-powered flagship using highly inefficient 20th century-tech water turbines is patently ridiculous. Granted, the water turbines make for a funny-ish (?!) bit about Scotty nearly drowning to death in one of them (ala ‘Augustus Gloop’ in “Willy Wonka”) but they make about as much sense as the International Space Station having a coal chute.
Oh, how I wish they’d just coughed up a bit more money for a proper starship engine room set (see: “The Motion Picture”).
The scale of the new USS Enterprise is never quite hammered out either; at times, it seems more or less the size of the original ship. Yet at other times, its cavernous interior (with mazes of industrial pipes and brewing vats) makes it seem roughly the size of an Imperial Star Destroyer from Star Wars. The new shuttle-bay seems to be about 4-5 times the size of the shuttle-bay seen on the TV series.
* Nero; a cliched, one-note vengeance-seeking villain.
Post-1982, it seems that nearly every other Star Trek movie was about a crazed madman seeking/having a super-weapon that could destroy entire worlds (Khan, Kruge, Soran, Shinzon, etc). ST09 only adds to the list with a bald, heavily-tatted, oddly-accented Romulan miner-turned-genocidal maniac named Nero (did he fiddle while Rome burned? Had to ask…).
Actor Eric Bana (2003’s “The Hulk”) plays Nero with an all-over-the-continental-US-map accent. His thirst for revenge is also a bit moronic, as the loss of his beloved home planet Romulus in the future could’ve been easily prevented. Nero caught a lucky break and was thrown over a 150 years into the past after the implosion of the supernova that destroyed Romulus. He could’ve easily used his ship’s own supply of ‘red matter’ (which was still intact) to implode the offending supernova far in the past; thus preventing it from ever becoming a threat in his own time. But no such luck. Nero is just plain cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs, and he ain’t having any of that common sense stuff.
In the end, Nero is a typical “Villains-R-Us” bad guy who exists primarily to get the charming cast of heroes together. As a means to that end, I give Nero the scant credit he deserves. The bald heads and tattoos of his crew seem like an attempt to make Nero and his mining ship’s crew look like a Romulan skinhead biker gang. While I applaud the amazing makeup jobs of ST09 (it deservedly won an Oscar for them), nothing telegraphs cheesy, outdated concepts of villainy more than a bunch of scowling bald guys with tattoos.
That said, I did like Nero’s super-casual introductory line to Captain Pike; “Hi Christopher, I’m Nero.” It’s a vaguely subversive departure from the usual pompous introductions of villains in space operas (“I’m Captain Horatio Osmodius, of the battle cruiser Demigodius,” or some overwrought thing). Sadly, it’s about the only witty or unexpected thing Nero does in the entire film.
* There are a few moments here and there when the script could’ve used a polish.
There are two lines in ST09 that usually make me wince a bit. The first is when Capt. Pike is talking to the young hooligan Kirk in an Iowa bar and tells him that the Federation (not Starfleet) is “a peacekeeping armada.” Um…no, it’s not. An armada refers to multiple ships, not a union of peaceful planets. That Pike would get them confused is just…weird. Then again, maybe Pike had a few too many “Budweiser classics” at the bar earlier in the evening (?).
There’s also a bit where Chekov is computing a plan to exit warp around the Saturnian moon system directly above Titan (a beautiful shot, by the way…) to avoid detection from Nero’s ship. Spock steps onto the bridge (after previously relieving himself from command, citing regulations) and tells Kirk that “Mr. Chekov is correct, and I can confirm his telemetry.” This again is a wrong use of the word ‘telemetry’; telemetry are just measurements or readings relayed over a long distance. It requires no more ‘confirmation’ than fact-checking the speed gauge on your car’s dashboard. The line should’ve been, “I can confirm Chekov’s computations”; something Spock did at times for the young officer during the original series (see: “Way To Eden” or “The Apple”). Maybe Spock was still a bit too ‘emotionally compromised’ to realize his error (?). There are a few other minor quibbles like these, but those are two of the worst offenders.
I also think they might’ve called the black hole device something a bit more creative than “red matter.” I’ve no problem with a giant red blob that makes imploding black holes; it’s no more ludicrous than TNG’s ‘trilithium’ or even “Wrath of Khan”’s ‘Genesis device’ (which is essentially a torpedo that is capable of practicing alchemy). But ‘red matter’ sounds like leftover velvet cake or melted candle wax.
In the film’s defense, ST09 went before cameras during a writer’s guild strike, so the screenwriters (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) were not permitted on the set during filming to do last minute rewrites on their own material, so minor gaffes like this are understandable. It’s too bad they weren’t dubbed over with new lines in postproduction when the strike was over. Then again, Orci and Kurtzman are two of the same writers who made the truly dumb “cold fusion” error in “Star Trek Into Darkness”, but more about that one in my next post on this series.
ST09 is not a deep, philosophical/science-based Star Trek entry, but then again, neither were “The Search For Spock” (reuniting Spock’s ghost with his dead body), “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (crewman becomes a psionic monster due to a purple energy field) or any number of classic Star Trek movies/episodes (past or present). Some of the best Star Treks were more about characters rather than simply tackling a metaphor for a current Earthly dilemma or ethical conundrum.
I’ve seen ST09 win over a few non-Trek viewers in a big way, and there’s a good reason for that. ST09 is all about getting to know this family of characters, and to that end, it succeeds brilliantly. It is also, above all else, a hell of a lot of fun.
ST09’s prodigious budget and production design makes for arguably the most opulent Star Trek production since 1979’s “The Motion Picture” but with more of the energy and heart of the original series. The movie is accessible enough for non-fans, yet rewarding enough for the faithful by giving us an alternate look at how the classic Enterprise crew came together.
“To Boldy Go…”
I appreciated this movie as the first in a new series of movies; sort of a new pilot episode that was about uniting the crew. I assumed that the next movie would be the one where, with the characters united, we’d see them finally get under way and explore the galaxy…
… but instead, we got:
***** TO BE CONTINUED *****