Star Trekking XI: Star Trek (2009)

Posted: August 20, 2014 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews, Retrospectives

star_trek-newposter3Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

In the wake of the “Next Generation” films, it was clear something about Star Trek wasn’t working. It’d be easy to pin the failure on the critical and financial disappointment that was Nemesis, but I think the problems run a lot deeper than that. The fact is, the TNG crew had never taken off on film the same way the original crew did. Even the most financially successful of the four (First Contact) only out-grossed the last two films from the original run, and the overall quality of the TNG films was generally lacking. The only one I even like is First Contact, and it’s not even in the same league as films like The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, or The Undiscovered Country. Personally, I would have been interested in seeing Picard and his crew back for a proper finale, but the cast did seem tired, so I can’t really blame Paramount for abandoning them. The question then became, what next? I’m sure it was suggested that a film be made about one of the other “Trek” series, but I can see why that never materialized. While the other shows were successful, none had the pop-culture impact that “TOS” and “TNG” had. Beyond that, with so many different shows, mainstream audiences likely weren’t able to keep up. Thus, the decision was made to return to square one, by making a film about the younger versions of Kirk, Spock, Bones, and the rest of The Original Series cast. That film became Star Trek, and it would go on to be one of 2009’s biggest hits with both audiences and critics.

The year is 2233, and the USS Kelvin is investigating a lightning storm, which soon reveals itself to be a portal of some kind. A massive Romulan ship emerges, destroying the Kelvin and many of its crew. The damage is minimized due to the efforts of first officer George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth), who manages to save many including his wife and newborn son, James, though George himself is killed in the attack. Many years later, and James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is a direction-less young man in Iowa, who is eventually convinced by Star Fleet Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) to enlist. Kirk decides to do just that, and excels in Star Fleet academy through the next few years. Eventually he, finds himself on his first real mission, on the Enterprise with the likes of Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Scotty (Simon Pegg). However this mission involves investigating a lightning storm in space in essentially the same circumstances the day Kirk was born and his father died.

Unlike the other films I’ve reviewed this far, I’m quite familiar with Star Trek. I saw the film back when it was released in theaters and quite enjoyed it. Looking back, I can see why it doesn’t serve as a very representative introduction to Trek lore, but I did enjoy the film as a big-budget blockbuster. Much as I enjoyed the film though, I was pretty shocked when the film received absolutely stellar reviews. It felt like everyone who saw the film couldn’t say enough things about how great it was and I could never really wrap my head around why. Sure, it was good, but as far as blockbusters of the era go, it never climbed the heights of films like The Dark KnightDistrict 9Inception, or even Avatar. I thought perhaps I just didn’t get it due to my unfamiliarity with the series, but that wasn’t really the case. In fact the film’s most vocal detractors were the long-time fans, a group that has become more vocally dissatisfied with the reboot films in the years since. Going into this series, I was wondering, as I get to learn and understand Star Trek, if my view of the 2009 entry would change, and in a sense, it has. Mostly, I now understand why so many Trek fans don’t like, or even hate the new movies.

Before I get into what I feel holds this film back, I think it’s only fair that I discuss what it does well, and it does a lot very well. Most important here is the cast, which is great. Every member of the crew really comes through strong and all are given at least a moment to shine. In general, the performances are a little over the top, but this makes sense seeing how the characters are much younger than we’re used too, not to mention the film is intended to be an introduction of sorts. Chris Pine captures the essence of Kirk pretty well, and he also wisely avoids trying to emulate the mannerisms of William Shatner. Zachary Quinto is also very good as Spock, and the decision to make him a character struggling with his Vulcan half and his human half is an interesting one. It does disappoint me a bit that Bones has been somewhat relegated to basically being comedic relief, but Karl Urban is great and the character remains one of my favourites to watch. The other actors, Cho, Saldana, Yelchin, and of course Pegg all have strong moments too, and while they aren’t given too much to do, they mesh nicely and I always look forward to seeing them when I watch this movie. Do the cast jive as well as the original actors. Of course not, and in all honesty they probably never well. Those were actors who spent most of their careers acting together, who had a chemistry that transcended the few months of shooting one film can offer. But for what can be expected, the cast do a great job, and as far as the recasting goes, I think J.J. Abrams and the producers made the best choices.

The other major advantage Star Trek has is its director. J.J. Abrams may not be a first rate auteur, be he is a talented professional who knows how to make an entertaining movie. With the fluid camera work and tight editing, Abrams really gives the film a sense of energy that never lets up. The special effects are also top-notch, and Abrams wisely retains many practical effects. There is plenty of CGI of course, particularly for the space battles, black holes, and planetary explosions, but the film was shot on actual sets and real locations, and it gives the film a grounding on reality. The action scenes here are also very impressive. I’ve been critical of previous films attempts to be action films, but a substantial problem with those films (those being any Next Generation film that isn’t First Contact) is that the action scenes were tired and boring. Here however, the set-pieces are quite good. They’re creative, well-shot, and fun to watch. The film provides a nice variety in action too and while it comes close during the climax, it never exhausts the audience. I also really like Michael Giacchino’s score, which effectively evokes a feeling of classic Trek while maintaining it’s own identity.

Where the film starts to run into problems is in the script, which is just littered with flaws throughout. Sometimes it’s just in dialogue that doesn’t seem very thought out, like when Spock tries to explain that the purpose of the Kobayashi Maru test is to “experience fear”, which makes no sense since all of the participants are completely aware they are experiencing a simulation. They even trie to bring this fear thing back into play later on, as if it’s some important theme or something. Then there’s the plot holes and conveniences, which are things that usually don’t bother me, but they become too aggressive here to really be ignored. The most egregious example of this is the whole section where Kirk is marooned on some random planet after the destruction of Vulcan. A random planet which just so happens to be where old Spock is within walking distance, so he can explain Nero’s backstory and give Kirk the motivation he needs to become Captain. Not only that, but also within walking distance is Scotty, the last major player of the Original Crew, and also the man who has pioneered two different types of beaming which will both allow Kirk to return to the Enterprise, but to take down Nero as well. Wow, can you imagine what would have happened had Kirk not landed there? Worst of all though is the fact that a few scenes are just straight-up bad. The infamous “comedic” scene where Kirk has the enlarged hands has been mocked by many, but there’s good reason; it’s a dumb and annoying scene. Even worse are the scenes dedicated to Kirk and Spock as children. Kirk’s scene of stealing a car is just dumb, but it’s made worse by the use of The Beastie Boys song “Sabotage”. I don’t know if I can think of a more un-Trek like image than a classic car and a 90’s rock song. The kid Spock scene isn’t that bad, but it does strike me as odd. Mainly because Spock claims the bullies have tried to provoke him over thirty times without success, yet here Spock immediately starts crying and punching one dude repeatedly in the face.

There is a larger problem here than individual scenes though, and that’s a general lack of weight. Despite having strong action scenes, stripping Star Trek down to that level does leave a lot to be desired. One of the great things about Star Trek was the way it would deal with thematic stories that had larger goals. From the ambiguous wonder of The Motion Picture, to the environmental conservation messages of The Voyage Home, to the political parallels of The Undiscovered Country; it always felt like Trek had something to say, or at least explore. With this film though, that ambition just isn’t there. There are some musings about the natures of alternate realities, but that seems mostly there just to set-up the rules of the reboot and to insure fans that this is just another alternate reality, and that the original timeline fans have been following for decades still exists. On the whole, this is a pretty shallow movie, that’s mostly interested in the action scenes. Even the most disappointing entries in the Trek canon, films like The Final FrontierInsurrection, and Nemesis at least made an effort to say something.

Most see the lack of depth as the central problem with Star Trek, but I’m not so sure. For me, the biggest flaw, which I suppose ties into the issue of depth, is that the film just doesn’t feel like Star Trek. With some exceptions, the original series of films had a sense of dignity and importance to it. At their core, they may have been a bit silly and weird to mainstream audiences, but they were made with care and ambition, and as a result, the films truly felt grand and important. I just don’t see that when I look at this film. Instead, I see a more cynical project; a collection of images and phrases designed to elicit nostalgia and ultimately make money. It’s still a well-made and enjoyable film, but one that ultimately feels hollow. In short, the older films in the series felt like they were made for adults, while these ones play to teens and kids. So, on the whole, I’m at something of a crossroads with this film. On the one hand, it is a very well-crafted blockbuster with some awesome action sequences, top-notch effects, a great score, and a bunch of likeable characters. On the other hand, the film is genuinely lacking in ambition, has a shoddy script, and ultimately lacks the very spirit of Star Trek. I debated this all throughout my viewing, but I’m ultimately gonna give this a pass. First, because this is indeed an introductory piece, one that was meant to revive the series. In that sense, I can see why the filmmakers were generally a little unadventurous as they probably didn’t want to risk screwing up the reboot series the first film in. Second, and more importantly , Star Trek is still an extremely entertaining film, despite some huge flaws. While I will never see this film as more than just a strong blockbuster, it does have a watchability and a charm. It’s a good movie, if not a good Star Trek movie, and ultimately I’m a movie fan first.

B-

So Star Trek still holds up, but will Into Darkness? Find out next time in the final instalment of “Star Trekking”.

Comments
  1. CMrok93 says:

    Good review Dan. This movie still works for me after all of these years. The sequel’s even better, although you don’t hear much of the same praise coming from others.

  2. brikhaus says:

    I agree with a lot of what you have to say about this film. It’s a solid review all around. Abrams was a good choice for director since he doesn’t stand out too much, and is easily consumed by the masses. I thought with this one, the franchise was off to a good re-start. Unfortunately, “Into Darkness” came around and re-ruined the franchise once more. I can’t wait to read what you think of that movie.

  3. Not a big Star Trek fan, and I didn’t see the movie or read the review. Honestly, I couldn’t find a Superbad review so I wanted to act like this movie was Superbad.

    What. A. Movie. Jonah Hill is the man. He really is. Andy Samberg gives an inspirational performance as Evan. Seth Rogen is my father. Don’t even get me started on McLovin! I feel like this movie influenced me in life and helped mould me into what you see and love today. To this day, I still watch this movie and laugh obnoxiously at almost every single line. I’d give it an A.

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