Star Trek (2009)recommended viewing

The soft bigotry of low expectations
J.J. Abrams
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Keith Urban
The Setup: 
Revisionist origin story of Kirk, Spock, and the familiar crew of the Enterprise.

There was never any question that I was going to see this, but I was NOT expecting to like it. First, J.J. Abrams, whose work so far seems to be all concept and climaxes. Then, the whole concept of making Star Trek “young and sexy,” [let alone tasking JJ ABRAMS with making Star Trek young and sexy], which usually trends toward the finished product being blasé, loud and stupid. Three impressions that were reinforced by the Star Trek trailer, where we see Kirk as a youngster ruining cars, riding his motorcycle and looking all yearning, in a beer commercial sort of way, not to mention Spock and Kirk brawling on the bridge. That was the last straw for a friend of mine, who memorably dismissed this movie with an authoritative “Spock DOES. NOT. BRAWL.” Furthermore, the trailer was one of those effects-packed things that result in one asking oneself “How are they going to fit all those different special effects into one coherent story?” And one often finding that they couldn’t. So expectations were sub-basement. But interest was high!

We open with this Federation starship [just ignore that they, Star Wars prequel-like, are forty times more modern than the technology they supposedly preceded] suddenly finding this huge thistle-lookin’ ship in their midst. The captain, a Romulan, asks for Spock, asks what year it is, seems freaked out, then starts shooting up the Federation ship. The captain—who is Kirk’s dad!—gets his wife on a shuttle, where she gives birth, and he nobly goes down with the ship. Then we see Kirk at about eleven or so, having taken someone’s antique convertible for a joyride. The owner calls and explicitly tells him not to get a scratch on it, so Kirk dumps it over a cliff, jumping out just in time. I think this is supposed to show us what an impetuous daredevil he is, but instead it shows him to be a rotten little brat with no respect for others’ property. This entire scene also serves no purpose except to a) have some action, and b) show Kirk as an impetuous little youngster. We then cut to Vulcan, where baby Spock is being taunted by his classmates for being half-human. They tease him enough so that he finally gets mad and starts beating on one of them, which is actually important to the later story. Less crucial to the plot was the Bollywood-style musical sequence as he sang a rendition of Cher’s “Half Breed,” but it was so fabulous I’ll give it a pass. Back in Iowa, Kirk is now a 20-something in a bar and gets into a brawl [over Uhura, actually]. Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike sits him down, calls him a loser, tells him the story of his daddy, and dares him to join Starfleet to do better than his dad. Of course Kirk shows up the next day, where he meets McCoy and they gets shipped off to Starfleet Academy. Meanwhile, on Vulcan, Spock is accepted to whatever big Vulcan school there is, but chooses Starfleet because the Vulcans treat him like his humanness as a handicap. No—he’s just differently abled!

There’s a little bit of Starfleet Academy drama that I won’t go into, but the biggest thing is that Kirk gets caught cheating on the Kobyashi Maru test [famously referenced in Wrath of Khan], and this puts him in conflict with Spock, who supposedly designed the test. Kirk is booted out of Starfleet! Then there’s some distress signal from Vulcan—and a throwaway line about the rest of the fleet tied up somewhere else, meaning they have to send their cadets on this new mission. Please don’t think too much about any of this. Kirk is explicitly not allowed to go, but McCoy smuggles him on!

Kirk bursts up on the bridge saying he knows what the thing in space they’re heading to is—and it’s a trap! They find that to be right when they arrive and find the big thistle-ship, and all the Starfleet ships have been destroyed. There’s a big drill making a hole in the planet, and Kirk and Sulu are sent down there to cut it off. They do, but too late, and Nero [that’s the bad Romulan on the thistle-ship] sends a tiny drop of red matter [yeah, that’s it… RED MATTER!] which causes a black hole that sucks in the entire planet. This is just the tiniest drop of red matter [which never receives even the most cursory explanation] out of a medicine ball-sized unit they have. Anyway, Spock beams down to the planet to save his family, and spirits away all of the council, including his dad, but his mom doesn’t make it. The rest of Vulcan—millions of people—are killed, but no one seems too bummed out about it. Shit happens, you know! Then Kirk does something to piss Spock off [Spock is acting captain as the other captain was taken prisoner by Nero] and Spock orders that Kirk be… left to die on an ice planet? Woah, don’t piss that guy off. Pretty harsh, dude. Kirk lands and faces some ice beast, then wanders into a cave, where who should he run into but… Old Spock! Amazing—he was dumped indiscriminately on Hoth, and he just HAPPENED to end up 50 feet from the one guy, that no one knew was there, who holds the key to this entire shebang! The universe sure is a funny place.

So Old Spock [who uses Old Spice] gives Kirk some exposition via mind-meld… He was supposed to deliver the beach ball [red matter] that would stop the Romulan sun from destroying their planet, but had to stop to pick up his neighbor’s kids from softball practice, so he was late. This made Nero really, like, SO pissed-off, that he used the beach ball to create a black hole, and went back in time to kill Spock—encountering and killing Kirk’s dad. He marooned Spock on that planet to give him a front-row seat at the destruction of Vulcan—which apparently older Spock cared about, unlike younger Spock, who clearly couldn’t give a shit. Now get this: The Romulan ship coming back in time during Kirk’s dad’s time altered history and created an alternate timeline, which is why there’s both Old Spock and Young Spock at the same time, and, more importantly: THE ENTIRE HISTORY AS LAID OUT BY THE ORIGINAL SERIES AND ALL SUBSEQUENT MOVIES IS NOW IRRELEVANT. It’s kind of an easy cheat, like having everything be a dream or whatnot, but at the same time you kind of have to admire the ballsiness of it. This is exactly what everyone would criticize about the movie, that it doesn’t stick to the established history, and so they found a way to get around that and give themselves a clear path to go forward any way they like, which I like. I also appreciate that they tackle the issue head on, rather than just trying to ignore it. So, like it or not, that’s the way it is now!

Old Spock tells Kirk he must seize command of the Enterprise, and the way to do that is to get Spock to lose his shit. After a little mid-warp beaming [that will have Trek purists apoplectic], Kirk provokes Spock by telling him that he didn’t do enough to save his mother, and THIS leads to the on-bridge Kirk-Spock brawl, so it fits into the context of the story. Then Kirk takes command of the Enterprise, another moment that looked pretty awful in the trailer, but works given the larger context here.

At this point the entire crew is now assembled, and there’s a nice shot with them all gathered, that is kind of exciting, followed immediately by a Kirk-Spock shot, and you really feel it all coming together. The ending goes off without much interest, sort of straightforward sci-fi action stuff, and Neo is defeated. My only complaint is that a tiny droplet of the red matter is enough to create a black hole that will consume a planet, and at the end here they blow up the WHOLE THING [approximately 10,000X the amount] in close proximity to Earth, and it just creates a small enough black hole to send the Romulan ship through. Yeah, that’s just the way it is, astrophysicists! I also thought there was a lot more potential in the Old Spock meets Young Spock thing than was realized, but it was okay. Then it ends!

While I was watching, I LOVED IT. The story was interesting and seemed clever enough, it had a nice hook into the original series, and it’s nice to see a story that hinges on Spock as a returning character, as opposed to Kirk. Many people say “This isn’t Star Trek,” and I’m only familiar with the movies [never watched much of the show], but I found it very much in keeping with the tone of the movies. It is clever and focuses on characters and deals with issues of friendship and leadership, etc. The plot and special effects, for me at least, took a second place to the story of these characters, and I thought the movie got them spot-on. They have echoes of familiar mannerisms from their older incarnations, but the performances don’t seem like parodies—they are very convincing as younger versions of the characters we know. So I’m not sure the movie would be that appealing to non-Star Trek fans, because for me 85% of the enjoyment came from knowing these characters, and this film’s take on them. Particularly well-rendered, and almost even moving, is this film’s version of Spock as a solitary, somewhat confused and bewildered young man. Kirk is a straightforward frat boy, but Spock has some conflict and soul.

This high was enough to sustain me for a few days, then I began to have the vague feeling that this movie would seriously start dropping in value the further one got from it. Mostly from the frisson created by having extremely low expectations for something, and then discovering that it’s actually pretty good, and how that can lead one to think it’s better than it is. It is also very fast-paced and energetic, so it doesn’t leave you with a lot of time to pick apart details and inconsistencies [even WITHIN the film, not just with Star Trek history]. But afterward one can start to pick, and I found that in writing this review—having to piece together the entire plot and recount it—the film’s stock dropped a good 20 points [see additional notes below]. So many things just seem off or don’t make sense—like the black hole issue right next to Earth [black holes are SO not a big deal], the whole unexplained time-travel issue [how do they control where they’re going?], and the huge “Red Matter” doozy—but what bothered me the most is the idea that Spock would abandon an unruly crew member on a desolate planet to die? Don’t they have a little prison on board for just such a purpose? And then some of the actiony sequences are revealed, upon reflection, to serve absolutely no purpose except to supply the apparently “needed” goose of action every five minutes. So in a way, all those fears and prejudices one has about J.J. Abrams… ultimately turn out to be somewhat justified. It is a lot of overheated flash and brash youth without a lot of brains or sensible connecting tissue. Ah well, people don’t change overnight.

It’s still worth seeing, and can show you a great time, I just would do yourself a favor and don’t think about it too much. Is it real Star Trek? I personally don’t care that much—let’s face it folks, sustained attention is becoming a thing of the past [I actually know more than a few people who can’t sustain the attention it takes to watch ANY movie]—and The Final Frontier and Undiscovered Country were not exactly the philosophical mind-benders some claim true Trek is all about. This is a decent Trek movie for the population we live with now: people who can't pay attention and think big ideas are like so totally pointless. And JJ Abrams is the man for these times.

Okay, now it’s six months later, and I could not in good conscience let the mean things I said about JJ Abrams and erroneous questions raised about this movie stand. Since I first saw this movie and wrote the above review, I went through a large-scale Star Trek obsession, which is now not as severe as it once was, but still simmers within. I saw this movie four times at the theater [something I haven’t done in ten years] and bought the DVD the day it was released. I have watched the Original Series seasons one and two [and am in the middle of three], all of which I have never seen before [and which I FUCKING LOVE]. I have re-watched all of the original cast movies and even watched the dreadful Next Generation movies. I have read Shatner’s Star Trek Movie Memories and the original series’ producers’ Inside Star Trek. I even own a model of the new Enterprise! I am seriously just a replica uniform away from serious, irreparable geekdom.

And so, on the eve of the DVD release of this, some additional thoughts. For one, many of the problems I raised above are not issues of the movie, but just things that went by so fast that I didn’t notice the explanations they were given. Spock didn’t just leave Kirk to die out on the ice planet—there was a Starfleet outpost nearby. And they don’t bust open the black hole right next to Earth, they warp away from the planet and duke it out way out there. The inexplicable red matter I can live with—it’s just a MacGuffin. And I’m sorry about some of the mean insinuations I made about Abrams—although I DID hate Mission: Impossible III and Cloverfield.

That said, some additional things that have occurred to me: I really wonder where they’re going to go with the next movie. This one got by on a lot of interest in seeing how they would render the Enterprise and her crew. But all that interest is really looking BACKWARD at the original series, not so much focused on the strengths of THIS series. And in the next one they won’t have that, and will have to come up with a story that will be interesting enough on its own. Furthermore, to me, Kirk is an almost total blank in this movie. He’s just a completely generic frat boy, and by the end, I didn’t feel that he succeeded out of any particular leadership ability, but just because he has that bland American impetuousness and “never give up” attitude, and it happened to work out in this case. He’s not the smart, resourceful Kirk of the original series. In fact, he came by the keys to the Enterprise so easily in this film, if I were writing the second, I would have him make a SERIOUS mistake, through his arrogance and cockiness, and have a massive crisis of confidence. That, of course, Spock could help him get through.

My other problem with this film is Scotty. In watching the original series, I have come to looooovvvveeee Scotty—he’s SO awesome, especially when he is allowed command of the Enterprise and is all loyal to Kirk and in-your-face to those who wish to order him around. Plus he just looks so cool [until the Season Three NIGHTMARE HAIR, that is]. I like Simon Pegg a lot, he’s funny, but that’s the source of my problem—the character here is Simon Pegg on the Enterprise, it’s not Scotty. And I want my Scotty.

As for the redesign of the Enterprise: FUCKING LOVE IT. It’s very interesting to compare it with the original series Enterprise to see the little things they modified to make it look like more of a hot rod, to give it the appearance of motion even when sitting still. I also like the new, white bridge, with lots of crazy displays going on everywhere. Both of these work because they look like one imagines they were supposed to look back on the original series, if they had had the money and materials to make it happen.

I was raised on Star Wars, so I had never in my life seen a full episode of original series Star Trek [Hello? When is something going to explode?] until going back and watching it after seeing this movie. I had seen all the movies, and the effect of watching the original series after having seen all the movies is like finally having a taste of real cheddar after only ever having eaten Velveeta. That said, they can do these movies as well as they can, but they will never be able to match what the series was. Leave aside issues of the original cast and crew and writers, I’m talking about the FORM. When a television show is on every week, and people are going to watch it every week no matter how good or bad it is, you have the freedom to vary the tone—to have room for quiet episodes, character-driven episodes, comic episodes, etc. This worked out excellently for the original series, which needed space to step back from action and present its many science and philosophy-driven stories. The very nature of a film as a once-every-few-years event demands that it be a big blow-out, every single time. That it have little moments for every member of the cast, rather than being able to concentrate on one or two characters, have a big, usually NON-science-related story, and it’s best if it can have at least one space battle. Now, more than ever, big popular movies in general—and this one is particular, as it was such a hit this summer—are under pressure to be massive exciting events with an action climax every few minutes. All of the original cast Star Trek films weren’t anything like what the show was, and this new series of films has even less chance of being what the show was. So, best to accept it for what it is and realize that the special, unique quality of the original show will never again be recaptured. Hopefully the next films in this series will be able to find something compellingly interesting of its own to run with. It’s off to a good start.

Should you watch it: 

You betcha.