As Justin Lin takes over the directors helm, I take a look back at JJ Abrams’ 2009 re-boot
No one can argue that the Star Trek films franchise contains both very good and very bad films. In fact, Dave wrote a pretty detailed article about it which can be found right here. After 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, the franchise was ready to be retired, and when Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled in 2005, there was nothing Star Trek related in production for the first time in decades. This finally allowed a totally fresh reboot to take place, and (at least how it appears from the outside) this led to JJ Abrams being given carte blanche and all the toys in the box to play with.
Abrams was riding high at the time, as Lost was the biggest show in the world, and producing some of the very best episodes of television in history. You can argue that it lost its way at times, but I would put that first Locke flashback episode or The Constant up against almost anything. He had also made his directorial debut with Mission: Impossible III, which really raised the bar for that franchise. But how would he deal with rebooting such a beloved seriesas this?
We open with a Federation Spaceship, and are introduced to… the USS Kelvin, in a nice swerve. We are straight into the action, as they are attacked by a mysterious Romulan vessel, leading to the death of its Captain and the first mate George Kirk taking command of the bridge. This leads to him heroically sacrificing himself to hold off the Romulan ship and allow the escape pods to get away, including his wife giving birth to a certain James Tiberius Kirk.
The next scene sees a teenage Kirk being chased by police while joy riding in his step-father’s car, followed by bullies attempting to get a rise from Spock. This is their 35th attempt, and when they mention his human mother he finally reacts, beating down one of his bullies. His father takes him aside and explains that Vulcans feel emotions perhaps even more than humans, but that logic was the only way to live a healthy, stable life.
We then fast forward a few years, with the characters of Kirk and Spock (played by Chirs Pine and Zachary Quinto) still in a very similar place. Kirk gets in a fist fight when he meets Ohura (Zoe Saldana) in a bar (with a big faced “alien” cringing at his attempted pick-up lines), while Spock turns down a place at the Vulcan Science Academy to join Starfleet, his rebellious traits still evident. A visit from Captain Christopher Pike persuades Kirk that this is the right course for him to take as well, and on the flight to join Starfleet he meets nervous doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban).
Three years later, Kirk is “preparing” for his third attempt at the Kobayashi Maru test, an unbeatable simulation designed to see how potential captains deal with no-win situations, designed and maintained by Spock. An apparent glitch in the system allows Kirk to very easily defeat the simulation, leading to him being called to a disciplinary hearing. I love this moment, because Kirk’s cheating is just so obvious, so brazen, so big that he can can argue that it is only leveling the playing field, because no situation is truly unwinnable. He didn’t cheat to make it easier, he cheated to totally change the rules. He is brought face to face with Spock for the first time, and the two strike up and immediate friendship. No wait, the exact opposite. Before a decision can be passed however, there is a report of an attack on Vulcan, resulting in the cadets being immediately assigned to star ships and sent to Vulcan. Because Kirk is still on suspension, McCoy has to sneak him on board the ship he has been assigned to… the USS Enterprise.
Once on board, we meet a lot of familiar faces (or should that be familiar names with new faces) and as the mission to Vulcan leads to tragedy and then an attack on Earth, Kirk’s belief that he is the one to save the day is solidified by a meeting with an older version of Spock (Leonard Nimoy returning to the role after almost 2 decades). What is Spock’s role in the Romulen ships mysterious appearance? Can he help James T. Kirk lead the team of youngsters and fulfill his destiny? And what will his relationship be with Spock if he does so?
JJ Abrams unveils his pack steadily over the course of the film. As mentioned, we don’t see the iconic Enterprise at first, and when we do, it’s just one of many star ships. Both Sulu (John Cho) and Chekhov (the sadly departed Anton Yelchin, only 20 years old at the time of release) get introduced with a bit of comedy (parking brake and funny “Russian” accent!) but both play vital roles later on in the film. I always thought they never got enough credit – they were the ones who actually did all the flying – but to see Chekhov use his teleporting skills and Sulu taking control of the Enterprise during the last attack give them a nice moment of glory each. Simon Pegg as Montgomery Scott doesn’t turn up to surprisingly late in the film, but again, is vital to the last act. Also, we have Engineer Olsen – officially the first red shirt of the new era!
One of the biggest problems people seem to have is that Star Trek is a “generic action film” with Star Trek characters, rather than a Star Trek film. The thing is though, that is obviously the remit Abrams was given – or at least set for himself. Everything look as shiny and brand new as possible, lens flare and all. Also, there are loads (and loads) of references to the TV shows, but this is an alternate reality! These aren’t the same characters as we saw in The Original Series. Maybe you could argue that, for example, this is how William Shatner would have played Kirk in 2009 (more overtly sexual and impulsive), but they were TV show characters – by the time we got to the Star Trek films, we have already spent 79 hours with them. The characters can’t have as much depth in a 2 hour film.
Whereas the original series had Spock and Bones as two foils for Kirk, at times quite transparently representing either an emotional or logical response to an issue, here the Kirk/Spock relationship is the main focus. With Kirk trying to balance his human and Vulcan natures, the Bones role is slightly reduced, and we only get the one conversation between Spock and Bones, which is a highlight none the less. It also reminds me of a line in This Is Spinal Tap, when bassist Derrick Smalls talks about having two geniuses in a band like fire and ice, so is role is to be the balance between the two, like “lukewarm water”. That’s McCoy’s role in this film for me. The tweaking of a few elements of the original series is just enough to keep it from being a full retread – the main romantic relationship for example – and works a lot better than in the sequel, which seemed to just swap two roles around in the finale for the sake of being different.
I’m not going to say that this film is perfect though. There are a few problems that seem to stick out a bit too much to be dismissed. When we meet the teenage Kirk, I’m not totally sure his act of rebellion makes sense – we are about 200 years in the future, The Beastie Boys would be pretty much classical music by that stage and, as his step-dad mentions, the car would be an antique. In fact – driving? Wouldn’t that be the equivalent of riding in a horse-drawn carriage? We have the Vulcans just stood in a circle as their planet collapses around them when Spock rescues them, which seems a bit… strange. Also, there could be more aliens around the film, that does seem like a concession to try and not scare away some of the general audience. Finally, the time travel is a bit of a cheat (as Kirk tells older Spock!), but Spock telling Scotty his own theory is a fairly minor plot point. It’s made clear this is an alternate universe created by Nero entering it through the black hole, so the theory only exists in Spock’s head in this universe (although it does give a what I think is a Futurama reference with Scotty’s “space is the thing that moves” line, which is how Professor Farnsworth fixes the Planet Express ship). But using a similar trick in the sequel? I concede that’s slightly less forgivable.
As you can probably tell, I’m a big Star Trek fan. It gave a fresh take on a series of beloved characters, and used just enough call backs to the original series to be satisfying without relying on nostalgia. The action is good (and I’ve only just got round to mentioning Eric Bana as Nero, who is brilliant) but the relationships between the characters is what makes this film special. And if that final scene doesn’t give you a warm fuzzy feeling… well… I’ve got nothing more to say.
What happened next? Star Trek took $385 million at the box office. A sequel followed in 2013, and was even more financially (if not critically) successful. Chris Pine has had a patchy record afterwards being enjoyable in This Means War and Jack Ryan (although the latter failed to start an intended franchise) Zachary Quinto has done very little of note since, only Zoe Saldana of the main cast has had any sustained success.
JJ Abrams has moved onto the Star Wars franchise now, but his work as a producer on Mission: Impossible shows that he can have a positive influence on a franchise without being in the director’s chair.
Although Star Trek Beyond will probably be the last film for a little while, January 2017 will see the launch of a new Star Trek TV series from Bryan Fuller (the show-runner of Hannibal and Pushing Daisies) which will introduce totally new characters to the Star Trek universe. I would definitely recommend you try and find Fuller’s pilot for an attempted Munsters reboot called Mockingbird Lane.
Star Trek Beyond is released on July 22nd 2016.