Jan 15, 2020
Star Trek (2009)
After Star Trek Nemesis bombed hard at the box office (at the same time Enterprise was limping along as one of the lowest rated shows in primetime), it was clear that drastic action was needed to save the franchise. After the studio mercifully pulled the plug on Enterprise and allowed Rick Berman’s contract to expire, new management took over and hired J.J. Abrams to helm the next Star Trek feature film.
Abrams had created some moderately successful shows and directed a Mission: Impossible sequel, but Lost is what made him a household name (fun fact: Abrams is also one of the six credited writers on Armageddon). For the first time ever, Star Trek had a “name” director, and more importantly, it had actors picked specifically for a movie. This would be the first Trek film that wasn’t stuck (for better or for worse) with the existing cast of a TV series.
But most significant of all, the next movie would be a reboot. The idea of a film featuring an all-new cast of characters was briefly floated, but it seems everyone from the studio on down to the fans knew in their guts that the only way Star Trek could ever hope to return to its former glories was to bring back the iconic characters everyone knew and loved: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the original series crew.
At the time, there seemed to be mostly optimism about Abrams taking the reins. Anything had to be better than the hundreds of hours of mediocrity produced by the previous regime. Alas, no one knew the Star Trek franchise was about to take a massive dose of stupid pills.
Star Trek is obviously not the first stupid summer blockbuster ever made. But given the franchise in question, we had every right to expect something a little bit smarter. The movie is chock full of characters doing dumb things, and having one-in-a-billion chance meetings that perfectly nudge everyone into the ranks and roles they inhabited in the original series.
There’s no disputing that the action scenes are more exciting and visually compelling than any previous Trek film (and kudos to the effects team for moving away from the 2-D Space aesthetic), but the movie has little else going for it. It certainly doesn’t offer much in the way of interesting sci-fi concepts or exploring alien cultures or examining the human condition—you know, the whole point of Star Trek in the first place?
Without those aspects, we’re left with a rather generic concept of a spaceship crew fighting bad guys who are out to blow up planets. Sort of like, I don’t know, Star Wars? The notion that Star Trek ’09 is basically Star Wars dressed up in Starfleet uniforms has been discussed to death elsewhere, so there’s no need to cover that ground again. I’ll simply express hope that now that Abrams has moved on to making an actual Star Wars film, perhaps a director will be found who actually wants to make a Star Trek film.
The story, as mostly revealed in flashbacks, goes like this: sometime after the events of Nemesis, the Romulan homeworld is threatened by its star going supernova. Ambassador Spock (still played by Leonard Nimoy), a character who by my estimation must be at least 382 years old by this point, attempts to prevent the star from going supernova by injecting it with something called “red matter”. Unfortunately, he’s too late, and Romulus is obliterated.
This is all witnessed by a Romulan captain named Nero (Eric Bana) who blames Spock and the Federation for the destruction of his planet. He attacks Spock’s ship, but the red matter creates a black hole that sends both ships back in time (of course it does).
By some plot contrivance quirk of time travel, Nero’s ship arrives 25 years before Spock’s ship. Nero encounters the Federation starship Kelvin, which just happens to have a senior officer aboard named George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth).
Nero kills the ship’s captain and nearly destroys the Kelvin, and Kirk has to sacrifice himself to save everyone onboard, including his wife (Jennifer Morrison) who at that precise moment just happens to be giving birth to a son named James. That’s right, Nero’s ship has coincidentally arrived on James T. Kirk’s birthday. This scene even establishes where Kirk’s middle name of “Tiberius” comes from, because this movie knows what’s important.
Fast forward to teenage James Kirk, growing up in Iowa. He’s turned out to be a rebel and also a bit of an idiot, which is revealed in a pointless scene where he steals his stepdad’s car and drives it off a cliff for no reason, and nearly kills himself in the process.
Meanwhile, on the planet Vulcan, we meet a half-Vulcan, half-human child named Spock fighting back against bullies. This provides not-so-subtle foreshadowing to a scene of adult Spock (Zachary Quinto) deciding to join Starfleet as a big F-you to the Vulcan bigwigs who are being total dicks about his mixed-race heritage.
Then it’s back to Iowa, where the now-adult Kirk (the vacant-eyed Chris Pine) stares longingly at the Enterprise being constructed. On the ground. Within driving distance of wherever Kirk lives. No one looked at this bit in the script and thought, Hey, maybe that’s a little too on the nose?
Not only that, but Starfleet Academy has some sort of satellite campus in Iowa, I guess, which is how Kirk happens to meet a cadet named Uhura (Zoe Saldana) in a bar. Kirk gets into a brawl with a few other cadets, which draws the attention of Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), no longer an everything-palegic answering questions via a series of beeps.
Pike knows Kirk has true leadership potential, because Pike knew Kirk’s father, AKA the guy who was captain for all of twelve minutes (setting the record for fastest time between taking command of a starship and destroying said starship, which I don’t think even Deanna Troi could beat). It’s worth noting that Kirk never even knew his father. Are we to assume leadership skills are genetic?
Taking Pike’s advice, Kirk signs up for Starfleet. He boards a shuttle to the Academy, and his seatmate just happens to be a country doctor named Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban).
A few years pass at the Academy, and Kirk is now ready to take the Kobiyashi Maru test, famously established in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The whole point of the test is that it’s a no-win scenario, meant to give insight into what cadets do in the face of certain death. Except for Kirk, who refused to accept certain death, and as revealed in Wrath of Khan, cheated by reprogramming the simulation to make it winnable.
Guess what? This film takes that deeply cherished bit of backstory and plays it for laughs. Nothing about this scene makes any sense. Why is Kirk making it so damn obvious he’s cheating? Why is he eating an apple? And what is the point? If you’re a Trek fan, you’ll be aghast at what they did with the Kobiyashi Maru. If you’re not a Trek fan, you’ll have no clue why this is even in the movie.
Naturally, Kirk is caught, and brought before Tyler Perry Presents Tyler Perry’s Disciplinary Hearing starring Tyler Perry.
It turns out that the Kobiyashi Maru test just happens to have been designed by Spock himself, and he meets Kirk for the first time. For those keeping score, by pure happenstance we’ve got Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and McCoy all hanging around the Academy at the same time, despite some significant age differences between them.
A distress call from Vulcan cuts the hearing short, and in keeping with a tried and true Trek tradition, our main characters have to respond because there are no other ships in the vicinity. Several starships full of cadets head to Vulcan, including the yet-to-be-christened USS Enterprise, on her maiden voyage with Pike as captain.
Kirk is grounded due to his cheating, so McCoy gets him on the ship by injecting him with something that eventually makes his fingers blow up like sausages. This plan is astonishing in its stupidity, but it somehow works, and Kirk gets aboard the Enterprise.
Also on the ship are two bridge officers named Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Sulu (John Cho). For those keeping score, we now have Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu, all aboard the Enterprise on its first-ever mission.
The original series established that the Enterprise had been around for decades before Kirk came along, and while I don’t particularly care for nitpicky continuity issues, the setting of a movie having some history is usually vastly preferable to it suddenly materializing for the purposes of the current story. Plus: Chekov? He wasn’t even on TOS until season two. You’re telling me they couldn’t hold off on introducing him until the next movie?
The trouble on Vulcan is revealed to be an attack by Nero, who I guess was just kicking it for 25 years, not doing much of anything. Actually, he may have been spending most of those years getting Botox treatments, because he looks exactly the same age as when he encountered the Kelvin. I know Romulan don’t crack, but damn!
Nero gets Pike to beam aboard his ship, but before he goes, Pike makes Spock the acting captain and promotes Kirk to first officer. Because, you know, his leadership skills, evidence of which there is none.
Meanwhile, Nero’s ship is using a big laser to drill into the core of Vulcan. Kirk and Sulu and a Redshirt parachute down to stop the drill, and in another dumb moment, the Redshirt is such a gung-ho adrenaline junkie that he kills himself by waiting too long to open his chute. I suppose this is how they weed out the less talented underclassmen at the Academy.
Kirk and Sulu stop the drill, but it turns out this entire elaborate action sequence was pointless, because Nero’s men have already succeeded in reaching the core. They drop red matter into Vulcan, creating a black hole that destroys the entire planet from the inside.
This was the big moment that was supposed to signal a drastic departure from the Star Trek universe as we knew it, and let us know that this was a reboot that wasn’t afraid to take chances. But let’s be honest: destroying the Vulcan homeworld is never going to have any real consequences. It’s not like anything significant ever happened on Vulcan (I only remember a few scenes in the movies, and a few episodes of Enterprise). Anything that needs to take place on Vulcan can now easily take place on “New Vulcan”, and the movie series is free to pull Vulcan “survivors” out of its butt whenever it needs them.
(Nitpicky question: The original series showed Spock experiencing psychic pain upon sensing the destruction of the USS Intrepid and the death of its 400-some Vulcan crewmembers. Why doesn’t the destruction of Vulcan cause him to experience the same pain, times ten million?)
Kirk and Spock have an argument over rescuing Pike, which ends with Kirk brawling with a couple of security officers. So Spock has Kirk placed aboard an escape pod and marooned on the planet Delta Vega. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just throw him in the brig?
The plot reason for this soon reveals itself: it’s so that Kirk can get chased by a giant monster and stumble into the one cave on the entire planet where Old Spock just happens to be hanging out.
Old Spock uses a mindmeld to explain his backstory. It seems that once he arrived in the past, he was quickly captured by Nero, who put him down on Delta Vega so he could witness the destruction of Vulcan firsthand. Yes, this “Delta Vega” planet (which appears to be a totally different “Delta Vega” than the one seen in TOS) is so close to Vulcan that Vulcan is plainly visible up in the sky. Is Delta Vega the name of Vulcan’s moon? Is it another planet in the Vulcan system? What the hell is going on here?
According to the writers, the “Delta Vega” name was just an “Easter egg” for fans, and while they could have had Spock watch the destruction of Vulcan through a telescope, that “simply isn’t very cinematic”. Perhaps this was a clue that the idea of the two being stranded on Delta Vega should have been cut from the script entirely. Why not put them on, say, a space station in the Vulcan system instead? Oh right, then they couldn’t have giant monsters.
Guess what? There just happens to be a Starfleet outpost on the planet, within walking distance, that just happens to be staffed by an engineer named Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg). Evidently, he’s been exiled here after accidentally disintegrating “one of Admiral Archer’s prized beagles”, which brings on the realization that Enterprise is the only series that still exists in this new timeline, causing me to make this face:
Old Spock helps Scotty invent “transwarp beaming”, which will allow Kirk and Scotty to beam onto the Enterprise, even though it’s light years away and traveling at warp. You might be thinking that this is yet another instance in Star Trek of incredible technology being invented, used once, and then completely forgotten (see: every episode of Voyager). But no, “transwarp beaming” pops up in the next film as a way to transport people between planets. So, wait, doesn’t this mean they no longer need starships? All they have to do now is beam crews directly from one planet to another.
Before they go, Old Spock convinces Kirk to get Young Spock all angry and stuff so that he relieves himself of duty. And… just like that, Kirk hops into the captain’s chair. He has gone from a cadet on academic probation to captain in, what, two or three days? Even though there are surely other officers on board with more seniority and more hours logged in space.
Along with Kirk suddenly becoming captain, Scotty has now suddenly been made Chief Engineer, even though he totally snuck onboard. And just like that, we have the entire TOS crew right where they were by the second season of TOS.
Naturally, Nero takes his planet-killing device to Earth next, and it’s up to Kirk and the gang to infiltrate Nero’s ship and stop him. Spoiler alert: They save Earth, and Tyler Perry pins Tyler Perry’s Medal on Kirk. Kirk is made permanent captain of the Enterprise because destiny and shit.
And in the closing moments, Young Spock encounters Old Spock, on his way to help establish a colony of Vulcan survivors in this new timeline. Which makes no sense given everything we’ve ever seen Spock do. In every other Star Trek story where someone changes history, the main characters immediately set about trying to restore the timeline. But here, Spock decides he’s cool with this new, altered timeline, even though it means billions of Vulcans remain dead.
The compulsion to have the entire TOS crew together on the Enterprise by the end of the movie simply baffles me. Why did everyone have to meet each other all in the same week? Sure, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are critical for a Star Trek reboot, but you can’t tell me they couldn’t hold off on introducing Chekov or Sulu or even Scotty until the next one. (The obvious explanation is that it’s easier to sell Scotty action figures than Steve the Random Engineer action figures.)
And Kirk instantly becoming captain was a massive middle finger to the audience, only made worse by Chris Pine’s utter lack of charisma and anything that could be described as command presence. As far as projecting gravitas and authority, Bruce Greenwood blows him off the screen. And yet, we’re being force-fed the idea by both Pike and Old Spock that this immature brat is destined for greatness?
The rest of the cast is all over the map in their takes on these iconic roles, ranging from cutesy impressions of the original actors (Yelchin, Urban) to respectful homage to the original actors (Quinto, Pegg) to “I’m going to basically just play myself because I’m not getting any direction anyway” (Saldana, Cho).
I don’t know why they bothered to have Winona Ryder play Spock’s mom, especially considering Ryder is less than five years older than Zachary Quinto. Instead of having to apply halfhearted old age makeup in every scene, why not simply cast an older actress in the first place?
As the villain, Eric Bana was just kind of there, mostly existing as a plot device. You’d expect a much bigger deal to be made of the fact that Nero is directly responsible for the death of Kirk’s father, but it’s barely even mentioned. Also, the fact that nobody had ever seen Romulans before (or knew about their relationship to Vulcans) was kind of a major thing on TOS. Here, Nero just shows up on a viewscreen and no one seems the slightest bit taken aback.
Like I said in my review of Nemesis, the basic plot of “crazed Romulan out for questionable revenge against the Federation with a planet-destroying device” can be used to describe both Nemesis and this movie. I’ve always felt that at a fundamental level, they’re the same movie, and Trek ’09 simply benefits from having a younger, hotter cast. Simply put, not being forced to watch a pudgy android trying to be an action star improves things vastly for most viewers.
But underneath the pretty cast and visuals, Trek ’09 is just another tired Wrath of Khan rehash. And taking into account the glaringly obvious Khan allusions in Star Trek Into Darkness, that means we’ve now endured three movies in a row trying to be Wrath of Khan. Perhaps it’s time to move on.
The basic problem here is that Abrams and his writers have only a passing interest in Star Trek. It isn’t necessary to have a head full of Trek minutia to make a good film—Nicholas Meyer had famously never seen an episode of Star Trek before he signed on to direct Wrath of Khan. But the difference there is that once he was hired, Meyer actually took the time to understand the show. Whereas Abrams and crew seem to think its enough to write a generic space opera and sprinkle in random names and places from Trek canon and call them “Easter eggs”.
I’m not exactly a lifelong Star Trek fan—I only really began watching Trek when I started this website, so I’m probably not the authority on this, but I can’t imagine even hardcore Trekkies caring much about “Easter eggs”. Just give us a story that doesn’t have us rolling our eyes every five minutes.
I think that’s what we got in Into Darkness, but alas, instead of rolling my eyes, I was scratching my head every five minutes. I’ll discuss the reasons why in my overly detailed review of Star Trek Into Darkness, coming soon!
(Also, I think I deserve some credit for not once complaining about the lens flares in this review. Come on, people, they’re the least of this movie’s problems.)