Star Trek (2009): Good Movie or Great Movie?

I originally wrote this piece about a week after I saw the Star Trek reboot with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto three years ago. For the purpose of this essay, I follow Athena Andreadis’ example and refer to it as Star Trek||.

Oh, and there will be spoilers.

I suppose I should start by explaining that I consider myself a moderate Trek fan. I’ve seen every movie except the first, and watched a lot of episodes from every series to date (well, not so many from the original series, but a couple). My favorite incarnation would probably be The Next Generation, but I find I’m more a fan of the mythos and the optimistic, progressive-minded spirit of Star Trek than a given ship, situation, or cast of characters.

Anyway, back to Star Trek||. What you have to understand is that Star Trek|| is first and foremost an action movie in a science fiction setting. This should be obvious to anyone who’s seen the movie. I’m going to give my impressions of the film purely as an action movie, and then tackle some other issues. I have an awful lot to say about Star Trek||, but I’ve committed to stick just to the main points, and maybe one or two important details.

Often times, when mulling over my reaction to a particular book, movie, or TV episode, I find myself wanting to imitate the Nostalgia Critic reviewing JJ Abrams’ previous feature film, Cloverfield. This is one of those times. “This movie was … okay. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad, it was okay.”

It has all the standard tropes of the action movie/young adult drama: the expendable starship commander bravely sacrificing his life by crashing his ship into the enemy’s; the flirtatious young hero trying to make time with the female lead despite repeatedly getting the cold shoulder; the love triangle; the dead mother/father and accompanying angst; and the literal cliffhangers. (Seriously, Kirk must find hanging over a cliff by his fingers downright monotonous by the end of the movie.) Oh, and the virtuous hero magnanimously offering to save the villain, which the villain of course refuses, allowing the hero to blow up the villain and everyone else aboard his ship with a clear conscience.

On the other hand, it doesn’t do anything new in terms of premise, plot, characterization, social commentary, concept, even the special effects and action sequences. As one review points out, there isn’t even a clever “What you fail to realize is that my ship is trailing mines” twist at the end. It’s a well-executed derivative work.

But what about the Trek angle? Star Trek, after all, has a rich and multifaceted history and background, with a vast array of interesting aspects for a new project to draw on. Can the Trek angle raise Star Trek|| above the level of mediocrity?

First, I count myself fortunate that I’m not a bigger fan of the original series, Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, or Voyager, as the movie handily obliterates that whole timeline, leaving it non-canon.

Beyond that, the movie didn’t really feel like Star Trek to me. Sure, the characters were there from the original series, and on the whole they were very good (DeForest Kelley and James Doohan can rest easy knowing their legacies are in excellent hands), but that’s it, and for me, it’s not enough.

A couple weeks before I saw the movie, my sister ptolemaeus sent me a satirical news story from the Onion about how Trek fans hate Star Trek|| because it cuts out all the dull diplomacy and astropolitical stuff and goes right to the action. At that point I started to get a little worried about the new Trek.

Because exploring concepts of physics, morality, philosophy, politics, identity, even the meaning of life and death—these have all been integral to my Star Trek experience.

Now, admittedly, old Trek often went overboard with the intellectual side and many times made a right cock-up trying to get its messages across. (Today’s headlines: Leading media analysts discover some episodes of old Trek series actually sucked!) But a lot of it was also very good; and good or bad, a spirit of thoughtfulness and inquiry has always been at the core of Star Trek.

As I’ve already pointed out though, Star Trek|| nuked all that along with most of the franchise’s continuity. The red matter was an interesting conceit with some real potential (even if it’s scientific bunk), but in the movie it got reduced to Plot MegaCoupon. They might’ve done some interesting things with the characters—if they hadn’t taken their entire characterization and background for their two leads off the shelves of “What’s Cliché,” and “What’s Trendy in the Late 00s.”

And then there’s the characters themselves. Forty years ago, Gene Roddenberry and the crew of the original Star Trek did something extraordinary, something radically progressive. They put a woman—and a black woman at that—on the bridge of the starship Enterprise.

You have to remember that this was at the height of the black-led freedom movement*, and before the second wave feminist movement. The civil rights acts were passed just a few year earlier. When Kirk and Uhura shared a kiss, it was the first ever interracial kiss (between fictional characters) on American television.

*As movement historian Vincent Harding so delightfully puts it.
This was also in the middle of the Cold War with Russia and the war on Vietnam, and Roddenberry and co. put a Russian nationalist and an East Asian (who was only later retconned as Japanese) on the Enterprise bridge as well.

Few shows at the time were doing any one of those things in terms of race or gender. Doing all of them at once was truly astounding.

What happened? Forty years of progress happened. In 2009, even the most reactionary movie or TV show will have a token female and a token racial minority. Not that they’ll necessarily do anything, any more than Uhura did on the old show or in the new movie, but like Uhura, they’ll be there.

That’s right, Uhura didn’t really do anything in this movie—making her unique among the main cast. (She’s the only member of the Enterprise crew who does not appear even once in the Wikipedia plot summary—because she’s that superfluous to the story.) Heck, even Captain Pike and Kirk senior were awesome. Uhura was just the useless token female with all the familiar aspects thereof, including the love interest role.

Of the other female speaking parts, Spock’s mother is just a plot device to provide Spock with angst. Kirk’s Mom could’ve had a really interesting relationship with him—if she hadn’t disappeared entirely as soon as he was born. Even in the scene where her son got his promotion to captain of the Enterprise, Winona Kirk was conspicuous by her absence.

Which just leaves Uhura’s roommate, a character who—ah, who am I kidding? She wasn’t a character, she was just a cinematic device, nine parts fanservice, one part dialogue generator. (No offense to the actor; best of luck getting a better part on your next gig, kid.)

Star Trek itself has grown more conservative over the years, culminating in Star Trek: Enterprise, which was about as progressive for 2001 as the original series would be. But you’d think with a big-screen, big-budget, big-hype reboot of the franchise, it would be a perfect time to update the cast and recreate the good ol’ social progressiveness of Star Trek for the 21st Century. Imagine an Enterprise with at least four out of seven main characters female (including captain and first officer) and four out of seven people of color. Imagine two Iraqis on the senior crew, or Iranians or Afghans or, dare I suggest, Palestinians. Heck, as long as they’re rebooting the franchise, why not ditch the “outgrown those silly superstitions” idea and make them Muslims? Now that would be more in line with the spirit of Star Trek.

Instead, we got a thoroughly mindless action movie that was about as mentally engaging as, say, the first live action Transformers movie—and not quite as good at it. I don’t have a problem with mindless entertainment, it’s just that the whole point of Star Trek has always been that it is mentally engaging. Until now, anyway.

Now, as ptolemaeus pointed out, if they did as I suggested, they’d probably alienate a lot of old Trek fans who would say “new characters, new continuity, new story, why did you bother making it a Star Trek movie in the first place?” They have to hold onto enough Trek to please the old fans, while sufficiently distancing themselves from it to draw in new ones.

There is merit to this argument, but I have a few counterpoints. Returning to the original cast was the easiest, not the only way they could’ve retained a sufficiently “Trekish” element. They could’ve included a Lieutenant George Kirk or Christopher Pike as part of the main cast. Or they could’ve had John De Lancie be the one to send Leonard Nimoy back in time to change history—which would’ve had the benefit of giving them a chance to reprise their hilarious “Spock Vs. Q” sketch on the big screen.

Doesn’t hold up? Well, maybe not. But then, this is just some stuff I pulled out of thin air in a couple of minutes. I’m not paid millions of dollars to put in the energy to work hard on this stuff over a matter of days or weeks or even months. If I were, I guarantee I could do better.

But even if you do believe ptolemaeus’ argument that they really couldn’t’ve done anything better without making a movie that most Trek fans (though not necessarily me) would denounce, or one that wouldn’t draw in new audiences, that’s just an explanation, an excuse. It doesn’t make the movie any more Trek, it’s just a rationalization for why they couldn’t make it Trek. (In which case, why bother making it a Star Trek movie in the first place?)

Maybe the sequel will be better both in terms of plotting, and in terms of the thoughtfulness that characterizes a real Star Trek movie. Again, that doesn’t change the fact that this movie did not feel—to me—anything like Star Trek, or the fact that despite enjoying Star Trek|| as an action flick, I felt 0 compulsion to see it again in theaters. (And I’m the kind of person who usually goes for multiple viewings.)

Sadly, Star Trek||, unlike all of its predecessors in the franchise, does not boldly go where no one has gone before.

Had enough yet? If not, here are some other reviews that I found most interesting, and which spoke to my experience of the movie (good and bad) in many ways. Don’t forget to read the discussions in the comments threads:

By Arthur B of Ferretbrain: “Star Trek: the Awesome Generation”

By Niall of Vectoreditors: “2-for-1 on Unpopular Fannish Opinions”

By Sady Doyle in the Guardian: “Star Trek: warp factor sex”

By Abigail Nussbaum: “Star Trek”

By Adam Roberts: “Star Trek (2009)”

By Athena Andreadis: “Reflections on the New Star Trek”

By Anthony Lane in the New Yorker: “Highly Illogical”

By Marc Bain in Newsweek: “Enterprise Ethics”

By Mary Johnson on Livejournal: “On Militarism and Tribalism in the Movies”

By Sophia Mihic in Counterpunch: “Star Trek and the Continuing Mission of American Imperialism”

By Chuck Sonnenburg of SFDebris: “Star Trek”

3 thoughts on “Star Trek (2009): Good Movie or Great Movie?

  1. Pingback: TV review: “Doctor Who,” the complete series four | tothemarx

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