Just what is Star Trek? I mean the franchise, not this movie. What accounts for its enduring popularity? It's a question that has been asked countless times for years and years, encompassing such tales as when the original series was nearly canceled by NBC in 1968 after its second season, but renewed for a third season after that successful and unprecedented letter-writing campaign.
Despite all that I've written about Trek over the past 15 years, I've never been able to satisfactorily answer the question of why this franchise endures and has been able to exist in so many incarnations. Is it the generally positive outlook? The straightforward sense of adventure? The characters? The ever-expanding canvas that has become its own universe? "Gene's Vision"? (My, how I've tired of the unending analysis of Gene's Vision™. Methinks Gene's vision was to make a successful television show, and he just happened to have an optimistic picture of the future when he conceived it.)
Truthfully, perhaps Trek's ability to endure has less to do with an optimistic philosophy and more to do with cynical capitalism, effective marketing, shrewd business sense, and steadfast tenacity. Paramount will not let this proven franchise sit idly when there is cash-money to be made. The studio has found a way to keep Trek on the air or in theaters for decades. After Nemesis bombed in 2002 and Enterprise was canceled in 2005, I thought the party was over and Trek would lie dormant for many years. I didn't figure it would only be a few years.
Now we have the 11th feature film, which does probably the most prudent thing possible by stripping the entire franchise back to its basics and starting over with a new creative team, led by uber-producer and admitted non-fan J.J. Abrams. The title is simply Star Trek — a complete and total reboot (though it's commonly referred to as Star Trek XI). Hey, reboots have worked marvelously this decade for Batman, Bond, and Battlestar Galactica. Why not Trek? After all, one double-edged sword when it comes to Trek is its mammoth canvas of established lore. There is so much history that to tell a fresh story in the existing universe has become all but impossible. That's why we've had five different Trek crews over the years: So we could learn about new characters.
The flip side of that coin is that even if you reset everything to zero and start over, we the fans still remember what came before. You can reboot the franchise, but you can't erase the preexisting audience's hard drive. You must still come up with a storyline that seems fresh and exciting. No easy task, especially when you're trying to repurpose the franchise for an audience outside the core fandom. Abrams widely said that this would be the mainstream Trek movie that both fans and non-fans could embrace. Based on the first three weeks of its performance at the box office, it would seem Team Abrams has hit a home run. The moviegoing public has embraced a rebooted Trek.
So what about the movie itself, from this longtime fan's perspective? I liked it quite a bit. I did not love it. I was almost always solidly entertained. I was almost never genuinely exhilarated. The plot was a fairly clever construction. It emerged from a rather tired Trek concept. And the characters were simultaneously fresh and new, and comfortably familiar. All in all, Abrams & Co. pulled it off.
Watching Star Trek, I also came to the realization that there is probably nothing this franchise can do anymore that will truly surprise me, reboot or otherwise. I'm older, wiser, more cynical, and most everything in Trek I've seen before. The notion of a reboot might mean Abrams was free to retool Trek to a certain degree, but there are still parameters here, and this is still most definitely the Trek universe. The look and feel and rhythms have been updated, but there is nothing here that is a grand departure from the Trek of yesteryear.
We still have Starfleet and starships and captains, we still have Vulcans and Romulans, and we still have the core characters upon which the original series was based on. What Star Trek offers, above all else, is comfort food. It allows us as fans to return to this universe that we know so well. But it does so in the form of an origin story, something we never got with the original series. What Abrams also brings to the table is a more contemporary sensibility that takes Trek and tries to pull it back a little to ground level. The future feels a little less sterile as Trek had a tendency to be in, say, the TNG days. (It is so much more of our world, indeed, that it allows for blatant product placement of Nokia and Budweiser.)
After the opening prologue in which the USS Kelvin is destroyed and Kirk's father is killed battling a mammoth mystery ship (while Kirk's mother gives birth to James T. in a shuttlecraft), the story takes us to a country road in the middle of the Iowa cornfields, where a 10-year-old Jim Kirk drives his stepfather's classic Corvette over a cliff to the tune of Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." (Geography question: Does Iowa actually have canyons of such severity?) It's a rather hilarious and ridiculous sequence, but it establishes right off the bat who this version of Kirk is: a rebel and a loner with an unquenched thirst for danger.
Meanwhile, we have Spock, who as a child on Vulcan is an outcast frequently teased by the other Vulcan children (Spock deadpan: "I presume you have prepared new insults?") on the account of his human mother (played by, yes, Winona Ryder). Spock's father, Sarek (Ben Cross), describes this marriage in terms of simple logic, even though he knows it to be more than that.
Spock's place as a man trapped between two cultures, frequently at war with himself, defined not only his character on the original series, but became a basic template for all of Trek's spinoffs, which all had to have their own conflicted or misunderstood outsider, whether it was Data or Odo or B'Elanna Torres or Seven of Nine. So it's especially welcome to see Spock's struggle evident from his very first scene. We see as Spock (Zachary Quinto) grows into a young man that his desire to join Starfleet was based in part by his feeling that the Vulcans never truly accepted him as one of their own.
Kirk as a young man (Chris Pine) is shown as a would-be loser walking the path toward a dead-end life; his brazen but good-humored pick-up attempts on Uhura (Zoe Saldana) lead to him being pummeled by a group of Starfleet cadets in an Iowa townie bar. The fight is broken up by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who's familiar with the mission of Kirk's father's heroic death on the Kelvin. He gives Kirk a speech ("I dare you to do better") that will become the defining turning point in Kirk's life. Greenwood brings an impressive and necessary gravitas to a film filled with younger hotheads.
So Star Trek is reinvented here for the uninitiated. But make no mistake: The screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman has not for one moment forgotten the fans. Abrams may not be a Trek expert, but Orci & Kurtzman are, and they clearly approached this film having done their homework. They may be writing a new history for Trek, but they remember the history that came before.
One fun sequence, for example, dramatizes Kirk's solution to the Kobayashi Maru simulation. Every fan in the audience knows exactly how this will play out, and Pine's performance finds an amusing balance of cockiness and self-awareness. The "no-win scenario" theme does not take on the power or significance that it did in Trek II (and, really, how could it?) but it does play into the story and character of young Kirk's need to feel immortal — that death for him cannot be a viable option.
I thought the new cast did an admirable job in their own Kobayashi Maru scenario: They stepped into the shoes of the original characters — certain to be compared and scrutinized — and never appeared to be intimidated by the material. In most cases, the actors simply made the characters their own. (And because this plays like an origin story, they have the luxury of resetting the characters alongside the story.)
At its core, this film is about Kirk and Spock, and that's where the movie gets it most right. The original Star Trek was also ultimately about Kirk and Spock (and McCoy), and in this version we see the interesting prospect of Kirk and Spock as bitter rivals; Spock was the one who originally programmed the Kobayashi Maru simulation, and when Kirk cheats to beat it, Spock takes it somewhat personally. He testifies against Kirk at an Academy disciplinary hearing. These two really don't get along; the audience at the screening I attended burst into laughter when McCoy noted, "I kinda like him."
Pine is terrific as Kirk, who alternates in-your-face directness with easygoing earnestness that goes along with a wise-ass routine whose one-liners either disarm or provoke. It perhaps explains why Kirk spends roughly 70 percent of the movie (okay, not that much) getting punched in the face and/or choked.
Even better is Zachary Quinto, who conveys all the logical and cool-headed qualities we expect in Spock, but at the same time is able to suggest a more visceral inner-torment and capacity for tempered confrontation than we were perhaps expecting. Quinto nails the Spock-isms of the role — as well as the occasional emotional explosion — with aplomb. The scene where he kicks Kirk's ass (and chokes him) on the bridge of the Enterprise is emotionally compelling, not to mention just plain awesome.
It was nice also to see Uhura with an expanded role. Kirk would like to get to know her better in a less professional setting. She won't have it. We find out gradually that there's more than one reason for that (she's already in a relationship with a very different kind of man), and I found that reason to be rather ... fascinating.
Unlike many of the other actors, however, Karl Urban seems to be doing a fair amount of channeling in his performance as McCoy, with the DeForest Kelley drawl and the obvious riffs on famous McCoy "doctor" lines. It's cheeky but entertaining and well done, and the notion of the origin of McCoy's nickname is inspired; he says that he's recently been cleaned out by his divorce and "all I got left is my bones."
Also doing more homage-shtick than re-envisioned characters are Simon Pegg as Scotty and Anton Yelchin as Chekov. Chekov is more or less reduced to the single joke of his cartoonish accent, which takes the original character's accent and goes perhaps even further (I grinned when he kept mentioning planet "Woolkin").
Pegg is very funny as the energetic and motormouthed Scotty. His odd little quiet alien friend is amusingly quirky. When Scotty got the chance to utter, "I'm givin' ya all she's got, captain!" it brought down the house. In one scene, Scotty mentions that he was banished to the sticks by Starfleet for beaming "Admiral Archer's beagle" into oblivion. While the timeline is not workable that this could be the same Archer as the NX-01's Jonathan Archer, the line is still funny and indicative of the screenwriters' penchant for tossing in-jokes to the fans. (There's even a 47 reference here in regard to destroyed Klingon ships.)
Getting the shortest shrift is Sulu (John Cho), who gets to save Kirk's life in one action sequence but otherwise has little to do and is the most forgettable character in the ensemble. It's a truism that supporting players in Trek films sometimes get lost; this is no exception.
And look — I've gone nearly 2,000 words without even mentioning the plot of the movie, which (major spoilers from here on out) involves a Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) arriving from the future in a mammoth warship looking for Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy). The opening prologue is indeed the Kelvin battling this Romulan ship, which is not seen again until the main action 25 years later, where Starfleet must come to the aid of the Vulcan homeworld when it comes under attack from Nero.
The maiden voyage of the Enterprise under Pike is this very rescue mission, during which Kirk realizes the attack on Vulcan is by the same ship that destroyed the Kelvin. The Enterprise subsequently comes face to face with Nero, a badass played by Bana with an effective sort of off-balanced, pissed-off and yet weirdly carefree attitude. Unfortunately, the character itself as written is bland, underdeveloped, overly typical, and carrying out his atrocities from a basic motivation that strains believability.
Nero wants revenge on Spock and the Vulcans; he burrows into the core of Vulcan with his orbital drill and plans to deploy a device containing "Red Matter," which can create black holes. The Enterprise crew must stop him, which leads to one of this film's efficiently staged and technically skilled — but decidedly uninspired — action set pieces, where Kirk and Sulu must destroy the drill before it's too late. (One of the jokes here is that the team also includes an unknown guy named Olson, who wears a red shirt and is killed before the fight on the drill even begins.)
The mission fails, and Vulcan is sucked into black-hole oblivion — an admittedly brutal turn of events that is a grave departure from the original Trek. (Spock estimates that perhaps only 10,000 Vulcans survive.) From this, Spock's primary character arc emerges. Among the personal losses on Vulcan was Spock's mother, and there's a poignant scene where Uhura comforts Spock, and we realize (also in a significant departure from the original Trek) that they are in a relationship — one that Kirk would never have guessed.
With Pike being held prisoner by Nero (who tortures him with Trek II-esque creatures of persuasion), Spock is left in command of the Enterprise, and his friction with Kirk quickly escalates to Kirk being banished from the ship via Vulcan nerve pinch followed by ejection in an escape pod to a nearby Federation outpost.
It's on this outpost (following an action sequence involving a huge creature that says to me "comfort-food adventure" while being strictly irrelevant to the story) where Kirk finds himself face-to-face with Old Spock (Nimoy), who reveals to Kirk and us the secrets to Nero's plot. It involves that all-too-tired and oft-used Trek cliche known as time travel. Both Nero and Old Spock traveled back through time after a series of events I won't go into here. (Question: Why do some black holes destroy planets while others allow ships to travel unscathed through time? For that matter, why is drilling to the core of a planet remotely necessary to destroy it with a black hole?) Suffice it to say that Nero blames Spock for something awful that happened, and intends to do awful things to everyone he believes wronged him in the future.
Having Nimoy reprise his most famous role proves welcome and intriguing. And the message he brings through time to young Kirk forms the central character theme of the film, arguing that the destined existence of a crucial bond must not be denied: "I have been, and always shall be, your friend." Young Kirk and Spock do not get along, but Old Spock convinces young Kirk to keep an open mind.
Still, this is no fewer than the fourth Trek film to use time travel as a major plot device, not to mention the countless episodes of the five series. I'm thinking that time travel, at this point, just about needs to be banned from the Trek writers room since it's so old and hoary. And yet I can't fault the screenwriters in this case of all cases, because the device is a clever one that intuits that the changes in the timeline caused by Nero from the very first frame of the film mean that the entire Trek franchise has been reset. I knew that this film would be a reboot, but I didn't figure that the reboot would be a literal plot point that puts the existing Trek universe within a completely alternate timeline.
There's a part of me that thinks that it would've been adequate to simply reboot the franchise and let the audience accept that this is a different take on pre-existing material (like in Batman Begins). But there's something about the Trek universe that makes a reboot more of an opportunity to directly acknowledge the past and engage the fans while winking at them.
This notion is, paradoxically, both a sincere tribute to the Trek canon and a complete erasure of said canon in terms of the story itself. Is this the destruction of the existing canon? Not at all. The whole point of "canon" is that it already belongs to the fans. This movie is about acknowledging that the canon exists and must be respected while announcing that the future of the film franchise will not be limited by it. The only way this film could "erase" the canon is by erasing what we already have rattling around in our brains. Such is the case of the Trek universe: Making these fanboy arguments is part of the fun, albeit a complete waste of time.
Debating Trek history is perhaps more intriguing than action and CGI sequences, which, while fun, lack genuine tension. Sure, this film is as technically skilled as you would expect, but that's sort of the problem. With a summer blockbuster you know you're going to get big-time CGI sequences. What's missing is exciting action that doesn't feel like rehashes of Star Wars. (And the dark interiors of the Romulan ship, while impressively big, seemed familiar; didn't the Scimitar in Nemesis look a lot like this?)
Even if the action doesn't feel new, Abrams' direction provides a breezy, relentlessly forward-moving pace and performances that work. This movie never drags. I really can't really think of a scene that truly doesn't work. It's a nicely done, efficient job. The production design and sound effects evoke the original while providing updated tweaks; if I had to describe the look of the film, it would be modern-retro-futuristic. (Doesn't make sense, but you get my drift.) The score by Michael Giacchino is effective and contains an original theme that stands on its own and evokes the spirit of Trek. They even throw in the original Alexander Courage score during the end credits.
Perhaps missing here is a larger purpose. TOS as a rule often considered questions about humanity and society; look at many of the TOS films. Trek in 2009 proves to be less about human questions and more about going meta. In terms of larger themes, this film is sort of like a better-executed version of Generations; it exists primarily as an implied commentary about itself. On that level, it's an entertaining and effective yarn. Good Trek this certainly is. Great Trek it's not.
With a successful relaunch, now the Abrams regime can go forth and make more movies, maybe until the franchise once again becomes too overloaded to sustain itself. Maybe that's the message here. Star Trek is really like the economy. Boom and bust. Grow, grow, grow, crash, reset. But I kid, because I care.