Star Trek '09 Turns 10, Is Still Fantastic
Star Trek, in all its many forms, has always been about optimism, diversity, unity, science, culture, all of the cool things every growing child needs to turn into an anti-social, panic-obsessed (and yet highly polite and perhaps a little woke) individual. The psychology is prominent. The musings of philosophy are enlightening. Hell, if you were into science (as many of its fans were) you might even get an idea or two for inventing something 40 years later that popped up on a show from the '60s. It happened a lot (not a day goes by that I don't look at my phone and think of the tablets containing briefings and manifests from Star Trek: The Next Generation). For a show that is mostly remembered as majorly cheesy Dad-nonsense with lasers, the show (again, in all of its multiple incarnations over the past 60 years) is also heavily revered for its unique way of delivering commentary and reflection on issues such as social status, current and past wars, racism, sexism, and other things you don't talk about with your parents. Star Trek communicated that any purely isolated thought in any singular philosophy is often not a very good idea, typically resulting in the negative intended effect of attributing such thought to begin with. The show not only presents intriguing and thematically well-executed philosophical contemplations, but it almost always presents these thoughts in tandem with a mirrored ideology or belief, whether from an opposing force, a subject-related occurrence to keep that episodic plot going, or just a casual talk with the ship’s bartender or cook. Star Trek rules and it makes you a better person. Facts.
I've watched every episode (and film) of every Trek series; I own a Klingon dictionary for the Galactic Traveler, and a Star Trek sticker has adorned every vehicle I've ever owned. I served as an Engineman aboard the real USS Enterprise (CVN-65) and my mom says I sort of remind her of Chris Pine. Any Star Trek is good for me, I'll take all that I can get. I like Star Trek and Star Trek likes me. I even like the things about Star Trek that some of its biggest fans seem to reject, one of which would be “the feminist agenda driven, male-hating, Mary Sue-led abomination” that is Star Trek: Discovery. I muthafuckin' lurve DISCO (as it's called, because of course it is).
Discovery has just recently come to an ending of sorts, with its season finale airing last Thursday on CBS All Access. And it completely left the future of its premise up in the air and able to be anything it wishes (it also has birthed rumors of several spin-offs, all of which sound varying degrees of okay to me. Again, I'll take all the Star Trek I can get; I don't have to think I'll like it). Discovery’s two-part send off titled, “Such Sweet Sorrow,” nails everything that is both good and bad about the new show. It hits great character beats that feel earned and inspired, while also falling victim to its biggest flaws. A large one of those being: an inability to take itself too seriously as a sci-fi episodic meditation on what it means to be human, what it means to be different, why we think and feel the way we do, and all the other really good Star Trek stuff we've come to expect. The show really does have some good characters, most of whom change drastically over the course of its initial two season run, and this flair of newly minted episode-to-episode way of ingesting Trek is actually quite charming to watch find its footing. The show is very rarely ever BAD; the most negative attribute I've been able to throw at it is “well, that's just silly,” but this is something I've said while watching some of the most beloved episodes of TNG or DS9. Discovery is an entry into a series which at one point contained a cat person as a communications officer in an animated spin-off. (Her name was M'Ress. She was a Caitian). But I'll digress for the moment and save my DISCO talk for another time. For now, let's focus on why we're here today:
Star Trek '09 (or Star Trek: The Star Trek, IYW)
Let's get some of the facts out of the way real quick: Star Trek '09 turns 10 this year (on May 8th actually). It came out three days before the last birthday I would ever spend in the US Navy. It stars Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana (who shares a scene with a green person. COOL!!), Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Karl Urban (in full beast mode), John Chu, Leonard Nimoy, Bruce Greenwood, Eric Bana and Tyler Perry. Its runtime is a lean 2h 7m, it's rated PG-13, was distributed by Paramount Pictures, contains laser guns and is a modern masterpiece of sci-fi action cinema. These are the facts, tribbles. Now let's talk personal, subjective opinion...
Michael Giacchino's Trek score is quite easily one of the very best of his ENORMOUSLY impressive career. This is the guy that cemented how The Incredibles sound when we remember it. This is where I'd normally start to go off on a tangent, cherry pick some damn awesome flicks with damn awesome scores by this damn awesome man, come up with some cheeky synonyms for “sensational” and try to get back to the article. Instead, I will respect your internet savvy skills (such as they are) and simply say look at this IMDb and just agree with me that this guy slaps quite vigorously. Put that up against how he took one of the most iconic themes of all time and created another that works in tandem with it. Mixing them throughout the film in a whirling opus of character and location themes, I believe we can close the book titled, “Giacchino is the Heir Apparent to John Williams” and move on. Here, listen to this for the rest of this article.
The film also happens to contain one of the all time bangers (IMHO) of movie openings. A fantastic overture leads into a thrillingly executed setting of stakes, tone, plot points, theme, world building and character. It looks great, it sounds great, and what it's doing is immensely entertaining (plus Chris Hemsworth!). The attitude of the film bleeds through every corner of this prologue of sorts. “This is something new and fresh being respectively built from something old and beloved. You like Star Trek? Fuck yeah, dude. Us, too. Let's go for a ride.”
I've always liked the term “reconsideration” when it comes to the things this film chooses to embolden and maximize in this new take on Star Trek. It had to be separate. It had to be its own. Not only to be critically successful and not hated by fans, but there was also a legal reason for all of this which is very interesting. To keep it short, Paramount lost the rights to the shows, and CBS retained all merchandise authority. Paramount eventually struck a deal to make a separate timeline-based story where everything could be the same, (only slightly off) as to avoid confusion between the two entities operating their own versions of Trek: one boldly pushing forward to try new things (whether they worked or not), and the other merely releasing newer formats of the original 5+ series, (CBS All Access is worth the monthly service fee for this complete catalogue alone, just saying), and continuing to crank out the numbers annually through merchandise and licensing rights.
This “reconsideration” was, first and foremost, executed with flying colors by a cast of actors tasked with taking on these similar interpretations of some of the most iconic characters in sci-fi history, as well as their performing counterparts who are just as idolized as the characters themselves. There is plotting and character work at play here that is just, well, the only way you can make this kind of Star Trek movie work. You can give Karl Urban an Academy Award for Acting every year from now until 2258 for his performance as Leonard “Bones” McCoy. But some of the best choices in character treatment and updates, come from the writing of these interpretations. The humbling, not only of Kirk, but Spock as well, (who comes off as a little priggish, however rightfully so) is such a strong foundation to build these relationships on, not only of these fictional characters in this world, but also our own relationship (as an audience) with this new, much different Trek. However, not all of the choices - whether they be fresh ideas or fan serving winks - work out for the best (the unsettling existence of the “reimagining” of Uhura's mini-skirt is not fine, no, no, nope it’s not). And while Eric Bana's legendary weird delivery of certain lines during the movie are exactly what this freakshow of a writer is looking for, (I love Alien: Covenant and Glass, FTW) I blame no one for laughing out loud at the “Hello Christopher, I'm Nero,” scene. Oh, Eric. Come back to us. We need you now more than ever, you Time Travelin' Spouse.
The film’s writers are fucking weird, (like, very weird, if you're not familiar) and JJ Abrams’ direction probably only worked out because of the EXACT placement of this film in his filmography. I mean, shit, it'll probably go down as his best Star Wars movie, if not at least his best remake of A New Hope. But the pacing of the film (which can easily be credited to the performances and effects, and both rightfully so) is a stunning work of balancing tight action tropes, complete with set piece set-up and execution, as well as finding just the right moments for character building, world explaining and just straight up having a good, adventurous time. It's a pretty good example of what can be done when you have a good idea yet very little talent, and everybody else around you is remarkably good at their jobs.
While the movie is most definitely bombastic in tone, its basic premise (like most great Trek stories) are relatively simple themes, and that's a good thing. There is something to be said about plainly and simply trying to explain a plain and simple humanist philosophy and story of friendship, fear, growth, revenge, and loss (all the good stuff), while maintaining at all times (sometimes to its own detriment) a fast and steady ride filled with excitement and cool beats that keeps you consistently engaged (pun). An obvious example in my mind of this kind of cool simplicity is using the big stick mentality of having a crude mining ship be able to beat out an ENTIRE FLEET of highly advanced militaristic spaceships, simply because it has advanced technology and “weaponry” from the future. This is just a neat sci-fi idea. Is it half as deep and chin scratching as some of the even lesser interesting concepts Trek has dealt with? No, but it does go boom when you'd like it to, and that's fun, and something that only the best of the Star Trek movies has taken advantage of (dune buggy racing aside).
At this point, the obvious work-around that these writers found to produce something (mostly) original, while also adhering to the recently installed limitations by CBS and maintaining the fanbase's precious canon and continuity, was simply to take incredible advantage of one of Star Trek's most widely used tropes: time travel and alternate dimensions. This was always the path most traveled for these types of events, even if said tropes are more often than not side-eyed within the previous mentioned fanbase's community. This allowed them to simultaneously create their own thing while respecting the franchise, and still make it work for just about everyone. Notorious stick-in-the-mud, Roger Ebert, who was typically not quite into this type of action affair, referred to the loop around as “sort of brilliant,” which can definitely be read as high praise if you’re closely familiar with the critic’s tight use of certain terminology. But of course, this has become such a normal consideration these days when rebooting a heavily known franchise, and we are getting so many of them at such a fast (read: perverse) rate, that it can be easy to forget how refreshing such a unique take on such a large franchise was at the time of the film’s release. The film’s chosen path displays its nostalgic roots (which, let's not fool anyone, is the only reason you spend this amount of money on rebooting a franchise). We've all heard of Star Trek! But as the saying goes, “This is not your Daddy's Star Trek.” The film deals with nostalgia in a manner that works for both newcomers AND fans of the series (more on nostalgia being used for good here). Sure, there's some suuuuuuuuuuper stupid shit in there too. (“I'll I got left is my bones”) but it's all done in good fun, performed well, and typically tends to service something in the story, whether it be a complicated scientific explanation to dramatize the current stakes of the situation, or just a way to show us that these people are gonna be pretty good pals and we'll like hanging out with them for an adventure or two.
These are all inspired gambles that could've cut the game before it even got the chance to begin, but for one reason or another, they all work out in the end. There really was no better way to do what they had initially set out to do. You may not like it, but what they are doing is at once inspired, thought out, loving, clever and really fucking cool and exciting.
The film by its end, ultimately serves as a way to set the table for the next wild adventure (the disastrous Into Darkness, followed by the fun-enough and , admittedly, super-bold Beyond). Our characters like each other now, so let's go have some more fun with them in space!! While I'm not privy to revisiting the latter two installments, it's a real testament to the power of the original Trek that I would be at a fourth installment's opening night premiere with a huge smile and an eager heart (which could also just be my being disgustingly obsessed with anything and everything Star Trek). These actors work, the fresh tone works, the score works, and we've been shown now that the cheekiness of the original series can be transferred in varying ways depending on the mood of the director. Give us more of this Trek. But also more of every other Trek. And new Trek. Continue to allow us to “boldly go” at any and every opportunity, with those we know, those we just met, or someone in between.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He lives in Beacon, NY with his cat who is named after Kevin Bacon's character from Friday the 13th.