The Underrated Wisdom of ‘Star Trek’ 2009
This article is part of our One Perfect Archive project, a series of deep dives that explore the filmmaking craft behind some of our favorite shots. In this entry, we revisit J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot from 2009.
In the 10 years since J.J. Abrams clicked restart on the final frontier, audiences have adjusted to the concept of the reboot. Sony Pictures Entertainment has scrubbed two Spider-Men in that time. 20th Century Fox went backward for a redo with X-Men: First Class then attempted to align those characters in the original franchise timeline, and are currently burying Dark Phoenix before Disney resuscitates them in the near future. We’ve seen new versions of Batman, Fantastic Four, Ghostbusters, Judge Dredd, Mad Max, Superman, Tomb Raider, Planet of the Apes, and several others. We expect it, and we often bemoan it. Insert the tried-and-true whine of cineastes everywhere, “We want new stories.” You’re damn right, and amen, but be mindful of your level of griping.
Since Star Trek 2009, we’ve also had to suffer the toxicity from so-called fans disgruntled by their perceived notions of what should or should not be included in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Star Trek: Discovery. The hate directed towards Kelly Marie Tran and Sonequa Martin-Green makes the mewling dribbled upon Chris Pine for replacing William Shatner look like playful schoolyard jabs. Twitter is a gory battleground strewn with the corpses of handles and avatars in retreat. Decades of fandom have boiled into rageful hashtag outcries — #NotMyStarTrek. Gross.
Star Trek was never yours. The original series (TOS) was the product of Gene Roddenberry who scribbled his desire for a future free from internal Terran conflict and used our exploration of deep space to comment on contemporary misery. The show lasted three years, but thanks to Star Wars found new life theatrically where many other writers, directors, and producers would take the reins on the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Their eventual cinematic success (hey, I dig Star Trek: The Motion Picture) brought The Next Generation (TNG) to television as well as Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. Each new iteration bred concern and contempt from the consumer until the haters faded away and the fans entrenched themselves. Wash, rinse, repeat this cycle all the way to the 2009 relaunch and the most recent second season of Star Trek: Discovery.
The delight of Abrams’ Star Trek is that despite recastings, it is not a reboot but a true blue sequel that achieves the studios’ desired effect of a reboot. The film transitions from its various studio logos to an extreme closeup of the U.S.S. Kelvin rushing across the screen. Michael Giacchino‘s French Horns offer a melancholic gateway to the 23rd century before being completely silenced by Ben Burtt‘s retro sound design. In franchise terms, we are in the past. Sure, the costumes and set-dressing we encounter are much sleeker and textured than anything Roddenberry’s team could afford, and the constant presence of lens flares indicate a particular filmmaker’s fetish, but inconsistencies are the result of the production timeline, not narrative.
The Federation vessel is exploring the sudden appearance of a “lightning storm in space.” As the Kelvin arrives at the anomaly, a Ginsu sharp starship penetrates one reality from another. We soon learn that this invader is the Romulan Narada captained by Nero (Eric Bana). They traveled from the 24th century where a supernova destroyed their home planet and are seeking a solution by breaking the past. The Narada makes quick work of the Kelvin, slaying their peace-seeking captain who dared to parlay and utterly obliterating the starship with its advanced weaponry.
George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) takes command of the Kelvin so that his crew, including his pregnant wife who went into premature labor as a result of the attack, can escape via shuttle pods. During his last 12 minutes of life, George Kirk hears the first wails of his child, manages to name his son, and say his goodbye. The event is emotionally catastrophic, changing everything an O.G. fan knew and loved about the baby who grows into James T. Kirk. Eleven minutes into the film, Nero claims victory by erasing the franchise timeline, and not just the story beats, but the motivations that drove the characters as worn by Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
This is not the Kirk we first met in “The Man Trap” in 1966. That Kirk was a bookworm, mocked by his peers in Starfleet because of the studies he buried himself in. That Kirk found his confidence when he finally made his way to the stars and started knocking boots with every green-skinned lifeform he didn’t recognize as a threat. That Kirk made his way to the bridge of the Enterprise on the inspiration his father paved as a lifelong serviceman.
The ’09 Kirk as played by Pine is a listless loner eager to rebel as a means for masking constant anger. You dare to wear the insignia of the organization that stole his father then you’re going to fall to his Kirk-Fu. He filtered his father’s sacrifice through childish impressions of abandonment, and only when he’s confronted by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), post-barroom brawl does he even consider a future let alone a tomorrow. Pike calls him out as a punk, a kid wasting his nature. He asks Kirk to prove his bravado and dares him to be better than his pop. Pike feeds into a selfish defiance that does not exist in the ’66 Kirk, but the bait will bear a slightly askew captain nonetheless.
When Kirk stares at the Enterprise under construction in his Iowa backyard, the gaze contains a mixture of regret, wonder, disappointment, and desire. His enrollment is not the result of a child chasing the approval of a father, but of a child proving his worth to a ghost. This Kirk still shares the confidence and the sexuality of his Shatner counterpart, but his motivation is driven even further by ego. “I belong here,” his actions demand. “You are not better than me.”
Nero’s appearance alters everything and everyone. Spock ’09 (Zachary Quinto) is much quicker to embrace his human side than the green-blooded science officer that climaxed many TOS episodes with a quip exposing his Terran disgust. The Narada moves from the destruction of the Kelvin to the eradication of Vulcan. Suddenly finding himself a member of an endangered species buoys his Earthbound emotions to the surface. The death of his mother (Winona Ryder) solidifies his relationship with his father (Ben Cross) who must admit that he truly loved a human despite his Vulcan logic. Of course, with the Narada also comes Old Man Spock (Nimoy).
Nimoy’s Spock sheds light on possibilities that never occurred to young Jim Kirk. There is a future out there that will transform his defiance into courage. There is a friendship that will ground him in ways he thought impossible. For the younger Spock, he is a wise figure that grants him permission to pursue his emotional side. He suffered through decades of doubt and self-loathing so Quinto’s Spock can be freed of it. Old Man Spock is a righteous beacon of hope and a necessary paradox that guides fans into a genre of Star Trek they pretend to resist.
Here was Abrams flexing his sci-fi action muscles, auditioning for his Star Wars takeover. Trekkies say they don’t want that. They say they want thoughtful meditations on society and celebrations of humanity’s hunger for knowledge, but then you ask any of us, and we champion Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as our favorite, and Star Trek: First Contact as our TNG bestie. Both of those much-loved sequels are expressions of character through action, and when Abrams sought the same formula, we balked.
Given a decade’s distance from release, Abrams’ Star Trek feels less like Stark Trek ’09 and more like Star Trek: Part XI. The film functions as a continuation of the lessons learned by Nimoy’s character. The stories experienced by his Enterprise crew have a direct impact on these alternates, and Old Man Spock’s sins are left for them to mend. Abrams brings a budget and glitz to the series not experienced since Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and while fan resistance is somewhat understandable, it is also utterly futile. You’ll be happier if you take a page from the Borg’s book and accept the deviations.