Star Trek Movie Review: The Ties that Bind

Written by Hope Johnson. Posted in Arts/Entertainment, Opinion

Published on May 11, 2009 with 12 Comments

By Hope Johnson

May 11, 2009

Star Trek, the latest entry in the legendary sci-fi series, collected a deserved $72.5 million in its opening weekend. The film is so unexpectedly wonderful, this Trekkie was brought to tears several times before the movie’s end.

Hard core Star Trek fans, lovingly self-titled “Trekkies,” tend to favor either the action-oriented style of the original Star Trek television series, embodied by the brash Captain Kirk, or the psychology-oriented style of the second series, The Next Generation, exemplified in the thinking person’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard. This updated prequel successfully brings the two styles together while remaining true to the overall spirit of the Star Trek genre and the many idiosyncratic ties that bind all Trekkies.

The plot provides abundant fast-moving action as the story of the formation of the renowned crew of the USS Enterprise unfolds. A rogue Romulan ship, wrenched into the past by a black hole, is commanded by Nero (Eric Bana). Nero’s vengeful mission against Vulcans and the Starship Federation creates an alternate reality psychologically binding through tragedy two of Star Trek’s most famous characters, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). Through flashbacks, the story reveals how these two individuals came to be among the Federation recruits called to stop Nero from destroying entire civilizations.

The latest film is well cast and skillfully directed. No time is wasted having the new actors simply impersonate the original actors. Rather, viewers become privy to the inner qualities, insecurities, and events that formed the well-known mannerisms of the original characters. Just a hint of a saying or gesture easily associated with a specific character is at first visible in the young actors. The audience moves from wondering, “Hmmm, that seems so familiar,” to excited recognition, “Hey! That’s Scotty!”

For example, the young Kirk, bloodied from a recent bar fight, first meets Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) on a space flight to the academy. McCoy is nervous and relentlessly explains to Kirk all the events that could go wrong on the flight, such as their blood boiling, as humans weren’t meant for space travel. The lamenting style eventually becomes the familiar Dr. McCoy’s, “Damnit, I’m a doctor not a physicist.”

Director J.J. Abrams brings excitement and chaos to the action but also psychological depth to the decision making of the crew throughout the film. In one scene, Kirk must convince the new captain of the Enterprise that they are heading into a trap. Rather than simply relying on the “boy genius” explanation, previous scenes demonstrate Kirk has good reason to have passionately studied the warning signs of this particular trick; it is the same game that tragically ended his father’s life.

There are several flaws in the film. One is unlimited action scenes leave little time for the type of character development allowing viewers unfamiliar with the Star Trek series to come to care about the characters. Abrams relies heavily on prior audience knowledge to build sympathy. Another might be said to be the final confrontation, slightly more vengeful than traditional Star Trek endings.

Most disappointingly, but keeping in tradition with Hollywood movies, the main female character of Nyota Uhura, played by the competent Zoe Saldana, is woefully underdeveloped. Uhura is basically reduced to a love interest with long legs, a flaw in the movie that most Trekkies should agree would disappoint the late Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator.

The movie does easily overcome these deficiencies. The scenes of ships moving through space evoke traditional Star Trek style. Enemy ships are depicted as massive entities that loom over smaller Federation ships, symbolizing the daunting task faced by the heroes. Roddenberry’s habit of examining the human condition also continues. Human emotion and passion complement and are tempered by alien logic and custom, reminding the very human audience of the nature of the roots of friendship through cooperation. This story strengthens the original, creating memories of the ties that bind.

Homage to the original series can be seen through the use of music. The original theme music most everyone associates with Star Trek is not used until the end. “Space, the final frontier” isn’t heard until the USS Enterprise is officially staffed with Roddenberry’s original crew, an appropriate tribute that acknowledges the movie is an “alternate reality” up to that point.

As a Trekkie, it’s impossible to predict if the film would be enjoyable for those who are not huge fans of the Star Trek genre. During my college years at UCLA, I worked briefly at Paramount Studios. My boss requested I take the sightseeing tourist tram to learn the layout of the lot. At one point, stopped in front of a warehouse, our guide explained Star Trek props were stored inside. Quick as a flash, I begged to be allowed access, and soon found myself sitting in the shell of the shuttle craft Galileo. It used to be I’d put my hand to my heart as I recalled the experience, but over the years and declining quality of Star Trek movies, the excitement and memory faded. I can say this, the latest Star Trek movie has made me recall the experience and throw my hand to my heart once again.

So, for those unfamiliar with Star Trek, my recommendation is to catch up quick. You don’t know what you’re missing!