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!

  • antfaber

    Scenes I would have liked to see
    Haight St. with a bunchof people who don’t realize that it is no longer the (19)60s.
    Polk St, with Vulcan sex workers telling each other to “Lick dong and prosper”

  • Ruth R. Snave

    Is there as much testosterone in the flick as in the trailer? How much testosterone do you need?

    If you want to see an intelligent and touching flick, check out “Strangers in Good Company,” 1990, directed by Cynthia Scott.

    It’s about a group of women on a bus that gets stranded in the Canadian forest. The women have to improvise to survive. They integrate real events and memories from their own lives into the plot of the flick.

    There are no men swaggering around, fighting over who has the biggest dick. (You can get that from our Board of Supervisors any day, anyway.) Nobody gets mauled or killed.

    Yet it’s a gripping flick.

    Imagine that.

  • marc

    Poor Arthur, cannot even countenance free reign in the realm of fantasy.

    Was Uhura’s role and contribution towards moving the plot forward markedly less than that of Chekhov’s and Sulu’s roles? She did intercept a key communication…


  • Ruth R. Snave

    Five Easy Questions,
    Followed by Five Easy Answers

    * * * * *

    Five Easy Questions:

    (1) Whatever happened to feminist consciousness among SF progressives?

    (2) Why do they regard it as a joke even to mention it?

    (3) Why do they tolerate such foul behavior on the part of their male leaders?

    (4) Is the situation related to the fact that the progressive take-over of the Board of Supervisors in 2001 consisted of ten men and one woman?

    (5) How do SF progressives today differ from the Left in the 1960s, before the rise of feminism?

    * * * * *

    Five Easy Answers:

    (1) It evaporated a long time ago.

    (2) Male chauvinists always behave this way.

    (3) There are no women in leadership positions to challenge them.

    (4) Of course. Previous boards had a majority of women.

    (5) SF progressives today don’t have the excuse of lacking a prior feminist critique to draw on.

  • Hope Johnson

    Hi Marc

    It is true Chekhov has a somewhat minor role but Sulu does demonstrate his fighting ability and usefulness in the parachute and drill scene plus at the helm. Chekhov is shown tearing down the hall to show his skills at locking on in difficult situations during transport. Uhura doesn’t even get to tell about her interception, Kirk does. Mostly, her actions are catering to the main characters.

    Funny, somehow that entire paragraph has a weird sexual overtone to it!

  • marc

    Hey Hope, Kinda like the way the credits on Gilligan’s Island went from “The Movie Star, and the rest” to “The Movie Star, The Professor and Mary Ann” after what I’m sure was a tense meeting between Russell Johnson’ and Dawn Wells’ agents and the show’s production team demanding equal recognition to the downcast!

    Roddenberry was forced by the networks to go for something that looked like a cowboy western after he tried to put a woman in as first officer in the initial pilot in 1965. Remember the scene from The Cage where Spock, Number One and others are beaming down to Talos IV, but as only the women are transported Spock shouts “THE WOMEN!”

    Any trek that tries to recreate TOS is going to be trapped in that male-dominated company as part of the bargain.

    That Uhura is the only major woman and black character means that she has to carry quite a burden. She’s also only a lieutenant, which is kinda entry level bridge crew.

    Uhura always played it cool and professional which was revolutionary at the time, but given the macho and racist context of the 1960s, her role was also as portal to the exotic and avant garde of Roddenberry’s progressive vision. In the film, Uhura was personally chosen by Pike for her qualifications and expertise and he calls it out as such.

    Uhura hooking up with Spockie poo is all too reminiscent of one of Uhura’s other deployments in television’s first interracial kiss with Kirk in “Plato’s Stepchildren” as forced to by telekenisis by Parmen. Elevating a communications lieutenant by an affair with Spock does tread tired “women achieve power via connection with male” ground, but let’s see where it goes if it goes anywhere.

    There was little of the caddish boorishness that characterized the Shatner years present in this film, just as TNG dispatched with that two decades ago. Once in Starfleet, Kirk spends more time beating up on himself than hitting on women. In the 1960s one night stands with passing aliens were possible, showing nothing, but nobody lived together unless they were married and navels were verboten. By the time TNG rolled around, guys were wearing dresses, female security chiefs doing it with fully programmed male androids, and post-sexual revolution trek had arrived.

    It is clear four decades later that Star Trek was all about 1960s people in space, and there is no reason to expect anything different moving forward than creatures of the present pretending to be in space in the future and bringing snapshots of their cultures along for the ride.

    I am SO jealous that you got to see the Paramount cache. In the years just before I discovered sex, drugs and rock and roll, I was a regular at trek conventions. Met them all but Shatner. Mom is sending my 1970s command tunic in the mail.


  • paulhogarth

    I’m not a Trekkie, but I went to see it this weekend … and now I have the biggest crush on Chris Pine. He is HOT!!!!!!!

  • alternative johnny

    This film a was well beyond my expectations The bit where Scottie asks for more thrust in the romantic scene in Castro with the asylum seeker was touching. Other memorable scenes are 1) where Burt, played by Alan Twinen remonstrates with Sarah about the not using contraception to avoid the next generation 2) Cybetor, played by Vincent Price, returns to the castle only to find that it has been beamed up by the fiendish Fanny MacWiff. All in all, a fantastic yawn. Well done Paramount.

  • sue

    To Arthur — I mean Ruth,

    It does indeed appear that the feminist movement in SF has dissolved, but you, Arthur — I mean, Ruth — should have no fears. Women have just gone under the radar screen to plot our takeover of the world — and we ARE going to takeover.

    I want to put any fears that men might have about this feminist ascendancy, however, to rest: we have absolutely no intention of shutting down the peanut gallery.

  • Ruth R. Snave

    Has Hollywood turned “Star Trek” into a testosterone-juiced video game aimed at 12-year-old boys?

    Is this progress?

    Is progressivism in SF now dominated by six male members of the board of supes, acting on cues from a foul-mouthed male bully?

    Is this progress?

  • marc

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  • Ruth R. Snave

    We don’t have to settle for blow-em-up movies designed for 12-year-old boys. I’ve already mentioned the flick “Strangers in Good Company.”

    Another is the 1978 movie “Stevie,” about the life of the English woman poet Stevie Smith, starring Glenda Jackson.

    The film shows how artistic genius can blossom from ordinary household work that is customarily associated with women: cleaning house, shopping, taking care of an elderly aunt.

    When Stevie Smith receives a medal for poetry from the Queen, Her Majesty asks her what poetic inspiration is like. Smith replies that the poems come to her while she is “Hoovering” (vacuuming).

    The movie is inspiring, funny, dramatic, and deeply human, a beautiful work of art in its own right.

    Advisory: This film will bore those who want to see testosterone explosions. But for that, they can always watch the progressive members of the city”s Board of Supervisors.