A film review by Craig J. Koban


2009, PG-13, 126 mins.

James Tiberius Kirk: Chris Pine / Spock: Zachary Quinto / Spock Prime: Leonard Nimoy / Capt. Nero: Eric Bana / Capt. Christopher Pike: Bruce Greenwood / Leonard "Bones" McCoy: Karl Urban / Uhura: Zoe Saldana / Montgomery "Scotty" Scott: Simon Pegg / Sulu: John Cho / Chekov: Anton Yelchin / Sarek: Ben Cross / Amanda Grayson: Winona Ryder / George Kirk: Chris Hemsworth / Winona Kirk: Jennifer Morrison

Directed by J. J. Abrams / Screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman

It was with great reluctance – and a rather large, questioning Spockian raise of the eyebrow – that I approached this new big screen adventure of the Starship Enterprise.  

Firstly, this film marks the eleventh time that Gene Roddenberry’s landmark sci-fi creation has seen movie treatment, in some permutation or another.  Secondly, this franchise has certainly been in nosedive mode ever since the last TREK outing, NEMESIS, emerged as the most lethargically disenchanting of the whole lot.  After the disappointment of that film – both critically and commercially – STAR TREK nearly became the stuff pop culture bashing.  I remember coming out of NEMESIS longing for the time when STAR TREK felt fresh and invigorating.  It’s easy to neglect how much the original TV show was an effective byproduct of its period.  When released in the late 1960’s the show reflected the prospect of hope and prosperity that attacked the status quo of nihilism that America was facing while waging a war in a foreign land alongside its struggles to maintain peace and harmony in a different kind of social war back home.   

In short, it’s high time that STAR TREK was renewed to its original level of novelty, especially after the warp drives, so to speak, of this series have been lacking some serious oomph. 

Obviously, there are both practical reasons to revisit this series (for the legion of "Trekkies" that have been clamoring for more) as well as financial (Paramount has always regarded it as a serious cash making franchise).  It’s no small wonder why the studio wanted another big journey to the stars.  Obviously, going back to the original Roddenberry well would have proved difficult, seeing as many of the original series’ actors are either dead are far too old to be galloping around the cosmos.  This is where director J.J. Abrams comes in, who decided to envision a whole new TREK outing – with collaboration of his usual writing partners, Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman – and daringly envisioned to make a dramatic return to the place where "no man has gone before," all while telling a story involving original series characters.  

A big creative stretch, you say?  Not really.  Welcome to prequel land, folks. 

That’s where my hesitation really comes to the forefront for this take on Kirk, Spock, Bones, and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise.  This new film goes back in time to show us a story about the original crew and how they came together to form the most famous galaxy explorers of all time.  Clearly, the idea of re-visiting iconic characters that we are so familiar with by having them played by different actors is beyond gutsy and risky.  By Abrams' own admission, he wanted to make a TREK film for 21st Century consumption, which apparently meant paying homage to the litany of TREK canon while making it as accessible as possible.  This is a noble undertaking, but an inevitably problematic one.  Abrams' approach here is sticky primarily because he has never professed to be a Trek fan, but instead was infatuated with STAR WARS while growing up.

This is the real issue with his STAR TREK: He makes it with a George Lucas aesthetic sensibility for slam-bang visual effects eye candy alongside a penchant for escapist action intrigue.  This provides for a curious discordance from what made Roddenberry’s creation so inspiring and original.  STAR WARS, to its credit, was ostensibly concerned with pure fantastical escapism (it existed as an out-of-body film experience where viewers were inundated with a sense of experiencing the film’s sights and drinking in its atmospheric details).  STAR TREK, despite its outward appearance as a sci-fi series with all of the requisite trappings, was never concerned with wowing viewers with its lavish production values and astounding visual spectacle.  No, the pure essence of STAR TREK can be felt when it honed in on its human characters, their relationships, and how they intersected with existential storylines that dealt with polarizing social and political issues of its time.  STAR WARS was space opera and fantasy; STAR TREK, under Roddenberry’s vision, was more analytical and stimulating for it’s handling of its themes and characters.   

Abrams' TREK misses the quintessence of what made TREK so meaningful to so many.  I've always found most of the previous TREK films enjoyable because they never resorted to letting their visual effects do the talking: instead, they were more gratifying for how they placed stock in its human – and non-human – characters and the involving storylines they involved themselves in.  This new TREK essentially exists for placing its multi-million dollar images front and center while forgetting why people have turned to TREK in the first place.  In a recent interview Abrams curiously remarked that, "The goal this time was to make a STAR TREK that wasn't alienating to no fans. We mainly wanted it to be accessible.''   Herein lies the main quandary: A self-professed STAR WARS nut has retooled STAR TREK with that series’ brand of large-scale visual dynamism.  The charm of STAR TREK was that it was creatively and uniquely inaccessible to less discerning filmgoers.  Yes, Abrams' new approach will easily appeal virginal TREK viewers to the multiplex, but for the rest of us Trekkies (or is it Trekkers?) – as well as those that demand more than flashy action and simplistic intrigue – Abrams’ film lacks precisely what people have adored about the original series since its release. 

Also, this film is not a prequel.  It’s actually a sequel film (complete with a cameo made possible by the inclusion of one of the original series’ actors) that eventually morphs into a prequel that, in turn, levels off as a series reboot or remake.  How does it accomplish this tricky task?  Well…time travel, of course.  Certainly, the film’s storyline is inordinately ambitious, but also kind of ludicrous and needlessly convoluted at the same time.  Undoubtedly, there's a simple reason why Abrams and company have used one of the oldest conceits of the sci-fi genre playbook here: Time travel allows for rudimentary and highly convenient alterations to the entire originals series’ feverously worshipped canon, which means that – for the benefit of sequels – they will not be slaves to 40-plus years of continuity.  Ultimately, though, the film’s story spends more time trying to figure itself out than it does propelling viewings into the type of compelling narrative that made Roddenberry’s universe so immersing.   

Like many recent reboots of popular franchises (like BATMAN BEGINS and CASINO ROYALE), STAR TREK is an origin story.  It opens with a categorical bang with a spectacular – if not a bit visually confusing – space battle between the U.S.S. Kelvin, commanded by James T. Kirk’s papa George (a spectacularly bland Chris Hemsworth) and a fierce Romulan vessel, Narada, captained by the vile Nero (the nearly unrecognizable Eric Bana).  The Narada has, as luck would have it, come from 125 years in the future via a black hole.  Conveniently, it attacks the Kelvin when it makes it though the hole into the past and destroys the Federation vessel…but not before George Kirk’s pregnant wife makes it to safety so that she can have their baby that will become a legend of Starfleet.  In the meantime, Nero decides to wait patiently – 25 years – to make his next move against his enemies. 

The film then teleports us into the future where George’s son has grown up to be an irrepressibly cocky, arrogant, skirt chasing twenty-something farm boy from Iowa, James (Chris Pine).  James is unquestionably a genius, but he spends too much of his time getting in trouble with the law, binge drinking, and flirting with the ladies.  A Starfleet captain enters his life, Christopher Pike (the decent Bruce Greenwood), whom sees some serious untapped potential in young Jimmy: He thinks that he can be Captain’s material, perhaps even surpassing his father’s disastrously brief career.  So, with some coaxing, James enlists in Starfleet, where he meets up with other cadets that would later become his future crew: science officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), communications specialist, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Navigations officer, Sulu (John Cho), Russian navigator, Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg).  All of them eventually hook up while on Pike’s ship, the Enterprise, as they gather up forces to face off against Nero and his nearly indestructible vessel, which we learn has the ability to actually destroy planets while creating black holes so that it could travel in time (neat!).  Thankfully, a very special time traveling hero from the future has also made a temporal voyage to help Kirk et al, who manages to lend his own brand of logic to their quest.   

On a positive, I will say that STAR TREK is the most exquisite looking of all the eleven films to date.  This is the most expensive TREK film ever, and no expense has been obviously spared to retool the Enterprise and the vast universe it and its denizens populate.  Adhering to STAR WARS-ifying STAR TREK, Abrams secured Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic as well as Digital Domain to make this the slickest and most polished looking of the TREK adventures (Abrams ever went as far as nabbing the Oscar winning sound designer of all the STAR WARS films, Ben Burtt, to give TREK a vibrant sonic atmosphere).  It becomes clear from the very first space battle in the opening moments that Abrams’ vision is high on intensity, action, and amazing imagery (the bridge of the Enterprise looks like every Apple computer owner’s wet dream).  Many of the large scale action sequences are mighty high on shock and awe, and they certainly help to make this TREK move very briskly, but there were times when it's difficult to make out the particulars of said battles, seeing as they are envisioned with hyperactive editing and dizzying camera work.  The original films – while being technological inferior  – still portrayed their space battles with clarity.  Sometimes Abrams fills the screen with so much detail and movement that you feel overwhelmed as to what’s actually happening.  Yes, this new TREK looks like a billion bucks, but, again…I must ask…was staring up at thousands of shots of intricately layered and pristine visual effects the point of this series?  The excitement is definitely here, but the underlining fascination with the material is lacking. 

I guess what we are left with are the individual performances, which have the sheer enormity of trying to fill the shoes of actors that have become immortals in sci-fi circles for their roles.  The best choice I think would be to neither go for all out mimicry of the original actors nor would it be to stray too far from their inflections (that, and the need to make the individual characters one's own, a Herculean task, to be sure).  STAR TREK is mixed bag in this regard.  I came out liking and respecting what Chris Pine did the most as the younger James Kirk, who has the very tough task to subtly hint at William Shatner’s mischievous swagger, deliciously cocky attitude, and cowboy bravado.  Thankfully, he never elects for a direct impersonation (phew!), but instead dryly suggests Shatnerian posturing, all while making his younger, more rebellious and bratty Kirk feel original.   

Conversely, Pine’s support crew is more unbalanced.  At first, Karl Urban goes for an all out imitation of Deforest Kelly’s cantankerous doctor, and although it’s a blast to see him fully channel his inner “Bones”, his version of TREK’s very grumpy MD feels more like it belongs on an SNL sketch than it does in a movie (this has the negative consequence of making Urban’s Bones feel less fully realized as a developed character: he’s almost more of a prop).  The same can also be held for Anton Yelchin, who does a pitch perfect Russian accent, but very little else.   Simon Pegg - usually a brilliantly daft British comic actor – is allowed free whimsical reign as Scotty, but his engineer is more of a wise cracking buffoon thrown in for comic relief than a smart and truly integral character.  John Cho (yup, that pot smoking Harold himself) is kind of nicely understated as Sulu, as is Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, who projects beauty, determination, and confidence (which manages to seem incongruent with the fact that she parades around in a mini-skirt and go-go boots, which is one of the many classic Trek visual references that have not aged well).  Bruce Greenwood manages to bring some necessary class to the proceedings as his noble and urbane Captain Pike. 

Two performances really disappoint:  The first would be Eric Bana’s villain, which is so remorselessly underdeveloped that he feels more like an obligatory element of the plot then a wonderfully inspired and scary antagonist (as far as great TREK villains go, he has a feral edge and looks vicious, but is nonetheless curiously unmemorable).  Perhaps the most unexpected disappointment would have to be Zachary Quinto as everyone’s favorite pointy-eared, green skinned Vulcan.  The actor is, to be fair, an unmitigated scream playing a super hero serial killer on TV’s HEROES, and he certainly has the classic Spock look down to slick perfection (his utterances of those infamous logic infused rants is also handled to icy precision).  Yet, his Spock never feels as inviting as Leonard Nimoy’s incarnation.  Spock is assuredly a dispassionate and unfeeling persona, but there is an off-putting narcissism and smugness that Quinto infuses in his Spock: he plays him a bit too coldly and creepily.  Just watch how Nimoy entered a scene in his films as the character and – despite his lack of visible emotion – still made Spock feel warm and appealing as a character.  By comparison, you kind of want to smack some compassion into Quinto’s ego-driven version. 

STAR TREK – despite its creators' pleads to the contrary – neither fully respects the classic series’ proud legacy, nor does it outright spit all over it.  It's abundantly clear that what J.J. Abrams was going for here was a mass audience-friendly popcorn adventure which makes use of the most technological advanced tools in a movie makers bag of tricks.  To lay run-of-the-mill film viewers, this STAR TREK will be an exciting and astounding audio-visual experience that engages with eye-popping gusto.  On a level of being a tour de force bit of summer movie escapism, the film is a confident and well-made triumph.  

But…alas…this is not STAR TREK.   

Gene Roddenberry had the keen and perceptive foresight to envision his original show and films as space dramas seasoned with great character interplay as well as conflicts and political dimensions that allowed STAR TREK to form allegories for the contemporary cultural realities of its time.  High-octane adventure and loud and histrionic action were the furthest things from his mind.  Those hoping – as I did – that Abrams’ TREK would have the relationship depth of the previous film exploits of Kirk, McCoy and Spock – not to mention intriguing and relevant messages and ideas – will be set up for big disappointment here.  No doubt, this new TREK is well oiled, consummately made, and has plenty of whiz-bang visual flair and, on those basic levels, it does breathe new life into the franchise.  J.J. Abrams is also a fiercely creative directorial mind (I obsessively enjoyed the first few seasons of his TV spy thriller ALIAS and thought that he made the finest of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films with the most recent entry). His STAR TREK is spiffy, shiny, colorful, and astoundingly energetic and grand in terms of scale and wow factor, but all of the subtleties of Roddenberry’s world are regrettably lost in space here.


CrAiGeR's other








And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's  ranking of all of the STAR TREK films:

1. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982) jjj1/2

2. STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) jjj1/2

3. STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996)  jjj1/2




7. STAR TREK (2009) jj1/2




11. STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002) jj




  H O M E