Movie Review: Star Trek
By Matthew Huntley
May 14, 2009

Do I look as ridiculous as I feel in this costume?

Star Trek (2009) would have made a good flashback episode for the 1960s TV series, but as a standalone feature, its value remains questionable. The movie makes several nods to the classic show, which should gratify die-hard fans, but will this updated prequel tell them anything they didn't already know? Most of the time, the movie feels like it was made just to remind viewers what made the series so special. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and it can be a good way to bring old and new fans together, but at the end of the day, what's its lasting effect?

I'll admit I'm only a mild Star Trek fan. I've enjoyed most of the shows and feature films, especially when they brought new developments and insights to the Star Trek mythology. That's why I wanted Star Trek to do more than just point out what made those franchises memorable, whether it was the catchy one-liners or distinguished characters. I wanted a complete, standalone picture with an original story rather than a modern effects extravaganza with a stock Star Trek plot, which, unfortunately, seems to be the case here.

The movie is supposed to tell us how the classic saga all began. As the movie opens, a Federation vessel called Kelvin is preemptively attacked by Narada, a Romulan ship headed by the evil Captain Nero (Eric Bana). When Nero demands Kelvin's captain (Faran Tahir) board his ship, George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) is left in command. George and his wife Winona (Jennifer Morrison) are expecting their first child, but after Nero kills Kelvin's captain, George knows that he must sacrifice himself and the ship to save the entire fleet (he follows the adage, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few"). Before he does, his wife tells him the name of their only son - James Tiberius Kirk.

Years later, in Iowa, the young James has turned into a punk rebel - he steals cars and performs death-defying stunts, all while resisting authority. Like his father, he's also a genius, and by the time he's an adult, James (Chris Pine) is hitting on new Starfleet recruits like Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and picking fights in bars. Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) of the USS Enterprise, who wrote his dissertation on the Kelvin, reminds Kirk of his father's sacrifice, which is apparently all it takes to convince him to join Starfleet. On the first day, he befriends the cynical, but ultimately lovable, Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban). "Geez, man."

In a parallel story on the planet Vulcan, a young Spock is teased by his classmates for having a human mother (Winona Ryder), which is considered highly unorthodox and illogical by Vulcan standards. Spock responds with unprecedented outbursts of emotions and starts throwing punches. When he grows up, the Vulcan Science Academy praises Spock (Zachary Quinto) for his exceptional abilities despite his human "disadvantage," so he turns them down and joins Starfleet as a professor. He develops the classic Kobayashi Maru test, in which training captains must face a "no win scenario" and test their willingness to accept certain death. Any avid Star Trek fan knows Kirk doesn't care for "no win scenarios" and manages to cheat the exam.

Before he can be reprimanded, Starfleet is alerted to a distress signal from Vulcan, which is under attack by Captain Nero and the Narada. I'll not reveal Nero's motivation for wanting to destroy Spock's home planet (it ties in with the attack on the Kelvin from the beginning), but the plot offers a perfect opportunity for Leonard Nimoy to play an older version of Spock. Fortunately, Nimoy's role isn't restricted to just a cameo; his character is fully utilized.

As the USS Enterprise prepares for warp speed to answer Vulcan's cry for help, other Star Trek regulars are introduced, including Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and, eventually, Scotty (Simon Pegg). The young actors do a commendable job of filling the roles left by their 1960s counterparts, but most of the time, they seem to be doing imitations instead of fully embodying the characters. Don't get me wrong, the imitations are done well, and they're convincing, but I left the screening wondering if these particular characters were even necessary. They seemed included because they are considered a "must have" for any Star Trek movie, and not because they're integral to the story. To me, only Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto made the characters their own.

The villain is also a major disappointment. Captain Nero is merely a product of Star Trek 101 and uninspired screenwriting. He's so one-dimensional, and his motivations for death and destruction are explained so briefly, that his reasons for vengeance become but a clothesline on which to hang action scenes. His ship and costumes are drab and murky; they offer little in the way of interesting visuals. And it's so obvious that Nero must be a villain. How could anyone who looks like that and commands such a pointy ship not be? The problem, is the movie doesn't allow him to be anything else. We're not asked to empathize with this guy at all, which makes him rather dull.

As a movie, Star Trek looks slick and it has a rhythm that keeps it moving, but I ultimately found it underwhelming. The effects and action scenes are top-notch as far as their budget is concerned, and I did like the sequence when Kirk and Sulu nosedive onto the Romulan drilling apparatus, but the rest of the action sort of blends together. As the movie goes on, there are so many cuts that the movie becomes dizzying.

It also misses an opportunity to show off the re-imagined Enterprise. The whole time I was watching it, I couldn't help but recall the simple lights and gadgets from the show's ship, which were simple but sophisticated. Back then, the ship was a character of its own. Here, the ship is merely used as a backdrop. Why not find a way clever way to take us on a tour of the vessel so we can marvel at its grandeur?

Ultimately, there just isn't enough in Star Trek we haven't already seen before. I wanted the Star Trek mythology explored from a different angle and I wanted the movie to challenge me with new revelations and ideas. While director J.J. Abrams is loyal to the source, I think he merely gives fans what they want to see. He does an admirable job of opening the franchise up to new generations, but even they might categorize this under the standard action genre.

This is far from being a bad movie, but it's also far from being a great one. Perhaps Paramount Pictures was nervous about letting Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman loose with the material, and so they advised them to play it safe. Because Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) was viewed as such a bastardization of the franchise, maybe the studio didn't want to take many risks as they attempted to breathe new life into it. Their strategy will no doubt work wonders from a business and marketing point of view, but from a creative and artistic point of view, I think Star Trek will leave many viewers wanting.