2009’s Star Trek is the rarest of beasts: a decent film fashioned from a genuinely weak script. Nonsensical leaps of logic, inconsistent character relationships, and decisions made purely in service of getting our characters to pre-determined end points cannot dampen the overall effect of a fun, enjoyable work; a work which balances looking forward with a fresh franchise relaunch, and honouring many of the facets of the series that drew fans to the property in the first place.
Arriving four years after the early cancellation of Enterprise – the last television iteration in the franchise, until Discovery arrived in 2017 – Star Trek took a property that had been bleeding viewers steadily for years and brought it back with unprecedented budgetary support, forging a new timeline that ensured that what followed would not be bound by the labyrinthine canon of over 700 TV episodes, and ten feature films.
From Mission Impossible III director JJ Abrams, Star Trek takes the unusual – if not unique – step of rebooting a property right in front of our eyes. Travelling back in time from from just past the era of 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis (late 24th Century), Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) follows Romulan miner, Nero (Eric Bana) back to the year 2233, around the time of the birth of future USS Enterprise Captain, James T. Kirk. Sent back in time by a black hole formed as part of an attempt to save his home planet, Romulus, from a supernova event, Nero uses his ship, the Narada, to attack the USS Kelvin, the first officer of which being Kirk’s father, George (a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth). The destruction of the Kelvin kills George; the stress of the event sends Jim’s mother into labour a week earlier than in established continuity. This event, along with the boost to Starfleet technology enabled by the scanning of the Narada, creates an alternate timeline (now known to fans as the Kelvin Timeline) that effectively resets the franchise, enabling a new film continuity to be forged.
Unlike in the established timeline, the Kirk presented here (portrayed by Chris Pine) is a damaged young man, lacking direction, and having been brought up by an unloving stepfather. Encouraged to join Starfleet Academy by Captain of the new USS Enterprise, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Kirk finds himself needing, on the verge of graduation, to work with his era’s Spock (Zachary Quinto) to prevent Nero destroying Earth using red matter, which will create a black hole at the centre of our planet. Young Spock will deal with the similar destruction of his home planet, Vulcan, while older Spock works to ensure the two men learn their value to each other, and continue on to forge their famous friendship, despite seeming incompatible as personalities. The film goes on to unite the classic crew – Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Bones (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) – as Kirk reaches to embrace his destiny.
READ MORE: Long Shot – Review
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. The script, by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (the latter currently show runner for Star Trek: Discovery) is full of contrivances that are insultingly stupid at times: Kirk being promoted from cadet to Captain; a retelling of the Kobayashi Maru from The Wrath of Khan that misses the whole point of what that exercise is there to do; procedures that ignore the brig, in disciplinary matters, and drops offenders onto ice planets directly into the path of deadly, man-eating creatures; black holes having whatever characteristics the plot needs at a given point; and a pacing that takes an historically smart, thoughtful property, and reduces it to everyone constantly running around and screaming at each other. As marketing for the film pointed out, this was not your father’s Star Trek.
For all that, the film is often joyous. A terrific score by Michael Giacchino underpins some beautiful visuals, with the Enterprise finally able to move in more than two directions. At times it is almost balletic. The story is brought to life by some really good performances, Quinto, in particular, bringing a fresh spin to the Spock character. Whereas Nimoy played him with a hint of humour under the surface, the new interpretation is repressed rage and menace – appropriate for a man who has just lost his home planet, and his mother. All of the main characters can be measured in distance from the originals: Urban’s spin on Bones is probably closest to being an impression; whereas Pine chooses to channel William Shatner only once in the film (“Bones! Buckle up!”).
Arguably, the franchise wasted the fresh start afforded by this film. Rather than taking this opportunity – and young cast, with Pine only 28 at the time of release – to strike while the iron was hot, Paramount allowed things to drift. With JJ going off to make Super 8, it would be four years before the first sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, would come along. That film eschewed the opportunities afforded by a timeline reset, in favour of a rehash of the Khan storyline, underpinned by one of the laziest scripts ever to bear the Star Trek imprint – though the film took decent reviews overall.
A further three years would pass before the third entry, Star Trek Beyond. Beyond was a rush job – due to the first draft of Roberto Orci’s script being rejected, followed by the decision to fire him; then Simon Pegg and Doug Jung were required to write a fresh story at speed, in order to make the 50th anniversary of the franchise, in 2016. For all that, Beyond was a fine tribute to the tone and structure of the original TV show, and demonstrated a great understanding of the historical relationships between the characters. It finished as the lowest grossing of the three films, however, leading to negotiations, with leads, for a fourth stalling, as the studio looked to reduce costs. Star Trek 2009 had been so promising, and it remains a really fun film – just one that should have led to so much more.