Movie Review: ‘Star Trek’ (2009)

(C) 2009 Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios.

Star Trek (2009)

Written by: Alex Kurtzman (credited), Roberto Orci (credited), Damon Lindelof (uncredited), and J.J. Abrams (uncredited)

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Eric Bana, Winona Ryder, Ben Cross, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Bruce Greenwood, Leonard Nimoy

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Chris Pine as Captain James T. Kirk (as seen in 2016’s Star Trek Beyond) Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures/Bad Robot Productions

James T. Kirk: [upon taking command of the Enterprise] Attention crew of the Enterprise, this is James Kirk. Mr. Spock has resigned commission and advanced me to acting captain. I know you are all expecting to regroup with the fleet, but I’m ordering a pursuit course of the enemy ship to Earth. I want all departments at battle stations and ready in ten minutes. Either we’re going down… or they are. Kirk out.

On May 8, 2009, Paramount Pictures released Star Trek, an action-packed science-fiction film written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and directed by J.J. Abrams. Set in a mid-23rd Century which has been altered by an incursion of a vengeful time-traveling Romulan, Nero (Eric Bana), from the late 24th Century, Star Trek serves as both a reboot and prequel to Gene Roddenberry’s 1966-1969 Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS).  

This contrivance – which is made possible by time travel and a connection to a story arc from Star Trek: The Next Generation involving Star Trek icon Leonard Nimoy’s Ambassador Spock – was an ingenious way to reset the floundering Paramount/CBS Studios franchise after the box office failure of 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis and the 2005 cancellation of the Star Trek: Enterprise TV series. It was a clever move, I say, because creating an alternate timeline made it possible to cast young actors to play younger versions of the legendary crew of the original Star Trek series without erasing Star Trek: The Original Series and its six theatrical film adventures.

“You’re Captain now, Mr. Kirk….”

Communication Operator: U.S.S. Kelvin, go for Starfleet Base.

Kelvin Crew Member: Starfleet Base, we’ve sent you a transmission. Did you receive?

Starfleet Base: Kelvin, have you double-checked those readings?

Kelvin Crew Member: Our gravitational sensors are going crazy here. You should see this. It looks like a lightning storm.

Starfleet Base: What you’ve sent us doesn’t seem possible.

Kelvin Crew Member: Yes ma’am. I understand. That’s why we sent it.

Star Trek starts with a prologue set in the year 2233 as the starship USS Kelvin encounters a bizarre “lightning storm” near the United Federation of Planets’ border with the Klingon Empire. As the crew reports the mysterious – and lethal-looking – phenomenon, a massive monster of a ship emerges. It is the Narada, an intrusive Romulan ship from the future. Without warning, the huge vessel unleashes a volley of deadly missiles that all but cripples the Kelvin.

[Aboard the USS Kelvin, Robau requests George Kirk (James’ father) to follow him to the shuttlebay for his final orders]

Robau: If I don’t report in 15 minutes, evacuate the crew.

George Samuel Kirk: Sir, we can’t just-

Robau: There is no help for us out here. Use the auto-pilot and get off this ship.

Kirk: Aye, Captain.

Robau: [grimly] You’re Captain now, Mr. Kirk.

The Romulans offer the wounded Starfleet ship a cease-fire, but with one condition: Captain Robau (Faran Tahir) must take a shuttle and parley with Nero aboard the Narada. With the badly-damaged Kelvin dead in space and in the gunsights of the Romulans, Robau agrees and leaves his young executive officer, George Samuel Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) in command as acting captain.

(C) 2009 Paramount Pictures

Alas, Nero kills Robau in a fit of rage when the Starfleet officer truthfully reveals that the current stardate is 2233.04 and that he has no idea where “Ambassador Spock” is. Knowing that the Kelvin can’t escape – her warp drive is knocked out – or prevail in a ship-to-ship battle, George Kirk orders his crew – including his pregnant wife Winona (Jennifer Morris) – to abandon ship in the Kelvin’s remaining shuttles. A malfunction with the Kelvin’s autopilot prevents George from leaving the ship, so when Winona gives birth to a baby boy in the midst of the battle, he only has enough time to choose his newborn son’s first name – Jim – before his ship crashes into the Narada. He dies, but his sacrifice allows Winona, their son James Tiberius, and 800 crewmembers to escape the wrath of Nero and live another day.

Christopher Pike: You know, I couldn’t believe it when the bartender told me who you are.

James T. Kirk: Who am I, Captain Pike?

Christopher Pike: Your father’s son.

James T. Kirk: [Turns toward the bar] Can I get another one?

Christopher Pike: For my dissertation, I was assigned the U.S.S. Kelvin. Something I admired about your Dad: he didn’t believe in no-win scenarios

James T. Kirk: Sure learned his lesson!

Christopher Pike: Well, it depends on how you define winning. You’re here, aren’t you?

James T. Kirk: [as beer is brought to him] Thanks.

Christopher Pike: You know that instinct to leap without looking, that was his nature too. And in my opinion it’s something Starfleet’s lost.

James T. Kirk: [laughing] Why are you talkin’ to me, man?

Christopher Pike: ‘Cause I looked up your file while you were drooling on the floor. Your aptitude tests are off the charts, so what is it? You like being the only genius level repeat offender in the Midwest?

James T. Kirk: Maybe I love it.

Christopher Pike: Look, so your Dad dies. You can settle for a less than ordinary life, or do you feel like you were meant for something better? Something special? Enlist in Starfleet.

James T. Kirk: [scoffs] Enlist!

James T. Kirk: [laughs] You guys must be way down on your recruiting quota for the month!

Christopher Pike: If you’re half the man your father was, Jim, Starfleet could use you. You could be an officer in four years. You could have your own ship in eight. You understand what the Federation is, don’t you? It’s important. It’s a peacekeeping and humanitarian armada…

James T. Kirk: Are we done?

Christopher Pike: I’m done.

Christopher Pike: [Gets up] Riverside Shipyard. Shuttle for new recruits leaves tomorrow morning, 0800.

Christopher Pike: [pause] Now, your father was captain of a Starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives, including your mother’s and yours. I dare you to do better.

Star Trek segues into a few short vignettes in which we see pre-teen versions of Spock (Jacob Kogan) and Kirk (Jimmy Bennett). On Vulcan, Spock confronts three older Vulcan boys who constantly harass him because he is half-human. On Earth, Iowa farmboy Jim rebels against his overbearing and alcoholic stepfather (voice of Greg Grunberg) and steals his beloved antique Corvette – which ends up at the bottom of a canyon-like quarry.

Vulcan Council President: You have surpassed the expectations of your instructors. Your final record is flawless, with one exception: I see that you have applied to Starfleet as well.

Spock: It was logical to cultivate multiple options.

Vulcan Council President: Logical, but unnecessary. You are hereby accepted to the Vulcan Science Academy. It is truly remarkable, Spock, that you have achieved so much despite your disadvantage. All rise.

[the Vulcan Council stands in honor of Spock, who now looks slightly pissed]

Spock: If you would clarify, Minister: to what disadvantage are you referring?

Vulcan Council President: Your human mother.

Spock: Council… Ministers, I must decline.

Vulcan Council President: No Vulcan has ever declined admission to this academy!

Spock: Then, as I am half-human, your record remains untarnished.

Sarek: Spock, you have made a commitment to honor the Vulcan way.

Vulcan Council President: Why did you come before this council today? Was it to satisfy your emotional need to rebel?

Spock: The only emotion I wish to convey is gratitude. Thank you, Ministers, for your consideration.

[In a tone reserved for telling someone to ‘Go to Hell’]

Spock: Live long and prosper.

There are a few more time jumps in the first act of Star Trek that set Kirk and Spock (now played by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto) on their paths to Starfleet Academy. Spock’s decision to join Starfleet is, for him, an act of rebellion, while Kirk’s is more of a response to a dare from Starfleet Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood).

“All I got left is my bones.”

Star Trek flashes forward to Kirk’s third year at Starfleet Academy in San Francisco and his unique solution to Starfleet’s dreaded “no win” scenario – the Kobayashi Maru test. Cadet Kirk has taken – and failed – the test two times, so ever the one to buck the rules, he reprograms the simulation so he can destroy the simulated Klingon warships and rescue the Kobayashi Maru without losing his ship in the process.

The powers-that-be at Starfleet don’t like Kirk’s solution in this timeline, and instead of giving Kirk a commendation for original thinking, Admiral Barnett (Tyler Perry) convenes a court martial and puts the senior cadet on academic suspension.

Kirk’s career in Starfleet seems as good as dead before it begins – until Fate, in the shape of the vengeful Romulan Nero, intervenes. The Narada emerges over Spock’s home world Vulcan, prompting Starfleet to send a squadron of Starfleet vessels that includes a brand new starship, the USS Enterprise, commanded by Kirk’s Academy sponsor, Captain Pike.

Here is where the adventures of the young Kirk, Spock, Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) and the rest of the familiar Enterprise crew begin. And in a dizzying set of events that involves a fateful cataclysm, a conflict between future BFFs Kirk and Spock, and the appearance of Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) as a unifying thread between Star Trek’s Prime Timeline and the new Kelvin Timeline, Star Trek sets abut its mission to show how these very young versions of the legendary Enterprise crew gel into a team reminiscent of the one from Star Trek: The Original Series.

My Take

(C) 2020 Paramount Home Media Distribution. STAR TREK is a trademark of CBS Studios.

Of the three Kelvin Timeline films that make up the 21st Century Star Trek Trilogy, 2009’s Star Trek is the only one I managed to see in theaters since it was the last movie I saw in theaters before my mother’s health declined and I became her primary caregiver.

It’s also the best one, even though Star Trek’s story crams too many plot points into its 127-minute runtime and makes the overall story arc seem unnecessarily rushed and full of implausible developments.

Because Star Trek films long ago stopped being about science fiction and exploring ideas and cultural values like Star Trek: TOS and its TV spinoffs, I can’t knock Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and J.J. Abrams for continuing to portray the voyages of the Starship Enterprise as space opera instead of true science fiction. SF will probably attract diehard Trekkies, but it’s high-octane (or, in this case, high-dilithium) action adventure that will get a wider audience to park their butts in a theater and watch Star Trek movies. It’s sad, I know, but it’s reality.

Thus, instead of heading off on a five-year mission to “explore strange new world and seek out new life and civilization,” Star Trek is a fast-paced actioner that blends the “how Kirk and Spock become Kirk and Spock” backstory with set-piece cliffhangers – Look, there’s Kirk being marooned by Spock on Delta Vega! Look, there’s the USS Enterprise, Pequod-like, chasing after the Narada, which is intent on destroying Earth! – and dizzying battles involving photon torpedoes, deadly Romulan missiles from the 24th Century, and a mysterious blobby substance known as “Red Matter.”

As one of the film’s taglines puts it: This is not your father’s Star Trek.

That having been said, if you can overlook hard-to-believe plot points that take Chris Pine’s Kirk from a Starfleet cadet on academic suspension to the center chair of the Enterprise in the span of one movie, Star Trek is a fun, entertaining thrill ride of a movie.

For one thing, the movie’s mix of veteran actors like Leonard Nimoy, Ben Cross (Sarek), Winona Ryder (Amanda, Spock’s human mother), Bruce Greenwood, Simon Pegg, and Eric Bana with the younger Pine, Quinto, Urban, John Cho, Zoe Saldana, and Anton Yelchin works well. The synergy between the actors and their choices in characterization – each of the actors who stepped into the roles played by William Shatner, Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Walter Koenig elected to avoid imitation and just take certain traits from the TOS characters – lifts Star Trek to the firmament and sends us to adventure at Warp 10.

Kirk: [highly agitated and suffering side effects from McCoy hypospray] Uhura! Uhura!

Lt. Nyota Uhura: Kirk? What are you doing here?

Kirk: The transmission from the Klingon prison planet. What exactly…

Lt. Nyota Uhura: Oh, my God, what’s wrong with your hands?

Kirk: [waves off the question with his bloated hands] I-i-it’s… Look, who is responsible for the attack…

Lt. Nyota Uhura: What?

Kirk: …and was the ship walullaa?

Lt. Nyota Uhura: And was the ship… WHAT?

Kirk: [to McCoy] Whass happening to my mouth?

Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy: You got numb-tongue?

Kirk: NUM-TUNG?

Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy: I can fix that!

[hurries off to find another hypospray]

Lt. Nyota Uhura: Was the ship what?

Kirk: Womulan!

Lt. Nyota Uhura: What? I…

Kirk: WOMULAN!

Lt. Nyota Uhura: Romulan?

Kirk: Yeah!

Lt. Nyota Uhura: Yes!

Kirk: Yes?

[Bones injects him with another hypospray]

Kirk: ACK! ACK!

[trying to say ‘stop it’]

Kirk: STAHHMIT!

In addition, except for the grotesquely oversized USS Enterprise, Star Trek is an audio-visual treat for viewers who love movies that take place in futuristic space-bound settings. In contrast to The Original Series of which it is an alternate timeline depiction, the aesthetic is futuristic yet essentially true to the Starfleet aesthetic from the 1966-1969 show and its feature film follow-ups. Put simply, it can be described as “Matt Jeffries meets the Apple Store-chic.”

Michael Giaccihno’s score is also an amazingly beautiful enhancement. It’s remarkably original – it does not borrow any of the themes written by previous Star Trek composers, especially the late Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. We don’t even hear the fanfare of Alexander Courage’s theme for the original series until late in the movie -the rationale being that by the end of Act Three of Star Trek, the viewer is at a point in the experience that the inclusion of Courage’s music feels earned.

As a Trekkie who grew up watching Gene Roddenberry’s original 1966-1969 TV show when it was in reruns in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, I will always like the films with the cast from what we now call the Prime timeline more than I do the 2009-2016 Kelvin Timeline. After watching those 79 episodes of Star Trek: TOS and the six movies with the original cast for over 40 years, that’s just the way it is for me and many fans of my generation.

Yet, I can’t deny that I enjoy the 2009 version of Star Trek. It has quite a few flaws and strange twists that I – a purist when it comes to canon – would not have written had I been hired to write the script. Nevertheless, once I accepted that Star Trek is a product of its time and must appeal to modern audiences, I went along for the ride – and enjoyed myself in the process.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

2 thoughts on “Movie Review: ‘Star Trek’ (2009)

  1. I think my opinion is close to yours. There was plenty that I enjoyed about these stories, but it almost seemed to be trying too hard to convince both the faithful Star Trek fan and a new audience how great it really is. A good story and execution does that without having to try too hard.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be fair, crafting a perfect prequel film that didn’t erase TOS totally and managed to please Trekkies and a general early 21st Century audience was a daunting task. I’ve tried to imagine alternative scenarios to this film, and the only concept I have is a trilogy that takes Kirk from his plebe year at the Academy to his parting of ways with Carol Marcus and ends with Pike handing over command of the Enterprise at the end of the third film. Even then, I don’t know what specific stories each installment would have.

      Screenwriting….it’s hard! Especially in a franchise like Star Trek.

      Liked by 1 person

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