Kirk and Spock in Star Trek (2009)

Now, before I cut the suspense and move on to what I thought of ‘Star Trek’ this time, there is something I have to address. A lot of the discourse around this movie, pretty much from Day One, has had to do with the way it supposedly reinvigorated the franchise. And maybe it did. I have to admit I’ve always been a bit skeptical on that point. I mean, a slick, action-packed, effects-driven spectacle of a movie in a long-running and beloved franchise made money? Color me surprised.

But maybe my own opinion of the movie has colored my perspective on that matter. Whether or not it constitutes a “reinvigoration” (however one chooses to define that), the fact remains that the movie made money. A lot of it. More than any prior ‘Trek’ film, for that matter. And a lot of that money was made not on the backs of established fans (though yes, us too), but from newcomers, some of whom have since delved into the first forty-three years of ‘Star Trek’.

With so much of the film’s popular success stemming from its ability to appeal to non-fans and new fans, that’s a perspective that no fair discussion of the movie can ignore. And while I have my own ideas about why it appeals to people who aren’t as familiar with ‘Star Trek’ as professional nerds like myself, it’s also a perspective that I do not – and can not – possess. That being the case, it seemed like a good idea to actually talk to one of the non-fans who embraced the movie. So to that end, I reached out to my friend and fellow ScienceFiction.com columnist Jordan DesJardins for his thoughts on the matter.

A decade ago, if you asked me about ‘Star Trek’ I would probably have rolled my eyes and laughed a little. “Trek’s not for me, I’m a Wars guy” was my general mantra. Little did I know that over the course of a few films my perspective would change forever. When J.J. Abrams’ 2009 ‘Star Trek’ reboot dropped its first trailer, it immediately grabbed my attention in a way that ‘Star Trek’ had never managed to do before. The first teaser, coupled with the prospect of being able to go in as a newcomer and avoid all of the baggage of historical canon and lore, all but guaranteed my butt in a theater seat on opening day. I knew immediately that I was in for something really special.

Before the 2009 film series reboot, ‘Star Trek’ always seemed like such a daunting task to get interested in. There were several shows in existence with a loosely connected continuity all set in the same overall universe. I grew up before the age of streaming, and even when this film came out DVD box sets were still fairly expensive. The prospect of diving in to any of these shows with all of their history, especially without just being able to start at the very beginning, seemed impossible for me. Then Abrams’ “Kelvin-Verse” happened, and I feel like it gave me the doorway I needed to finally find myself interested in the world of ‘Star Trek’.

While Abrams’ take on ‘Star Trek’ was definitely more action oriented and geared towards the audience that had no real interest in what the original ‘Star Trek’ offered, it still got me interested in the franchise as a whole. It introduced me to new versions of characters I vaguely recognized from popular culture but knew next to nothing about, and managed to get me truly invested in them. This was the beginning of a new era of ‘Star Trek’ and this new version gave me a solid jumping on point to really soak up some of this franchise’s core concepts and ideologies. Are they different from the tone of the original shows? Drastically, from what I have been told. But the message and ideas presented in the films is still the thought provoking message of exploration and the growth of knowledge from the original series; It’s just hidden behind layers of action sequences, lens flare, and explosions.

The world presented in these films looked loosely like it resembled the original ‘Star Trek’ series, in that I knew what The Enterprise was and I knew the names of the majority of the lead characters. That said, the casting for this film was truly inspired! It was chock full of faces we knew already but that weren’t quite household names yet. The film took up and comer Chris Pine and catapulted him to instant star status! We saw Zoe Saldana in one of her first major breakthrough roles, just before her career really blew up later that summer with ‘Avatar’!  We recognized Zachary Quinto from television, but this was his first real foray into cinema. Fan favorites like Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, and Simon Pegg were all recognizable enough in that we had seen them in other things before, but ‘Star Trek’ is where many of them cut their teeth and solidified their status in mainstream Hollywood. And those are just the leads! This massive cast is filled with plenty of fan favorites in supporting roles including Deep Roy, Clifton Collins Jr, Bruce Greenwood, Rachel Nichols, Winona Rider, Pre-Marvel Chris Hemsworth, and of course the legendary Leonard Nimoy of original ‘Star Trek’ fame. We also had Eric Bana giving us a slightly over the top villain in Nero, who you can’t help but feel a little bad for while also hating his guts. April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg from the casting department deserve so much credit for making this film into the new classic it has become.

While not everyone loved the new ‘Star Trek’, especially fans of classic ‘Trek’ from what I understand, this was a ‘Star Trek’ for a new generation to rally behind. Memorable characters, with huge set pieces, and a little bit of imagination made this new ‘Star Trek’ trilogy a memorable series of films that hold up better than many other films in the science fiction genre. Anyone of any age or gender can enjoy them, so its a sort of timeless series you can share with the whole family. Looking back at the last decade of ‘Star Trek’ films, my only regret is knowing that it is unlikely that the franchise will be continuing in its current form due to the cast’s stars rising, contract negotiations falling through, and the unfortunate death of one of the films stars, Anton Yelchin, at such a criminally young age. Still, I don’t think there will be a time when I don’t look back fondly on this trilogy of ‘Star Trek’ films

Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek (2009)

But that’s not the only perspective I lack. I don’t think I’m blowing anyone’s mind by pointing out that ‘Star Trek 2009’ (and the Kelvin trilogy more broadly) has been a bit divisive within the fandom. By now, I’ve made it more than clear which side of that debate I’ve fallen on, but what about those longtime fans who were on board with the reboot? Luckily, I know one of those too!

To represent the other side of the aisle, as it were, I’ve enlisted the aid of my good friend Zach Story. Like me, he was an established ‘Trek’ fan by the time this movie came along. Unlike me, he walked out of the theater happy in May 2009 and was eager to see both ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ and ‘Star Trek Beyond’ in the years that followed. Suffice it to say, he and I have been having this conversation for quite some time, so when I needed someone to represent that side of the coin, I knew exactly where to turn.

Ten year anniversaries have a way of inspiring some self-reflection for me and this occasion is no different. It has taken me the better part of a decade to accept that the ’90s didn’t happen 10 years ago, but when Star Trek (2009) hit theaters, that sentiment was still somewhat accurate. I considered myself a Trekkie, but I had seen much more of the original series and the corresponding films than any of the other shows. Cinematic reboots were becoming more commonplace and while they weren’t all winners, I wasn’t nearly as cynical then as I am now (“Hope and Change” was big that year). More than anything, I was excited for a modern iteration of a classic piece of science fiction. I even dressed for the occasion with two of my closest friends before heading to the local theater in Manhattan, KS where we all were attending college. I remember having a great time and even if the movie was a bit more action-heavy than a Trekkie might expect from the franchise, it hit the right notes for me.

There were obvious issues with canon, but having it take place in an alternate universe was all I needed to perform the mental gymnastics required to simply enjoy the ride. It certainly didn’t hurt that Leonard Nimoy reprised his role and passed the baton to the new cast. I saw it more than once in the theaters and a few times since then, but I’ve started to experience some diminishing returns with the experience. The more I watch it, the more I feel like less actually happens. The spectacle of the action wears off with each viewing and the moments of true substance seem to account for very little of what remains.

All of that aside, I love what this movie did for the franchise. It got more people, myself included, interested in Trek. I spent the next few years consuming all of the other shows, revisiting some old memories, and discovering new ones that I might have otherwise missed if it weren’t for Trek’s resurgence in the zeitgeist. It’s a far from perfect film, but I as I sit here reflecting on how much I’ve enjoyed the last two seasons of Star Trek Discovery and my eager anticipation for Jean-Luc Picard’s return later this year, I can’t help but think I owe at least some gratitude to this fun, albeit flawed movie.

Between the snarky comments I’ve made on this site over the years and, well, the several paragraphs above, I’ve never been this movie’s biggest fan. In fact, my reaction on first viewing it was one of pure, visceral, nerd rage-y hatred. I walked out of the theater practically vibrating with anger. If I’m beating a dead horse here, it’s only because I’m trying to underscore the fact that this movie pissed me off to a degree that, frankly, surprised even me. And I think the strength of that reaction is why I was able to muster enough genuine interest to revisit the film in such a drawn-out fashion ten years on (and in fact, I was actually excited to revisit this one).

You see, as violently as I reacted to this, my response to the sequels was much more muted. I’ve tended to say that in a lot of ways ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ and ‘Star Trek Beyond’ are fundamentally the same film as ‘Trek 09’. What I mean by that is that they’re all more or less trying to do the same thing and the same criticisms, the same objections on my part, apply in varying measures to all three. But my reactions to both ‘Into Darkness’ and ‘Beyond’ were much more subdued, amounting to varying shades of “meh.” In fact, I was almost numb to them. And that contrast fascinates me.

With all that in mind, it’d be hard not to wonder how ‘Star Trek’ holds up after all this time. And now that I’ve sat down and re-watched it and can finally start to answer that question!

If there’s one word that sums up my relationship with ‘Star Trek 2009’, it would have to be “weird.” It’s weird for me to hate anything with the ‘Star Trek’ name on it the way I hated this in 2009. It’s weird (unheard of, really) for me to go ten years without watching a ‘Star Trek’ production. And it was weird to finally watch this again, because even though it was the same movie, the experience was vastly different. And I don’t just mean the difference between home and theatrical viewing. It’s weird because this time, I didn’t hate this. To quote a much better ‘Star Trek’ production, “I think I can live with it. Because I can live with it.”

Now, that’s not to say I’m suddenly joining Team Abrams. What I hope came across in my “ten years ago” thoughts is that my problems with the movie weren’t just fannish “#NotMyStarTrek” complaints, though admittedly there is also that element of it. A lot of it was also, frankly, a laundry list of creative choices – some major, others relatively inconsequential – that just rubbed me the wrong way. And I stand by much of what I said earlier. I still don’t think Abrams has a very good grasp on what ‘Star Trek’ is, the script is riddled with contrivances and absurdities, and whether it’s tropes or characterization, the movie does lean much heavier on what ‘Star Trek’ is in the popular imagination than what it actually is. And at the end of the day, I’d still say that it’s a better action movie than it is a ‘Star Trek’ movie.

So what has changed? Well, I’m sitting here typing this some twenty minutes after the credits rolled, and I’m not angry. I was also better able to divorce it from the original series in the sense that there was no voice in my head screaming “DAMMIT THAT’S NOT RIGHT! THAT’S NOT SHATNER!” and so on.

Maybe the advent of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ has helped with that? After all, ‘Discovery’ is no stranger to recasting iconic original series roles, though I tend to think they’ve done a much better job of it than the movie did. Anson Mount’s Pike was a revelation, while Bruce Greenwood’s is written such that he could be an entirely different character, and Ethan Peck sold me on his Spock in a way that Zachary Quinto has never quite matched.

But Occam’s Razor tells us that the simplest explanation is often best. And there is another, simpler way in which ‘Discovery’ has made the Kelvin films an easier pill to swallow. By virtue of its very existence, the Kelvin films are no longer the only game in town (if they’re even still in town, but that’s another article). Maybe I’ve mellowed in my old age. Or maybe it’s ultimately just a matter of time healing all wounds. It has, after all, been ten years. But whatever the case, I think I’ve finally made my peace with the ‘Star Trek’ reboot. I’m even looking forward to revisiting the sequels. Though not for this column, Not any time soon, anyway.

But good lord, that’s enough out of me. What do you think of ‘Star Trek 2009’? Are you a fan? A detractor? Has your relationship with the movie been as much of a rollercoaster as mine? Let me know in the comments and be sure to check back in two weeks for the next ‘Final Frontier Friday’! I don’t yet know what I’ll be covering, but I promise you this: It will be shorter.