As successful as J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek was, as much as it may have rescued the franchise from fading into history, was it not only a good film, but good Star Trek?
The mid and late 2000’s were unfortunate for Star Trek fans. Enterprise had been cancelled. The Next Generation era films slowly and inexorably degraded in popularity until fizzling out with nary a whimper. All we were left with were reruns and DVD box sets, memories and fading hopes. Perhaps this was the end.
Then out of the blue, a hotshot director announced that he would make a Star Trek film. With such diverse experiences from spy show Alias, the perplexing and addicting Lost, and even a monster flick, Cloverfield, J.J. Abrams seemed poised to sweep through every television and film genre, and why should Star Trek be any different?
My own personal experience with his work was limited at the time. I had seen Mission Impossible 3, liked it better than the second one, but I can’t honestly tell you what happened in it. The aforementioned Cloverfield was fun, I guess. I had yet to subject myself to the torture that is Lost.
Posing a question
In the lead up to his Star Trek, I didn’t really know him. Then the day after its release, I read an interview with this man, discussing his new film. I hadn’t seen it yet, but I was curious about what he had to say.
"“I didn’t want to become a student of Star Trek. I felt that was actually one of the few advantages I had. I was trying to make a movie, not trying to make a Trek movie.”J.J. Abrams, 2009"
First of all, this not a crime. Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan, still my favorite, was directed by a guy who wasn’t a Star Trek fan previously. He did a great job. However, pairing Abrams’ statement with his previously mentioned sentiments regarding Star Wars, I found myself wondering:
Can a Star Wars fan make a good film that also happens to be about Star Trek?
An experience to remember
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So, off I went to see the fancy new Star Trek with its laudable cast. The zeitgeist surrounding the film was unlike any previous one. All we knew is that the original series was being revisited.
The opening scene with Kirk’s parents got me emotional. I was shocked, I tell you, shocked to hear the Beastie Boys in a Star Trek film, but I low-key loved it. And before I knew it I was on an emotional roller coaster that just didn’t stop. No Trek film had ever done this to me.
I was counting references. Scrutinizing the uniforms and the new Enterprise. Chris Pine occasionally pulled off some incredibly Shatner-esque mannerisms. By all accounts, it was really a fun film. Except for when Spock inexplicably watched Vulcan implode from the surface of another planet. I’ll never forgive that, and Abrams even did that again in The Force Awakens… but I digress.
I could be picky and subject this film to a death by a thousand cuts, but at the end of the day the film was objectively enjoyable. Critics liked it. People liked it. How could they not? The movie had humor, action, time travel, people taking their clothes off, a Death Star type thing, a lightsaber- er… I mean an origami sword. Phasers and photons and black holes, oh my.
And then it hit me…
I was watching an action film.
The Star Trek movies had been trying to be action films for years, if unsuccessfully. Picard toting a phaser rifle just wasn’t working as well as it should. First Contact was pretty good because it had Borg, and time travel, and Troi getting drunk. After that it got stale. Pew pews and explosions just weren’t enough.
But who wants to go to a movie theater and watch the crew solve a complex problems? Surely a movie about, I don’t know, the logistical nightmare of transporting whales from the past into the future would be boring, right?
But what’s wrong with Star Trek doing action?
In the case of 2009’s Star Trek, nothing. It was tightly written, the action set pieces were captivating, the special effects conveyed the chaos of battle. But the series isn’t just about starships and explosions. It’s about ideas. People. Conflicting interests that are far more nuanced than simple revenge.
The Search for Spock was about the crew risking their lives and careers to save their friend. The Undiscovered Country was about the aging crew realizing that their old hatreds were about as obsolete as they were going to be. Picard fought with his words, not photon torpedoes for Data’s right to exist as a sentient individual, not as a machine owned by Starfleet.
Star Trek is at its best when deeper ideas are being explored and represented. Aside from a fresh young crew with their fair share of differences learning work together as a team to defeat a psychotic man from the future, there isn’t much to J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek on that deeper level.
Revisiting the question
So… can a Star Wars fan make a good film that happens to be about Star Trek?
Yes, he can and he did.
But back in 2009, with the franchise’s prospects looking pretty grim, it was hard to accept that the only future left to Star Trek was to be an action heavy science fiction movie franchise. While Star Trek has since bounced back, and that may be due in part to Abrams’ Star Trek, at the time of its release, I couldn’t help but mourn this new Star Wars-ish Star Trek that was popular with the masses.
Sure, it succeeded in filling movie theaters with people, but it failed to fill my mind. But at least it was fun, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. It didn’t fail as a film first and foremost, and that can’t be said for every Star Trek movie.