'Star Trek' 2009: Searching for J.J. Abrams
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise — and the release of Star Trek Beyond, the 13th feature film in the series. To celebrate this big year, and ponder the deeper meanings of Trek’s first half-century, the Entertainment Geekly column will look at a different Star Trek film each week, from now till Beyond. This week: The faster and more intense reboot. Last week: The vampire movie. Next week: Khan, again.
Who is the J.J. Abrams character in Trek ’09?
Maybe that’s a dumb question. After all, no important contemporary director has done more to torpedo basic ideas about authorship than J.J. Abrams. His filmography thus far comprises a threequel, an elevenquel, a twelvequel, and a sevenquel. There was an original movie – curiously, it’s the only Abrams film with a number in the title – but Super 8 is so explicit and yearning in its Spielberg homage that it’s arguably more of a remake than his Treks or his Mission or his Wars. (Super 8 looks more like E.T. than Star Trek looks like Star Trek.)
Maybe you think that Abrams’ most personal or revealing work came in his television days, with Felicity and its spiritual spy-sequel Alias. Or maybe you think the true Abrams is the marketing impresario behind the Cloverfield campaigns, that running cross-media saga of viral teases and grabby trailers and wiki-baiting mythology and other fun stuff that ultimately has nothing to do with the weird, tough-hearted, minor-key Cloverfield movies. I tend to assume that Abrams’ most personal document – his most clear self-expression, his cinematic autobiography, his Vertigo, his Inception – is the 2010 news-com Morning Glory, a Bad Robot production which argues that the best way to fix a decaying pop culture brand is to make it louder and bring in Harrison Ford for authenticity.
But we are now 10 years into the career of J.J. Abrams, Film Director, and a pattern is beginning to emerge in his directorial efforts. Abrams can create, but he prefers to curate. His two greatest commercial successes are refined variations of franchises gone wrong. You imagine him watching, say, Star Trek Insurrection, and saying: “Oh, I can fix this.” You imagine him watching Attack of the Clones, as bored as anyone else, and wondering where all the X-wings went.
(ASIDE: Abrams’ reputation as a franchise fixer actually begins with Mission: Impossible 3. This is curious, since Mission 3 is a colorless shakycore Bourne retread that earned about $150 million less than John Woo’s shampoo-daydream Mission 2. But the film has developed a good reputation – it plays better on television – and it led to a pair of Abrams-produced Missions, which gave Tom Cruise a blockbuster second act and gave Paramount executives something to talk about besides Transformers. END OF ASIDE.)
This is all to say: Abrams as a director is very good at taking stuff that was great and making it feel great again. This is not a skill set you should dismiss; if you think it’s easy, you probably made Terminator: Genisys. His reboot strategies shift. He made Trek ’09 completely different from any other Star Trek movie; he made Force Awakens a greatest-hits compilation of the original trilogy.
Of course, his Star Trek doesn’t feel too different from his Star Wars, and maybe there is authorship in that similarity. Abrams likes to cast young unknown beauties as his leads, and he requires them to play a combination of loud farce, athletic physicality, and heroic melancholy. Chris Pine’s Kirk isn’t too different from Daisy Ridley’s Rey: Gearhead sorta-orphans with grand destinies, adopted by doomed space-captain father figures, capable of elaborate feats of badass stamina but nevertheless sweetly approachable and self-deprecatory, like someone cast Chandler Bing as Jason Bourne.
Should we start with Kirk, then? Is he our onscreen Abrams? You could argue that Trek ’09 is equally a Spock movie; the film’s bicameral origin structure cuts between their two childhoods up through their initial Enterprise mission. And the rebooted Spock is still recognizably Spock, even if Zachary Quinto substitutes Leonard Nimoy’s wry amusement with barely repressed hostility. (Nimoy made it feel like Spock was often mildly annoyed with his fellow shipmates; Quinto seems outright infuriated by everyone all of the time.) But the film clearly understands that the whole joke of Spock’s logic depends on testing him past his breaking point. So it throws a kitchen sink of emotionality at him: Dead mom, lover, bratty nemesis who becomes his partner/superior.
Conversely, if you come to Trek ’09 looking for a recognizably Shatner-ian version of Captain Kirk – the noble and self-sacrificing hero who never second-guesses himself, who jokes in the thick of danger, who doesn’t mind leaving behind lovers and children for the greater glory of the Federation – you find him immediately, and then watch him die. One of the film’s sharper ideas is that Chris Hemsworth-as-George Kirk substitutes for the original incarnation of Captain Kirk – and his death signals the fading of that archetype in the Star Trek franchise.
Gene Roddenberry’s dad was a policeman, and Roddenberry himself was an airman in World War II. So Roddenberry’s Kirk was a mixed cocktail of midcentury reality and nostalgic imagination, part Jet Age rake-pilot, part neo-Victorian philosopher-adventurer. Abrams comes from a showbiz family: His father and mother both TV producers, his sister a TV writer who worked on Felicity. Trek ’09 spins immediate drama from the idea that Captain Kirk’s parents were co-workers in Starfleet – and so much of this new Kirk’s internal drama focuses on his parental issues, on the struggle of living up to the example set by the man who named you.
Does this mean that Star Trek is Abrams working out his daddy issues? Not necessarily. You could argue that Kirk’s parental anxiety reflects Abrams’ own reboot anxiety – that the “Father” being wrestled with is Star Trek itself.
Throughout Trek ’09, we’re constantly reminded of the great heroism of George Kirk. Replacement father Captain Pike wrote his dissertation on George Kirk – an accidentally hilarious revelation, leading you to imagine a three-sentence dissertation on how it’s cool when one spaceship smashes into another spaceship. In the middle of an Academy tribunal, Spock throws George Kirk’s name in Kirk’s face – the kind of throwaway line that makes you think that “George Kirk” is a name everyone in this Starfleet knows, like Audie Murphy or Davy Crockett. Trek ’09 makes Eric Bana’s villain a serial killer of hero-parents – a plot decision that requires you to not ask too many questions about how a squad of evil Romulans spend a quarter-century waiting patiently, and which also results in two helplessly load-bearing line readings from Bana:
–I know your face! From Earth’s history!
–James T. Kirk was considered to be a great man. He went on to captain the USS Enterprise, but that was another life. A LIFE I WILL DEPRIVE YOU OF! JUST LIKE I DID YOUR FATHER!
And of course, there is Nimoy, reappearing for an extended cameo as a symbol of everything Trek was and can never be in this universe. Old Spock tells Young Kirk about the George Kirk he knew: A good father, an inspiration.
Can this new Kirk live up to that old Kirk? And can this new Star Trek live up to the old Star Trek? If Pine’s Kirk is Abrams’ version of a modern hero – someone struggling to live up to a legendary name – then you have to give both character and director points for sheer exertion. This Kirk is someone always on the move. He is born in battle, on a spaceship fleeing destruction. Next, he’s stealing an automobile and playing Beastie Boys on the stereo. You might say that this Kirk is more “relatable.” We don’t meet him as a great hero: He’s just an energetic kid with the keys to a car he can only barely drive. Maybe you spot the biography here: Abrams was a wunderkind TV producer and still vibes boyish at 50, is deferential to his elders but not afraid to take their franchises and run with them.
And this Kirk is always on the run. He races through the Enterprise, suffering from multiple allergic reactions, and pushes his way onto the bridge. He skyjumps from space to the atmosphere of a planet – something Shatner actually did in a deleted scene from Generations – and then fights some Romulans, and then falls without a parachute almost all the way to Vulcan. For his trouble, he’s immediately fired off the Enterprise to another planet, where he runs from one snowbeast and then runs from another snowbeast. Then he’s beamed back to the Enterprise, round and round we go.
As a filmmaker, Abrams is equally restless. His camera doesn’t move; it careens. Even in rare moments when the characters stand still, Abrams and his cinematographer Dan Mindel keep the camera moving, often in closeup, frequently with a tilted angle and constantly dappled with spotlights pointed directly at the cinematic eyeball. There’s an easy lens-flare gag to make about Abrams’ style – and when “too many lens flares” became the dominant Abrams meme, he tamped the effect down.
But I think the brightness works best here in the first film, when it’s so unfiltered, when Abrams was less abashed. There are individual shots of Trek ’09 that are so aggressively overlit that the film practically throttles you. And there are individual shots so needlessly kinetic that their melodrama becomes a little joke. Mindel developed that style with Tony Scott, starting with the manic Enemy of the State and Spy Game before reaching apotheosis with Domino, a film in which nothing happens but everything looks like combat photography at fashion show. Those films are occasionally beautiful and frequently unwatchable. Individual shots are exciting; whole sequences are often boring.
There’s a shot, early in the film, when Spock is facing a council of his elders. For absolutely no reason, the camera starts moving toward Spock from a sideways position…
…Before tracking forward and panning right to stare back at Spock’s face.
This is a common visual strategy throughout Trek ’09. Exterior shots of spaceships swoop from bridge to hull, and interior shots of people running through corridors whip-pan across bodies in motion. It is so silly, and meaningless, and I kind of love it. Maybe Abrams really is little kid Kirk, driving an expensive car way over the speed limit, but the energy in those moments is palpable. The problem is that it fades quickly; sometimes it can’t even last a whole scene. After that splendidly twirling opening shot, the scene between Spock and his elders plays out in a series of simple shot-reverse-shot close-ups, with one needless wide shot mixed in. There are, by my count, four different set-ups with the camera pointing at Quinto – hysterical visual continuity at its blandest.
Trek ’09 wasn’t just made by Abrams, of course. The script is credited to Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and this film marked the beginning of producer Damon Lindelof’s feature-film interlude between late-stage Lost and The Leftovers. Orci was, by all accounts, the big Trek fan, and you can appreciate (or denigrate) the almost algebraic quality of franchise referentiality. If you’re counting, this is the fifth time in these Star Trek movies that Kirk walks onto an Enterprise as a passenger and winds up taking charge.
Actually, one of the weirdest things about this movie is how – in the context of resetting the entire Trek timeline – the reboot actually pays more attention to the franchise’s internal continuity than any of the films with the original cast. (There’s a reference to Scott freaking Bakula!)
I remember enjoying the film when I saw it in theaters seven years ago. Rewatching it now, I found it a bit depressing – a feeling I tried to work through on this week’s episode of the Vidiots Video Store Show. But the film decisively promoted Abrams into the ranks of blockbuster director. And so it is most compelling, in hindsight, as a statement of purpose from a filmmaker at the dawn of a new phase of his career.
There’s an odd feeling you get from this movie that you can only explain by going meta. It’s not an origin story; it’s a pre-production saga. The characters slowly align into their usual places. Spock, initially an authority figure, is demoted to trusty lieutenant; Kirk, initially a brash outsider, becomes the Captain because an old man in a cave tells him that Kirk has always been a Captain. Everything changes, and yet oddly nothing changes at all. I think we’re meant to understand that Pine’s Kirk feels some great agony of destiny – that he is somehow doomed to heroism.
But the film’s too kinetic to take that kind of bummer seriously. And Pine makes such an appealingly comic figure – a fact bolstered by all of the times the film has him scream, shout, and cry out in terror or exultation or sheer athletic exertion. I actually kind of love Pine’s performance in the movie, and you appreciate how his Kirk keeps jumping off cliffs (sometimes literally) expecting that a net will appear to catch him.
You could argue this film’s savviest idea is to make this Kirk kind of a goof: Flirting with everyone, getting into barfights, doing a comical triple-take when he figures out that Uhura and Spock have a thing. If the film weren’t so wrapped up in grand destinies, Trek ’09 would almost constitute a vaguely Wicked-ish retelling, with a side of Amadeus: Spock as the romantic striving hero, Kirk as the goofball wunderkind who keeps stumbling his way into heroism.
And so maybe this Kirk isn’t the Abrams, after all. From Alias onward, Abrams has enjoyed taking heroic archetypes and humanizing them – his spies have adorably normal personal lives, his space heroes fanboy out over their space heroes. But this humanization has a weird side effect: It reduces “heroism” and “moral goodness” to a basic personality trait. (It makes sense that his Han Solo became the Kenobi figure; there’s no room for an amoral scoundrel in the Abramsography.) So the most real-feeling characters in his films tend to be on the supporting cast: the Hurley archetype, the everyguy amidst the heroes.
With that in mind, take a closer look at one of the strangest moments in Trek ’09. Kirk has just crashlanded on Hoth, basically, and run into Old Spock. Sometimes Star Trek people care about the space-time continuum, but time travel in Trek ’09 follows the Voyage Home theorem of time travel, a complicated mathematical proof which I will render here in full:
Old Spock and Young Kirk run into Montgomery Scott. The original Montgomery Scott was a blue-collar overachiever: He could always get the engines to go just a little faster, could get the shields to last a little bit longer. This new Scott is an innovator – the kind of ask-forgiveness-not-permission Big Thinker who experiments on the prized beagle of Admiral Archer (BAKULA!!!!)
Scotty, it turns out, has a big theory. Current science says that transport technology can only work up to a hundred miles; Scotty thinks he can transport a lifeform throughout a solar system, and maybe beyond. Old Spock tells him something which constitutes a kind of existential spoiler: Scotty is right, and in the future, he will invent something called transwarp beaming.
(“Transwarp” is a concept with some vague basis in franchise lore: You may recall that Scotty ruined the Excelsior’s transwarp drive in Search for Spock. But this usage actually seems to be based less on science than on wordplay – “Transwarp” in this case will refer to characters transporting onto a warping ship. Trek ’09 barely takes its own technobabble seriously; this is a movie where the bad guys’ main weapon is Red Matter, a screenwriter’s synonym for Bad Thing That Looks Cool.)
Old Spock proves this to Scotty by handing him the transwarp theory. Pause to briefly imagine this in vaguely real-ish terms. It’s strongly implied that Scotty only invented transwarp theory in his old age – possible in the 24th century, the time period from which Old Spock hails. Like, this isn’t the Voyage Home time rip, in which Scotty gives transparent aluminum to some guy in a factory; this is like giving teenaged Einstein the theory of relativity.
“Imagine that,” Scotty says, looking at the greatest idea he was ever supposed to have. “It never occurred to me to think of space as the thing that was moving.”
Now, I have no goddamn idea what that means. (Although my understanding of physics is admittedly remedial, I’m pretty sure everything is moving all of the time.) But let’s assume this is a big a-ha moment for Scotty, something he would only conceive of given years (decades?) of research, and mistakes. Maybe it’s not a spoiler; maybe this is an existential cheat code. What can Scotty do now, still young enough to invent more, to build on this discovery he was supposed to make years from now?
Maybe that’s the resonance we’ve been looking for. Abrams – and so many of his fellow filmmakers – have decided to build their careers on a foundation someone else set for them, standing on the shoulders of giants. Just look at his Star Wars colleagues: Colin Trevorrow, director of Jurassic Park 4 and Star Wars 9; Gareth Edwards, director of Godzilla 30 and Rogue One; Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who made two (great!) movies out of 21 Jump Street before putting Batman and Gandalf and freaking Lando Calrissian in their Lego Movie.
“I like this ship!” Scott says once he’s on the Enterprise, a fanboy who immediately gets handed control of the engine room. “It’s exciting!” It is – and Trek ’09 offers the tantalizing idea that headstart-auteurism can lead to greater ambitions. That – having been given the keys to his metaphorical father’s metaphorical car – a director can drive faster, further, better.
But: Little Kirk drives his car faster, louder, wilder – and then he drives it right off a cliff.
THE SECOND MOST DEPRESSING THING ABOUT TREK ’09
Abrams was a forerunner in the current long-overdue vogue for female action heroes, and you have to credit this movie with promoting Zoe Saldana’s Uhura to third-lead status. But a big Spock twist breaks her arc: It’s a “HOLY CRAP” moment with no real ultimate relevance, and her actual importance to the plot dissipates into steadfast love-interestdom in the film’s final act.
Now, coming the same year as Avatar, Saldana’s role as Uhura made her a significant go-to figure for genre filmmakers looking for an action heroine. That’s cool! But the Trek films give Uhura more to do in the worst way. Instead of steadily manning the communications board, she becomes the Betty Ross to Quinto’s Hulk, calming down Spock’s berserker rage (while occasionally complaining that all this hero stuff gets in the way of their relationship.)
And: Worth pointing out the intrinsic weirdness that this film makes Uhura a more prominent character while also putting her in her underwear, a trailer-bait moment that makes you yearn for the puckish vaudeville of Uhura’s Final Frontier fan dance, to say nothing of when Carol Marcus kept her clothes on.
THE MOST DEPRESSING THING ABOUT TREK ’09
Little Kirk steals his dad’s Corvette™ and plays the Beastie Boys on a touchscreen Nokia™. As a grown-up, he orders Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey™; Uhura prefers Budweiser™. This is not the first time present-day brands have appeared in Star Trek, but it is the first time the product placement feels advertorial – and the mere presence of a Nokia phone weirdly makes Trek ’09 feel like more of a period piece than any of the films that came before it.
Abrams actually discussed the product placement in a Morgan Spurlock documentary, in a manner that you could describe as “respectfully distasteful.” Given more power, he banished products from Into Darkness; we’ll see what happens with Beyond.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with shameless capitalism. After all, if you dig deep enough into its intrinsic philosophy, Star Trek represents the salesmanship of utopian ideals within a capitalist system, a fifty-year financial concern that hopes you will pay real-world money to witness its vision of a future beyond money. This is a paradoxical reality that no serious person could ever disagree with, and arguably makes Star Trek itself all the more meaningfully American (since America itself represents the hope of a democratic-utopian tomorrow built on the brutal market capitalism of today.)
But there’s something unspeakably odd, in this carefully architected throwaway argument that the corporations of today will survive – and thrive! – for two-and-a-half centuries. Never mind that the product placement secretly constitutes the film’s greatest crime against Trek continuity. (The earlier films took for granted that at least a couple world wars took place between our present and Trek’s future – wars which debilitated the global economy and presumably put a dent in Budweiser’s Q4 financial outlook.) The deeper weirdness of this revelation is that this alternate-universe Trek is a future where there are no nations but there are still corporations.
This strikes me as the single most cynical and probably accurate prediction about our future that Star Trek has ever made.
AND NOW, SIX WAYS THAT JJ ABRAMS’ STAR TREK IS WEIRDLY SIMILAR TO STAR TREK NEMESIS
1. In an early sequence, the hero drives a fast quote-unquote “cool” car off a cliff.
2. The villain pilots a giant Romulan ship, much bigger than the Enterprise, jet-black and vaguely octopus-like.
3. At one point, the Captain of a Starfleet vessel beams onto said Romulan ship with his first officer and shoots his way through the ship with his phaser.
4. In that same action scene, a Starfleet officer commandeers a small ship and flies it through the Romulan ship, firing at enemy combatants along the way.
5. The aforementioned Giant Romulan Ship carries a devastating weapon with the ability to blow up planets.
6. At one point, the Captain of a Starfleet vessel defeats the aforementioned Romulan Ship by smashing into it with his Starfleet vessel. (Vintage Abrams: He makes the big final climax of Nemesis into the first scene of Trek ’09.)
THE WHOLE MOVIE IN A NUTSHELL