Between Nemesis and the 2009 reboot, I became a massive Star Trek fan. I loved it growing up. I fell away as a teenager. But in those years after Nemesis and Enterprise (which I never watched until recently) I became a big fan of the entire franchise. Those years were spent reading books, watching reruns whenever I could, and of course, grabbing at any comics I could find. This was the first Star Trek movie I went to see as a fan.
One of my favorite sequences in any Star Trek movie or show is the opening of this movie. The legend of Captain Kirk gets an origin story. One part Superman, one part Luke Skywalker, one part Greek Mythology. Captain Kirk may have grown up in Iowa, but he’s given an explosive entry into this world. This is one of the few retcons that can’t really be explained by Nero’s messing with the timeline. But, more on that later. I mostly approve of this change.
Captain Kirk is born in space. During a battle. While his father is commanding a ship. And giving his life to save the crew and his family. Heroic act is piled on top of heroic act is piled on top of amazing action. And then they make you cry. This is such a beautifully constructed scene. From George Kirk taking the center seat, recalling our memories of his iconic son to Mrs Kirk flipping the communicator open, doing her best William Shatner, this is about the physical and spiritual birth of James T Kirk. By focusing on the smallest details, the olympian emotions are given humanity.
Captain Kirk is not a Greek god. But he’s kinda like one. Captain Kirk is not a mere man. But he’s kinda like one.
Wrath of Khan promoted Kirk to the rank of superhero, or titan, or god, or whatever. He was an action hero before. And action heroes enjoy a degree of immortality, which can make a character look like he’s part of a modern mythology. By giving him a backstory that suggested he was always made of greatness, he was elevated to the rank of god. (Let’s just settle with that term. And don’t get buggy, I mean little ‘g’ god.) The appearance of immortality granted an action hero is shallow.
Wrath of Khan also gave Kirk an adversary, against whom he could finally have a mythical battle. Out of their war was born a world. Kirk’s victory cost him his closest companion. It’s like Gilgamesh and Inkydoo! Factor in the long-lost son, the power to make worlds, the Shakespearean dialogue, and the trickery employed by Kirk, and it’s undeniable. Our TV character has entered modern myth. Kirk truly graduated to immortality in the second movie and his legend is expanded here by giving him a proper, and satisfying, origin story.
The movies of JJ Abrams build on this. Maybe not as thoughtfully as I would wish. They might cut corners to elevate Kirk to superhero/god status. But I think continuing the mythologizing of Kirk is one of the goals of Abrams. In this movie alone, this theory can be proven. Kirk is given a fantastic origin story, which shows that he was destined for greatness from his earliest moments.
Nimoy’s Spock tells Kirk that the friendship between Kirk and Spock could become legendary. This weird prophet in the cave adds more to the Kirk myth.
This is a lot of build-up for a movie not starring William Shatner. The movie itself is good. It’s one of the best Star Wars pastiches ever made. But it’s building on forty-five years of TV shows, books, comics, and movies. It doesn’t just dismiss all those great adventures. It honors them and seeks to publicly enshrine those heroes and characters into the Western mythological canon. I’d say all the scenes about Kirk accomplish this. When Kirk is there, he kind of undermines that goal. Chris Pine is great as a Bruce Willis-type action hero. He’s cocksure and impulsive. He’s always got an ace up his sleeve. These are attributes of Kirk, sure. But Shatner didn’t play him as only cocksure, impulsive, and arrogant. William Shatner’s Kirk is a hero. Chris Pine’s Kirk is an adorable jerk that is frustratingly (to everyone around him) lucky.
Besides the Kirk stuff, I do really enjoy this movie. The rest of the cast was enthusiastic and fun. Some did better than others. Most seemed to ignore their character’s history, which is okay. Karl Urban’s McCoy stands out as the one actor that seemed to cherish DeForest Kelley’s history with the character, while infusing him with his own take. That’s the best a fan could hope for, and it’s a lot to ask. Urban pulled it off. The others may have tried. They may have even succeeded. But the original characters they were trying to play are generally not very defined. Besides Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, the crew can interchangeably say, “Aye, Captain.” It was in the spin-off media and the movies that the supporting characters were allowed to grow.
John Cho’s Korean Sulu was a great surprise. At first I was a little dismayed at a Japanese character being played by a Korean. It just felt a little too much like old Hollywood smarm. But man, did Cho bring Sulu to life. Dynamic and thoughtful, Sulu is in much better hands with Cho than he ever was before.
The story of this one is a little … Voyager maybe? TOS season three? The bad guy’s motivation is that he’s crazy because his planet blew up. The tie-in comic, Countdown, explores his relationship with Spock a bit more. That fleshes out some of his reasoning, which seems only bizarre when watching the movie. And insanity as a motivation for evil doesn’t make the audience root for the good guys. It makes us pity the supposed villain. Maybe that’s what they were going for. But in the midst of explosions and space ships, complicated emotions have to be handled just right or it all just falls flat.
I respect Abrams for forcing the reboot into continuity, more or less, by making this new version of Star Trek the result of Nero’s contamination of the timeline. He didn’t have to do that, but it was cool that he did.
The Enterprise looks amazing. I don’t dig the interior though. This version of the ship is fantastic in motion. The shaky cam in space is an inspired choice, I think. You get the feeling of being in a nearby shuttlecraft watching. Which, aside from being on the ship itself, is the dream of most Star Trek fans.
Thanks for bringing Star Trek back. I dig what you’re going for. It’s just not quite…there.