Last night, Lauren and I went to see the new Star Trek movie. This post discusses the movie, including specific plot details - there are MANY SPOILERS HERE. If you haven’t yet seen the movie and are planning to, then I’d advise not reading this post. You have been duly warned.
Once again, this post CONTAINS SPOILERS for the plot of the 2009 Star Trek movie.
The tagline of the eleventh Trek movie is The Future Begins, and upon watching it you realise that this works on more than one level. This movie is not simply a prequel, nor a reimagining. In the interests of getting right to the heart of what is potentially the most contentious aspect of the movie for Star Trek fans, I’ll just come right out and say it:
This movie establishes an alternate timeline.
Allow me to explain, via a brief plot summary. At some point (presumably after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis but not too long afterwards since Spock is still alive), a particular star unexpectedly goes supernova. The resulting shockwave poses a danger to parts of the galaxy, and the Federation devises a plan to neutralise the shockwave. Ambassador Spock (played, as always, by Leonard Nimoy - and interestingly credited as “Spock Prime”) will fly the fastest vessel ever created by the Vulcan Science Academy near to the shockwave, and will fire a cannister containing a drop of “Red Matter”. This exceptionally powerful substance will create a localised black hole, consuming the shockwave.
Whilst this plan is in motion but not yet complete, the shockwave utterly destroys the planet Romulus. Nero, the commanding officer of a Romulan mining ship, witnesses this destruction and is driven almost mad with grief (his wife and family, as well as most of his species, having been destroyed). He vows revenge against the Federation and pursues Spock’s ship, but both ships are drawn into the black hole created by the Red Matter, and are pushed backwards in time. It is of course at this point that the Trek timeline we all know branches into an alternate set of events. We learn all these things via an establishing mind-meld between Spock (from the future) and Kirk (present day).
Nero’s ship arrives 25 years earlier than Spock’s ship, and must thus wait 25 years to ambush him. In the meantime, Nero decides to begin his revenge by attacking the USS Kelvin - whose bridge crew includes a certain junior officer by the name of George Kirk. George’s pregnant wife is on board, and goes into labour as Nero’s ship attacks. The Kelvin’s captain goes aboard Nero’s vessel as ordered by Nero and is killed, leaving Kirk in command. He evacuates the Kelvin, leaving only himself on board to pilot it on a collision course to allow the Kelvin’s shuttles and escape pods to leave safely. He is successful in this mission, though it costs him his own life - and in the closing moments of his life he does hear (over the comm channel) his son being born, deciding with his wife to name him Jim (after her father) rather than Tiberius (after his).
Twenty five years later, James Kirk is a rebel with a troubled family life, and during the course of a bar brawl with Starfleet cadets he encounters Captain Christopher Pike of the newly-comissioned USS Enterprise. Pike knew of the Kelvin incident (it was the subject of Pike’s dissertation at Starfleet Academy), and encourages Kirk to enlist. Kirk of course does so, and a series of events occur which cause him to meet the familiar crew members we all know.
Nero captures Spock from the future, and leaves him on an icy planet from where he can see the planet Vulcan large in the sky. Nero uses his ship’s mining drill and a drop of the Red Matter from Spock’s ship to create a black hole at the center of Vulcan, destroying the planet (and Spock’s human mother).
Kirk and crew of course manage to defeat Nero and save Earth (Nero’s next target, naturally), but the planet Vulcan remains destroyed. This is not undone via time travel or other means by the end of the movie. At the conclusion of Star Trek, and at the time of Jim Kirk receiving his captaincy of the USS Enterprise, the planet Vulcan has been obliterated. The Vulcan race, once more than 6 billion strong, has been reduced to around 10,000 people. This obviously places into question many subsequent events we’ve seen in previous Trek series and movies.
A new timeline has been established, thus “the future begins”. The Federation is in place in its same basic form, but Vulcan is now gone and five starships were lost (not including the Kelvin years earlier) in the fight against Nero. It’s thus unclear whether this timeline will lead to the same events seen in The Next Generation and so forth. Interestingly, both Spocks remain alive and well at the conclusion of the movie; the younger and the older one. Sarek likewise remains alive.
Now, arguably, the Federation of course has a very simple way to restore the original timeline: given that both young and old Spocks, and young Kirk, all know about the eventual supernova which leads to all of these events, they can take steps to ensure that Spock’s mission with the Red Matter succeeds sooner, before the destruction of Romulus. The new timeline would then potentially cease to exist. With Star Trek, there is always a way out.
So, the shocking plot aside, how does it stand up as a Trek movie? As might be clear, I’m a dedicated Trekkie - of the “seen everything, and has a worryingly encyclopaedic knowledge of it all” vintage - and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not the best person to judge whether it’s accessible to non-Trek fans, but my impression is that they’ve struck a good balance. It’s a good movie in its own right, and certainly a very good sci-fi movie. The full Star Trek universe is entirely in place, but there isn’t any real burden of familiarity for the audience.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of fan love going on; the movie is riddled with references that Trek fans will enjoy. Here are a few:
- Nero interrogates Captain Pike using the dreaded Ceti eels, like Khan did before (after) him.
- Kirk is very much the ladies' man, and is seen in bed with a suitably-green Orion female (who is a Starfleet cadet).
- There's a particularly gratuitous redshirt death you can't help but see coming.
- Upon formally receiving his captaincy of the Enterprise at the end of the movie, Kirk's command is of course "take us out".
- The CO of the Enterprise during most of the movie is Christopher Pike.
- The aforementioned scene where George Kirk and his wife decide on their son's now-famous name.
- We see Kirk nonchalantly passing the Kobayashi Maru simulator test after reprogramming it.
- Sulu informs Kirk that his combat training is in fencing, and proceeds to demonstrate on an unfortunate Romulan.
- When Kirk first meets him, Scotty has been consigned to an icy Starfleet outpost for arguing with a superior about transwarp transporter theory, and for having made a failed attempt at long-range transport using Admiral Archer's beagle.
- When attempting to escape from the gravity well of a black hole, Kirk tells the beleaguered Scotty that he needs more power; Scotty's response, naturally, is a frazzled "I'm givin' it all she's got, Captain!"
- The computer on the Enterprise has trouble recognising Chekov's voice-commands since he pronounces all Vs as Ws - including "Wulcan" and the inevitable "wessels".
- W. Morgan Sheppard is in it (he's a Vulcan this time).
- Scotty eventually propels the Enterprise to safety by ejecting and detonating the warp core.
- Spock (Leonard Nimoy) does the iconic "These are the voyages" voiceover at the end.
- There are some noticeably Shatner-esque Kirk moments, including his eternal Voyage Home-era "Spock!"
- Scotty is once again involved in giving a not-yet-discovered equation to an earlier time period, though this time he is the recipient.
- The end credits are a huge tribute (visually and musically) to the original series (including all the themes you'd expect).
- Karl Urban's portrayal of Dr. McCoy is an enormous, non-stop tribute to DeForest Kelley. All the classics are in there: "Good God, man!", "My God, Jim!", "Green-blooded" ("hobgoblin" in this case, as always regarding Spock), "I'm a doctor, not a" ("physicist"), and the assertion early in the movie when being introduced to Kirk that "my ex-wife took the whole damn planet in the divorce; left me with nothing but my bones". If you're a McCoy fan, you'll be in a state of permanent glee. (And yes, he does get to say that someone is dead - the previous chief medical officer of the Enterprise).
There are also a number of interesting new twists and interpretations of the Star Trek universe, of course.
- The Enterprise itself has a new look. Overall it mostly resembles the Motion Picture refit (complete with the slightly iridescent patchwork hull and distinctive lettering), though the nacelles have a much beefier, go-faster look. Internally, the ship is a combination of movie-era high-tech and the original series' industrial feel.
- Main Engineering is absolutely enormous, dwarfing even that of the Enterprise-E. It's like a vast factory.
- Similarly, the shuttlebay is home to a whole series of shuttles this time around.
- The viewscreen on the bridge, whilst having computer-generated overlays, actually does look straight out into space (which is worrying when it starts to crack).
- The transporter effect, whilst using a similar sound to the original series, is visually different: it uses white trails which horizontally orbit the person.
- The transporter pad, bizarrely, does not have a flat floor - each position has a slight dome you have to stand on. Strikes me as a bit unsafe.
- McCoy has a phobia of flying (in a shuttle) as well as of using the transporter.
- The warp effect is excellent; they really have emphasised the idea that it's bending space around the ship. When at warp, there's an updated version of the stretched-space visuals we've come to expect, but the actual initial jump to warp is brilliant. None of your stretch-out-the-ship-then-flash-of-light stuff; these warp jumps are like a huge gun going off. I'm very fond of it.
- The phasers have a very nice mechanical effect for distinguishing between stun and kill settings: the front part of the barrel actually flips around 180 degrees, showing a blue emitter for stun and a red emitter for kill.
- Chekov is a 17-year-old maths genius (with an extremely thick accent).
- Spock and Uhura seem to be beginning some kind of romantic relationship.
There are also a few sentimental touches of note:
- Randy Pausch, celebrated professor of Computing Science at Carnegie Mellon, is a bridge officer on the USS Kelvin (and has a line of dialogue). Pausch passed away last July due to complications from pancreatic cancer.
- Jimmy's Doohan's son Christopher is one of Scotty's staff in the transporter room (this will be Christopher's second Star Trek movie; he was also in The Motion Picture). Interestingly, Christopher's twin brother really is called Montgomery (Scotty's first name).
- Majel Barrett-Roddenberry can be heard in her final Trek role, once again as the voice of the computer. Majel passed away in December.
This movie is very much action instead of intrigue; far more Wrath of Khan than The Undiscovered Country (two of the strongest Star Trek movies in my opinion). There are a couple of weaker points (the motivation for the Nero character is never really sufficiently explained), and some questionable logic (the sheer scale of the Romulan mining vessel seems questionable, as does the quantity of Red Matter being carried by Spock given the potency of a single drop), but overall the plot does hold up.
The characterisations of the much-beloved crew of the Enterprise are for the most part wonderful, managing to update the characters slightly but without breaking away from the established personas we all care so much about. Every one of these on-screen people can readily and believably grow into the characters we saw on the original series and afterwards, yet they don’t feel dated or wrapped in layers of inpenetrable canon for the casual viewer. That’s the primary achievement of the film.
So, to the big questions: does it buck the odd-means-bad trend, and where does it lie overall in terms of Trek movie rankings? The answer to the first question is a very easy “yes”. Regarding rankings, there’s obviously a lot of personal and subjective opinion here. My favourite movies of the original six are most definitely Wrath of Khan (because it’s a genuinely great sci-fi movie and space opera independently of the franchise), and The Undiscovered Country (because it actually has an intelligent plot which has echoes of much of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine). My favourite movie of the Next Generation series is easily First Contact, for similar reasons as Khan.
For me, Star Trek (the new movie) sits alongside the aforementioned three to form the top four Trek movies. It’s very difficult to order those four relative to each other, because each succeeds for slightly different reasons, but if you’re one of the majority who would place Khan in the top spot, then I think that Star Trek certainly has a legitimate claim at the second or third position.
The story itself is a vintage Trek space chase adventure, which is understandably a little front-heavy for reasons of establishing the backstory, and the two-plus hours definitely fly by. I honestly had low expectations, but I’ve been very pleasantly surprised.
Even taking into the account the significant factor of the alternate timeline, I really don’t have any complaints. Star Trek succeeds in refreshing the motion picture arm of the franchise and providing entertainment for Trekkies and normal people alike.
Before he died, Gene Roddenberry said he hoped that some day someone would come along and do Star Trek over again, bigger and better than before. I honestly think he’d be pleased.