Star Trek reboots the series in style

This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Jurassic Park. For most of us at Cinedelphia, it is a film that has defined what we look for in a summer blockbuster. So what better time than now to revisit the last 25 years of summer blockbusters and pick our favorites? View the criteria and full introduction here, and the whole series here.

18. Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009)

I revisit Abrams’ Star Trek every few years, and often teeter back and forth on whether it’s as exceptional as I thought it was when I first saw it in theaters. I couldn’t believe how much I loved this movie when I first saw it. For context, I did not grow up a Star Trek fan and had very few preconceived notions of what it was and could be, other than potentially boring. When it hit home video, there was a summer where I must have watched this upwards of 30 times. I could not get enough of this movie and thought it was just the height of fun, blockbuster filmmaking. In the years since, I’ve grown to find some of it a little clunky and indeed boring, as there are definitely worthwhile criticisms to levy against this movie (looking at you needless action scenes on a frozen planet that we spend way too much time on). But I do keep coming back to it, almost annually in fact, and there’s a damn good reason for that – Abrams assembled the best ensemble cast of this movie’s decade and made a movie about family and teamwork, themes that would then overtake blockbuster cinema for the following decade.

The first hour of this movie is some of the best blockbuster filmmaking I’ve ever seen, and it is in large part thanks to the charisma of this cast. In tandem with the script, they make these characters are all instantly identifiable and relatable, from the first moment they appear on screen. By the time Kirk finishes his bar fight we know who he is, what he wants, and how he operates under pressure. Within three scenes, we know the internal battle of Spock and understand the choices he makes in the face of it. Literal seconds after meeting Bones and Uhura, we understand their relationship to Kirk and what they contribute to the dynamic on board the Enterprise. The rest of the crew is given even less time and we still feel like we know their roles in this make-shift family unit. The reason I keep coming back to this movie over and over again (as well as its sequels, though to a lesser degree) is because they are just so damn likable and fun to spend time with, especially when they’re solving problems together.

Problem solving is where this movie really sings, and they do a whole hell of a lot of it over the first hour of this movie. The movie moves at a lightning pace from set-piece to set-piece without ever losing track of the core cast’s emotional arcs, and it does so by allowing them to fight with each other as they try to find solutions. Watching these characters learn to work together towards a common goal lets us learn about them in the midst of action, while also providing ample opportunity for them to bicker and build their relationship dynamics. It’s unbelievably entertaining, and each cast member is elevating it to a place of emotional relatability that science-fiction seems to rarely hit in the movies. 

All of this culminates with perhaps the best scene in the film, as the crew goes on what will be their first mission, attempting to thwart an ambush that gives way to the destruction of Vulcan. And there’s a moment in this scene that I think perfectly illustrates why this movie works so well as both a Star Trek film and a summer blockbuster. It is my understanding that what people love about Star Trek is that it’s essentially about a UN peacekeeping mission. It’s not really an action-oriented series, more focused on ideas and idealism than set-pieces and violent acts of heroism. This presents a problem for someone who is trying to turn Star Trek into a viable summer franchise, as the American box office soars on set-pieces and violent acts of heroism. It is also my understanding that one of the classic tropes of Star Trek is that of the “red shirt”, or the character you’ve never met before that tags along on a mission only to die unceremoniously, always adorned in a red Starfleet uniform. In one of the strongest choices of the movie, Abrams deftly uses the “red shirt” trope bridge the gap between these two seemingly disparate ideas of an idealistic society trying to spread peace throughout the galaxy and thrilling, wanton destruction at the hands of our heroes – in the seconds leading up to Kirk, Sulu, and Olsen (our unknown “red shirt”) doing a “space jump”, Olsen and Kirk have the following exchange:

Kirk: You brought the charges right?

Olsen: Oh yeah. Can’t wait to kick some Romulan ass, right?

Kirk: … yeah.

Olsen: Hell yeah!

Pine does a really fine piece of facial work in this scene when he responds with “… yeah”. He gives an expression that clearly indicates he wouldn’t be doing this if he didn’t have to. He paints Kirk as a reluctant man of action who certainly leaps without looking, as Pike says to him at one point, but only when he absolutely has to. What follows is an exceptional set-piece where Abrams shows off his visual storytelling skills, connecting tiny character beats together within the action so as to raise the stakes of each subsequent beat. Beats which begin with our heroes free-falling from orbit into the atmosphere and Olsen being too high on the adrenaline of the action to pull his chute in time, resulting in a fiery death which continues to define the line between the aimless destruction of summer movies and the stakes that drive the action of this Star Trek picture. It’s a really smart way to use the mythology of the franchise to drive home that this in fact the franchise you know and love, even if it’s hopped up on the cocaine that is American studio budgets.

After this scene the movie does begin to sag a little bit. There are sequences that don’t really matter beyond just trying to hit a quota of set-pieces every five minutes or so (still looking at you needless action scenes on a frozen planet that we spend way too much time on [and you weird Super Mario-esque pipe sequence featuring Simon Pegg]). The villain isn’t all that interesting or well motivated, and the plot surrounding him is almost completely nonsensical. But you’re never not spending time with this endlessly entertaining cast. They made me understand what people saw in these characters, and why they mattered so much. And they made them matter to me. I would watch this crew do anything together – if they handed this franchise over to Linklater and had him make a space-hangout movie I would be the fuck there. It’s the secret sauce that makes this movie work even when it’s not working, and is often not quite achieved by even some of our best summer movies. Give me ten more movies with this crew please, I need them now.

Also, as a parting thought, if they’re going to hand the Indiana Jones franchise over to a younger actor as I assume they will, it should be Chris Pine. My man takes a punch like a clown, somehow mugging at the camera as he gets hit, and that is THE defining characteristic of Indiana Jones.

Author: Garrett Smith

Garrett is a writer and podcaster living in Philadelphia that spends too much time debating the difference between kinetic and frenetic filmmaking. He likes cheese, in both food and movies. Check him out on twitter and letterboxd and give his podcast, I Like To Movie Movie, a listen.

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