With the release of Star Trek Beyond (2016), the third film in the rebooted series, looming so close that you can almost taste it, Paramount wisely cross promoted the film with releases of both Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) the week before not merely on Blu Ray or DVD, but on the new, cutting-edge 4K UHDTV format in three disc sets.
The new releases look and sound fantastic and bring the action and excitement to a new level for the audience. And, yes, J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek is exciting and action packed. The real question, however, remains: is it Star Trek?
This question is especially poignant today, looking back on the first reboot film after seven years (over twice as long as the original series actually lasted). With a new Star Trek TV show on the way and Star Trek Beyond being directed by Justin Lin of the Fast and Furious series, the question of what really is the essence of Star Trek is paramount once again and perhaps, now more than ever.
It’s well known that neither J.J. Abrams, nor his producing partner Damon Lindelof, were Star Trek fans before taking on this assignment. In fact, both were Star Wars fans, but knowing that George Lucas would never relinquish the rights to Star Wars they went for the next best thing. Thus, they took a series of elements from the franchise and forced them into this reboot so as to say, “See, this really is Star Trek.”
Lo and behold, in 2012 Lucas did the unexpected and relinquished control of Star Wars to Disney for $4 billion. Abrams was then given the reins to Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) in which he again took a series of divergent elements from that series, forced them into a new movie and called it “Star Wars”.
To be fair, both Abrams’ Star Wars and Star Trek managed to be good films, but now that the dust has settled and the air is all clear we can blow off said dust and take another look at Star Trek (2009) in glorious 4K and we see the film’s biggest issue: it simply hasn’t aged all that well.
This is a surprise as the bulk of the original series films (in which the same characters with older actors starred) are as great today as they were 30 years or more ago. Star Trek (2009) on the other hand, feels less timeless and more a product of its era. Product placement, song choices, vernacular, political references and much more (don’t get me started on the ubiquitous lens flares) set this film less in the far future and more smack dab in the middle of 2009.
As Abrams’ and Lindelof’s TV series LOST (2004 – 2010) was just coming to an end with a surprising alternate universe timeline, the duo dusted off the frequently attempted “Starfleet Academy” prequel film concept (which dates back to creator Gene Roddenberry’s announcement way back in 1968). Naturally, this would require recasting the original crew with younger actors, but the twist is that this isn’t the prequel we were led to expect. Instead this is more of a sequel to The Next Generation in which the elderly Spock (Leonard Nimoy) time travels back into the past, accidentally creating… an alternate universe timeline.
In this alternate universe, Lindelof and Abrams can play as much as they want to without having to worry about pesky things like “continuity”. Lazy filmmaking? Well there is an argument to be made for that, especially with all the various little elements and plot points from different Star Trek tales shoved in as if going by Cliff’s Notes and a checklist.
On the other hand, this recast is well-cast with Chris Pine capably stepping into the uniform of Captain Kirk (without resorting to a William Shatner impression), Zachary Quinto giving us an excellent younger Spock, Simon Pegg becoming a young Scotty and Zoe Saldana making for a wonderful Uhura. The show stealer here (as always) is Karl Urban who was perfectly cast as Dr. McCoy.
Often the film works beautifully as the prequel it could have been, with Bruce Greenwood skillfully taking over the role of Captain Pike (featured in the original Star Trek pilot “The Cage”). So often the director, writers, cast and crew seemed to be perfectly in tune with Rodenberry’s vision for Star Trek and seemed thrilled to make sure this vision was adhered to.
However, just as often the film proves itself to be a popcorn movie meant to sell tickets and a mountain of merchandise to the masses, much more than true Star Trek fans. The cerebral logic of the original saga is exchanged for action and comedy, including forages into the realm of the silly and advancements into the Travesty Quadrant. Many stalwart classic elements are treated as comedy fodder by showing open disdain and disrespect for them. Canonicity (again, explained away by the fact that this is an alternate universe) takes a back seat to contrivance and convenience and there are almost as many elements borrowed from Star Wars (which Abrams really wanted to be — and eventually would be — directing) as Star Trek itself.
Even accepting the conceit of the alternate timeline, the film collapses under its own weight around the midpoint and the characters become inconsistent with interchangeably uncharacteristic actions that don’t quite add up. This, coupled with the “because we said so” logic, fizzled and unexplained plot points and convenient storytelling, mar what could have been an incredible film.
However, as it stands, Star Trek is still a good film. Michael Giacchino’s score meshes beautifully with the original theme of Alexander Courage as well as the sound effects by the amazing Ben Burtt. Even when Star Trek gets lost in its own storytelling, Abrams tells it well enough to keep it exciting and we never stop rooting for the characters to come out of this okay. Further, this is Paramount’s property and Paramount has to make money. While it’s a shame that the more intelligent and thought-provoking logic and (fictional) science were sacrificed for commercial elements, this is, after all, a commercial enterprise the Enterprise has embarked on, and Paramount is a business.
The 2016 4K release is not only incredible to see and hear, but it’s also packed to the nacelles with bonus features and with a price tag of almost $50, it had better). With three total discs, this re-release features commentaries, deleted scenes, gag reels and documentaries. True fans may have already seen (and heard) many of these, but the good news is that the large complement of bonus features has not been whittled down for this release. The 4K HDR edition doesn’t rely solely on its masterful picture and sound to justify its price, the extras are there.
As good as Star Trek is (and it is), it’s hard not to think about how much better it might have been. The time travel and deviation from canon are a bit heavy handed and the one trick of “changing the past” is relied upon far too often to explain the holes in the script and the continuity. But under Abrams’ skilled direction and the great and fun performances of the cast (recognizable, but not carbon copies), somehow the film manages to remain a keeper instead of the miscarriage it might have become. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite capture the timelessness of its source material and this adaptation isn’t quite the cerebral and logical force that it could have been.
Then again, as both the box office numbers and the new mainstream fans can attest, this is not your father’s Star Trek (for better or for worse).