Movies I’ve seen: Star Trek (2009)

Star trek 01

Directed by J.J. Abrams.  Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoë Saldana, John Cho, Simon Pegg, and Leonard Nimoy.

In Star Trek-ese, the polarities are reversed.  Here, it’s the writing and acting that’s sharp, while the technical, CGI-laden stuff is largely lackluster.  Let me clarify: Abrams needs to invest in a tripod and a decent fight choreographer.  Frame by frame, Star Trek is stunning, and Abrams gives free reign to expressionist and non-narrative—as opposed to physically representational—tendencies in his compositions; light flares, disorientingly large close-ups, and moments of absolute silence (often during action setpieces) set it apart from most space-oaters.  But this is the Michael Bay/Tony Scott curse—individual frames may be riveting but a movie isn’t a series of still-life paintings, and, taken together, the photography and editing are incoherent.  Spatially, I couldn’t tell where one person was in relation to another during even the most mundane sequences.  (Abrams may not have known, either.)  Yes, the special effects are splashy and wowza, but the whizbang and clamor distracts because it’s all handheld cams, whip-pans, crane shots, fast zooms, and quick cuts.  It comes across as excessive style in search of minimal substance.  And that’s the shame: there is substance there.  The movie provides engaging backstories to the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise (okay, Uhura—the token girl and token black person—gets shortchanged.  Pretend that you're surprised), and planetary genocide is taken far more seriously and carries lots more emotional and political weight than in most space operas.  (Ahem, Star Wars, ahem.)  Abrams and his screenwriters love Star Trek but they don’t revere it (big difference), so their wit and goofs (and, okay, the Steadicam) ground the work by not encasing it in gold.  The actors treat the material seriously.  (Quinto’s Spock and Cho’s Sulu do especially fine, nuanced work, but everyone’s good.)  In either a grand joke on sci-fi convention or a cynical ploy to re-brand the series with new stars, time travel plays a major role from the get-go.  In a sly dig against the Heinlein lovers out there, democratic socialism is still the order of the day, no matter how much money’s been put into this thing—Kirk and company succeed only once they band together and play off of each other’s skills.  The reason Star Trek endures as American myth is because it has the audacity to create a universe and, in universes, everyone’s important, everyone is a cog that makes the machine run, and Captain Kirk’s cocky heroics have to contend with (and seep into) the communal ethic.  (It counters that other American myth of rugged individualism.)  That’s not to say that there’s a Borg mindset rampant in either Gene Roddenberry or Abrams’ vision—almost all characters, even minor ones, resonate as specific entities.  But it’s an acknowledgment that you can’t change the world for the better by just going it alone, and maybe you never could in the first place.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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