On May 8, 2009 the future of the final frontier began again with the release of JJ Abrams Star Trek. One year later the film is still fresh in the minds of Trekkies while we await news (and the release) of the sequel the film inspired. Today TrekMovie takes a look back at the film, its history and impact.
From Fatigue To Phenomenon
Following its return on the big screen in 1979 with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Trek franchise grew as part of the cultural landscape, spawning multiple sequel films and TV series through the 80’s and 90’s. But by December 2002 the Star Trek film franchise hit a wall with the first true bomb in the ten film series: Star Trek: Nemesis. Just a little over two years later, in early 2005, UPN and Paramount announced that the 17-year run of Trek on TV was coming to an end with the cancellation of Star Trek Enterprise. On top of that you had drop-offs across the extended world of Trek from conventions, toys, publishing, and beyond. Things were so bad in the early 2000’s that the gaming licensee (Activision) sued Paramount to get out of their contract.
With failure of Nemesis and cancellation of Enterprise – Star Trek was without a crew for the first time
Around this time some people at Paramount (including Star Trek overlord Rick Berman and chairman Jonathan Dolgen) starting talking about "franchise fatigue" and saying that Star Trek needed a rest. But as it turns out, this was also when Paramount executive Marc Evans first approached the writing team of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to see if they had any ideas for Star Trek. Some in the studio wanted to bring Trek back and they were impressed with the work Orci, Kurtzman and JJ Abrams had done on Mission: Impossible III, which was in post-production. By Spring 2006 news broke that Paramount (with its new CEO Brad Grey) had tasked JJ Abrams and his partners in geekdom to create a new Star Trek movie. This was also when news first broke that Abrams was going to take on the challenge of recasting Kirk and Spock, who he saw as the heart of the franchise and natural starting point for any new spin on the final frontier.
Comic Con 2006 teaser poster hints at return to Kirk and Spock
Even though the recently released Batman and Bond films had shown that franchises can be rebooted for the 21st century, many fans were still skeptical with some even saying that it was impossible to recast icons like William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. The Abrams team actually found it rather easy to recast Spock, with Heroes villain Zachary Quinto actively lobbying for the role. And using the ‘idea’ that Orci and Kurtzman came up with, they could also cast the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, and both were announced to a roaring crowd of geeks at Comic Con 2007. Casting Kirk did turn out to be a bit harder, but eventually they convinced Chris Pine and filled out the rest of the new crew with talented attractive young actors like Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, John Cho, Anton Yelchin and Simon Pegg. Shooting began (during a WGA strike) in November 2007 for a planned release date of Christmas 2008.
Comic Con 2007 Star Trek Panel
In early 2008 the buzz began to build with the release of the Star Trek teaser trailer. This waiting period was soon extended after the WGA strike ended and Paramount moved Trek to May 8th 2009. Now positioned as a Summer tentpole, the buzz continued on a low ebb amidst the backdrop of Abrams’ trademark super-secrecy, with little official information coming out until the Fall of 2008, when the first images emerged and a the first full trailer soon followed. The buzz moved into high gear with a Super Bowl commercial and a hugely successful trailer in March 2009 (with Watchmen).
Award-winning trailer shown with "Watchmen"
And the months leading up to Spring 2009 also saw a Trek resurgence of another sort, with toys and merchandise from both the movie and classic Trek appearing at Walmart, Walgreens, Toy R. Us and other big retailers. 2009 was a collector’s bonanza with everything from shirts to key chains to Pez and of course, action figures. Paramount also lined up a number of big name marketing tie-ins like Verizon, Lenovo, Esurance, Nokia and Burger King, which all built on the critical mass that was the return of Star Trek.
Burger King commercial shot on the Enterprise bridge
As the Summer approached and more and more footage was being released, skepticism was replaced by enthusiasm in much of the mainstream and geek media. After years of dismissing the Trek franchise as either dead, or just for hardcore geeks, the world started waking up to the possibility that Star Trek could be cool again. With a worldwide promotional tour and screenings starting in April combined with consistently positive reviews, by the time of official release in May, JJ Abrams’ film had developed into a meta story about the rebirth of Star Trek as a cultural phenomenon.
But what about the fans?
With so much positive vibe on Star Trek, some in the mainstream media tried to push the notion that fans were not happy with the new take on their beloved franchise. Some even scoured the world, contacting fans like myself and James Cawley to appear on TV to attack the film. This new found relevance for Trek even inspired the humorists at The Onion to create a parody video of Trekkies complaining about how Star Trek was "too watchable."
Onion has some fun at our expense
However, all kidding aside, the Star Trek movie did what many thought was impossible. It played well with the mainstream moviegoers and the Star Trek fans (casual and hard-core). Polls at this site and other Trek sites have shown that JJ Abrams Star Trek was well received by the faithful, with most rating it as one of the best of the series (if not the best over all). These same kind of positive thoughts were also apparent in geek reviewers like those posted here by myself and Jeff Bond, and the likes of Harry Knowles of AintItCoolNews and others. Of course, being that it was a totally new take on Star Trek, and the fact that it played a bit loose with timelines and canon, there were (and still are) detractors. However, even RedLetterMedia, famous for their video take-downs of the TNG era films and the Star Wars prequels, had a back-handed way of complimenting the Star Trek film (in a very un-PC re-enactment of Star Trek ‘having its way’ with a fan).
Famously brutal – Red Letter Media was pretty gentle on Trek
Legacy – Getting Serious
There is no doubt that Star Trek was a hit. It was the sixth highest grossing film of 2009 domestically with $257.7M. Globally the total was $385.5M, with the film performing well in English-speaking countries, but not as well in the rest of the world. Even detractors acknowledge that the film successfully achieved its goal of making Star Trek popular (again). Paramount was so up on Star Trek, that they commissioned the sequel script in March of 2009, before the money even started to roll in.
In addition to mainstream popularity, the film also got a lot of serious attention from the critics and film industry. Star Trek was one of those rare films that was nominated for popularity contest awards like People’s Choice and even Teen Choice, along with more high-brow groups like the Critics Choice Awards. When Star Trek wasn’t nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, it generated quite a lot of ‘snub’ buzz, especially following its PGA and other guild and critics award recognitions. Bottom line was that Star Trek was being taken seriously. And in the end, the film still took home the first Oscar for the franchise (for Makeup).
Another legacy of the film is that the new crew find themselves to be big-time celebrities, especially Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana (although Avatar also helped there). The new crew of attractive young actors are followed by paparazzi and are often rumored to be attached to new tentpole films. All this of course can only help the sequel, due June 29th, 2012.
Star Trek celebrities Chris Pine & Zoe Saldana at Academy Awards
Still a good Trek movie after a year
Watching the film again today I still find it an enjoyable, entertaining and emotional experience. There are still little facets that can be noticed for the first time, and familiar moments can continue to have impact, such as the tear-jerking opening segment with Capt. Robau and Mr. and Mrs. Kirk (and the baby too). And how can you not like seeing Leonard Nimoy once again as Spock. To me, Star Trek is an action thrill-ride film, that still finds time to inspire hope for the optimistic future envisioned by Gene Roddenberry (and the greats that followed him).
Leonard Nimoy came out of retirement for a reason – these guys got it
Is it flawless? By no means. JJ Abrams once told me that he agrees with most of the criticisms of the film, and I agree too. I don’t like the Budweiser redress for engineering, nor the squishy location of Delta Vega. The series of coincidence meetings and rapid promotions do force a lot of suspension of disbelief. And although I am no canon-ite, I really do miss phasers that beam instead of the blaster bolt style we have now. In addition, while the time travel plot allowed them to stick with canon and do a reboot, they could have made it a bit clearer that we are dealing with a parallel quantum universe and not a rewrite of the timeline. Of course, there also may have been just a few too many blinding lens flares.
Kirk wonders if this brewery can even hit Warp 1
I think the difference for me is how much I care about those things, and how I weigh them against all that is right with the film. It is hard to ignore the success of this new cast who all hand in impressive tours of duty. Of course Karl Urban’s pitch-perfect McCoy is a favorite (even for detractors). But, I am still amazed by Chris Pine’s performance going on an arc from jerk to Kirk. While it is true that the villain Nero was not fully realized, this film was not really about the Romulan threat. It was about this family coming together, especially the building of the partnership between Kirk and Spock. And then there are the technical achievements from effects to makeup to sound and beyond that I believe put this Star Trek film into a new class. But most importantly, the team of Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman, Lindelof and Burk were able to thread the needle and bring us fans a new and very modern take on Trek that mixed action, humor and character in a way that both was reminiscent of classic Trek and something new.
Star Trek’s new crew is a key to its success
So in my initial review for the film I said it would take time for me to decide if it was the best of the series. In the end, I feel that honor still sits with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. However, JJ Abrams Star Trek is in there with my group of second favorites: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Star Trek: First Contact. But, the guys have a sequel or two (or more?) to get to the top of the list.
Can’t wait to see where they go next
POLL: One Year Later
So now one year after release, how do you rate the Star Trek movie?