Released ten years ago today, on May 8, 2009, director J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot is the cinematic equivalent of a rock band going mainstream. It’s a hit remix version of an old song. Critically and commercially, the film was an unqualified success. Holding steady at 94%, edging out classic big-screen entries like The Wrath of Khan and First Contact, it remains the highest rated Star Trek movie on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as the top-grossing film in the series according to Box Office Mojo. Anytime a band goes mainstream, however, there’s always going to be a contingent of old-school fans that you hear affecting a Leonard McCoy grumble. They were with the band from the beginning but now it’s out there in the world and it belongs to everyone.

By the late 2000s, the Trek franchise was in a place where the overlapping runs of four straight television shows had ended—their viewership numbers falling victim to the law of diminishing returns. Fans like me, who grew up watching The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine in syndication, had lost touch with the final frontier. This is the movie that resuscitated that brand and opened the door to more adventures like the ones we’re seeing now on Star Trek: Discovery and the ones we’ll soon be seeing on the Captain Picard series.

As a storyteller, Abrams’ great strength is character. His weakness is plot. Both of those qualities are on full display in Star Trek, but the movie has such a velocity to it (not unlike the U.S.S. Enterprise itself when traveling at warp speed) that the viewer can’t help but get swept up in the youthful exuberance of this faster-than-light reboot. Beam yourselves aboard, then, and let’s take a long and winding trek into Star Trek on its tenth anniversary.

TWIN PLANETS IN A UNITED FEDERATION

Now more than ever, the world needs Star Trek. At a time when it feels like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell’s vision of the future is coming to pass — with civilization moving closer to the distracted dystopia of Brave New World and the post-truth landscape of 1984 — the world needs a reminder of the hopeful ideals that humanity can embody when it’s not bent on dividing and destroying itself. There are different ways to inspire that kind of hope but the way the 2009 Trek film goes about it is by making us believe that people who are destined for greater things can overcome their differences and find a common purpose.

The movie seeks to distill the essence of all these classic ‘60s characters from Star Trek: The Original Series into new affable forms. It succeeds beautifully on that front. As James T. Kirk, the future captain of the Starship Enterprise, Chris Pine embodies a different kind of swagger than the one William Shatner originally brought to the role.

Shatner’s Kirk had a quieter confidence to him. Pine’s version of the character, as seen in this movie, is brash and has yet to learn the lessons that will make him a good leader—one who’s capable of putting the good of his crew above his own life, even.

That scene after the bar fight in Iowa, where Kirk is talking to Captain Pike (played with great gravitas by Bruce Greenwood), is so well done that it becomes almost transcendent when Pike says, “Your father was captain of a starship for twelve minutes. He saved eight hundred lives, including your mother’s. I dare you to do better.” Sitting there watching that scene, you feel like you’re the one being dared not to “settle for a less and ordinary life.” You feel like you’re the one “meant for something better, something special.”

The movie draws immediate parallels between Kirk and Spock, showing how their trajectories on Earth and Vulcan align as much as they differ. Until he meets Dr. McCoy and makes his first Starfleet friend, no one sees anything in Kirk except for Pike. In the bar, he has burly cadets ganging up on him, dismissing him as a “townie.” This is directly preceded by a couple of scenes where we see how Spock’s half-human nature has made him the target of both overt and subtle discrimination.

It doesn’t get much funnier than the first scene on Vulcan where we witness the hyperintelligent version of school kids taunting each other. “I presume you have prepared new insults for me today,” says the young Spock, all stoic and resigned to his fate as the-kid-who-gets-picked-on. “Affirmative,” replies one of the older bullies. Spock drolly intones, “This is your thirty-fifth attempt to elicit an emotional response from me.” And then the restrained Vulcan equivalent of bullying begins.

Inheriting the black bangs and pointy ears of Leonard Nimoy’s character, Zachary Quinto balances out the contradictions in an adult Spock who’s still a paragon of rationality but also full of repressed rage. It’s a show-stopping moment when he finally employs the famous Vulcan nerve pinch. The movie amps up the tension between him and Kirk, and there are some really good scenes where the two of them are hashing out their fundamental differences in approach as Starfleet members on the Enterprise bridge.

One of these is a tense mid-warp scene where Kirk pleads his case that the ship is flying into a trap. At that moment, we see how Kirk and Spock, the Earthling and the Vulcan — one impetuous, the other logical — are diametrically opposed in terms of their outward behavior. They couldn’t be more different, yet we know from what we’ve seen of their lives leading up to Starfleet that they also have similar experiences running deep into their backgrounds.

Ultimately, they’re able to get more done by putting aside pettiness and working together in the spirit of a United Federation. With the real world seemingly teetering on the brink of destruction in 2019, maybe we should all aspire to that model before some crazed Romulan (whose name references Nero Caesar) sets off a black hole causing the planet to implode.

REVIVING HUMANISM WITH FRESH FACES

If the essence of Star Trek can be regarded as humanism, then everything else — all the sociopolitical allegories the franchise has become known for over the years  — would have to flow first from that foundation. Say what you will about it, but Abrams’ film and the characters running through it are aggressively, irrepressibly human. This extends beyond Kirk and Spock to the rest of the quippy cast, most of whom were relative unknowns at the time.

2009 was the Year of Zoe Saldana. She was, by far, the best thing about Avatar, which you may remember as the fourth best science fiction movie of that year (with Star Trek, District 9, and Moon comprising the top three, of course). Here she delivers a star-making performance as Uhura, a character whose verbal tangos with Kirk are fun to watch and whose relationship with Spock feels more believable than it probably deserves to be, thanks largely to Saldana’s emotive range. She can wield sarcasm but there’s also a soulful quality to her that comes out in moments like the one when she and Spock are on the turbolift together and she’s attempting to console him after the obliteration of his planet.

By revealing her as Spock’s girlfriend, the movie does inadvertently set Uhura down the path toward underutilization. In Star Trek Into Darkness, she would fade to the background a bit, to the point where her concern and anger with Spock and his apparently casual willingness to sacrifice his life would become her whole subplot. In Star Trek, however, their relationship is merely one element of her character. She comes across as more well-rounded, enough so to justify the positioning of her face in DVD box art as the movie’s third lead.

Karl Urban is a revelation. The beauty of this Trek is that it’s the kind of movie that you can watch and rewatch, shifting fondness to a new favorite character every time you do. For me as a first-time viewer, the real MVP was Urban, whose scene-chewing turn as McCoy bowled me over in terms of how it channeled the spirit of the character without lapsing into imitation. As the curmudgeonly doctor, he’s so pitch-perfect, talking out of the corner of his mouth, that you completely forget you’re watching the same Viking-looking dude who led the Riders of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Speaking of Vikings, before there was Thor, God of Thunder, there was James T. Kirk’s dad, George Kirk. People love to debate who the best movie Chris is, but whatever the answer, Star Trek introduced the world to two of them: not just Pine, but also Hemsworth (who would go on to star in his first Marvel movie two years later).

For viewers behind on their Edgar Wright films, Star Trek might have also been their first real exposure to Simon Pegg, who is so likable (and appropriately excitable) as chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott that there’s almost a comedown that sets in when you see Pegg in his other, non-Trek roles. Likewise, Scotty’s sidekick — for reference, his name is Keenser, and he’s played by actor Deep Roy — deserves a shout-out as one of the movie’s two best aliens, the other being the long-faced creature at the bar counter between Uhura and Kirk.

Foregoing the Monkees-inspired moptop of Walter Koenig, the late Anton Yelchin portrays a baby-faced Chekhov, one who’s referred to as “Russian whiz kid” and whose accent is so thick that he has to keep repeating himself because even the voice-recognition computer can’t understand what he’s saying. John Cho’s Hikaru Sulu, meanwhile, inhabits the other forward station on the Enterprise bridge. In this movie, Sulu is more straight-faced, less bug-eyed, than he was when he first employed his fencing sword in the Original Series episode “The Naked Time.” His most meaningful contribution to the lives of some LGBTQ fans would come later.

All of these characters live in service to the utopian exemplar of Starfleet, which we’re told functions as “a peacekeeping and humanitarian armada,” but which can also be seen as a surrogate family unit for individual characters in individual crews like the one on board the Enterprise. To anyone who followed its previous adventures on television, the environment of the ship feels very much like home. Its living room is the bridge and its soundscape is iconic, not just the music, but also the sound effects: all the chirping communicators, whistling intercoms, swooshing doors, and other noises that make up the fabric of what we hear.

With his memorable music theme from the opening and closing credits on TV, Alexander Courage left some big shoes to fill, but composer Michael Giacchino wears them well. His score is its own character in the film. There’s a sweep and — at key moments — a poignancy to it that gives the movie lift and bears it aloft, in new ways, to the soaring heights we’ve come to expect from Star Trek.

One moment that really tugs on the heartstrings, music-wise, is the birth of Kirk and death of his father. My favorite moment comes right after that, when the soundtrack transitions into the first cue of “Enterprising Young Men” and we see the escape pods: these little black dots breaking away against the backdrop of a huge, fiery sun, showing the terror and awe of humans in the cosmos. Then the title logo appears, lighting up like it’s been waiting on the dark side of an adjacent planet.

That’s a sequence that manages to convey the full, breathtaking wonder of Star Trek. Though not without its flaws (more on those in a second), this is a movie that’s beautifully orchestrated both in the sense of its music and in the sense of its staging.

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