In 2009, moviegoers lived in a very different cinematic universe than the one we’re swimming in today.
At that time, the mainstream viability of superhero movies and science fiction was treated with much more skepticism. The Star Wars prequels had left fans with mixed feelings, and box-office sales declined with each installment. It had been a long time since a new sci-fi hit like The Matrix had really captured the public’s imagination, and in terms of “geek” movies, Harry Potter was continuing to prove that fantasy was probably a safer bet.
While early MCU entries like 2008’s Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were beginning to indicate the dawn of a new superhero boom, there was another nexus event in geek cinema. In 2009, the man behind Alias, Lost, and Cloverfield changed the course of sci-fi cinema and catapulted the careers of several actors into super-stardom.
That movie was J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek reboot. It’s streaming on Netflix, and it’s worth another look. Very recent nerd history would be entirely different without this film. Here’s why. Mild spoilers ahead for Star Trek (2009).
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Simon Pegg, and Anton Yelchin as new incarnations of classic Enterprise characters, the 2009 Star Trek was audacious because it favored form over function.
Science-fiction world-building was less important than things looking awesome (WTF is “Red Matter?”), and fan service was kept to strictly the most mainstream variety (nobody was confused as to who Leonard Nimoy was, for example). If Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens was guilty of ripping off the plot structure of A New Hope to get audiences to fall in love with new Star Wars characters, he took the opposite approach with rebooting Trek.
The ‘60s series’ characters were vaguely familiar to non-fans, but this movie dropped those archetypes into a by-the-numbers-superhero-team-origin story. In many ways, the strength of Trek ‘09 is that its story is both nonsensical and easy to follow. It was all about getting to know these characters in a fun, action flick that felt like Mission: Impossible in space.
Three years earlier, Abrams had made his directorial debut with Mission: Impossible III, working from a script penned by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (who also wrote the screenplays for 2009’s Star Trek and 2013 follow-up Star Trek Into Darkness). As a fun bit of film-history trivia, the original ‘60s Mission: Impossible TV series was sold to CBS by producer Herb Solow at the exact same time he sold the original Star Trek to NBC, with both shows debuting in September 1966. So, if you’re still of the opinion that conflating the stories of Star Trek with action-adventure-team-up-vibes is somehow wrong, then you don’t know your Trek history.
And in Abrams’ Star Trek, one can see how the goal was to create a series of movies that had the same relationship to its source material that Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible films had to that ‘60s spy-series classic. Its aim was slightly craven, but effective: do Trek, but make it “cool.”
To that end, the first trailer featured a tween James T. Kirk driving a vintage Corvette over a cliff. In the movie, this scene is actually a billion times better because, unlike in the trailer, young Kirk is blasting “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. Out of all of the retcons in this movie, this is easily the best one. Thinking about William Shatner’s Kirk listening to “Intergalactic” is initially difficult but then endlessly fun.
Abrams’ Star Trek had a mixed impact on the rest of the franchise. Because the film’s first sequel (Into Darkness) didn’t arrive until four years later, some of the mainstream goodwill and momentum of the first film was arguably lost to time. And by the time Star Trek Beyond was released in 2016, you could argue that the moviegoing public had moved on. But one great irony of Abrams’ Trekverse petering out is that all the talent involved in the first film became mega-stars — mostly thanks to Star Trek.
Sure, Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana were hardly nobodies when Star Trek came out, but after? They became huge. Today, folks probably think of Wonder Woman first in relation to Pine, and Guardians of the Galaxy first in terms of Saldana. But could they have landed those roles without Trek’s smash success? And though Anton Yelchin died tragically in 2016, his post-Trek roles in 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive and 2015’s Green Room were show-stoppers.
Meanwhile, John Cho went from being the guy in the Harold and Kumar movies to a leading Hollywood actor, with big roles in fan-favorite series like Sleepy Hollow, and the TV version of The Exorcist. Cho is also set to star as Spike in the new live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop. Again, would Cho be flourishing like this were it not for his version of Sulu in Star Trek?
Additionally, Chris Hemsworth played Jim Kirk’s father, George Kirk, in the powerful prologue for Trek, a moment non-Trekkies forgot because Hemsworth became much more famous shortly thereafter playing Thor in his titular 2011 outing for Marvel.
And then there’s J.J. Abrams. There’s literally no way Lucasfilm and Disney would have hired Abrams to reboot the Star Wars movies had he only been coming off Cloverfield and Super 8. The wildly successful and convincing Star Trek reboot in 2009 is what made Abrams into the super-director we think of now. Subjectively, that may not have been a good thing for Star Trek fans or Star Wars fans but, objectively speaking, the 2009 Trek reboot led to a vast pop culture universe and resulted in The Force Awakens. In this way, Star Trek can be thought of the most pivotal sci-fi movie of the 21st century so far. (And, unlike The Force Awakens or The Rise of Skywalker, it's aged well.)
By the time Star Trek arrived in 2009, there had already been a billion different sequels, prequels, and reassessments of the Trek franchise. Because of that, compared to Star Wars, the public pressure on 2009’s Trek wasn’t as significant as that applied to the Star Wars sequels. In fact, as the Kelvin Universe has gradually receded back into the black hole from whence it came, the rewatchability of Abrams’ Trek has only increased with time.
Instead of being the movie that had to carry an entire franchise on its shoulders, his Star Trek now scans as a novel, effective sci-fi action spectacle. It’s not only a decent Trek movie, but also Abrams’ best film to date.
You can stream Star Trek (2009) on Netflix right here.