Humility vs. Low Expectations – On “Star Trek” (2009)

Spoilers galore ahead.

1. “Star Trek” is a good movie, but not a great one. It is purposely not aiming to be great; given the “alternate reality” it claims to be, it could be treated as a stand-alone episode. It consistently recognizes the depth of the mythos, whether that is the fullness of the characters, the natures of those inhabiting the cosmos, the sense of value underlying technologies, and the themes already covered by previous adventures. Better “Star Trek” movies than this one include “The Wrath of Khan,” “The Search for Spock,” and my personal favorite, “The Undiscovered Country.” It is no surprise that Leonard Nimoy emerges in the midst of this movie and speaks with a gravity oddly missing from the opening sequence, and yes, this viewer did miss William Shatner and the rest of the old crew at that moment, even while loving what this movie was achieving.

This is a humble movie in a sense: it is meant to grab your attention and make you pay attention to all that has come before. We see this most easily in the rich characterization; even with limited lines and scenes, the crew of the Enterprise comes to life. But in another way – and this is no knock on the movie – bringing everything to life results in a lack of things to analyze. The dialogue is sharp, but one doesn’t have to think about every word. Imagery of light and dark, themes of faith and reason are flat-out obvious, if they go anywhere. What was maddening for me was how Kirk deduced the nature of the threat, and how that was almost a vision – a calling – and how that contrasted with the younger Spock, told by the elder at the end of the movie to have faith. I’ll have to check again, but there wasn’t nearly enough development of that theme, I felt, which could have made this movie one for the ages if developed properly.

2. Still. Where this movie was most thoughtful was in the development of the villain. Nero captains a mining vessel; he’s angry that he lost his wife and home planet because Ambassador Spock promised to save them and failed. The theme is that of the everyman vs. heroes – do we need heroes? The same acts of daring that characterize heroes also have enormous costs, and even while they may not have to be paid, the mere existence of heroes means that we can think ourselves able to control everything. Nero is coming from a perspective where Spock must be held responsible – heck, the whole heroic ethos must be held responsible – for attempting to conquer pain.

Nero’s anger, then, can be molded into this counterfactual: What if we could destroy heroism? After all, the power of the future is inevitable, we will progress. The Romulans who are miners are bigger and stronger than everyone else; the mining vessel is huge with incredible technology, able to obliterate an entire armada and drill to the center of any given planet. If progress could wage war on heroism on its own grounds – if progress could go back and annihilate the foundations of myth – wouldn’t the world be a better place? Nero can go and share his pain with the cosmos, and yes, this is a thoughtless vengeance of his, but perhaps it can remake the universe into something better.

The sign that it can make the universe into something else is the impact the bodily/emotive (miners) has on rationality (Spock). The younger Spock is the key whose significance Nero is aware of, although Nero has no clue why. We viewers know better: Spock, after losing his planet, doesn’t do anything crazy. He wants to rendezvous with the fleet and stop Nero according to a more typical plan. He wants to show that the ways of people as a whole, of bureaucracy, of accepted wisdom, of following orders works. In other words: not daring is an acceptance of pain, a hope that progress can continue without any major striving. Spock’s passivity is exactly what Nero’s vision, if we can say he has a vision, demands – no more heroes, just a world where we feel each other’s pain, make no pretense to be better, and accept our roles.

3. This is the movie where Kirk teaches Spock; Ambassador Spock is necessary because the situation is so dire, but Kirk’s faith isn’t really faith in the sense of conventional piety. He’s more than willing to learn, contrive and execute as needs be. Nor is his love particular: command includes securing the welfare of those who had beaten him to a pulp previously. The younger Spock is trapped within the dictates of the personal and familial; reason was a tradition for him, and he could excel because of that circumstance.

But Kirk here represents nothing less than the awakening of another side of human reason, the willingness to explore. I don’t believe J.J. Abrams for one second when he says he wasn’t too into this series – this is just too well-done, too thoughtful for a leading-in, an invitation to explore the rest of Star Trek on our own.


  1. I was so surprised this movie wasn’t crap, but it had beautiful casting and characters… and gee golly, I hope they make more. (Like that opportunity will be ignored)

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