Last time we saw James T. Kirk on the big screen, he was a highly respected captain-turned-admiral-turned-captain for the galactic Federation—a near legendary figure with a curious speaking cadence and a penchant for derring-do. Oh, sure, he was a little unorthodox at times, but he was a hero, through-and-through.
One might chalk it up to good parenting.
Little did/does he know that, years before/after, a ticked off Romulan evildoer actually killed his father before the elder/younger Kirk even had a chance to meet his newly born son, thus taking away half of the “good parenting” equation and sending Kirk’s past/future trajectory into an entirely different space quadrant.
Yes, it’s confusing. But this is science fiction—one of the few genres where the past can be present, the future past and the present all mixed up. The upshot is that this movie’s Kirk—a swaggering force of nature with charm to spare and some seriously bad intentions—is a ne’er-do-well Iowan who seemingly couldn’t care less about the future. This Kirk has one eye on trouble and the other on the shortest skirts he can track down. This Kirk thinks nothing of picking a fight with a handful of fledgling Federation soldiers.
“Get two more guys, and then it’ll be an even fight,” he brags.
OK, so this new/old Kirk may actually act a lot like the old/new Kirk. But we can’t really compare them because the space-time continuum is ripped and, for all we know, Kirk might bypass Starfleet altogether and get a really good job as a bouncer and—
Well, let’s not go talking all kinds of crazy here. No matter how tattered the continuum may be, Kirk is still destined to become captain of the new/old NCC-1701, aka the Starship Enterprise, aka the snazziest set of space wheels in the whole known galaxy. He’s still destined to hook up with Spock, Bones and the rest of sci-fi’s most famous space crew. He’s still destined to lead hordes of red-shirted yeomen to their appropriately noble deaths, to fire phasers first and ask questions later, to boldly go where no one has gone before.
But the certainty of Kirk’s future/past doesn’t erase the uncertainty surrounding him in the present. That ripped continuum thing has got everybody walking around like cats on a hot tin roof. It seems that much of what we thought we knew about the Star Trek universe is no longer applicable. (Dedicated Trekkers will tell you, for instance, that the Federation didn’t find out about Romulans until after Kirk was comfortably ensconced as captain.)
Kirk was supposed to have had a long, fulfilling relationship with his father. So if Kirk doesn’t have a pops, what other big changes could be in store for us? Will Spock break out into song—”Feelings,” perhaps?
[Note: The following sections include spoilers.]
Kirk doesn’t start out as much of a hero. His father, on the other hand, was the real deal. He was a starship captain for just 12 minutes before he died. But in that time—consumed as it was with trying to fight off a Romulan super destroyer—he managed to save most of his ship’s crew. Captain Christopher Pike encourages Kirk to follow his father’s legacy. “He saved 800 lives. Including your mother’s. And yours,” Pike says. “I dare you to do better.”
Kirk never met a dare he didn’t like, and so he begins the periodically disrupted process of making something of himself. He starts to unveil all the attributes we’ve come to expect from the guy—loyalty, bravery and the ability to take a punch—along with a few more overlooked traits: compassion, intellect and, believe it or not, the ability to follow an order. (Sort of.) When Kirk runs into an aged, future/past version of Spock, the older Vulcan tells Kirk to take over the ship from the younger Spock, all the while keeping the existence of the older Spock a secret from the younger Spock. Kirk agrees.
Spock shows his own bevy of good points. Along with his oft-displayed logic and common sense, the pointy-eared one risks his life to try to save his parents, along with a handful of Vulcan leaders, from a planetary catastrophe.
Both Kirk’s and Spock’s good points cut both ways, of course, and there are lessons in that, too: Kirk does follow the older Spock’s orders, but in so doing, he purposefully hurts Spock by questioning whether he ever loved his mother. Spock responds—in a frightening display of emotion—by nearly coming unhinged. Note to future Starfleet recruits: Never make Spock mad.
Forget the Prime Directive, the crew of the Starship Enterprise spent much of its original three TV seasons debunking the universe’s misguided faiths. And it wasn’t to defend Christianity, either. Indeed, Star Trek was launched at the behest of a man (Gene Roddenberry) who once said, “Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all. For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain.”
This reboot, though, is about as faith-free as anything has ever been in the Star Trek franchise. On this voyage, director J.J. Abrams steers well clear of spirituality as he heads straight for the galactic amusement park.
Some things never change. Kirk still pursues pretty girls around the galaxy with the enthusiasm of an adolescent Ferengi with macrotia, making quick time with the short-skirted Starfleet Academy females. On her bed, he gets hot and heavy with a green, bikini-clad cadet (Kirk is stripped down to his underwear), but he really has a physical fondness for Uhura, the Federation’s lovely linguistic prodigy. He first meets her in an Iowa watering hole, where Kirk lets loose a sexual double entendre about Uhura’s “talented tongue” and ends up with his hands on her breasts while trying to recover from a punch. (Remember the fight I told you he picks?) Later, he discovers that she’s the green girl’s roommate: He hides under the bed and watches Uhura strip down to her underwear. (The camera watches, too.)
But Uhura already has a beau: Spock! They smooch and embrace on several occasions, displaying unseemly (by Vulcan standards) amounts of emotion. One note: Uhura is apparently one of Spock’s pupils at Starfleet Academy, and she convinces him to reassign her to the deck of the Enterprise. It’s a move Spock initially resists because of the appearance of favoritism—but he ultimately gives in to her.
A joke is made about bestiality.
When Gene Roddenberry originally presented the concept of the show Star Trek for TV, he framed it as a kind of rough-and-tumble Western in space.
This Star Trek stays true to that original sales pitch, cramming in enough fistfights and shootouts to make John Wayne grin in his grave. The only thing the movie’s missing, really, is a horse or two.
Kirk gets into that bar fight in Iowa, where he’s battered and bruised by a handful of Starfleet cadets. (His face is covered with blood.) He tangles with folks on the ship, too. And he and Spock engage in a serious shootout aboard a Romulan ship, gunning down several enemies—one at point-blank range. Kirk is nearly choked to death a few times—once by Spock—and is almost killed by a pair of incredibly wicked-looking alien critters.
While Kirk’s fisticuffs are often played for fun and, sometimes, laughs, Spock’s rage is far more frightening. Bullied as a child by three Vulcan troublemakers, Spock remains proudly emotionless until one of the bullies calls his father a “traitor” and his mother a “human whore.” Spock proceeds to beat the boy viciously.
The spacecraft battles are breathtaking, filling the screen with phaser fire, photon torpedoes and space debris. But the death count is high, too. Starfleet just can’t compete with a Romulan cruiser from the future/past, and many, many ships bite the space dust with demonstratable casualties. In one scene, we see a person blown clear of a craft, the sonic cacophony of battle suddenly switched silent in the cold vacuum of space. We hear someone talking about how the Romulan vessel obliterated 47 Klingon ships.
The Romulan spacecraft also has the ability to destroy whole planets by drilling down to their cores and, essentially, creating black holes at their centers. We see it in action, and we’re told that billions of inhabitants are annihilated.
Elsewhere, a hapless crewmember falls into a fiery beam. Sulu whips out a sword to fight with a pair of Romulans. One of them he pushes into a fire-laden jet stream, the other he skewers through the back as the Romulan tries to push Kirk off a ledge. (The sword goes all the way through and is seen smeared with green blood.) Scotty comes close to drowning. Someone is stabbed in the gut with a spear. A statue falls on someone else. A Romulan drops a scorpion-like thing into Pike’s mouth.
Kirk lets the s-word fly once, and we hear profanities such as “a‑‑,” “b‑‑tard” and “d‑‑n.” God’s name is misused a half-dozen times; once it’s combined with “d‑‑n.”
Uhura orders a bewildering array of drinks at a bar. Dr. McCoy swigs something from a flask. Kirk is shown drunk.
McCoy, in order to spirit Kirk aboard the Enterprise, injects him with a vaccine that triggers disease-like symptoms, then fills him with several other chemicals to combat the lingering side effects.
Kirk, as a 10-year-old, takes a joyride in his guardian’s vintage Corvette Sting Ray. (It’d have to be close to 300 years old, right?) He ignores admonitions to come home and, when a police officer spots the lad, Kirk floors it instead of pulling over. The chase concludes with the car hurtling off what must be Iowa’s only cliff; Kirk leaps to safety just in time.
McCoy slips Kirk onto the Enterprise using deception. The older Spock essentially lies to Kirk—though the normally forthright Vulcan would disagree. “I implied,” Spock says.
This film—despite the fact that it showcases the obliteration of two entire planets—embraces Star Trek‘s perennial sense of optimism and infuses it with something that, at times, has been somewhat lacking: fun. It has the feel of an old-fashioned serial, as if the story has been spiked with a dash of Star Wars and a dollop of Buck Rogers.
What philosophical musings do come through are from Spock—for while Kirk may claim the helm, it’s Spock who undertakes a voyage of personal discovery. We see him struggle mightily with his two genetic impulses—the stoic Vulcan and the emotional human—and in the end, Spock tells himself, quite literally, that it’s OK to feel a little human now and then.
“Put aside logic,” the older Spock tells his younger self. “Do what feels right.”
This troubles me a little. First, Spock is Spock because he’s driven by logic. It’s what has always made his character so (perhaps oxymoronically) charming. Second, as Jeremiah 17:9 says, feelings are often the most untrustworthy of guides.
I resonate more with Spock’s father’s advice—that he should control his feelings “so they do not completely control you.” After all, we humans watching this movie don’t have much trouble submitting to our emotions; what we need help with is grasping logic. That’s a bit of a quibble, though, because we’re all engaged in a Spock-like push-and-pull, and we can all empathize with his struggle to embrace life with love and passion while still taming it with prudence and reason.
Star Trek, then, is not the perfect summer movie. For obvious reasons, Kirk proves to be far less than a flawless role model for aspiring space captains in your family. McCoy seriously stretches the truth for no great reason. And Uhura strong-arms Spock into advancing her career. But, like the film itself, I’ll end on an optimistic note: This Star Trek is, in a surprisingly old-fashioned way, a light, bright futuristic (or is it historical?) gallop through the galaxy.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.