Good movie reviews are never supposed to compare the movie being reviewed to other movies. The idea being to judge the film being reviewed on its own merits and not get bogged down by how good or bad another movie was. The problem with this in the modern film era is the "re" films(re-boots, re-makes, and re-imaginings) "Re" films almost invite comparison and make it virtually impossible to not consider previous versions of the same material.
This is doubly true for the newest addition to the never-ending franchise known as Star Trek. The first difficulty in analyzing this film is defining what it is. It is most definitely a re-boot as it tries to reintroduce characters created over 40 years ago with new actors. It is also a re-imagining, because the filmmakers are giving their own take to the design and storytelling of the original material.
But what is perhaps most interesting in analyzing Star Trek is that it is also a sequel. In an inspired move to get fans of the past 40 years of Star Trek onboard, the filmmakers concocted a convoluted tale that somehow ties this new version of Star Trek into the previous incarnations. Not surprising to Trek fans, they do this with a time travel story in which Leonard Nimoy's Spock is taken back in time to help the younger versions of familiar Star Trek characters defeat the bad guy, Nero.
This conceit alone would be enough to carry the movie, but the filmmakers have a much more ambitious vision. They want to take over the Star Trek universe and mold it in their own image. If this means throwing out the intelligent science fiction and complex social commentary that often inhabited older Trek stories, then so be it. This film was never designed to open a dialogue about complex isssures, but to invite a new crowd to an old franchise. Like my previous discussion on False Nostalgia in Movies, Star Trek 2009 is an attempt to re-package older material for the younger set.
This new Star Trek is meant to work more like an amusement park ride at Universal Studios than as a thoughtful story. It is an amalgam of large action pieces strung together into a 2 hour movie. It's a roller coaster ride, and as such lacks a lot of character or narrative depth. This Star Trek is meant to be fun, and thus it defies any sort of in-depth analysis.
The main theme that you are slapped with is that this is about destiny and whether we have some say over what our destiny is. Spock's father explicitly makes it clear to the young Spock that he can choose his own destiny, which Spock eventually does by joining Starfleet instead of the Vulcan Science academy. This is further accentuated in Spock's need to reconcile his bi-racial nature. Is he human or is he Vulcan? Is he a man with complex emotions or a slave to cold, hard logic? The death of his mother takes him a great distance towards reconciling this conflict, but also serves to remind us that our destiny is sometimes colored by the actions of the universe and how we respond to those actions.
Kirk, on the other hand, has been shaped into a young adult by the lack of a father, who is killed in the opening scene of the film. His history is the most changed from the original TV show and movies. The filmmakers obviously liked the Kirk of the 1980s who was a rebellious fighter, and killing his father was a psychologically brilliant decision. The older Spock alludes that his father was the motivation he had for joining Starfleet in the original timeline, and without that inspiration this new Kirk has merely floated by on his wits and with his fists.
Beyond these surface pop-psychological ideas there is very little in the film to digest academically. When Kirk inconceivably happens upon the older Spock on a remote planet, Spock asks, "How did you find me?" This question hints at a deeper discussion on fate bubbling just underneath the action-packed narrative. Perhaps our presence in the universe is governed by fate, and Kirk and Spock are always destined to find one another. The following of this line of narrative inquiry would lead Star Trek into Battlestar Galactica territory with questions about God and how we are shaped and moved by the universe. Alas, the moment passes quickly to get us to the next one-liner or the next big action piece.
Anyone who has watched the previous incarnation of these characters knows that they are destined to go on to great things. The entire point of this movie seems to be to put all of the pieces in place to tell further adventures in the sequel. It is a shame that the filmmakers did not take the time to explore the ideas of destiny, of fate, of changing one's own history, or familial loss to a greater degree. But, once again, this is a roller coaster ride. Just like you aren't supposed to have an in-depth discussion on physics when leaving the ride, you are not really being asked to have a deep discussion on Spock or Kirk's psychological make-up when leaving the theater.