Fangrrls on Film: Star Trek (2009)

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May 25, 2018

Film criticism is a very dude-heavy industry. According to a 2016 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, men account for 73% of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, resulting in men often shaping the narrative of what makes a "good" film or a "bad" film—what's worth seeing and what's not. And even the most well-meaning, wokest of men wouldn't necessarily catch the microaggressions or tropes that tend to define whole genres.

So, as our answer to years of male critics driving and basically shaping the movie industry with their opinions, Fangrrls on Film re-reviews films from a fangrrl perspective.

J. J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek was released on May 8, 2009, receiving widespread praise from critics but mixed reviews from Trek fans who considered the reboot too far afield from traditional Star Trek. It currently maintains a 94% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Clare revisited the film to see how it holds up through our Fangrrls-purple-colored glasses.

I have nothing but fond memories of Star Trek. And yet, I was tentative about revisiting it. Star Trek Into Darkness broke my heart by aggressively whitewashing Khan—an offense compounded by J.J. Abrams lying about it in the run-up to the film’s release—and I’d fallen off of the new Star Trek wagon since. (I still haven’t seen Star Trek Beyond, although I am assured it’s quite solid.)

For the most part, I needn’t have been worried. Star Trek still sings the same way it did in 2009, thanks to Abrams’ excellent balance of comedy, action, and character development—the same skillset that netted him Star Wars: The Force Awakens and rendered it an instant classic. Part of why the film works is the decision to simply set the reboot on an alternate timeline, eliminating the need to strictly adhere to continuity and creating a fascinating and deliciously tragic way to utilize the late Leonard Nimoy as Spock Prime. The other part is all casting magic.


Recasting iconic roles is one of the most thankless tasks a casting director can ever do. But April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg knocked it out of the park. Everyone is perfectly cast, from Chris Pine as Kirk (you do need a handsome character actor for that) to Simon Pegg as Scotty to Karl Urban as Bones, a role he was seemingly born to play. Urban is one of New Zealand’s greatest natural resources and we are blessed to be able to have him do such an amazing DeForest Kelley impression. And then, of course, there’s Zachary Quinto as Spock.

This is really Spock’s movie. While the first act features both Kirk's and Spock’s childhood, it’s Spock’s that’s much more interesting, one of a child trying to navigate Vulcan as someone who will never be seen as fully Vulcan. (I will fully admit to emotions surrounding how Sarek answers both the young and adult Spock's question about why he married his mother.) The entire scene with the Vulcan Science Academy, where Spock refuses acceptance because they see his beloved mother as a setback rather than a support, is flawlessly played. Quinto’s Spock is shrewd and calm, with a sharpness underneath the surface that's riveting. Star Trek believes in his performance so much it actually puts him side by side with the original and it’s astonishing.

Of course, some things have changed. With all of Star Trek: The Original Series under my belt, the then-contemporary outcry over Kirk’s characterization makes more sense. Pine’s Kirk—fatherless, combative, and impulsive—is definitely not Shatner’s measured but emotional Kirk. (Remember, it's Bones is the one who’s all id in the id-ego-superego dynamic of that original trio.) He’s much more Maverick than classic Kirk. But it works, because the film gives him such a different origin. When they said this wasn't your daddy's Star Trek, well, they meant it. There’s something delightful about a reboot of Star Trek, which set the template for so many fic tropes ("Amok Time," anyone?), really leaning into its own AU to justify its choices.

However, I am severely disenchanted by how the film treats its female characters. Zoe Saldana is a perfect choice to play Uhura. Cool, competent, and a little sentimental, she pulls her own weight in the story as a talented xenolinguist. While I do actually like the idea of Spock and Uhura together, the film completely glosses over the fact that Uhura is, quite technically, Spock’s student, and she’s still treated as a bone of contention between Kirk and Spock. And then there’s the underwear scene.


There’s a post that goes around Tumblr every once in a while that asks users to contribute with their own story about when they realized something they were watching about a woman was clearly written by a man. Like if an episode of CSI features a character making a deduction based on the victim not wearing a matching bra and panty set, when most women will not care. For me, that’s what the underwear scene in Star Trek is like. Kirk is sleeping with Gaila, seemingly in order to get the access codes to the Kobayashi Maru, when her roommate Uhura walks in. Unphased by Gaila lounging around in her underwear, she begins to strip down to her underwear, when she realizes Kirk is in the room and she kicks him out.

As someone who attended a women’s college and lived in similar rooming situations for four years, I must admit my only response was attempting to turn my head all the way around like a very confused dog. Who does this? It makes the scene so clearly an attempt to make Star Trek sexy—which is redundant—in a way that ends up treating Gaila and Uhura like pieces of meat instead of agents in their own sexuality. Retro stylings, not retro politics, y’all, come on. Also, Gaila gets implicitly killed off a short time later so I guess that’s all she was good for, huh, movie?

Final Thoughts

Star Trek still scores as a clever, fun, and exceedingly well-cast reboot that respectfully gives the original space while it does its own thing. In particular, Zachary Quinto’s performance as Spock is absolutely riveting throughout. But the film’s treatment of its female characters hasn’t aged well, which is a shame for a reboot of a series so devoted to imagining a better future for all.

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