JJ Abrams’ Star Trek hit theaters on May 8, 2009. Ten years later, it remains not only an entertaining movie with an incredible cast, but it is also far more influential than it gets credit for. Despite some aspects that have been detrimental to the Star Trek franchise, the film is a significant benchmark in the legacy of the beloved Star Trek universe. To celebrate this film’s first decade, let’s break down exactly how influential it was.
Star Trek 2009 Resurrected The Franchise
Before Star Trek ’09 came to theaters, Star Trek as a franchise was dead in the water. In 2005, the previous Trek series Enterprise ended after four seasons, the first Trek show since the start of The Next Generation to get outright cancelled. Meanwhile, Star Trek Nemesis totally bombed at the box office in 2002, making a paltry $43 million. The lights had gone out for Gene Roddenberry’s once glorious pop culture franchise.
But director JJ Abrams gave the entire thing a massive shot of adrenaline. The movie opened to glowing reviews, and made $257 million at the box office. That is more than any other Star Trek film had ever made at the box office, even adjusted for inflation. Whatever you might think of Trek ’09 (and it has its detractors to be sure), it definitely made the mainstream aware of Star Trek as a viable brand again. And we probably wouldn’t have Discovery or any of the upcoming Star Trek shows had this not clicked with audiences.
It Popularized Legacy Sequels
Reboots were already all the rage by 2009. But for every Batman Begins or Casino Royale that worked, there were several reboots of beloved properties that just wanted you to forget that the franchise it was refurbishing had already had a long successful history. But JJ Abrams found a way to let fans have their cake and eat it too. By having Leonard Nimoy appear as Spock, he acknowledged that all Trek canon we had known for years still mattered, and this new beginning was an alternate timeline. The past dictated the future.
Elder Spock passing the baton to his younger counterpart set the stage for several successful “legacy sequels” like Creed, Blade Runner 2049, TRON Legacy, and most recently last year’s Halloween. All these movies keep the history intact of a particular franchise and also find a way to start anew. Of course, the biggest example of the formula that Star Trek ’09 popularized was also directed by JJ Abrams: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And it is fair to say that Abrams likely would not have directed Star Wars without Trek ’09’s success.
JJ Abrams: Franchise Revitalizer
Star Trek ’09 also cemented JJ Abrams as Hollywood’s most well known franchise “fixer.” In 2006, he took over the Mission Impossible franchise after the second installment of that series had floundered creatively. By giving that franchise a kick in the butt with MI:3, he re-established it as one of Hollywood’s premiere action franchises which it remains to this day. When he did the same for Star Trek, a property in a far worse state of disrepair, he became a miracle worker.
The success of Star Trek made him the obvious choice to do the exact same thing for Star Wars, so it was a no-brainer that Disney asked him to direct The Force Awakens. Original films aside, Abrams undoubtedly understands what it is about those characters and concepts that resonate with audiences. And Star Trek is what cemented that reputation for him in Hollywood.
Good Actors, Not Big Stars
When Star Trek hit theaters, people were skeptical of the casting. Aside from Leonard Nimoy, the entire cast consisted of unknowns or little known television actors. Nevertheless, they were all perfectly suited for the iconic roles they were inhabiting. And this strategy paid off. Marvel Studios in particular has had great success with this way of doing things. The elder supporting roles are well known names, but aside from Robert Downey Jr, and Scarlett Johansson almost none of the main Avengers were A-listers when the MCU began. Star Trek hammered in the idea that if you get the right actors to fill an iconic role, it makes little difference that we might have never heard of them before.
As much as Star Trek ’09 had a positive impact and brought back a dead franchise, it also has had its issues: mainly the perception of Star Trek itself. With Abrams looking to the original Star Wars for inspiration more than classic Trek (he was not a Trekker), the film played more towards action and character than any kind of social message or truly interesting sci-fi concepts. This tendency toward big expansive set pieces filtered down through to the sequels and all the way through Star Trek: Discovery.
And the audience for Trek is simply never going to be what it is for Star Wars, and copying it too much will lead to it becoming a diluted brand. And spending Star Wars level money on Trek every time leads to diminishing returns. Star Trek thrived in the ’80s by being an alternative to Star Wars, not a carbon copy. In 2009, when we had no new Star Wars films on the horizon, Star Trek as a giant blockbuster was novel. Now, it would help to ditch the reliance on big budget whiz-bang no matter how well that first movie worked.
Despite this, Star Trek 2009 remains rip roaring entertainment and holds up really well ten years later. Where the franchise goes next is anyone’s guess, but it’s unlikely any of it would have been possible if JJ Abrams had not delivered a decade ago.
Images: Paramount Pictures