This is a hate piece about J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film Star Trek. It isn’t strictly necessary – there are much more recent things to complain about in Abrams’ oeuvre, and we’ve already played the drinking games where you take a shot every time there’s a lens flare. And yet in watching it again recently, I just can’t get past how offensively American it is. This is maybe something that goes unnoticed by an American audience, but 2009 Star Trek is very distinctly an American cultural product. The actual narrative logic of the film demonstrates a very American sensibility. Star Trek is a film about American exceptionalism – about a protagonist who, as the Wikipedia article has it, believes himself “destined and entitled” to be the hero. The film goes to great lengths to show us that Kirk is a talentless moron, largely reliant on the skills and support of the better people around him, and then it tells us that despite his lack of skill, Kirk succeeds – not on any merit, evidently, but solely because of the operation of American exceptionalism – because the plot upholds his belief that he is destined and entitled to success.
The first thing to note is that Kirk isn’t very good at fighting. Throughout the course of the movie he loses many more fights than he wins – and in each case, his failure is made free of consequence by the timely intervention of other people. When Kirk picks and loses a bar fight, he is saved by the appearance of Admiral Pike, who kick-starts his plot. On the drill boring into Vulcan, Kirk loses a fight with a Romulan, and is saved by Sulu. When he provokes Spock into violence, he’s saved by Spock’s father, and at the end of the film, when he’s saving Pike from the villain Nero, Pike, who is literally tied down, has to grab Kirk’s gun and shoot a couple of Romulans because Kirk isn’t paying attention.
And that’s not to say that Kirk is a bad character just because he’s bad at fighting. Nobody said that had to be his one special skill. But it’s a tidy way to illustrate how he’s consistently buoyed up by the better, more capable people around him. Kirk doesn’t have anything to offer, and in fact is more regularly either instigating the original problem or making it harder for other people to resolve it. For example, after Kirk is stood down for academic misconduct, Bones figures out how to smuggle him on to the Enterprise. Kirk doesn’t contribute anything in that scenario – he causes the problem, getting stood down, and Bones saves his ass by doing all the heavy lifting. Bones comes up with the plan, figures out which medicine to use, and bluffs his way past security. Alternately, when Kirk and Sulu fall off the drill on Vulcan, they’re saved by Chekov, who uses his big-brain math skills to manually lock onto the falling targets and beam them to safety. In this instance, the problem isn’t necessarily Kirk’s fault, but his sole contribution is really just to make the situation worse. Chekov tries to pull off this insane mathematical achievement under huge time pressure, and the whole time Kirk is screaming “Now! Now! Now!” in his ear. It’s a display of Kirk’s boneheaded machismo, an exemplar of his belief that he can be as annoying and unhelpful as he likes, because the supremely talented people around him will always pull through despite his genuinely counterproductive behaviour.
Further, on the rare occasion that Kirk does achieve something, it’s mostly fueled by luck or coincidence. His one actual moment of competence is near the start of the film, where he identifies Nero’s impending attack. But this knowledge doesn’t stem from any specific insight or ability. It’s all Slumdog Millionaire logic – it’s just shit he happened to be present for. It just so happens that Nero attacked Kirk’s father on the day Kirk was born. It just so happens Kirk also heard about a similar attack on some Klingons – he just happened to be in the room when another, smarter character was talking about it. The extent of his achievement in that moment is to combine two facts that happen to have popped up in his life and to make an inference from them. Other characters were heroic or smart – his father fought against Nero’s first attack, and Uhura intercepted and decoded the Klingon transmission. Kirk simply existed in their vicinity.
Again, in itself coincidence is not necessarily a feature of bad storytelling. Murder mysteries often have the detective infer from seemingly incidental detail. But here, the plot logic of Star Trek is a function of American exceptionalism. The events that Kirk experiences are elevated by virtue of their association with Kirk, made meaningful because he experienced them. This is a subtle distinction – obviously in the most basic sense, events in stories are only significant because of their effect on the main character. It would be odd to complain about such a common thing. My complaint more specifically targets the space between a protagonist’s self-consciousness and the way that a story carries its protagonist along. For example, when Kirk hears the piece of information about the attack on the Klingons, he is busy in bed with another cadet. Rather than studying or doing something to improve himself, he’s messing around having sex. What does that tell us about Kirk? What does it tell us about his character, about his flaws? Is it trying to show us the beginning of his character arc, the immature student who will eventually grow to become the mature leader? If he is being immature, the plot doesn’t show it. Nothing suggests he’s failing in class or otherwise doing poorly – he’s just a guy who fucks, and vital parts of plot drop into his lap while he’s doing it. The story seems to support him regardless of what he’s doing – and in turn Kirk’s arrogance seems to stem from his implicit understanding that the story operates in such a supportive way. It’s as if he knows that he can completely waste his time and still be carried to victory by the sheer weight of destiny. That’s exceptionalism.
The most significant example of this plot logic is in Kirk’s attempted mutiny, about halfway through the film. Normally when a character does something stupid, you might expect that they experience a setback, and maybe reflect on their behaviour, develop and change. But in Kirk’s case, his failures are repackaged as successes. After Nero’s attack on Vulcan, Spock, acting as captain, makes the very reasonable decision to reconvene with Starfleet’s other ships. Kirk, who is a dumbass, demands that instead the Enterprise begin searching for Nero. The Enterprise of course has no ability to combat Nero’s powerful ship, which Kirk knows, but he mutinies anyway, attacking Enterprise security guards in an attempt to take over the bridge. His behaviour itself is obviously just totally unhinged – even if he manages to defeat security, and Spock, and every other member of the crew who opposes his mutiny – a dozen, maybe twenty different people on the bridge alone – what then? Is he planning to fly the Enterprise on his own? Bully the rest of the crew into supporting him? Kirk has no plan, and no chance of success. As in the bar fight, he picks a battle that he can’t win. And yet the plot caters to him despite his stupidity. As a result of his mutiny, Kirk is promptly deposited on a nearby snowy, barren planet. Conveniently, the only other people on the planet have the exact skillset needed to save the day. This is again the nature of exceptionalism – whatever decision Kirk makes is retroactively justified by the plot. If Kirk hadn’t committed mutiny, he would never have met Spock Prime and Scotty, and they never would have beaten Nero. Even when Kirk’s attempt to assert his will is unsuccessful, the attempt in itself ensures his eventual success. The moral is that Kirk should continue to do whatever he wants, entirely as he sees fit, and with no justification outside of his own will – because that simple act of self-assertion is itself the key to the universe. That’s the worldview of exceptionalism – and it makes for a really awful viewing experience.
Honestly I don’t consider myself hugely knowledgable about Star Trek, but my impression of the fictional universe is that it’s meant to be about unity, about striving for communication and mutual understanding across all cultures and contexts. That’s why we originally had such a diverse cast of characters on the Enterprise – George Takei as Sulu, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura – both ground-breaking roles for representation. The 2009 Star Trek has many of the same characters, but the narrative revolves around how special Kirk is. It reduces an ensemble cast into supporting characters in one man’s psychodrama: it’s a story stepping back from the unity of all people in favour of the exceptionalism of one.