Box Office Weekend: Star Trek Conquers the Universe

Box Office Weekend: Star Trek Conquers the Universe

“Get a life!” the old Commander Kirk, William Shatner, angrily told die-hard Trekkies in a famous Saturday Night Live skit. Over the past four days the venerable TV and movie franchise got new life by winning the box-office weekend. The first Trek movie to boldly go without a colon in the title amassed $76.5 million in its first four days, including $4 million from Thursday night shows, according to early industry estimates. That should leave the Paramount executives beaming: they have a healthy new-old franchise.

Last week,s big prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which still holds this year’s opening-weekend record with the $85 million, toppled an expected 68% to place second. The Matthew McConaughey rom-com Ghosts of Girlfriends Past won the show position with a more demure drop of 32%; but it wasn’t falling from lofty heights, more stepping off a curb. Beyonce’s Obsessed and the Zac Efron 17 Again filled out the top five. Less successful at reviving a dormant film form — the 1970s blaxploitation comedy — was the druggy Next Day Air, which took in just $4 million. It finished first only in the Cool Name for a Director category: Benny Boom.

But the weekend’s big bang came from the Starship Enterprise. Buoyed by enthusiastic reviews, embraced by both Trek illuminati and infidel civilians alike, the new space adventure earned sage nods of commendation for the director who had modernized a middle-age franchise: J.J. Abrams, the TV-drama mogul of Alias, Lost and Fringe and a member of that ultra-exclusive club, the TIME 100. “J.J. Abrams is officially the Lazarus of movie directors,” proclaimed box office stats swami Steve Mason — though Abrams’ only other retooling, Mission: Impossible III, was the lowest-grossing of that action trio.

Actually, the diminished returns for MI3 had less to do with the director’s stewardship than with Tom Cruise’s waning star power. On his Enterprise enterprise Abrams summoned Leonard Nimoy out of a black hole to play an elder Mr. Spock, and Eric Bana, star of the lambasted Ang Lee version of The Hulk, for the bad-guy role of Nero. But Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are actors not previously seen on a movie marquee; they might not even be in FaceBook. The film’s biggest on-screen name is probably Winona Ryder, hard to recognize as Spock’s human mom.

So there were plenty of challenges for scripters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who wrote MI3 and the new generation of Transformers epics, and have worked with Abrams on his TV shows. Their mission was to graft the characters from the original show onto a modern sensibility. Creator Gene Roddenberry was fond of moral and political lessons declaimed by actors in pastel polyesters; that was, after all, the late 1960s, an epoch so distant that the word irony hadn’t yet been invented. Solemn homilies had to be replaced by gritty action, and thinky by feelie.

Orci and Kurtzman managed this by making Star Trek a standard revenge epic, as punk rebel James Kirk becomes a man by chasing down Nero, the renegade Klingon who killed his father at the very moment James was born. For the first third of the movie, James is a budding sociopath; as a kid he steals a car and, when pursued by a cop, nearly drives it over a cliff; later he picks bar brawls with packs of space studs. Anger management was not a major issue with Shatner’s Kirk, but that was a different century. Pike’s Kirk has to be the hot-tempered yang to the yin of Quinto’s Spock — who also gets an overhaul. Half-Vulcan, half-human, his nature is at constant war not only with Kirk’s but with itself. In this Star Trek, philosophy takes a back seat to psychotherapy.

But that’s the fun of spinning an origins story; the writers can improvise the itinerary as long as they reach a plausible destination — one that folds into the beginning of the first show of the first season of the original Star Trek. From the rapt response of Trekkies, critics and this weekend,s customers, that journey could be long and prosperous.

The official estimation of the top 10 finishers, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. Star Trek, $72.5 million, first weekend; $76.5 million, four days

2. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, $27 million; $129.6 million in two weeks

3. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, $10.5 million; $30.2 million in two weeks

4. Obsessed, $6.6 million; $56.2 million in three weeks

5. 17 Again, $4.4 million; $54.2 million in four weeks

6. Next Day Air, $4 million, first weekend

7. The Soloist, $3.6 million; $23.5 million in three weeks

8. Monsters vs. Aliens, $3.4 million; $186.9 million in seven weeks

9. Earth, $2.5 million; $26,1 million in three weeks

10. Hannah Montana the Movie, $2.4 million; $74 million in five weeks