“He will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit. And he’ll talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.”
– Aaron (Albert Brooks), Broadcast News
Since Paramount and avowed “non-Trek fan” J.J. Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise four years ago to great acclaim and box-office reward, there’s been a simmering discontentment between both Trekkies and non-Trekkies (like Abrams) and also within the Trekker community. At its heart is the dilemma summed up best by The Onion’s (as-always, spot-on) satirical headline: “Trekkies Bash New Star Trek Film As ‘Fun, Watchable.’”
Most summer film goers will be thoroughly thrilled by Abrams’ new (oddly colon-free ) Star Trek Into Darkness. It will make tons of money, and the majority of mainstream theater-goers will gasp and laugh and cheer and come away almost as entertained by it as they were by the 2009 debut. They want action-packed summer escapism that’s conveniently branded with characters and imagery they’re already familiar with, and Into Darkness delivers all that with super-charged aplomb. But the new film will only heat up the dissatisfaction among true-blue Trekkies. The question grows louder: What is Star Trek, and are these new films it?
For starters, not all Star Trek fans are the same. There’s a wide spectrum of casual and die-hard fans, including the Old-School devotees of The Original Series (TOS) in the ‘60s who carried the dream through the bleak, mostly Trek-less ‘70s; those who grew up in the ‘80s on the theatrical feature films; as well as the cerebral Earl-Grey-Tea-loving fans of the The Next Generation and its own series of features, and spin offs like Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and the prequel Enterprise.
Some fans love the hard, futuristic tech of Star Trek (and spend literally years debating online things like the size of the Enterprise and why it matters); some love obsessing over the twists and turns of a “future history” that literally spans centuries and galaxies; some love the show’s mind-bending sci-fi ideas, altruistic philosophies, and creator Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic secular humanism; some love the iconic, irascibly heroic characters; some love the spaceship action; and some love the glory of exploration and adventure. Most of us love various mixes of it all.
As a Trek fan for almost four decades (a Trek geek by mainstream standards, a dilatant dabbler to the hard-core Trekkies — I know what the Jefferies Tubes are, but I can’t tell you how a warp core works), what I love most about Star Trek are certainly the characters, but also the sense of a commander and crew “at sea” aboard a “sailing ship”—to that end, as a fan of the Hornblower and Aubrey/Mautrin series, my favorite Star Trek films and episodes are those with tense, strategic “sea battles,” as epitomized by Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (back when colons were still cool) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. (Meyer’s literary love for and liberal sprinkling of Melville, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Conan Doyle didn’t hurt, either.)
J.J. Abrams isn’t interested in much of that. He wants to create fast-paced, almost relentless summer action escapism that will sell popcorn and theater tickets. And to be fair, TOS aside for the moment, the first Star Trek film franchise worked best in theaters when it was about the action and adventure and the humor. In fact, when the Star Trek films tried to tackle Hard Sci-Fi and Heady Philosophical Ideas, as in The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier, they stumbled and stalled miserably. The best Shatner/Nimoy Star Trek films of the ‘80s—including my beloved Wrath of Khan and Undiscovered Country—were essentially action films.
Anyone remember Blockbuster Video? Give yourself a moment to harken back to the days of yore, some five years ago, and you may recall that most Blockbusters didn’t have a separate sci-fi or fantasy section – those titles, including the original Star Trek and Star Wars movies were lumped into “Action.” Big screen action means big effects budgets and that requires butts in seats. Which means the movie had better deliver thrills first and foremost, sci-fi and humanist musings second.
J.J. Abrams has often admitted to not being a Star Trek fan, and in 2009 that outsider approach served his first film well. The ’09 Star Trek felt colorful and vibrant,;full of humor and adventure. It was a laudable kick off to what wary Trek fans hoped would be a long-running new Trek feature-film franchise. Sure it was a little thin on the deeper Star Trek philosophy. Sure it was essentially a “get the team together” origins story. And yeah, in hindsight there are chunks of it that creak and groan with sloppy narrative gimmicks and dead ends. But most of all, the ’09 Star Trek was rollicking, stylish summer popcorn entertainment with a very well-chosen, sexy, funny cast.
So why did the 2009 Star Trek get a pass and a hug from me, but now I feel myself turning against Into Darkness? On paper and on screen, Into Darkness has all the right parts: the same amount of shiny enjoyment, the same slam-bang action featuring the same well-cast crew, and continuing the tone and pace of the first film to a fault. And that’s the problem: The first film felt like a fresh start, full of exciting promise, while the sequel trots complacently through now-familiar narrative beats.
That sexy, fun cast is back, with everyone in the crew dutifully getting their turn and doing their part, both in service of the ship and to tick off the check boxes that ensure every character gets a moment.
(Though I worry for Simon Pegg – his Scotty has a lot to do here and Pegg does it well with plenty of laughs and even a touch of soul. But Pegg the actor looks drawn thin and tired—less like a vibrant, life-loving Scot, and more like the bastard son of Joseph Goebbels, Frank Gorshin, and Hannibal Lecter. Can we all team up and send him an ice-cream sundae and a week in the Caribbean?)
There is, however, a sense that the beloved crew all operate at their own separate, compartmentalized, stations, coming together only in pairs or trios to run and yell or bicker–we never really feel them working as a team. Maybe that sense of family will come with time as the Enterprise heads off on its famous five-year mission, but for now Abrams and his writers continue to ride on the benefit of nearly 50 years of Star Trek character development and familiarity– they don’t have to waste a lot of precious “action” time building an connection to and relation with Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the others.
New faces include Peter Weller as the head of Star Fleet (the actor finally having morphed into Ronny Cox in Robo Cop), Alice Eve as a new eye-candy science officer, and of course, the mesmerizing Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s Sherlock) as, well… hell, we all know by now who he plays, but I’ll hold off on outright mention of the character’s name until we get to my “Spoiler” piece tomorrow. Suffice to say, Cumberbatch makes a brilliant villain—those laser-blue eyes! those Basil Rathbone cheekbones!–but we Cumber-fans knew that going in.
For their parts, the actors continue to impress. Chris Pine is a terrifically charismatic young, impulsive James Kirk. (Though 20 years ago I never thought we’d be saying, “Jim Kirk, Beastie Boys fan.”) Karl Urban’s McCoy remains the most delightfully legacy-accurate character on the screen. Though, of the Main Players, I’m still trying to fully accept Zachary Pinto’s baby-faced Spock and his romance with Zoe Saldana’s smoldering Uhura.
And yes, the USS Enterprise itself is still so damn gorgeous – it’s smooth, massive lines lovely to the point where it feels fetishized, almost like an object of porn not love. The ship gets several glorious money shots, but most of the time it functions as little more than a wagon to get the characters from place to place. Yes, there is a brief space battle in Into Darkness, but like everything else in the film, it feels a little perfunctory and proscribed, and is resolved not with clever stratagems and seamanship, but a cheap trick so obvious you have to question the “superior intellect” of any villain who’d fall for it.
As for the rest of Into Darkness’ slick, relentless action, some of it–such as a wild space dive through a conveniently placed debris field, is dazzling–but too much of it simply feels cut and pasted from any garden-variety, Earth-bound flick: shoot outs, wrestling matches, and multiple “we have to race the clock to throw this switch!” scenes that feel left over from Abrams’ time on the Mission: Impossible franchise.
Sadly, that’s what “science fiction” now means to too many film goers and film makers: running, chasing, jumping, dangling from high-up places. What does it tell us when someone like Abrams is making a sci-fi movie with a giant CGI budget; a galaxy of limitless imagination full of beautiful, towering space ships; and his finale is a foot chase and a fist fight?
Abrams has built his brand on being the “catchy idea guy” and the “crackerjack story man” but fact is, he’s good at coming up with gimmicky story ideas, but not so adept at making them play out as cohesive stories. In creative fields, we call guys like Abrams “idea gerbils” – they come into a meeting jacked up on coffee and energy drinks, spin out half a dozen cool notions, then scamper off to the next meeting, leaving everyone else to figure out how to make it all work.
In the case of Into Darkness, that amounts to simply copying and pasting in “homage” such large chunks of previous Trek films–including specific scenes and dialogue—that it’s genuinely shocking the WGA didn’t give Nick Meyer a screen credit. Not to mention tossing in a heaping dose of cheap, crass emotional manipulation, and mimicry. (More on that tomorrow, in a spoiler-heavy, geek-friendly follow up.)
The bottom line is Abrams and his co-screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (of the Transformers movies) and Damon Lindelof (Abram’s Lost co-creator and the writer primarily responsible for turning last summer’s Prometheus into a dithering mess) don’t know how to create real characters or tell a real story. They have ideas, they create cool moments, but in the end that’s what you’re left with: A bag of great moments and visuals. That was ultimately true of 2009’s Star Trek, but fans like me willingly chose to ignore the flaws and enjoy the ride. But with this sequel, we’re becoming aware of just what kind of ride we’ve signed on for.
Into Darkness is likely the last Star Trek film Abrams himself will direct, as he and his collection of lens flares are off to muck about in Disney’s re-launch of the Star Wars franchise. I want to believe that Abrams’ departure may herald a positive turn for this new Star Trek franchise, but the fact is these new films are making massive piles of cash for Paramount and the studio is not likely to tinker with the flash-over-substance formula Abrams has created. Also, it’s possible the next Trek director could be promoted from within Abrams’ team: Orci or Kurtzman, or more likely, Lindelof. That wouldn’t bode well.
Let me put it like this: For those of us in our 40s, 50s and older who grew up with Star Trek and reacted to the 2009 reboot with glee, this new franchise is starting to feel like the young trophy partner we left our soul mate for: sleek and alluring and lots of fun, but eventually blithely inane. We may pound Romulan Ale and dance all night by the silvery light of the moons of Rigel VII, but we wake up the next morning feeling empty and hung over, wishing we had someone calmer and wiser to talk with.
(*Note: There are plenty of deeper complaints I–as a Trek fan and as a fan of well-plotted genre films—have with Into Darkness, but to get into them now would require massive, no-holds-barred spoilers. I’ll tackle them tomorrow in a separate piece just for us Trek geeks.)