The future needs defending. Not against Klingons or Romulans. Not even, simply, against J.J. Abrams. The future of Star Trek needs defending against audience members willing to accept a Star Trek film that is, in essence, not really a Star Trek film.
In Star Trek (2009) director J.J. Abrams led audiences into a false sense of security by creating an extraordinary reimagining of the original Star Trek series. All the old favorites were there, revitalized and updated for the 21st century. The story and performances drove the film, not the special effects which were, albeit, excellence. The filmed seemed like an almost elegant hand off of the original franchise — even in its time travel story devices featuring original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) as the key element of the plot. In that sense, it was not a reboot, it was simply a shift in the Star Trek timeline. Very clever.
However, that tone has changed in Star Trek Into Darkness and the afterglow of the 2009 film has been left far behind. In 2009, the crew of the Enterprise faced a larger than life ship captained by an insane Romulan and had to defeat it. In 2013, the crew of the Enterprise faces a larger than life ship captained by an insane Starfleet Admiral and must defeat it. They also face what is, perhaps, the greatest retread in the history of movie villainy — that of the quintessential STAR villain: Khan.
That aside, however, the film is visually difficult to watch. Because of the manner in which it was filmed — great action filmed at odd angles, it was best to move back several rows to get a picture of the entire screen. It is, also, the first movie wherein the frequent costume changes, including Nazi-style hats worn by Starfleet personnel, become a distraction.
The special effects were, obviously, what any contemporary viewer of a science fiction blockbuster would expect: visually dazzling with plenty of fast, erratic movement of everything from rogue ships to space garbage. However, between that and the bar scenes there was a disturbing presence in the Force — that of director Abrams seeming to use Star Trek Into Darkness as a palette to practice for his upcoming Star Wars VII film. In fact, there is a space chase sequence that is, put politely, a direct homage to a popular scene from The Empire Strikes Back. In fact, take this as a compliment or a criticism depending on your point of view, the special effects in Star Trek Into Darkness were very reminiscent of the each of the Star Wars prequels (Cue me watching the pod racer seen on opening day of The Phantom Menace in 1999 bored out of my mind). As George Lucas once said, “Special effects without a story is a pretty boring thing.”
But that seems to be what Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the crew of the Enterprise have stumbled into here. Special effects in search of a story. Space chase scenes and fight scenes in search of a story — along with an epic final sequence as the Enterprise plunges to earth that stretches the disbelief of even the most ardent moviegoer.
Is there a story to this film? Of course. But, really, what does it matter? Unlike the previous 2009 origins film Abrams and Co., apparently, decided, to simply fool around with Star Trek Into Darkness and make the storyline second to the special effects, whereas the 2009 film seemed to be an almost perfect blending of the varied elements of a modern science fiction film including, even, the hero’s journey motif. Keep in mind Abrams has said, even recently on The Daily Show with John Stewart while he was promoting Star Trek Into Darkness, that he never liked Star Trek and thought it was “too philosophical.” He always preferred Star Wars.
That does certainly beg the question as to whether or not someone who does not like Star Trek should direct it. Abrams was given a pass in 2009 for creating a fine film. The same can’t be said for Star Trek Into Darkness.
There’s been some criticism against Star Trek fandom objecting to Star Trek Into Darkness — my own criticisms range from the completely derivative use of Khan as a villain to verbatim and almost verbatim quotes from the science fiction classic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan being used. And while the reversal-of-death-death scene in the film evokes emotion, it is soon destroyed when Spock screams out “Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!” — well known as a classic Shatner-as-Kirk line that could never truly be recreated.
Star Trek (2009) demonstrated that the new cast is up to the challenge. However, in this latest incarnation some of the key characters, namely Kirk, seem to have regressed emotionally to the point where they don’t seem to be fit to crew the Enterprise. There is a general sense of dysfunction in some of the key relationships of the characters in the film, the script, the directing and thus the acting lacks the depth and engagement of the 2009 film (which leads me to believe there’s something missing from the directing — perhaps, in this case, it is interest on the part of the director). Finally, the whole thing becomes almost some kind of adolescent fantasy. Not that there’s anything wrong with adolescent fantasy. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of — and, apparently, the stuff that Star Trek Into Darkness is made of.
So, yes, Star Trek needs some defending from, well, Star Trek. The Star Trek franchise is nearing its 50th anniversary. To criticize fans of the original versions of the show and films merely as nerdy, nitpicking fanboys is incredibly superficial. Let’s not forget, it was the fans who in an incredible letter writing campaign saved Star Trek from being cancelled in its second season in the 1960s. It was the growing popularity of the show in re-runs, along with fan run conventions, that gave rise to the feature film franchise, then Star Trek: The Next Generation and all the other shows. Fans also gave rise to J.J. Abrams Star Trek (2009). No fans, no franchise. So, when it comes to Star Trek, the fans, actually, do matter.
J.J. Abrams said in the same interview that Star Trek Into Darkness was not a film just made for the fans but that it was made for anyone to see — even people who had not seen Star Trek before. That’s certainly not an approach that can be objected to because in Star Trek everyone has always been welcome. It’s also not a bad approach especially when the goal of filmmaking in Hollywood is to make as much money as possible. It’s a business. Movies are a commodity. The latest film, however, borders on caricature much more than it does on being a film that either fans or general viewers will enjoy.
No doubt the film will be an incredible success over the course of the summer. But that still leaves the question: Should it be? Or has Star Trek finally been transformed into a film franchise whose components have been so successfully milked by a director who knows how to make crowd pleasing films that it has lost what made it Star Trek to begin with — the humanistic, philosophical kind of science fiction that was about something more than just a good vs. evil adventure.
Message to J.J. Abrams: There’s a difference between a Trek and a War.
And now that Abrams if off to direct Star Wars VII I’ve only got one more thing to say: Get Baz Luhrmann on the phone — somebody new needs to screw up Star Trek.