A Sad Little Film: Star Trek II Again

Star Wars fans beware.

By the time J.J. Abrams is done with your childhood, it will be even smaller and less impressive than reality always makes going home again. If the tree you built a house in was not nearly as high as you recall, in the hands of Abrams that tree would be torn down, reconstructed as a very shiny sort-of-tree, and then your childhood memories would be replayed to milk the few genuine motions in the film.

Abrams thinks we don’t like dialog, need loud noises constantly, and perpetual flash. He is right short-term, but when done strip mining something better, he will leave nothing but a copy of a copy and a hole where the heart should be.

I had avoided all spoilers regarding the newest Trek film until just now, but be warned: spoilers are dead ahead.

If one does not think of Star Trek as a Star Trek film, then it is a passable summer blockbuster: things explode, good looking people stare at the camera, fights are fought.

Star Trek was not Shakespeare, despite plundering the Bard for titles, but it tried. And that is the point: when Trek was campy or when effects stopped dazzling and became dated, then one was still watching a JFK vision of tomorrow. There was much to dislike or mock about that vision, but it was super-deep, daring to intone Melville, compared to comic book fare.

This Star Trek film went the opposite of the more recent comic book films and graphic novelizations of the old comics: it dumbed down the source material. Go read Stan Lee and then watch any of the Spiderman films: they beef up the sometimes ludicrous (but good hearted) comics.

Star Trek in the reboot is dumber than the sixties show in every way not superficial.

People talk less. Motives are simpler.

The villain, played by Mr. Cumberbatch, is the best example. The original Khan was smarter than “regular humans” and so fearful in a modern world where brain power matters. In this film, he is more brutal and physically stronger: Batman gone bad. If his acting is more restrained than Ricardo Montalblan’s sixties ham, it is also less interesting. He is a hole on the screen, he never fills it. At times a black hole is frightening, but mostly it is just a hole.

Original Trek would get Kirk into situations where physical combat was essential, but there was always as much talking as fighting.

Those days are gone. We get to know the characters as they run, and run, and jump, and fall.

The only moving parts of the film steal directly from the best of original Trek: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And here too the pretty boys, the Muppet Star Trek babies, fail the scene. Shatner and Nimoy had grown older with the fans in the original film and mortality was etched on their faces: those men had lived. In the mirror image scene, the effects were better, the acting was more to contemporary taste, but the heart was gone.

Spock dies, really dies, in the second film and fans were not sure if Nimoy would return to play the character. That was tough for a fan boy, trust me.

Anybody watching the newer film that did not see how Kirk would be restored was better suited for a Transformer film. I saw fans cry in Wrath of Khan, movie goers went to the bathroom during the death scene this time: after all nothing was blowing up, nobody was running, and we were not dazzled by the light.

The film is more heartless than the car commercial featuring the two Spocks, the commerical has better writing and fewer plot holes than the film:  the movie is a shiny copy of a better film stripped of heart. Perhaps, the most mockable element of the film is its devotion to “peace” and “just” as it exploits battle scene after battle scene to provide the excitement. Star Fleet is about exploration we are told, but Abrams doesn’t think we want to watch exploration.

The last remaining evil is genocide, so Khan, a villain a smart woman could love and even follow in the original, is reduced to British-Hitler-Batman. If the next tyrant opposes eugenic purity, most will miss his tyranny, because pretty soon all our movie villains will be sort-of-Nazis or simply insane. 

If Abrams has been derided for the lens flare, he should actually receive scorn for his lack of intellectual flare.

Star Wars lacked the back story depth, and the sometimes risible intellectual pretensions of Trek, but we can be sure of one thing: it is about to get even dumber. We will be left with a fine summer movie, like the first of the Abrams reboot Trek: fun to watch a few times, but a movie that would have been utterly incapable of inspiring a cult following if it did not strip mine better writing.

JJ Abrams will make Star War fans go home again and see how little our childhood heroes were.

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