Star Trek Into Terror

Review of Star Trek Into Darkness, Directed by J.J. Abrams

Star Trek Into Darkness is a thrilling, fun, loud, dazzling movie–a perfect summer popcorn flick.  It is also much more fun if you know absolutely nothing about it before you go.  I have no intention of spoiling that fun for you, which makes it difficult to write anything interesting about it.

First, let me lay my cards on the table:  I’m a Trekkie.  I sat on the carpet at my dad’s feet and watched reruns of the original series with him when I was a kid.  I watched much of The Next Generation as it aired in high school.  I was sure to be there (with my dad, naturally) to catch Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country near opening day in theaters.  I’ve never been to a Star Trek convention and haven’t seen every episode of all five TV series–but I did watch a lot once they hit Netflix a few years ago. So I am predisposed to enjoy all thing Trek.

That means I know better than most that Trek, at its worst, can be plodding, pretentious, cheesy, and ridiculous. But Trek at its best is thrilling entertainment–the second and eighth movies are some of the best science-fiction on the silver screen, ever.  And, like all science fiction, they give storytellers a way of offering veiled social commentary by addressing today’s concerns in the future, in an alternate universe, or through the eyes of a time traveler.  The original series famously tackled birth control (“The Trouble with Tribbles”), the Cold War (everything to do with the Klingons), race and gender (an African American woman on the bridge!), and more.

I.

Insofar as Star Trek Into Darkness keeps this tradition, it tackles the War on Terror.  The plot synopsis tells us that the movie is about a manhunt for a terrorist–which is a true, if not exhaustive, description and which is about as much as I’ll repeat of the plot.  The director, J.J. Abrams, uses this story to editorialize lightly on how the U.S. has gone about fighting al-Qaida.  Early in the film Captain Kirk refuses to use a stand-off weapon (suspiciously similar to a UAV drone with a missile) to assassinate a bad guy, choosing instead to send in a team to arrest him.  Abrams ends the film with a character telling a crowd that while revenge is tempting, “That’s not who we are.”  Thank you for the lesson, Mr. Abrams.

I’ve written elsewhere about other movies that address terrorism and war, and they do so more profoundly and with greater intelligence than Abrams does here.  Abrams keeps the “moral” light, which also means he keeps it shallow.  The movie doesn’t seriously explore the difficult trade-offs involved in choosing how and when to use which tactics to defend home and country.  Star Trek is a blockbuster, not a message film.  That is partly a blessing lest this featherweight movie be weighed down with sanctimonious platitudes.  But it doesn’t entirely excuse Abrams’ relative laziness–all movies have messages, and they deserve to be told with as much nuance and intelligence as possible–but Abrams seems more interested in making eye candy.

II.

And it is impressive eye candy.  This is easily the best-looking, most energetic, visually-rich Star Trek story ever told.  Part of the appeal of the Star Trek universe is the conceit that humanity’s scientific and technological progress is, in the 21st century, only in its infancy and that we are on the cusp of major revolutionary leaps in our understanding of nature.  In the future we can look forward to teleportation, faster-than-light travel, instantaneous communication, cures for almost every disease, and more.  These make for fun tools in the hands of a playful filmmaker who knows how to use them.

[Nerd side rant:  However, Abrams does a poor job respecting the fictional laws of physics in the Star Trek universe.  He has Kirk talking from the bridge of the Enterprise via handheld communicator with Scotty, who is on earth on the other side of the quadrant.  As any self-respecting Trekkie knows, the communicators are strictly short-distance devices.  Trans-light communication requires a subspace signal.]

Abrams’ gift for thrills–on display in the Alias TV series, Mission Impossible 3 (2006), and the previous Star Trek (2009)–is backed this time by almost $200 million of special effects.  The production is slick; the alien makeup and costumes aren’t cheesy; the spaceships are cool; the combat is awesome.  The Star Trek aesthetic has finally been given the treatment its material has always deserved.

III.

Fans may lament that something is lost in the blockbuster makeover.  It isn’t only the camp and cheese that is missing.  The spirit of exploration and wonder is entirely absent from this Trek.  Abrams isn’t entirely unaware of the absence:  at one point in the film, Scotty resigns in protest because the Enterprise has been militarized.  “This is a military mission.  Is that what Star Fleet has become?  We’re supposed to be explorers!”  His concerns are brushed aside by Kirk and, it seems, by Abrams.  This is a war movie through and through.

I don’t think this is as much of a loss as some fans may argue.  You need variety in your stories to keep a fictional world interesting.  A simple story of exploration might be right for a TV episode, but the cinema is fitter for grander tales.  The best Trek movies have always moved in this direction.  For my money, Trek could go even further:  we have still never seen the truly epic Trek that was merely hinted at in the TV series’ stories involving the Borg and the Dominion.

Abrams makes up for the loss by including several nods, references, and homages to past Trek lore, including Tribbles, Sulu’s aspirations to a captaincy, the introduction of Carol Marcus, and more.  It culminates with what can only be described as a scene of the outright plagiarism late in the movie.  I won’t reveal details of the scene, but every Trekkie will immediately recognize it.  Abrams blurs the line between reboot and remake by literally staging a reenactment of a famous scene from a prior Trek story, only switching around a few characters.

It is a contrapuntal fugue in which characters’ fates play out in complementary opposites to their previous incarnations. Like a fugue, our appreciation is doubled because we remember what has come before, and we understand that Abrams is both paying respect to and adding a new layer to the old Trek canon.  But Abrams runs a risk by so faithfully re-staging the scene:  the only difference is what Abrams and his style bring to it, and I’m not convinced he comes out the better for it.  Abrams succeeds so well at kinetic action, but he needs to learn when and how to slow down, how to let his actors emote.  The scene, which should have been near the emotional core of the film, felt a little rushed and stilted.

IV.

That points to a larger flaw in Abrams’ style as a filmmaker, one that has bothered me in a couple of his past films.  His stories have included moments of absolutely ghastly violence, like the genocide of Vulcan in the previous Star Trek, the apparent execution of Ethan Hunt’s girlfriend in Mission Impossible 3, and an act of terrorism in this Trek.  But his movies are invariably PG-13: he can’t show too much of the violence or he’ll lose his audience.  As a result, he includes the violence but does not dwell on its consequences.  He shows the explosions but cuts away from the human impact.  He shows the gunfire but not the aftermath.

That makes the violence in Abrams’ movies more troubling because it is more playful.  It frees us to enjoy the violence as spectacle without dwelling on its meaning.  Early in the movie Abrams does the opposite, showing a character’s death up close, giving Chris Pine’s Kirk time to react to it, giving it due weight and dignity:  it is one of the more affecting moments and Pine’s best moment as an actor in this film.  But for much of the rest of the movie events are too rushed, the movie too fast to let the audience absorb the horrific events happening all around.

That ultimately undermines Abrams’ attempt at a nice little message about the right way to fight terrorism.  He wants us to believe that we can fight terrorists by sending in teams to arrest them, rather than dropping bombs to kill them.  That’s a respectable position to take–but to take it in a film awash with casual death and violence arrayed for our entertainment seems strained, at best. Speilberg, to whom Abrams is often compared, was making serious films like The Color Purple (1985) early in his career, which arguably rounded out his storytelling, augmented even his more strictly popcorn flicks with a bit of depth, and laid the groundwork for his truly great works like Schindler’s List and Lincoln.  Abrams is still a relatively new filmmaker–but if he is to last as a storyteller of merit, he could do worse than to use his next project, Star Wars VII, to slow down, to respect his characters, and to learn what makes a good story ring true.


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