In a recent interview on Jon Stewart, J. J. Abrams said, about Star Trek, that when he initially watched the show, preparing for the reboot, he didn’t get it. And didn’t like it. Of course, he quickly added that he’d grown to love it, an essential correction, lest every Trekkie in the universe commit instant self-immolation. And of course lots of fan commentary on the recent movie has cited that conversation, as reasons why Abrams shouldn’t really be trusted with the franchise. And I know that I sound like the most doctrinaire Trekkie when I say that this movie proves that we were right. This isn’t a very good movie, and that the reason is that it strays too far from what made Star Trek special.
Look, I totally get that it’s a hundred million dollar film, and that it needs to appeal to general audiences and not just fan-boys. But watching Star Trek Into Darkness (shouldn’t there be a colon in there, between Trek and Into?), I felt mostly a sense of loss. It’s a slick, fast-paced, fun and exciting popular entertainment. It’s got lots of ‘splosions, and chases, and fight scenes, and stunts, and ‘splosions, and ‘splosions. As a result, it feels generic, a common-or-garden action thriller. Sure, it pays passing homage to Star Trek story conventions. Bones says, “damnit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a . . . ” Spock rejects some course of action as “illogical,” and the only people who die wear red shirts. And Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a tremendous villain, as “Khan.” But I put quotation marks there, he’s a sort-of Khan, certainly villainous and tough and strong and charismatic, but more an approximation of Khan. Just as “Kirk” and “Bones” and “Scotty” aren’t really Kirk and Bones and Scotty, but simulacrums of them. This isn’t just because different actors are playing the roles.
I think my wife got it right. Kirk and Spock are supposed to be great friends, for example, and Spock cries when Jim ‘dies’ in this. (Oops, sorry, spoiler alert, but it’s a movie; you know he doesn’t really die). But we haven’t had enough time with them to believe in that friendship. They haven’t spent enough time together. Their relationship feels perfunctory, not because they’re bad actors, but because the movie doesn’t establish a relationship–it assumes one. And those tears feel fake, not because Zachary Quinto can’t act–he’s a wonderful actor–but because the movie itself hasn’t taken the time to build a friendship. That goes to the heart of what’s wrong with the movie. It possesses the outward form of Star Trek, while denying the power thereof.
This is, again, not a knock on the actors. Chris Pine is perfectly fine as Kirk. He’s a good actor, captures Kirk’s devil-may-care charm and his courage. I like Karl Urban as Bones, Simon Pegg as Scotty. I even like that Pegg brings his manic comic sensibility to Scotty. And Zachary Quinto is tremendous. I notice that even Sheldon, on Big Bang Theory, (as quintessential a fictional Trekkie as can be imagined) has come around on Quinto, as well he might. But again, Quinto isn’t really Spock. He’s “Spock.”
There’s one brief moment, in Into Darkness, when Quinto’s Spock accesses the alternate universe where Leonard Nimoy’s Spock lives and they have a chat about Khan. That moment saddened me more than I would have thought possible. It gave me a glimpse of what Star Trek means, the sensibility that Abrams doesn’t seem to understand. It grounded the movie, for one too-brief moment in moral depth and complexity.
The major dramatic question in Abrams’ version of Star Trek goes something like this: should one obey orders? Should one obey the rules? But the dramatic question in (I hate myself for putting it this way) the real Star Trek (sorry) is ‘what is the right thing to do?’ The Prime Directive, which Kirk famously disobeys all the time, is intended as a guideline, not a commandment. Kirk and Spock wrestle throughout the series with questions of the greater good, and how it’s best served. The ‘order-disobeying maverick’ protagonist is a pop culture cliche, a mainstay of, like, every action movie ever. Star Trek deepens that question, digs deep into the complexities and ambiguities of moral choice in a difficult and complicated world.
And Leonard Nimoy slowed things down. My gosh, it was so wonderful, to have a moment’s respite from the endlessly frenetic pace Abrams sets. Of course, Star Trek was an action series, and it had its share of fights and chases and explosions. But it did so with a sense of wonder and awe, at times, and with a genuine appreciation of alien cultures (even though they were often, for budgetary reasons, absurd).
So in this film, there’s a moment where Kirk and Spock and Uhura are on a Klingon planet, surrounded by Klingon ships. And the Klingons looked great; like a cross between old-school Klingons and the Worf TNG reboot. Anyway, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), says to Kirk “you brought me here because I speak Klingon. So let me talk to them.” And he does, and she does, and speaks well, about honor and how the Klingons were violating their own code of honor by harboring Khan. It was a nice Star Trek-y moment. A moment where Klingon culture is respected, and communication between peoples becomes possible. And then, of course, its like Abrams went ‘Boring! We haven’t blown anything up for awhile. Time for a fight scene!’ And Khan shows up, and there’s a huge battle. And a dramatically tense moment turned into just another generically frenetic action sequence. It turned an interesting moment boring. I know, bodies flying around, phaser blasts flashing, stunt men dramatically dying–exciting stuff. But it wasn’t. It was dull.
I’ve often thought that one of the finest episodes in the history of Star Trek, especially TNG, is this one; the episode called Darmok. In this episode, Picard and an alien captain are trapped alone on a dangerous planet. They have to figure out how to survive together, and they have technology allowing the translation of most words, but cultural barriers prevent them from really communicating. And they succeed, with Picard figuring out a myth: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. And he responds by telling the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. What’s wonderful about that episode is just the idea of it, the importance of cross-cultural communication. Just human beings trying to talk to each other. And through stories, myths, they manage to prevent an violent incident, perhaps even a military confrontation, perhaps even a war.
Into Darkness eschews complexity. It basically could be anything; any summer action flick. It’s an action movie pastiche–all borrowings and appropriations. My sister-in-law, after she saw it, texted to ask about one moment in Into Darkness, which she thought she’d seen in something else, but what? I thought Independence Day, but as I finished texting her, I immediately thought of ten other movies that had it too.
And now Abrams is going to make Star Wars too; he’s directing that reboot as well. And it’s not hard to see what he’ll come up with. We’re seeing it now, in the theaters, with all those other big action movies. He’ll do another one, and it’ll be sort of exciting and basically okay.
J. J. Abrams is a bright, talented guy, with technical chops, a knack for staging action sequences, and great timing for comedic moments, especially for throwaway laughs in the middle of action. I didn’t dislike Star Trek Into Darkness, at least not while I was watching it. And I know people who swear by Lost, which he also created. And I liked Super 8, Spielberg homage though it was. But I wish he had something to say. And I wish he’d stop borrowing from other artists who do.