I’ve seen the latest installment of the Star Trek franchise and, to my surprise, I found it quite enjoyable. It’s a good movie. Not a great movie, but a good movie. Star Trek is the hot thing again. But what’s most important to me is that it shows signs that J.J. Abrams and his producers might be taking Star Trek a bit more seriously, and trying to make the franchise mean something more than dollar signs.
For the most part, Into Darkness is a typical summer action blockbuster that plays it safe and hits all the right money-making notes. It’s good old-fashioned, adrenaline-invoking, explosion-laden fun. It’s an enjoyable movie, and even more enjoyable if you check your brain at the door and don’t question the numerous things that just don’t hold up to logical scrutiny (the same method was required to get the most enjoyment out of the first movie). But, unlike its predecessor, Into Darkness goes a little further in trying to make this new generation of Star Trek more solidly connected to the wonderful material that made this franchise worth rebooting in the first place. Most of all, and I think this is key, there are signs that Abrams and his cohorts took some of their past criticisms to heart, and actually tried to add story elements that went beyond the pretty graphics and constant action.
I like the Star Trek franchise…well “like” may not be a good enough word; perhaps “venerate” is more accurate, but still inadequate. Let’s just say that I’m quite familiar with Star Trek lore going all the way back to the original 60s pilot episode, and I credit the series with spurring my interest in engineering, science, and science fiction. So I’m a tough, but fair, critic when it comes to new material in the franchise.
One of my favorite aspects of Star Trek was that, although it featured a futuristic military organization, it wasn’t really about the military. It was about exploration; it was about pushing and exceeding the boundaries of the human experience. It was about asking tough moral questions and painting a vision of a fantastic future that made our present seem juvenile and petty. Gene Roddenberry created an egalitarian and peaceful future Earth in a time when the real Earth was mired in racism, sexism, poverty, and war. Star Trek meant something. It stood for something. It told stories that mattered, and it never dumbed down for anybody.
The Abrams version of Star Trek has eschewed much of that philosophy, and instead Abrams (who admits he was never a fan of the franchise’s various series and movies) capitalized on the circumstances of Starfleet as a peaceful-but-militaristic-when-it-has-to-be entity. Abrams used the military aspect as a good reason to create pretty explosions and grand fight scenes in space. I can’t blame Abrams for that; this method is bankable, and his job is to sell tickets after all. But there was much anger and consternation among the longtime Trek fans. They felt that Abrams didn’t “get” Star Trek; they believed he’d made a shallow, meaningless movie that was aimed at the lowest common denominator and only good for cheap thrills. Add to that the hasty ending of the first movie, and Kirk’s hurried promotion to captain after literally just graduating from the academy, and critics had plenty of justification for saying the movie was short on artistic ambition. The movie was fun, but it had little regard for the art of storytelling. It was cinematic junk food; popular, easy, and profitable…but ultimately unhealthy and a poor substitute for more artisanal fare.
But there’s something different about the sequel. It has a more mature prevailing theme: Starfleet can’t be a ruthless military organization. That’s not what it was founded on, and it’s not the right direction for its future. It’s the great realization that Kirk comes to during the course of the film, and it’s the main theme of his speech at the end of the movie. It’s all very “meta”, because it’s almost like the movie is talking to itself; Star Trek films can’t be all explosions and phaser fights and horrible, horrible lens flare. It has to be something more than that. I think Abrams realized this, and he tried to change. It didn’t quite work out this time, but there’s definitely effort.
Right before Into Darkness was released, Abrams had an interview with the L.A. Times, in which he said:
“There was never going to be any shortage of spectacle, but the thing is, spectacle is irrelevant. The big, giant special-effects stuff, as much fun as it is and as cool as it can be in a movie, it never matters if you’re not loving, caring, relating to the dynamics of the characters that are in that spectacle.”
That’s exactly want you want any director to say, especially one charged with one of the most beloved and influential franchises in history. And Into Darkness really does try to get past the spectacle. It is emotional in ways that are quite effective, and there are glimpses of a story that could be there in the future — the story of an Enterprise whose primary mission is to explore, not make things explode.
And the character development is there. Kirk faces tremendous personal questions after Admiral Pike, the closest thing he has to a father, admonishes him for being reckless and thinking that he’s hot shit. Pike tells Kirk the truth; he’s been the beneficiary of “blind luck” and he’s just not ready to be a captain. That hasty promotion at the end of the first movie proves to be as foolhardy as many fans thought it was. Spock also goes through a bit of transformation as he realizes how strong of a friendship he actually has with Kirk, and for the first time in this reboot we truly see the legendary “bromance” that existed long before bromances were even a thing.
This stuff is great, but it relies heavily on what came before it; it relies on the decades of lore and emotional investment that people have with these characters because, frankly, Abrams isn’t a good enough director and Lindelof isn’t a good enough screenwriter to create that kind of character bond on their own in a two-hour movie. Therein lies the problem, because it’s a battle of two competing goals: to implement J.J’s vision while staying true to the franchise’s ideals. In that aforementioned LA Times article, Abrams also said:
“I was never a fan of “Star Trek,” […] I knew that when we started doing work on the first movie, we needed to come up with a way that this wasn’t just a “Star Trek” movie, meaning we couldn’t make it for fans of “Star Trek.” I’m not saying it might not have been better if that had been the case, but I couldn’t do that. It would have been disingenuous.”
This is where Abrams’ lack of connection with the source material really shows. It’s great that Abrams realizes that the movie needs to be more than just spectacle, but he doesn’t have the background to know what really works for this franchise and these characters because he doesn’t “get” what makes Star Trek special. This is ironic because a lot of the movie’s best scenes rely heavily upon knowledge of the franchise lore since there’s no on-screen explanation to help the uninitiated. There’s a tribble in this movie, and there’s no explanation of what it is. You have to be a fan of the show to get that. The movie’s antagonist has much more weight and effect if you get the references and hints that are never explained in the movie itself. Even the most emotional moment between Kirk and Spock only really hits home if you know the history of that scene, and how poetically different it is in this version. Into Darkness succeeds most when it borrows from what came before it, but Abrams doesn’t always do it effectively. I suspect his co-producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are the ones really responsible for keeping this movie true to its roots, or as true as it can be while still implementing Abrams’ vision.
The movie ends with the famous speech that preceded the opening credits of each episode of the original Star Trek series and The Next Generation.
“These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
I sincerely hope that the creative team behind the third rebooted Trek movie take these words to heart, and give us something bolder, more inspirational, and more enterprising.