When I accompanied my friends to see Star Trek Into Darkness last Friday, I knew it was against my better judgment. I grew up watching the 1979 motion picture, The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, and the later films as they reached theatres. Part of my family’s Sunday ritual was to sit down and watch that week’s episode of The Next Generation. When Deep Space Nine aired, we added that series to our retinue as well, and I followed Voyager through the bulk of its seven-season run.
Needless to say, I am fond of the classic Star Trek and its spin-offs. Despite its sometimes rough finish, it remained some of the most thought-provoking science fiction in film and television for over three decades. J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot did nothing for me, as I saw none of the original spirit. I did not expect to enjoy the sequel. I did expect a mediocre film that would provide a measure of jaded amusement for someone whose only real interest in the movie was to dissect it. I thought that I was now inured to the sort of tedium I expected on account of the first film.
I was wrong.
Star Trek Into Darkness is the first movie I have ever seen that made me sick to my stomach. I am uncertain of what to say about it. Like its predecessor, it jettisons the essence of Star Trek in favor of elaborate action set-pieces, flaccid sex appeal, and hackneyed melodrama. Also gone is any remnant of Rodenberry’s humanism and compassion for sapient life. Our protagonists are despicable, ignorant children. Our villain is a bestial, bleached ghost of his former self. The remainder of the four hundred Starfleet officers staffing the Enterprise amount to nothing more than obstacles for our undeserving heroes—tumbling to their deaths as Kirk dodges their carcasses in pursuit of his vainglorious destiny.
The worst part about the unsung massacre of the Enterprise crew is that their sacrifice carries no meaning. The film hardly acknowledges their passing, except as props. Their death carries no emotional or narrative weight. Moreover, it would appear the only reason that so many of these red-shirted officers had to die was the fact that the designer of Abrams’ Enterprise is a complete and utter imbecile.
Forget mere lack of intelligence—it takes a special sort of stupidity to design a vessel like this new Enterprise. Its shields don’t work. The transporters can be thwarted by doing the Harlem shake. And its interior is riddled with deep, uncovered chasms whose only purpose could be to squash the entire crew into Klingon blood-wine in the inevitable event this tinfoil death-trap loses its artificial gravity. I imagine the only justice for this ingenious simpleton could be a firing squad comprising Werner Von Braun, Freeman Dyson, and every other notable physicist and engineer of the 20th Century. Starfleet is fortunate that they avoided a war with the Klingons: a cabal of escaped organ grinder’s monkeys in a flotilla of space-borne soup cans would show better judgment than Abrams’ Federation.
Yet, many people still praise this film, as they do with Abrams’ first gutting of the franchise. So often, when I present my (and many other Star Trek fans’) criticism to people, they brush them aside. “It’s still a fun action movie,” they say, “They needed to make Star Trek appeal to a mass audience. Abrams is taking the series in a new direction, and they’re making it for everybody, not just fans.”
While I understand that film criticism involves no small element of taste, this argument tires me. The fact that Abrams’ films are trying to be “fun action movies”—philosophy, morality, or genuine political commentary be damned!—is exactly my problem. Star Trek: The Original Series was frequently campy and rough around the edges, but it had humanity, charm and thoughtfulness. Its ability to place ethical and political matters in perspective, as well as its embracing of diversity in an era riddled with bigotry, are what gave Star Trek its appeal in the first place. Any “new direction” the series takes cannot call itself Star Trek if it abandons that core.
Moreover, for a film that’s supposed to be for “fans of movies, not fans of Star Trek,” as Abrams claims it to be, it relies on the original’s legacy to a surprising extent. Benedict Cumberbatch over-acts the reveal that his character is actually Khan Noonien Sing, of Wrath of Khan fame. I do not understand how people unfamiliar with Star Trek are supposed to care about this fact. Abrams inserts a completely unnecessary Leonard Nimoy cameo which affects the plot in no way whatsoever. While the story initially takes an intriguing turn towards the Enterprise working with Khan to defeat a rogue Starfleet admiral, the whole thing dives into the gutter when Khan betrays Kirk and company. From then on, the film amounts to nothing more than a clumsy parody of The Wrath of Khan. In aping the older Star Trek’s greatness, the movie’s hollowness stands out even more.
Between these irritating winks and nods to fans of the original and Abrams’ shoddy cinematography, one gets the impression that no one behind the film actually believes in the story they’re trying to tell. If Abrams did, he wouldn’t feel the need to bury his actors in a blinding mass of lens flares, or take every opportunity to orbit his CGI props, or move the camera just because he can. Abrams shoots films in the way a hyperactive seven-year-old plays with action figures: he smashes his toys together, leaping and circling them all the while, intoxicated with how cool the set-up is. Unfortunately, this means he couldn’t tell a story to save his life.
Of course, there is the claim that this approach is what’s needed to make Star Trek appeal to a mass audience. This, of course is nonsense. I believe Gene Roddenberry himself put it best:
We did not accept the myth that the television audience has an infantile mind. We had an idea, and we had a premise, and we still believe that. As a matter of fact we decided to risk the whole show on that premise. We believed that the often ridiculed mass audience is sick of this world's petty nationalism and all its old ways and old hatreds, and that people are not only willing but anxious to think beyond most petty beliefs that have for so long kept mankind divided. So you see that the formula, the magic ingredient that many people keep seeking and many of them keep missing is really not in Star Trek. It is in the audience. There is an intelligent life form out on the other side of that television too.
This is where Abrams’ Trek reboot fails. It does not assume an intelligent life form is watching the silver screen. It assumes that it plays to a mob driven by base and shallow passions, distracting them with pretty lights and loud noises while paying lip service to the show’s legacy, so that older fans might be mollified.
Popular rebuffs to criticisms of Abrams’ films disguise accusations of elitism. People dismiss the complaints of long-standing Star Trek fans and other critics because they fear that a film true to Star Trek’s heritage would be an inscrutable mess of technobabble, understood only by neckbeards and eggheads. In short, they think it wouldn’t be a movie for them. This is not true. Star Trek is for everyone. It has always been for everyone. Not everyone likes or appreciates it, nor do they have to. But that does not change the fact that its themes are ones with universal appeal, and its basic approach has always been to deliver them in a way that is at once thoughtful and entertaining. Star Trek has managed to appeal to a wide audience and maintain an intelligent theme in the past. Abrams’ Trek fails to do so.
Oddly enough, Abrams’ failure is due to a kind of elitism on his own part. The attitude is apparent in the events of Star Trek Into Darkness itself. What is the crew of the Enterprise, if not the fodder of the unwashed masses, perishing like lemmings so that we might canonize our celebrated heroes? What is elitism, if not the glorification of an undeserving few atop an altar borne by the backs of everyone else? And if you found yourself transported to Abrams’ Star Trek universe, just where would you stand in his cinematic pecking order?