Square Pegs, Round Holes
Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot and reveals of the identity of a key character. You may wish to travel into the future and watch this title before reading.
There are two ways that one can review J.J Abrams’ Star Trek sequel. The first is from the perspective of the general audience for whom it was made and who, frankly, are welcome to it. The second is as a Star Trek movie or, because I sense I’m already losing the casual reader, an installment of the franchise that’s existed in one form or another since 1966. This was a series that often dared to talk up to its audience and be audacious enough to be high-minded and scientifically aware: a state of affairs that alienated people like Abrams, who found the simple action adventure storytelling of Star Wars more to their taste, but kept the voyages of the Starship Enterprise and her successors cerebral for the rest of us.
Abrams’ flashy movie, made for idiots, or at least an imaginary constituency of the same; a crowd who don’t expect and wouldn’t appreciate a flick that demanded any psychological investment from them; is an awkward confection: part post-9/11 morality tale (and you thought we were past all that), part broad comedy and part bleak revenge picture. The golden thread that runs through these disparate themes is that dusty old Hollywood cliché, the importance of family, though in a sign of the times, showing how far we’ve moved since the days we could infer the Enterprise crew were a space brood, it’s said openly here and often. Whoever Abrams imagines is paying to see this thing, he doesn’t think they’re fans of the internal monologue.
Apologists for the 2009 film are a little like people who praise the calligraphic finesse of someone’s handwriting, ignoring that the words on the page are “fuck you”. If movies could leave you spellbound using visual effects alone then surely Abrams’ two Treks would be classics but getting drunk on the impressive digital wizardry only leaves you with the film equivalent of brewer’s droop.
The films featuring the original cast were about something, they didn’t fake it like this knockoff. The decisive, memorable character moments in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a movie that casts a long shadow over this fallow sequel, were earned. Kirk and Spock were given something like interiority by Messrs Shatner and Nimoy. By the time the Vulcan made the ultimate sacrifice, signing off in front of his heartbroken friend, you’d heavily invested in both characters; it remains a gut wrenching moment. Witnessing Abrams’ anodyne reprise of this scene in the borrowed last act of Into Darkness, one’s forced to ask why there’s no swell of emotion, no kick. The reason is that the preceding hour and a half has lacked gravitas; it’s been broad and occasionally juvenile, Pine and Quinto parroting underwritten lines, hamstrung by light-touch direction. The trio of writers responsible for this shithouse are therefore compelled to riff on scenes from a superior movie to get a reaction from an anesthetised audience. The gambit fails. Not only do we resent all this Wrath of Khan grave robbing, we mark the act of desecration and note how it cheapens the original material.
Why, cry the purists, does this generation of treknicians insist on plundering Nicholas Meyer’s movie for material? It’s risk aversion plain and simple. Khan’s superhuman exploits belong to the part of Star Trek that’s familiar to the uninitiated. Like Superman’s General Zod, he’s out there, nested in the interstice between fan and genre tourist. That’s why he’s back in the anglicised form of Benedict Cumberbatch. But ‘batch, a great actor when the material permits, is frustratingly one-dimensional here. His character’s mystifying change of race and nationality aside (I thought this movie was set in a different timeline, not a different universe but then the calendar’s changed too), the talented thesp has little to do but speak in a malevolent tone and with Received Pronunciation. It’s typical of how the movie shortcuts characterisation by literalising traits that he’s been reimagined this way. If he didn’t speak with that menacing drawl and sound like a Cambridge graduate how would we know he was sinister and educated? God help us, we might rely on his words and actions. No chance of that as little he says or does makes any sense in the movie’s oddly convoluted plot.
It’s while we’re unpicking Admiral Robocop’s ill-thought out scheme to protect the Federation from its enemies by tricking the aggressive Empire on its doorstep into attacking it, thereby starting a full scale galactic war, or something, that the attention shifts to other matters. As there’s nothing to see on deck, the hamming of Simon Pegg and Anton Yelchin little better than white noise, there’s time to reflect on how Paramount’s demographilizertm has reworked characters like Uhura and Carol Marcus, turning them into two flavours of eye candy.
The former communications officer is now the feisty mistress of Mr Spock: the most unlikely pairing in the known universe. Much of the running time is spent watching the two bicker; a relationship that may play well with the couples in the audience but has little to do with the characters from the TV show. Marcus, once a molecular biologist, is now a weapons specialist and one prone to taking her clothes off for ticket buying hardons. If these choices reflect something like a regrettable treatment of minor characters then the decision to turn Spock from mild-mannered logician into hate-fuelled street brawler in the movie’s last minutes, suggests that Abrams has crossed the Rubicon, not merely indifferent to Gene Roddenberry’s universe but happy to vandalise it in the name of accessibility.
Star Trek has gone mainstream at some considerable cost. With an eye to snagging the casual viewer this movie boasts a budget its forebears could only dream of, but the result is a series divested of the wit, in both senses of the word, that’s always been its trademark. $185m doesn’t buy you a movie with ideas, nor a memorable score, nor a continuity checker for Benedict Cumberbatch’s hair, nor a dialogue coach that can correct the cast’s propensity to pronounce Khan as “con”. What it will buy is a bad cover of your favourite song.
The commentators that derided the Next Generation movies for their dumbed down, action schlock content while praising Abrams’ reboot were right to cite context in mitigation, but whether it’s an illiterate translation of a great TV show or a wholesale reinvention, there’s something distinctly untrekian about creaky old tropes like gung-ho peacocking, swearing and end to end explosions. That Abrams stages it all with vim is indisputable, but no matter how ornately packaged, cliché is still just that.
The tragedy for those fans of Star Trek, attracted to it precisely because it had half a brain and the temerity to use it, without apology to those who found the philosophical and didactic content a turn off, is that they’ve now been sidelined in favour of an audience that couldn’t care less about Roddenberry’s starchild and will have forgotten this disposable version by next week. This movie will make plenty of space bucks but its weightlessness makes it poorer than any featuring the cast of the original TV series.