This may seem a little out of left field, but I decided to take this week to write about something that I didn’t realize I had a lot to say about, and that’s the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie reboots. I’ll be breaking down both movies he directed, and may fit in Beyond as well. Here’s part 1:
A few years ago, after the release of the first trailer of Star Trek: Beyond, I was watching a video discussion about the movie when a person in the video made a particularly monstrous argument that Star Trek as a property was dying. That the actual fans of the original Trek were dying off, that these new films were necessary to create a new fan base, and that old fans should quit whining because these movies are vital to Star Trek’s survival. Now, technically speaking (podcast plug), we’re all dying, so I guess the argument is true in that regard. But as somebody who found the original series by watching TV Land in the mid-2000’s, and in an era where literally every episode of the franchise is available to watch via streaming, it’s a particularly absurd argument to make in my mind. However, as sure as the sun will come up tomorrow, there will always be reboots of franchises with existing fan bases, so everything is getting redone.
Let’s talk about whining, shall we? Whenever a reboot gets released of a product that was made before, there are certain gripes that are waved away as “whining” because this is a new product that is striving for a different direction. I think that there’s a balance between the two sides here. I think too many times fans of the original thing come to a remake with an idea in their head of what the product should be like, and when that isn’t totally validated, there’s a lot of anger (The Star Wars sequel trilogy is shaping up to be a master class in this). However, criticism of a product, regardless of fandom affiliation, shouldn’t always be construed as whining. Though I will admit that you have to work a little harder making your points so that your work doesn’t come across as the whining of a fanboy, most levelheaded criticism should be accepted. Responding to a critique of something for not capturing what you like about a property with, “Well, you’re dying anyway, so eff off,” isn’t exactly the best defense of something.
So, as a fan of Star Trek, I want to make a few things clear before we get into this deep dive. The first is that I do not have deep, seething rage for these new movies. In fact, there’s a bunch of stuff I really love about them. But I think that there are certain elements of these movies that are exceedingly problematic, and indicative of the way that Hollywood blockbusters have handled reboots in the nine years since this movie has been released. The second is a fundamental rule that I will follow for these reviews: I will not approach these movies with what I consider to be “Capital-T True Star Trek”. There are a couple exceptions, of course, but I will explain them along the way.
We clear? Good. Let’s get started.
I think J.J. Abrams is one of the most frustrating filmmakers working today, for a number of reasons. First of all, I get frustrated that he’s been anointed the “New Spielberg” moniker when A: he doesn’t have the same deft storytelling ability Spielberg had when he was the same age and B: it’s a useless term to throw around because there’s never going to be anybody like Spielberg again. But what frustrates me the most is that he is, without a doubt, one of the most gifted and talented people working on these big budget projects. It’s just that he doesn’t have any storytelling discipline.
I’ll get into why a little bit later, but let’s talk about something that’s connected to his brand of filmmaking, and that’s essence. Last year, Film Crit Hulk came out with an article where he discussed a movie’s “essence” versus its actual storytelling. By his definition, “essence” is described as the personality of the film, the textural and aesthetic things that are the first parts of a film we’re exposed to upon viewing. He argues that most big films now are geared more towards their essence than the actual stories they tell (Marvel movies occasionally fall into this trap), which creates movies that look good, are well made, but are lacking when it comes to impactful storytelling moments. I tend to agree with this sentiment, but I want to take it in a little different direction in terms of these reboots. I think there’s both a very interesting but ultimately damaging mentality that goes into adapting these properties, and that is the “essence” mentality. I’ll describe it like this: have you ever seen Family Feud? On the show, you’re given a question that requires an answer in list form, such as “Name a thing that we eat, but doesn’t eat us.” Now, behind the scenes, a survey has been administered to a group of people who were given the same question. Your job as a contestant is to come up with the top 5 answers that the survey lists. Does that make sense? I hope so.
That’s the way J.J. Abram’s Star Trek approaches its source material.
What we have is a movie that is asked, “What is Star Trek?” and the movie answers it in list form. Star Trek is…Kirk, Spock, and Bones, Star Trek is…The Enterprise, Star Trek is…“Live Long and Prosper,” Star Trek is…”I’m giving you all she’s got, captain!” Star Trek is…Uhura. The final product of this is a bunch of elements that all make up what the movie thinks is Star Trek, and then it just connects the dots to each.
But let’s make something clear here: I really like the 2009 Star Trek; I liked it a lot when it came out. Why is this? Because of the “essence” described above. The cast is wonderful, and each of the actors inhabit an old character in a way that makes it their own. The ship and location designs are really fun and detailed, but still carry a little throwback to the original series. The movie is light and breezy, and quite funny when it wants to be. This is why I say that Abrams is such a frustrating filmmaker, because he is so good at crafting the texture of the movies but lacks any kind of discipline story-wise. Now, why do I say this?
I honestly think that the opening sequence of Star Trek is some of the best work that Abrams has done in his movies. It’s tight, tense, and we’re thrown right into the middle of action in a world that we barely understand or know about, with the final moments being pretty heart wrenching. In it, James Kirk’s father decides to sacrifice himself and his ship, The Kelvin, to save the lives of everyone on board from a Romulan threat, including his wife and newborn son. It’s an emotionally touching conclusion to basically the teaser of the movie. Now, story-wise, this should serve as a thesis statement of sorts for the film itself, one that describes the overall theme of the movie.
But it doesn’t really come back to it.
No, I’m not saying that Kirk isn’t driven by his father’s death throughout the film, or that it isn’t reinforced enough. What I am saying is that there’s a very interesting theme to be derived from the opening that Abrams’ movie sets up but never follows up on. It’s the theme of taking responsibility as the captain, and understanding the sacrifices and pressure that comes with it. What we get from the story from that point on is…not that theme. Kirk is brash and sometimes irresponsible, yes, but he doesn’t really have a character arc in the film. The movie does this weird thing where it tries to make us think that what he’s doing is wrong and irresponsible, but then turns around and says that he was right the entire time.
Take, for example, the Kobiashi Maru test. It’s a moment that endears Kirk to the audience, since he’s sticking it to the man (“The Man” being Spock in this situation). But then the movie turns around and attempts to tell us that, in actuality, Kirk wasn’t in the right and that he needs to learn how to be a good captain. He’s suspended and has to sneak onto the Enterprise during the red alert, and is constantly told that he was acting too brash and too irresponsibly. For most of the middle of the movie, the main source of conflict is not that Kirk makes a mistake, it’s that nobody will listen to him, when in fact he’s right the whole entire time. The only person to truly have a character arc in the movie is Spock, but even that one is muddled. This is because of, again, a lack of storytelling discipline.
So there are a bunch of Romulans from the future that decide, in an act of revenge against Future Spock, to destroy Vulcan. This destruction and the murder of Spock’s Mother causes him great emotional pain, and on top of that, he’s supposed to captain the Enterprise during a time of crisis. After Kirk is shot off the ship after the failure of his mutiny, Future Spock tells Kirk that Regular Spock is emotionally compromised. In the middle of this sequence in the film, we cut back to Bones, who drags Spock aside to give him a good talking to. In this scene, Spock does not look or act emotionally compromised. He is not jittery, he is actually sarcastic and kind of playful. How are we supposed to believe what Future Spock has just told us during the previous scene? Look, I know that people aren’t always showing grand emotion in real life and can have moments of levity in times of crisis, but Spock’s apparent arc in this movie is that he needs to contend with his emotions. Movies are like essays about your characters, if you are not constantly reinforcing what you’re trying to say thematically about your characters, why is it there? Why do you put a scene where Spock is sarcastic and playful sandwiched in between scenes where Future Spock says, “No really guys, I’m quite upset”? What does it really say about these characters if the story is constantly contradicting itself?
What I’m illustrating is not just a problem in this movie, but also the main problem in many of Abrams’ other films. All of the horror elements in Super 8 where the alien brutally murders people (including an attempted murder of one of our main characters) are brushed aside with a few shrugs in order to get a “touching” ET homage at the end. The Force Awakens jumps around and says, “Remember when…” so much that it forgets to say anything of substance about its characters. What even is the driving theme of Mission: Impossible 3, anyway? It would be annoying if Abrams’ wasn’t so goddang good at almost everything else. His movies are almost always cast beautifully, he has a strong sense of movement and pace, when he wants to he can craft emotional moments that are very impactful, but it just seems like he and his core group of writers have very little interest in the thread of the actual story itself. He’s so enthralled by the “how” of a movie that he forgets about the “why” part.
And again, texturally, Star Trek is a wonderful movie. But when it’s watched multiple times, everything starts to break down. After the initial flash has worn off, you start seeing a plot that is motivated more by coincidence than cause and effect. Kirk never really faces punishment for cheating on his test, because the Romulans just happened to attack at that point. He’s shot off the Enterprise and just so happens to fall on the same planet Future Spock is on so that he can get back to the ship. These are story decisions that are made out of convenience moreso than actual decisions that heighten the conflict of the movie. It shows impatience when it comes to characterization. Kirk has to learn stuff now. Spock has to figure it out now. If we show continued heightened interpersonal conflict, that’d get boring, and this isn’t another one of those boring Star Trek movies!
The problem is that all of this is a smoke screen. The “essence” brand of rebooting a franchise is a very shallow pool that you may be able to mine once, but it’s slim pickings if you try to do it again. It’s a bad magic trick that, once it’s done once, you can’t do it again.
But they really tried to do that, didn’t they?
This article was written by Samuel Becker: writer for hire, Tek5 Filmscore Critic, and general hypocrite.