Do you love lens flares?
Really, do you just love lens flares a lot?
Because you know who absolutely gets the world’s biggest hard-on from lens flares, is J.J. Abrams.
I don’t know that it’s fair to start up with Abrams’s Star Trek, a massive rejiggering of the megalithic sci-fi franchise, by bitching about lens flares, of all things, but here’s the deal: I don’t love lens flares one goddamn bit, and if the script underlying the film was like Shakespeare’s love child by Ibsen, given elocution lessons by George Bernard Shaw, I really wouldn’t care if it were hidden behind an iron curtain of flippin’ lens flares.
For those who have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, lens flares occur when a light source appears within a camera frame, and the light is reflected and refracted on the surface of the camera lens. It looks like a line of circles radiating out from the light source, or a mirror “copy” of the light that hovers above the image. They’re a little bit trendy right now, and like any cinematic trick, they can be extremely well-used, although it’s my experience that they’re usually not. And Star Trek is lousy with them.
It’s the wrong choice for a film that already has some of the busiest visuals of anything you’re apt to see in a theater this year, but then, J.J. Abrams is a good director for making wrong choices. He’s a television veteran, the creator of Felicity and Alias and Lost, and his aesthetic sensibilities are clearly mired in the small screen paradigm. It’s not quite as bad in this respect as his 2006 feature debut Mission: Impossible III, but Star Trek is clearly the product of a mind that doesn’t comprehend that movie screens are, at a minimum, a couple of dozen feet wide, and that you don’t actually need to make every single shot a close-up. For all its gigantic budget, and the tremendously big CGI effects that all that money purchased – and fair is fair, the visual effects in Star Trek are absolutely spectacular, the best stuff to come out since The Lord of the Rings – it is wildly evident that Abrams does not understand how to direct a motion picture. Star Trek feels like the most expensive made for TV movie in history, with all the claustrophobic framing and erratic pacing that implies.
Here’s the thing about that, though: upon rewatching the ten other Star Trek films in recent weeks, I was startled to realise how very few of them were all that well-made, either. Of the seven (now eight) men who have directed one of the films in the franchise, only Robert Wise and Nicholas Meyer ever showed a clear talent for anything but the most basic filmmaking skills – and Meyer only in his second go-round, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (while Wise, the poor bastard, had to live with the ignominy of directing Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which even in its most kinetic cut is still devoured by its mirthless sobriety). So when I bitch and moan about Abrams and the TV aesthetic of Star Trek, I’m only really saying that he’s keeping the spirit of the series alive.
And that is the one thing that really and truly surprised me about the new film: it does not, in fact, piss all over the legacy of the franchise it’s trying to reboot. Now, in no small part, this is because the film almost doesn’t feel like it’s taking place in the Star Trek universe at all: God knows it doesn’t look like the Star Trek universe. Abrams and his crew (including cinematographer Dan Mindel and production designer Scott Chambliss) have made a shiny, glossy world that is just wickedly busy with little beeping things and fantastically advanced computer screens and bright white plastic surfaces, and that looks in hardly any respect like the four television series or ten movies that preceded it. And the plot, which manages to have its cake and eat it by working a complete do-over of the series canon while giving it a perfectly comprehensible (for Star Trek) in-continuity explanation.
I kind of wish he’d just gone for a complete reboot, and to hell with the previous material. It’s the urgent need to cater to everybody that results in some of the biggest problems in Star Trek beginning with its frankly stupid time travel plot. Not that frankly stupid plots – particularly those involving time travel – are alien to the series, but this might well be the most hackish storyline in any of the films. Which, hey, it was written by two hacks: Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, who also gave the world The Island, M:i:III and, most importantly for our present needs, Transformers. Like that rancid Michael Bay misfire, Star Trek largely eschews niceties like character or story in favor of motivating as many explosion-heavy action scenes as can possibly be arranged. The only thing that saves the writers in this case is that they have a nice package set of characters already created, so all they have to do is plug them into their soulless effects demo without fucking them up.
Largely, they don’t fuck it up. The only exception, and it is massively damaging exception, is the central figure of James T. Kirk, the greatest delivery system in history for that thick slab of Canadian ham William Shatner, here played as a twentysomething by Chris Pine, an untalented but pretty young man. Now, in the original, Kirk was a charming rake-hell, ingenious and thoughtful, but still a cowboy at heart. In the restart, Kirk is a goddamn asshole. This is most easily displayed in a scene that dramatises the famous Kobayashi Maru incident much beloved in Star Trek lore. The story goes that Kirk won an unwinnable scenario at Starfleet Academy by reprogramming it. When we hear this story for the first time, it gives us the image of young Kirk as a thoughtful, driven young man, clever and creative. When we see it in Abrams’s Star Trek, it’s after Kirk has already gamed the program, and he chews noisily on an apple insulting those around him and the very notion of academia as he mugs like the giant, pustulous dick that he is.
Kirk as a dick doesn’t just harm the movie as a Star Trek property; it hurts it as a movie, because it makes the heroic protagonist as unendurable as he could possibly be (but then, Abrams has a thing for making awful men heroic protagonists; see also Lost’s Jack Shepherd, one of the most horrid jackasses in television history). Fortunately, most of the other characters are much more interesting: the famous half-human, half-Vulcan Spock, torn between emotion and cold reason, is here played by Zachary Quinto in a forthright impersonation of Leonard Nimoy, and is perhaps the only character who is exactly like he was in the original series. This is actually something of a misstep, as he stands apart from the rest of the cast for that reason; but when you have someone as interesting as Spock, you don’t fuck with it. Karl Urban, as cynical doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and Simon Pegg as the enthusiastic engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, both play variations on the original characters that drift neither into parody nor slavish imitation, and are probably the finest creations of both writing and acting on the film. Everyone else, as they always were, are boring and given nothing to do, although I was really put off by the cartoon version of Ensign Chekov, played for once by an actual Russina, Anton Yelchin, whose character is nothing but one long dialogue joke, and whom, if this were a different sci-fi reboot, would be a favorite candidate for getting shoved out an airlock by Mary McDonnell.
So much for the characters. As for the movie that contains them, it’s pretty much par for the summer course, although not quite as much so as last week’s exceedingly bland X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And this is where I get myself into trouble. Being literate and connected to the internet, I am aware of the massive consensus that this is a tremendously fun summer action epic, and I do not understand whatsoever how anyone has arrived at this conclusion (then again, I didn’t understand in 2007 how anyone could think that Transformers was anything else than a platter of suck). Where other people see a great thrill-ride adventure that doesn’t let up, I see visually messy battle sequences that are, like the ones in every other goddamn tentpole movie, far too loud for anyone’s possible good, unengaging characters that are mostly interesting because they remind me characters from this pulpy TV show I love being forced through a plot hardly worthy of the name, and a magazine-slick aesthetic that looks snazzy in a way that reflects not at all on the other content of the picture. It is, in other words, a summer movie comme une autre, although one with tremendously high-quality effects. And after The Two Towers, I stopped grading films on a curve because of their effects. Whatever the case, I find its allegedly thrilling thrills to be completely routine, and only the relative absence of high-profile space adventures in recent years – the last one I can recall offhand is Serenity, from all the way back in 2005 (a film that, incidentally, betters Abrams’s Star Trek in nearly every single respect I can think of) – makes this seem any more exciting than a slice of white bread with a pat of margarine. Just because a film is noisy, colorful and fast does not ipso facto mean that it is also a rollicking entertainment, and I’m especially peeved at those critics who praise this film for shedding the admittedly naïve philosophical posturing that has always been a franchise trademark. Sure, Gene Roddenberry’s childlike humanism might have played it a bit silly from time to time, but I’d much rather have a movie that fails to be smart than a movie that revels in being stupid.
Of course, it’s hardly the worst Star Trek film, a title that will remain wholly uncontested as long as copies of The Final Frontier still exist. It’s squarely in the middle of the eleven films; not so wholly useless as Insurrection, the direction not as outrageously crude as in Generations, and it has far more life than the arid The Motion Picture. Hell, even though it takes place in an alternate universe to the rest of the series, it still doesn’t do such outrageous things to continuity as Nemesis.
But then again, it’s hardly a Star Trek film at all; for Star Trek films are never this slick and rarely this shallow. Take out the character names and the behavior of the pointy-eared fella in the blue shirt, and you have a science fiction film that nobody would ever recognise. It might have been the better for it, it’s hard to say. Certainly, anything that kept J.J. Abrams from developing an interest in sitting in the director’s chair would have been for the absolute benefit of the final product.
Look, I am perfectly aware that I am pissing in the wind. Star Trek is a for-real critical smash by now, and it’s certain to be the summer movie that everybody absolutely loves. And there are, yes, things I responded to the way I was supposed to: Urban and Pegg’s performances are perfect, it’s absolutely swell to see that old-school ’60s/’70s “in the future, everything will be white plastic” aesthetic back on the big screen, Michael Giacchino’s score is typically excellent, though not as creative as his best work. But I am not so easily pleased by flashing lights and moving shapes that I’m willing to call a movie “thrilling” just because it is kinetic. The non-stop pyrotechnics in Star Trek honestly bored me a little bit. Not The Search for Spock boring, but frankly, once you’ve seen one digitally-animated spaceship blow another one to hell, you’ve pretty much seen them all.