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To Boldly Flunk

by Ross Douthat

A review of Star Trek: Into Darkness

I fear that I may no longer be entirely rational on the subject of J. J. Abrams, whose second Star Trek movie just bowed into theaters. For a long time I’ve tried to give Abrams the benefit of the doubt: He’s a filmmaker of obvious talent, and his attempts to evoke the Spielberg-Lucas-Zemeckis golden age of pop blockbusters are admirable in their ambition even when the execution disappoints. Dip into the archives of this magazine and you’ll find me saying semi-nice things about his cinematic efforts, employing phrases like “intermittently winning” and “half-succeeds” and “at times it’s very good” to describe such movies as Super 8 and his first go-round with the Trek universe.

But somehow the news that he’s been entrusted the first of the looming post–George Lucas Star Wars movies — meaning that both of the science-fiction lodestars of my youth will be getting the Abrams treatment in swift succession — has turned me against him with a vengeance. I don’t think Star Trek: Into Darkness is quite as bad as it seemed while I was watching: Friends I trust, both Trekkers and layfolk, were entertained enough by the pace and cast and spectacle to forgive its many flaws. But those flaws were all I that could see — not only as weaknesses in the film itself, but as illustrations of everything that’s wrong with the Abrams way of moviemaking.

Start with the plot, which has a good hook: A traitor within Starfleet, played by the great Benedict Cumberbatch (best known as the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes), commits two brazen acts of terrorism and then flees into Klingon territory, where the Enterprise can’t follow without risking interstellar war.

The trouble is that Abrams almost always has a good hook: It’s what comes afterward that’s the problem, especially when he’s working (as he is here) with the superstar writer Damon Lindelof, who helped make the Abrams-produced Lost so captivating at the beginning and then so awfully disappointing at the end. The Abrams-Lindelof style is all momentum and no plan: You imagine them sitting together, saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if this, and then that, and then this, and we’ll throw in a twist here, and won’t people think it’s mysterious if we show them this other thing,” and somehow never pausing to reflect on where any of it is actually going, or whether it all adds up.

In this case, the mission to hunt down Cumberbatch’s terrorist — who goes by the nom de guerre John Harrison, but who’s actually a rather famous Trek antagonist — ultimately turns into a three-way battle of wits between Chris Pine’s young Captain Kirk, his Starfleet superior Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), and their dangerous quarry. But it’s a battle of wits between the witless, in which nobody’s behavior makes a lick of sense: The bad guy and the admiral both have wheels-within-wheels plots going, but when they’re explained they seem idiotic, and Kirk just makes decisions from the gut and watches all of them go wrong.

All of this would be more forgivable if this were merely a giddy action movie set in the kind of campy, essentially weightless universe that some iterations of Star Trek have served up. But Abrams isn’t content with giddiness: He wants to evoke the earnest, humanist side of Trek, which is why there are echoes of 9/11 and pauses in the action where the characters debate the Prime Directive and just-war theory.

The problem is that the earnestness is impossible to take seriously in a movie whose Starfleet is run like a high-school prom committee rather than a professional military organization, whose pseudo-scientific rules (the geeky glory of the Trek universe, in other contexts) are suspended whenever the writers feel like it, and whose finale asks us to care more about the outcome of a fistfight than the deaths of tens of thousands of San Franciscans a few blocks away.

As the critic Matt Zoller Seitz put it, “Abrams makes the 23rd century look like a place of actions and consequences, in which humans and other creatures might actually live, think, and feel, in a world in which a fall of more than ten feet could break a leg, lava can melt flesh, and people who are dead stay dead. But he also tells stories in which rules — Starfleet tactical procedures, the Prime Directive, gravity — have no narrative weight.” The whole thing, Seitz concludes, has “a ‘playground storytelling’ sensibility: ‘Lie down, you’re dead. Never mind, you’re alive again — now fight!’”

This sensibility extends to a climactic death scene, which deliberately evokes one of the most famous moments in the Star Trek movies in order to . . . do absolutely nothing interesting except set up the aforementioned fistfight. And that cheap, disposable evocation of a better scene in a far better movie cuts to the heart of Abrams’s failings as a director.

The filmmakers he clearly idolizes — the George Lucas who made Star Wars, the Spielberg of E.T. and Indiana Jones — were shameless borrowers, repurposers, mimics, and pastiche artists themselves. But they borrowed and repurposed in order to show us something interesting and new. Indiana Jones was a Saturday-morning serial at heart, but it was better than its source material; Star Wars ripped off everything and everyone from Flash Gordon to Leni Riefenstahl, but if you were a kid in 1977 you’d never seen anything like it.

Abrams, though, has burned through hundreds of millions of dollars and shown us nothing that we haven’t already seen. What’s good about his movies is usually borrowed directly from his idols — plus more expensive and realistic effects shots, of course, but those are available in a host of rival blockbusters. What’s bad is the kind of incompetent storytelling that drags down Into Darkness, and that leaves me with nothing but foreboding about what will happen when he turns from the Federation and the Klingon Empire to events in a galaxy far, far away.

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