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A Pretty Good Robot
By: Jesse Hassenger
May 29, 2013
A Pretty Good Robot
Not everyone's choice for the captain's chair.

To the extent that it makes any sense to pass off some critical notices and anecdotal reactions as a cultural consensus, Star Trek Into Darkness is, by most standards, a well-liked movie. It has a Tomatometer rating well above eighty percent. Its Metacritic score stands at a respectable 72. It will gross over $200 million in this country alone, and opening-night audiences polled by the mysterious and faintly idiotic (but widely cited) firm CinemaScore awarded the movie a grade of “A.” Even by the bizarre grade-grubbing CinemaScore metrics that consider a “B” lukewarm and nothing below an “A-” particularly positive, an “A” is, you know, pretty good. But thanks to the internet, we need not turn to audiences or professional film critics for reactions to a big movie; there are plenty of general culture writers, Trek fans, and commenters willing to explain exactly what’s wrong with Star Trek Into Darkness.

Obviously, there’s nothing inherently bad about that sentiment. There are any number of problems a reasonable person could have with either of the new Star Trek movies, and I say this as a fan of both movies who nonetheless shares some of those problems — and that’s before getting to the obvious point that there are any number of problems any reasonable person could have with just about any movie, because as much as I dislike nitpicky, petty, or otherwise asinine film criticism, they are just movies, and reactions to them are bound to be as varied and idiosyncratic as members of their audiences.

But I have noticed that those who do dislike the J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek tend to go pretty hard on Abrams himself. Given decades of auteur theory, again, this is understandable — but also, to my mind, a little misguided given the arena Abrams plays in (and, for that matter, who he plays with). In the past few weeks, I’ve read plenty about Abrams (and his Bad Robot production company in general, but Abrams in particular) being a shameless Spielberg-worshipping, Spielberg-imitating corporate tool who doesn’t really love Star Trek, cuts too fast, belongs on TV, and couldn’t come up with an original idea of he tried; basically, an impersonal Michael Bay, or a Brett Ratner with slightly better taste.

To some extent, this is true: if one were to sort filmmakers of today into species, Abrams does more or less belong to the same family as Bay and Ratner, along with Jon Favreau and maybe Bryan Singer, among others. They’re the franchise caretakers. Their interests and personalities may well run through their films, but most of those films are also large, mass-audience undertakings. They are, true to the Abrams rep, more or less chasing the Spielberg/Lucas dream of well-mounted, for-most-ages, action-fantasy-sci-fi-mythmaking. Abrams’ filmography bears that out better than most: by 2015, his big-screen resume will consist of three (3) TV adaptations (Mission: Impossible III and the two Treks), two of which were sequels; one (1) sequel to a beloved long-running franchise (he has the Star Wars: Episode VII job); and one (1) quasi-original property that pays extended homage to the early work of Steven Spielberg (Super 8). It’s telling, I think, that Spielberg himself has largely abandoned this kind of popular mythmaking; in the second half of his career, even when Spielberg goes big, he riffs on his favorite themes in a darker, less reassuring mode (A.I., Minority Report, War of the Worlds).

So no, Abrams is not Spielberg. He doesn’t have the innate visual or storytelling sense. Few filmmakers do. But compare Abrams to his actual peers, not his hero slash mentor. He has a more distinct visual style (lens flares, rich colors, epic pans) than any of them except Michael Bay, and his action sequences are a lot more coherent than Bay’s. (Bay needs to knock over buildings to get at the level of superficial excitement Abrams can generate with a few shots of people running down corridors.) He seems to have real affection for the characters in his movies, in stark contrast to Bay’s alternating sneers and hero worship, or Ratner’s jocularity masking indifference. And he seems to actually care about dialogue — mostly punchy, wisecracky dialogue in the vein of Joss Whedon, although Super 8 goes further with some of the funniest kid interactions this side of Freaks and Geeks.

Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t quite so fresh in its own pop-culture re-appropriations. Without getting into heavy spoilers, it borrows heavily from the franchise’s past, particularly the beloved 1982 feature Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (also a touchpoint for the less successful Star Trek: Nemesis). Some of the homage is handled with cleverness, and I don’t doubt that Darkness steals consciously and with great affection for its source material. But given the excellent cast and production values at Bad Robot’s disposal, I do hope the third Star Trek movie goes off on its own, without actually remaking bits of other episodes or movies. The alternate-timeline stuff in the 2009 Star Trek does afford some degree of same-but-different homage, and I can certainly accept that, but it also allows utter creative freedom with the franchise that the movies haven’t, so far, capitalized on.

It would be great, then, to see Abrams or another filmmaker really make Star Trek his or her own. But at the same time: isn’t some of the complaint that Abrams has made the series too much his own — that is, too compatible with his more Star Wars-friendly sensibility, not as cerebral or heartfelt as the TV series at its best? Regardless, there are only a few directors who work on a big, popcorn-friendly canvas without sacrificing their personality: Christopher Nolan, of course, Sam Raimi at times, maybe Joss Whedon (though he does have to deal with a lot of Marvel Studios machinery), along with Spielberg and Lucas. Most of the time, these guys are hired to take care of a franchise, not turn it into a projection of their psyches. Do people love The Wrath of Khan or The Undiscovered Country because they offer the unique and distinctive worldview of writer/director Nicholas Meyer? Or do they love Nicholas Meyer because he made two really good Star Trek movies?

At very least, I find it bizarre that Abrams — the guy who seems to be responsible for the shiny visuals, the energetic pace, and the optimistic tone of these new Trek movies — gets more negative attention than, say, the screenwriting team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. In fact, my biggest complaint about Abrams is that he keeps hiring these guys, who seem to favor MacGuffins and gobbledygook over wit or clear storytelling (they also wrote some of those Transformers movies for Bay). But even for screenplay problems, a lot of eyes scan over Orci and Kurtzman before zeroing in on Damon Lindelof, who received a lot of blame for anything perceived wrong with Prometheus last summer, and in the Abrams-produced TV series Lost before it. I’ll take Lost, Prometheus, and Super 8 over non-Abrams Orci/Kurtzman joints like The Island or Transformers any day. I wonder if it’s the promise of intelligent sci-fi spectacle from Abrams and Lindelof that turns them into nerd punching bags; maybe no one feels that they can reasonably expect more from the guys who wrote The Legend of Zorro.

But there is a degree of care and excitement in Abrams’ work, even at its sloppiest, that many of his peers have yet to muster; he seems jazzed to be orchestrating this stuff behind the camera, while Bay and Ratner focus so intently on giving the audience their idea of a good time that they don’t often seeming to be having much fun. With all of the derision of “dumb fun” and “fan service” being thrown around (sometimes justifiably), it’s worth noting that Star Trek is a franchise operation, and has been ever since the first movie came out in ’79. Even Wrath of Khan takes on its greatest emotional significance as an extension of the franchise’s TV history, rather than some stand-alone auteurism; if Abrams and his colleagues are too beholden to that movie, well, maybe their audience is, too. Complaining about Abrams and his movies is fair game, of course. But if you dismiss him as a hack, you might as well dismiss Star Trek itself.