The instantly-familiar Paramount franchise that is Star Trek is one of the most important contributions America has made to popular culture … right along with jazz, baseball and comic books. Star Trek (and I should state for the record that I am an avid fan of the original series) has influenced its own future and our present, with the design of personal computers, communicator-style flip phones, and a host of other technological developments that were more or less inspired–or at least influenced–by the 1966-1969 TV show. [Check out the Shatner co-written book I’m Working On That: A Trek From Science Fiction to Science Fact for more.]
Star Trek, in short, is IMPORTANT. It’s not only entertainment–it’s a cultural benchmark for our interest in space exploration, scientific and technological advances (in Kirk vs. computer, you know who’s always going to win), and attitudes on building the future. And given the increasingly bleak depiction of said future in YA books and movies, the science-based, egalitarian and peaceful future of the Federation is more significant than ever.
Which is why I’m so disappointed in the latest film.
Granted, JJ Abrams can crank out action scenes that will keep you riveted. “Into Darkness” was like a roller-coaster ride, and–unfortunately–about as mindless as one, too. My own trajectory was something like this:
3 min: This isn’t Star Trek and I don’t like this at all
10 min: OK, that was kind of fun
40: It’s not Trek but I like it
70: God, Benedict Cumberbatch is awesome!
100: Go, Spock, Go!
End of movie: That was fun!
3 min after movie: That wasn’t Star Trek and I feel exploited.
Y’see, Star Trek has always been about more than action and popcorn and all the superficial “fan” bait the screen writers throw in to make us bite. A tribble reference does not make it Star Trek any more than an Elvis impersonator singing “Hound Dog” makes him Elvis.
In fact, that’s what “Into Darkness” felt like to me … an engaging enough Elvis impersonator who can’t really move or sing like Elvis but can curl his lip and looks good in rhinestone jumpsuits.
Case in point: Kirk. Chris Pine’s Kirk is a pastiche of “Kirkisms” that don’t hold up under watching the actual series. Kirk liked the girls–yes–but he was also a romantic (“no beach to walk on”). Kirk bucked the system–sometimes–but has the utmost respect for discipline and (surprise, surprise) mostly followed the rules. When he didn’t, it was usually for the purpose of “winning” (i.e. Kobayashi Maneuver), which translated, as Captain, into saving his crew and ship at all costs. He didn’t break the rules because he was inherently a petulant, pouty rebel. He broke the rules because breaking them was the only way he could win or survive.
Under Abram’s direction, Pine is a leader because we’re told he’s a leader. Yes, I know no one is Shatner other than Shatner, but Zachary Quinto demonstrates far more leadership charisma than Pine (and of the major cast members, is the most convincing … Karl Urban is vastly underused). I can believe Pine as, possibly, Kirk’s wayward son, but even in this twisted, alternate future, I can’t see him growing into Kirk. And that’s not because Pine’s not a good actor–it’s because he isn’t conveying the confidence (not swagger), self-assurance (not arrogance), and maturity that characterize James T. Kirk.
Zoe Saldana, while decorative, is also no Uhura. Nichelle Nichols–despite having to repeat “Hailing frequencies open, Captain” ad infinitum–made Uhura a strong, private, proud and regal woman. She had bearing; she had sophistication. Check out her reactions in episodes like “The Squire of Gothos”. Of all the original actors, she did the most with the least. Uhura had gravitas. Saldana is likable, but forgettable–and there’s no way Uhura would have discussed her private life in front of Kirk, as she does in a supposedly comic scene in “Into Darkness”.
The real problem, of course, is that Abrams was never a fan. He was never intellectually engaged by the series, ever captivated by its mixture of social messages (“Devil in the Dark”, “Taste of Armegeddon”, “The Mark of Gideon”, etc.), drama and adventure. He knows how to package up an action movie and take you on a roller coaster ride, but there is no vision behind the thrill, no imagination behind the voyage. His Trek would never have survived nearly 50 years or contributed to both developments and dialogues of the future.
I only hope that first-time Trek movie goers take the time to check out the “real” show … and don’t settle for an Elvis impersonator.
Thanks for reading … and live long and prosper!