Disappointing. Hollow. Lifeless. All action — no heart! Those are just a few of the words to describe my thoughts after watching Star Trek Into Darkness over the weekend. And, for a long-time Star Trek fan — particularly the Original Series (TOS) — that is not at all how I expected to feel walking out of the theater on Saturday. It’s not that I hated Star Trek Into Darkness like I hated the horrific Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, with Johnny Depp playing a creepy, annoying version of the iconic character given life by Gene Wilder in the 1971 original.
After 2009’s Star Trek reboot, also directed by J.J. Abrams, I was excited to see the second installment of the re-imagined voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Because the first Abrams-directed movie exceeded my expectations — the story, character development and production quality led to my overall enjoyment of that movie — I suppose I was expecting as good, if not better, for Star Trek Into Darkness. I was sadly disappointed. I left the movie feeling flat, rather than elated. I am aware that my own feelings are probably only shared by a minority of those who have seen Star Trek and who have taken the time to write a review. This is just one man’s opinion about a movie that, in the whole scheme of things, will be forgotten by the end of the summer. If you feel otherwise, I completely understand.
Let me say just a word or two about the political philosophy underlying Star Trek Into Darkness. Every iteration of the Star Trek franchise, especially TOS, was always liberal in its politics and social commentary. As a conservative, I get that. Apart from a few episodes of the Original Series, the classic liberal (not progressive/leftist) worldview of Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, never distracted me from viewing this science fiction series for the pure entertainment that it was. Of course, watching it as a kid in the 1970s (WTOG-44 from 5:00-6:00 p.m. weekdays) probably relieved me of the stress of watching the show through a political lens. Even now, I can give the liberal elements of the show a pass because of my fondness for the characters and stories of TOS.
Although I tried not to read any reviews of Star Trek Into Darkness — including Breitbart’s review of the political nature of the movie or reviews revealing the true identity of John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) — prior to going to the theater on Saturday, I couldn’t help but see the message — direct or indirect — of terrorism and the “proper” response to acts of terror, whether in the 21st Century or the 23rd Century. As a Pastor in an Air Force town, where many of my church members are active-duty military (including some who work with UAVs or Drones) or retired, I can’t help but be sensitive to the portrayal of the men and women of our Armed Forces (in this case, via Starfleet Command and its over-the-top, stereotypical warmongering General).
PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!
In a post 9/11 world, it should not really surprise anyone when Hollywood makes movies that mock those who defend America by pursuing terrorists who kill innocent people and using all available means to bring them to justice — including hunting them down and killing them, if necessary . In the world of J.J. Abrams, the writers of Star Trek Into Darkness and at least one of the film’s stars, Simon Pegg (Scotty), the terrorists are now seen as misunderstood “freedom fighters” who can be negotiated with. Any offensive military campaigns are seen as nothing more than blind rage and revenge, which inevitably leads to engaging in the same type of evil that we are supposedly trying to combat. Pegg, who does not appear to know his own British history and does not seem to be too astute when it comes to promoting Star Trek Into Darkness to as big an audience as possible, which includes a goodly number of conservatives and Republicans who might otherwise be predisposed to see the movie, had this nugget of wisdom to dispatch on a lower-than-expected grossing weekend:
“In the face of overwhelming militaristic might, you can argue John Harrison is in fact kind of a strange dichotomy between freedom fighter and terrorist, and the militarized Starfleet is slightly more the heavy handed aspects of American foreign policy,” Pegg says. Admiral Marcus (played by Peter Weller) has weaponized the Enterprise because he thinks war with the Klingons is inevitable, and Pegg believes there’s an argument to be made for his view. But, he adds, “There is always diplomacy, and there is always an alternative to violence…. (emphasis added)
I’m glad that was not the philosophy which prevailed in America and Great Britain during World War II. If it had been, we probably would all be speaking German right now! Sometimes diplomacy fails. Appeasement with evil men does not work. As much as we would hope that we would never have to use our military force, there are times when it’s imperative that we (our military) deploy our armed forces in defense of liberty, including the liberty of actors like Pegg to spout foolish nonsense. That may even mean using our forces to track down and kill those who have committed atrocities so that these same terrorists cannot continue to inflict harm upon innocent men, women, and children in the future.
I suppose I should have expected a pre-9/11 progressive/leftist (not classic liberal) slant to Star Trek Into Darkness. I could have dealt with that much better than the hollow, heartless action-packed story that ultimately left me, not wanting more, but instead wanting to find a wormhole to go through so that I did not have to sit through the movie. I don’t consider myself a “Trekkie” since I don’t know the minutia of the Star Trek canon nor have I ever attended a convention (although I am probably enough of a geek to be outside the demographic that Paramount and J.J. Abrams obviously were hoping to pack the theaters over the weekend). I’m not sure the guys from The Big Bang Theory would be able to sit through the movie more than once. Where is Will Wheaton when you need him?
The problem with remakes, including Star Trek Into Darkness, is that it’s virtually impossible to recreate the same heart and soul of the original. For those like me, who grew up watching TOS, we can’t unremember what we already know. It’s impossible to disregard all of the history of Star Trek, including our own history in watching the series and coming to love and care for the characters and how each is portrayed on screen. Through no fault of their own — I blame the writing and directing primarily — Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), and Karl Urban (McCoy) simply cannot replicate the ethos, pathos and logos of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley. Reversing the roles of Kirk and Spock in a scene “borrowed” from a previous Star Trek movie while, at the same time, asking the audience to buy in with the same level of emotion in a remake is a bridge too far. Maybe some people did experience that emotion, but much of the last 1/3 of the movie fell flat for me, despite the intense action scenes, even those which bordered on the completely ludicrous.
I wanted so much to like Star Trek Into Darkness. Although I would have preferred that Abrams not deviate too much from the Original Series, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when he introduced the alternate universe story. That would have allowed Abrams to revitalize the series while at the same time let his version and vision of Star Trek boldly go where no one had gone before. However, if one one goes back to go forward — as Abrams has done in the current movie — one should at least infuse the movie with heart, not just expensive and convoluted action scenes. Actors simply parroting the words written on the page, as if trying to recreate a memorable moment from an earlier movie, will have the opposite of the desired effect on the audience. When working on his third — and hopefully last installment in the new Star Trek series, not to mention the new Star Wars movies — J.J. Abrams would do well to remember the sage advice given by Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, “You have to go forward to go back.”