In 2009, successful producer and director, JJ Abrams directed a much anticipated reboot of Star Trek. The cast was young and hot, and the design was sleek and reimagined. The film was full of non-stop action, and rarely stopped to breathe. There were extended fight sequences, explosions, and nifty and impressive CGI. The movie was breathtaking to behold, and quite honestly, one of the best action films of the last two decades. But that’s the problem…Star Trek isn’t actually an action franchise, although it has often had thrilling action sequences. In fact, Star Trek is a show about ideas and philosophy. It’s about moral dilemmas and finding new ways to communicate with alien species and those who ostensibly look different from us. It is about finding the love, and making the noble choice, however uneasy that may be. It means that violence is always the last resort, not the first. And that is what these films failed to realize. That is what JJ Abrams forgot…or perhaps never knew in the first place. That is why it is easy to recognize that these are well made films, and exciting action movies, but fundamentally lack the spirit and mission of every Star Trek show or film that came before. That is why so many of us can love the movies, but disown them as properly belonging to the canon.
The Choice of Director
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Star Trek reboot was the vision of a man who openly admits that he was not a Trekkie. He had barely even seen the show, and seems to not have had a grasp of what it was all about. I would point out that JJ Abrams is the heir apparent to Steven Spielberg himself. They have a remarkably similar trajectory, and Spielberg has been mentoring the younger Abrams for years. There is no denying the significant impact the elder director has had on Abrams. They share a similar directorial style, and are both masters of the popcorn blockbuster. Both can be thin on story and character development, and both filmmakers tend towards the melodramatic, high paced, meticulously scored, and frenetically edited films filled with action and adventure. These movies are edge of your seat thrilling, but take little time to pause for deeper and more meaningful reflection. With the exception of Spielberg’s more recent heavier work (Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, Munich, Schindler’s List), his movies are perfect for the whole family, and are wholesome and able to keep even the smallest child’s attention. Abrams’ films are very similar. Although I tend to hold the opinion that Star Trek is better suited for TV, I don’t think that’s prohibitively true. Perhaps they’ll never be able to achieve the depth an episodic television show can do with well developed story arcs, but I think a film with a good script and the right director might create something meaningful.
Star Wars vs. Star Trek
I think the problem is, JJ Abrams wasn’t the right man for the job. Firstly, I think he is perfectly suited for Star Wars — a franchise he admits to being a longtime fan of. It’s no accident that Spielberg and Lucas are such good friends. They both have similar styles, and both influenced Abrams. Close your ears Star Wars fans, but I would argue that Star Wars is far more suited to the action-oriented director with larger than life mythic characters, and epic battles between good and evil. Like most of Abrams’ movies and television projects, there is very little subtlety in Star Wars. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but its themes and tropes and overall depth are not nearly as sophisticated as Star Trek. Star Wars is the perfect popcorn blockbuster film, and Abrams is perfectly suited to direct for that franchise! If you care to check out my expanded discussion comparing Star Trek to Star Wars check out:
An Alternate Alternate Reality
Imagine for a moment that Christopher Nolan had directed Star Trek, or Peter Jackson. Or perhaps Kathryn Bigelow, Ang Lee, David Fincher, or even crazier, Terry Gilliam. Imagine a darker universe, but one filled with the intrepid Enterprise, always trying to make friends in all the wrong places. Or perhaps it’s another ship, in another time, and in another part of the universe. Think about the level of complexity, nuance, and philosophical weight any of those directors would have brought to the franchise. The problem is, most big directors wouldn’t take a movie like that, because many see it as an exhausted franchise and just a cheap moneymaking extension of the shows. They would rightly feel hampered and stifled by the Star Trek aesthetic and strict guidelines dictated by the franchise. As history has shown us, the past directors of the studio films took few liberties and added little artistry. They were formulaic franchise films, and really any director could have been plugged in or out.
Ideally, if they are going to continue to make films, they need to be their own artistic entities…new stories, not rehashed ones, and perhaps darker and more reflective of our society today. Galactic terrorists or something. They need to stand alone, and not be regurgitations. They need to embody the spirit of Star Trek, but have permission to…ahem…boldly go where no one has gone before. And they need to have NO MORE DAMN LENS FLARES!!!
The Soul of Star Trek
Perhaps the soul of the show can be found directly in the guiding principle of the Federation and Starfleet Academy. It’s a moral code, by which the explorers live by. The Prime Directive, also known as Starfleet General Order 1 or the Non-Interference Directive, was the embodiment of one of Starfleet’s most important ethical principles: noninterference with other cultures and civilizations. At its core was the philosophical concept that covered personnel should refrain from interfering in the natural, unassisted, development of societies, even if such interference was well-intentioned. The Prime Directive was viewed as so fundamental to Starfleet that officers swore to uphold the Prime Directive, even at the cost of their own life or the lives of their crew. A premise such as this was profoundly unique to Star Trek, and revolutionary for the era. Roddenberry clearly had Native American genocide, African slavery and Civil Rights, and other Colonial interference and subjugations in mind when he crafted such a directive. Over the fifty years prior to the show, Colonial governments were being overthrown, and countries were gaining their independence and autonomy from various imperial states. The devastation left in the wake of colonial imperialism can still be deeply felt in nations across Africa, Asia, South America, and elsewhere. Roddenberry deeply believed in a future free of unnecessary meddling or interference.
A Mission of Peace
Furthermore, Gene Roddenberry created a society that had been devastated by a third world war and a frightening war of eugenics, but had picked itself up and healed itself. Somehow, they had come out on the other side, and had learned to live peaceably together. Things like gender inequality, racism, and greed were seemingly stamped out over a few short generations. The crew of the Enterprise are explorers, and their fundamental mission is one of peace, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man (one) has gone before.” Sometimes to my discontent, the characters on Star Trek generally seek to talk first, and shoot later. The show (and films, to some extent…) are first and foremost about ideas and finding ways to communicate with those ostensibly unlike us. Even in hostile situations, the Star Trek crews have sought the exchange of words before blows. The franchise has historically been a philosophical one, not overly concerned with gadgets (although at times, they lost site of this, and got mired in technobabble) or overt science fiction tropes and fantasies, but in exploring the human condition. The characters reflected the wide spectrum of colors and nationalities, and were a hopeful ideal on the part of the creator to inspire egalitarianism and end bigotry in his world. The characters may be from the future, but they are telling our story.
Sex & Violence Trump Ideas
I should say that I like these last two reboot films only as the action movies they are. I think they are mostly well-made movies, but they bear little resemblance to the world Gene Roddenberry created. They sacrifice everything the franchise stood for. And that doesn’t have to be oversimplified dated morality lessons, but honest dialogue and intellectual curiosity. The original series, and its offshoots concerned explorers, bound by a code of ethics, and ultimately resistant to violence, but always resolute when it needed to be used. These new films not only have characters whose first instinct is violence, but the films themselves are filled with explosions and bombastic action sequences. There’s also an inordinate amount of sexuality, and although there is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of it, these sequences seem exploitive and gratuitous (Alice Eve stripping down to her bra and panties for no apparent reason?). In general, the action sequences and sexuality seem forced and unmotivated. Although exciting, they don’t quite feel right for these characters. Violence was always the last resort for the crews of the television series, but it seems like the first instinct and natural default of the new Kirk and crew.
As I’ve argued, Abrams was perhaps not the right director for this franchise. He is a populist director, cut from the cloth of Spielberg, and he is always going for the sentimental, edge of your seat action film, with the unnecessary lens flares and the slick look and feel. His projects are rarely deep and thoughtful, and they’re not there to generate discourse or raise questions about our own humanity. They are simply there to thrill and entertain, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Unless, it goes under the name of Star Trek. He made this film very marketable, and full of all the sex and violence an audience craves and demands these days. Perhaps that is the only kind of movie you can have these days. I’d like to think not. I contend that Christopher Nolan makes dark and thoughtful movies, while still cramming them with sex and violence. It’s not that the reboots needed none of the action, but it needed a lot more of the thought. I could have lived with even the amount of action it did have, IF it had provided something intellectually stimulating as well.
In the movies, it’s like they have the names of Spock and Kirk, but they don’t have the gravitas of those men (or those actors). They don’t embody what those men stood for. I felt that adding the romance between Spock and Uhura was cheap and irrelevant. It changes the very nature of Spock. Whereas I could see Uhura having an onboard romance, Spock would never have compromised his duties and position on the bridge. Even the time on the show when he did kiss a girl (in This Side of Paradise), he was under the influence of an enchanted flower. The famous interracial kiss in Plato’s Stepchildren was originally supposed to be Spock and Uhura, but even then, the characters were being controlled like puppets, and not responsible for their actions. Spock was wed to his job, and in some ways to Kirk as well. Although Roddenberry didn’t intend for Kirk and Spock to be gay, there is a special quality to their friendship that runs deep and loyal. I see none of that chemistry between the characters in the recent films. I see people wearing costumes of the same color, general Starfleet insignias, some familiar props and set pieces, and many of the same names of gadgetry and technobabble. But what I see more of are characters that don’t fill the costumes they wear, saying things they wouldn’t say, and resorting to sex and violence without hesitation. I see movies filled with action, but short on substance. I see none of the probing questions and deep reflection on the human condition. I see none of the morality and characters wrestling with the consequences of breaking the Prime Directive. I see two really good action films, with some amazing direction and slick production design. Unfortunately, I don’t see Star Trek. I look at these films like I look at the Guy Ritchie/ Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films. They may be fun and exciting action films, but they lack the integrity and spirit of the original source material, and besmirch their good names. In my opinion, they should just stop making them, make them right, or just call them something else altogether!
The reboot Star Trek films are A LOT of fun. When I first saw them in the theatre, I was thrilled and excited. They are well-made, really solid efforts. Unfortunately, I just don’t recognize them as Star Trek. Sure, they have the same names and the color of the costumes are right, but they are not the Kirk and Spock I know. Not because they are different actors playing the role, but because they don’t carry the spirit of Star Trek in their hearts. They shoot or punch first, and talk later. This is not the Roddenberry Star Trek I grew up with. Perhaps if they had had another director, they would have been different. More introspective and thoughtful. As it is, I own both films, and I love to watch them for what they are. But what they aren’t is Star Trek!