J. J. Abrams as director 2 – Star Trek (2009)

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When I saw this in the cinema, I was sitting next to a middle-aged man and his wife.  For the entire duration of the film, the man cried.  Not floods-of-tears crying, but a constant, low-level sob.  I am obsessed with trying to figure out what was upsetting him so much?  The best solution I can come up with (and this may speak to my own spectacular lack of imagination) is that he was profoundly moved by the sight of a decent Star Trek film.  I wanted to speak to him and say ‘I get it – Star Trek means a lot to me too.  I’ve been waiting since 1982 too!’

But I’m English, so I didn’t.  I studiously ignored him.  Plus, I’m sure it would have led to a discussion where he would have pointed out that actually, he’d only been waiting since 1991.  Or 1996.  One of the two.

Because, Star Trek is a good Star Trek film.  And that is no mean feat.  It’s the only Star Trek film which my sisters will watch and enjoy (and I used to make them whoosh around the living room pretending to be the Enterprise…)  And it occurs to me that Abrams can’t be all that bad, if he can take a moribund, vastly over-inflated, tired old franchise and make something decent out of it.

Because the world was sick of Star Trek in 2009.  Since 1987, the franchise had been around for six films and twenty-five separate series of television.  And if you’re on board those franchises, there is a world of difference between your Worfs and Odos and Neelixes.  But to anyone else, they were just dudes in silly make-up spouting incomprehensible nonsense.  Star Trek as a franchise studiously ignores vast swathes of human emotion that drive most narrative storytelling.  There is little greed, or envy, or jealousy or lust in the Star Trek universe.  As such, it can seem frigid to much of the intended audience.  Enterprise had sought to bring a little vigour back to universe… by giving the series a Russell Watson theme tune.  It didn’t work (though this film makes the odd choice to keep that show, that one show, within continuity).

So when Abrams came on board to helm a Star Trek reboot, he was working against a huge prejudice towards the series.  And he overcame it by injecting the film with a level of energy that the franchise had never experienced before.  Star Trek, despite its interstellar setting, was a franchise mainly about people standing about in rooms talking at one another.  Moment of tension were indicated largely through the use of the same three pieces of incidental music.  Abrams turned this up on its head.  Nothing is ever simple in his Star Trek – characters race down corridors and even the most stationary of actions – teleportation – becomes momentous, as characters end up in water flumes, fighting for their life.  This restlessness, this constant need to keep moving, is utterly alien when compared to anything presented within the franchise before.

The restlessness can be exhausting, and the movie suffers from a feature that drains the life out of all modern action pictures: the mid-movie superfluous action sequence.  These are sequences designed to bring a spark of life to a second act, where movies are often killing time as they build to a final confrontation.  They often involve doing little more than pressing a button; but somehow this will be a massively inconvenient task.  The prime example of this is the moment in The Avengers (2012 – Joss Whedon) where the eponymous Avengers have to kick-start the hellicarrier; it is a tedious moment of false tension, feeling like it is designed for little more than the videogame tie-in.  Here, there is a point where Kirk, Sulu and some anonymous redshirt skydive to switch off a drill.  It exists.  It is moderately thrilling.  But it exists solely to enliven fifteen minutes of the film where the audience is assumed to switch off.

This isn’t a situation where Abrams has suddenly discovered a clear visual palate.  Whilst the editing is slightly less kinetic here than on Mission: Impossible III (2006), many of Abrams’ twee visual cues remain in play.  There is lens flare all over the place – including in places where there is NO LIGHT SOURCE!  There is a tendency to over-explain plot points.  Where previously flashbacks were used to drive home narrative developments, here the opening half hour of the film takes place in four or five different points in time.  As a viewer, we have to be told everything.  We are not allowed to fill in any gaps ourselves.  This is a frustrating point of modern franchises; the first film in every series is now an origin story… which are often the least interesting moments in these character’s lives.  We didn’t fall in love with Indiana Jones by being tediously lectured as to why he is terrified of snakes.

But Star Trek does allow Abrams to demonstrate one of his greatest strengths; his ability to create well-drafted characters.  M:I III suffered from the blank slate of Ethan Hunt at the heart of its narrative; here, Kirk, Spock, Bones and all are introduced, developed and each given moments to shine.  Now, he does paint them with the broadest of brushes, preferring to draw on the cultural memory of these characters rather than the reality.  Kirk is tremendously horny in this film; in reality, most of the women presented in the original series were ex-girlfriends, with whom he had secure relationships that he wasn’t able to maintain due to his career.  And the daddy-issues that are superimposed onto the character are not exactly transformative.  But there are moments, such as when Spock accepts Kirk’s logic for the first time, that bristle with a secure understanding of who each person is.  When Abrams finds a performance that works, such as Karl Urban’s festering, grouchy McCoy, he gives them the space to shine in his cluttered narrative.

Abrams does want to have it all.  As much as this is a reboot, it goes to great pains to ensure that it is legitimate.  The Romulan villains could be straight out of the previous entry in the series, the overblown Star Trek: Nemesis (2002 – Stuart Baird), and Leonard Nimoy’s version of Spock follows cleanly on from Unification.  But his grasp of character, his fetishisation of the camera as a physical object as it swoops around our heroes and gets covered in snow and sun, and his ability to take moribund properties and refresh them in the eyes of the audience, shows some talent.  Or maybe, that his work will always seem more attractive when it follows on from Jonathan Frakes rather than Brian DePalma or John Woo.

It remained to be seen whether the same energy could be applied to an original idea.

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