J. J. Abrams as director 4 – Star Trek into Darkness (2013)

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By his fourth film, Abrams directorial style has calmed down.  Whilst the lens-flare and low-to-the-ground shots remain, there is a far more sedate approach to editing, and the camera remains on a fixed point for most of the film.  Abrams had moved further into the mainstream – by this stage, he was constructing entertainments that had a laser-accurate construction.  Every moment was designed to relate to our shared cultural memories; films we had glimpsed as a child on the telly whilst we were stuck inside on damp autumn Sunday afternoon.  Narrative simplicity had become so important for the Bad Robot company (and more than any other of his films, this feels like one that was constructed by a team rather than an auteur), that entire plots were recycled wholesale from previous movies.

Because, for the most part, Star Trek into Darkness is a retread of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982 – Nicholas Meyer), just with less charismatic actors and a nagging sensation of déjà vu.  Abrams is deliberate in his decision.  He seeks to use the framework of established narratives to develop new visual sequences and a degree of character development.  It’s an idea of limited appeal.  Because the reality is that you sit in front of a screen, constantly reminded of a better film.  There was a genuine pathos to Nimoy Spock’s sacrifice, such was the shock of the confession of emotion displayed towards Shatner Kirk.  Pine and Quinto can’t hope to compete, so… diluted is their relationship in contrast.  There is no emotional investment in the proceedings, even less so given the typical hyperactivity that defines an Abram’s joint.

Additionally, Abrams sought to undermine his film by acquiescing to popular movements in cinema.  Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor without charm, or indeed a modicum of intelligence or wit, was cast as a pale (in every sense) reflection of Ricardo Montalban’s Kahn.  Where the original Kahn’s arrogance and oppressive masculinity dominated our protagonists, Cumberbatch flounders in the shallow end of villainy.  (and if Martin Sheen had to change his name to get a career, surely there’s no excuse for Cumberbatch).  Furthermore, Abrams resorts to blowing up London in the first act of the movie, a cinematic cliché for Americans when they wish to present large scale destruction.  London, in their eyes, contains white people, and thus gets automatic sympathy when it is ruined. There is a gratuity to this violence that is only matched by the unnecessary shots of Alice Eve in her knickers.

There are nice moments.  The opening sequence hints at a series of adventures that recalls a weekly television show that an occasional film series cannot hope to recreate.  And many of the performances, particularly Karl Urban’s McCoy, are endearing.  But by and large, this is Abrams on autopilot.  We can offer two redemptive readings; one, Abrams was focussed on developing the franchise he was actually interested in, or two, the rule of every-other-Trek-being-bad was true all along.  Neither excuse is particularly convincing though…

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