A regular reader, Jason, writes:
That’s a great question, Jason. It is also, no doubt, a controversial topic.
First, I would stress for the record that there is a galactic-barrier sized difference between people who possess aesthetic concerns or reservations about the new Star Trek movies and those whom we can accurately categorize as haters.
Unfortunately, the manner in which some folks generally debate films on the Internet reduces the distance between poles. People who may not intend to be "haters" can come off that way in a brief comments section response that lacks...nuance.
In general, I feel they are entertaining, dramatically valid modern translations of the core Star Trek principles and characters for a time period in which genre film is an homogenized format and must therefore appeal to the widest possible demographic base.
In other words, these films are about as good as we can hope to get given our current historical context. And given what they could be (see: The Transformers, Wrath of the Titans, Snow White and the Huntsman or Thor: The Dark World), they are pretty damned good.
A parallel: to get Star Trek sold to a network in the 1960s, Gene Roddenberry had to go heavy into action for the second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," replete with fist-fights and crackling lightning beams, as well as a rather obvious, easily digestible message: "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Star Trek, at that juncture, had to be a slightly re-contextualized cowboy story, or it would have been...nothing.
I still get a kick out of "Where No Man Has Gone Before." It's an exciting, emotional episode, and it works efficiently, from start to finish, even if it isn't nearly as "cerebral" as "The Cage," the first pilot.
And obviously Star Trek grew well beyond the Wagon Train to the Stars "cowboy" handle, and delivered some of the finest science fiction storytelling that television ever saw. The TV format allowed the concept to breathe, grow, and even have room to fail.
In this day and age, the blockbuster feature film venue is a much less forgiving world, however. You get one shot every three years, and your film must win the opening weekend, or it is a failure. Directors generally know by Friday night if their film is going to be a hit or a bomb. There is no wiggle room, and rarely a second chance.
Rightly or wrongly, modern audiences demand expensive special effects and action (and IMAX, and 3-D...) from blockbuster franchises, but to afford those things, you need an astronomical budget.
And if you have an astronomical budget, you need to bring more folks into the theater.
And to bring more folks into the theater, you have to cut off some of the more daring edges and make a franchise like Star Trek more widely appealing, and less "niche."
Talk about your no-win scenario.
Just compare budgets. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) cost about thirty-five million dollars twenty-five years ago. That's a hill that can be climbed.
Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) cost 185 million dollars, not counting marketing.
There aren't enough Star Trek fans alone to make a film of that budget profitable.
So again, the franchise goes back to "Where No Man Has Gone Before" territory, dealing with broader storytelling and messaging, in a sense, than a generation of fans -- weaned on the kind of boutique, individual storytelling of The Next Gen, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise -- would prefer.
So the first thing to understand is that the J.J. Abrams Trek films are representative of this time period in film history, and the art form they are bound to.
And yet that's not an apology for them. They are good, solid films.
Furthermore, I can't understand how anyone can insist, straight-faced, that these movies are somehow inadequate representations of the Star Trek philosophy or mythos compared to efforts such as Nemesis (2002), Insurrection (1998), or even Generations (1994).
Star Trek, especially in the Next Gen era, boasts a spotty history so far as movie quality is concerned. Here are some highlights to jog the memory.
And the box office returns tell us the same story. Nemesis earned less than a forgettable Jennifer Lopez rom-com in its first weekend of release. Yes it had tough competition, as well, from A-list franchises like 007 (Die Another Day) and The Lord of The Rings.
And so a lesson was learned. To continue as a flagship movie franchise, Star Trek needed to be resurrected in a way that fans of those other franchises would appreciate, and embrace.
As a Star Trek fan do I find that approach galling?
Star Trek has been a remarkable and valuable experience in my life since I was old enough to walk. I would like it to survive to the next generation -- to my son's generation -- and that means that, at some point, kids are going to have to be intrigued and fascinated by it again.
They need an entrance point, and believe me, Nemesis isn't it. Picard, Worf and Data singing Gilbert and Sullivan in Insurrection isn't it.
The Abrams movies succeed at making Star Trek something it hasn't been since around 1996: visually-appealing, exciting as hell, and yes, sexy.
Would I prefer that our society value a highly-intelligent, cerebral sci-fi movie franchise over these surface values?
Yes, of course.
But this is where logic and history again play a role. After 1996, the Star Trek movies weren't really that, either, as the clips featured above abundantly reveal.
I've written about it before, but during the late 1990s-early 2000s Star Trek movies were pretty much the same story told again and again. Evil villain wants revenge against the Federation/Earth using a weapon of mass destruction to get it. Enterprise intervenes. Meanwhile, the crew looks increasingly overweight and haggard, and cracks inside jokes that only Trekkies understand or think are funny.
So it's not as though the J.J. Abrams two Trek movies are in direct competition with great, high-minded, cerebral, recent Treks. Rather, they're competing with a movie franchise in serious decline. And...they saved Star Trek, at least in the blockbuster movie format.
That's the history. Those were Star Trek's problems (as a movie series) as J.J. took the center seat.
Now my thoughts on haters -- of anything, not just J.J. Trek -- is that they are always going to do what haters do: spread hate.
All the context I laid out above is a drop in the bucket to them. I can write 2500 even-handed words about this topic, with multiple debate points and arguments, and they can respond in a comment below simply by saying "too much lens flare!!!" Or "Abrams sucks!"
Or more likely: "you suck, and you're an idiot. I want Jonathan Frakes to direct an Enterprise movie!!"
On the other hand, people of good motives and real intelligence can and will disagree on things, for certain, and can share a reasonable debate about movies or TV shows. That's part of the fun.
They do not respond rationally to what they call NuTrek, and their responses are not temperate.
It’s the “I can’t be part of any club that would have me as a member” syndrome that Woody Allen enunciated in Annie Hall (1977).
To them, something produced in the past is always, no matter what, better than what is produced now. I encounter this COPS (Cranky Old Person Syndrome) in every facet of fandom -- not just Star Trek. I see it in horror film fandom as well, and -- of course -- Doctor Who.
And if I ever let that happen to me, I should shrivel up and die. (Which is no doubt what the NuTrek haters will recommend, after reading this essay.)
But a lot of haters won't afford a movie that leeway or grace. They dwell in rigid, ideologically-closed bubbles, and don't have the self-awareness to recognize how closed off and ugly they come off when defending "their" productions (a surrogate for their personal experience and childhood, essentially), and deriding the "interloper," the project that must measure up to their subjective, internal rose-colored memories of the "historical" franchise.
But of course, it did.
Starfleet Academy is also apparently really bloated and wasteful: McCoy teaches Uhura everything she needs to know to function capably as a starship bridge officer between two episodes in the second season. Therefore, this episode also negates the necessity for a four year stint at the Academy, thereby knocking down another pillar of the franchise.
My larger point is, simply, that Star Trek: Into Darkness is not alone in devising a big character death and then a last minute resurrection.
It happened in TNG too. Picard beamed out into deep space, possessed by an alien, in "Lonely Among Us." The Enterprise used his last known transporter pattern, stored in the device, to resurrect him, essentially. Thus, each time someone dies on an away mission, why not just restore the data from the transporter pattern back-up?
Was this the point of "The Changeling?" Or "Lonely Among Us?" Or Into Darkness? Of course not.
So let's be intellectually honest here, and stop pretending that Abrams and Orci first opened up this huge can of worms that somehow imperils the internal future of Star Trek.
Please, tell me how often Vulcan souls or “katras” were discussed in the Original Series.
Yet Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) was all about reuniting the living Vulcan soul (katra) with Spock’s resurrected body, just the thing that could save our favorite science officer.
Yet Star Trek III -- a movie that I admire, and which is stronger than critics claim -- absolutely treated the katra as established fact, and fans embraced it as such.
They did so, largely, because they had that nostalgic bond for the Original Cast, and wanted to see the crew back together again.
Instead, they hold back their approval and vocally, relentlessly criticize the film when, in point of fact, Star Trek has told stories with gaping plot holes since almost the very beginning (“The Changeling.”)
This is the kind of "false benchmark" hater test.
Into Darkness can't be legitimate Star Trek because it is just dumb action and doesn't mean anything important.
This argument is especially appealing because J.J. Abrams' is known for preferring Star Wars and not really "understanding" (or liking) Star Trek. Here the hater gets to feel smug superiority. Oh, well J.J. doesn't understand Star Trek. Not the way I do!
It might therefore be considered, rightly, a restoration of Gene Roddenberry’s vision, not an abandonment of it.
A third“hater” argument is a familiar one. It goes, simply: Rip-off!!!
You know this one too. Star Trek Into Darkness rips-off the ending The Wrath of Khan, and is therefore unoriginal, and a hack-job. After establishing this, the film can be dismissed as not being "real" Star Trek. There are no new ideas in it!
I probably shouldn't point it out, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) -- a brilliant and thoughtful film, I feel -- re-uses a lot of material from "The Doomsday Machine," "The Immunity Syndrome" and "The Changeling," even down to the name Decker. Does this fact make the film devoid of original ideas, or a rip-off or hack job?
Of course not.
And similarly, the haters have not recognized in Into Darkness the artistic and character point behind the similar circumstances in the two films. I touched on this in my review of the film as well, but it’s important to repeat.
Kirk and Spock’s characteristics then, become truly universal, or perhaps, trans-universal.
Even if Vulcan is destroyed, even if Kirk has no father, he and Spock will become the people the universe needs them to be, perhaps because of the strength they draw from one another.
This idea is not without precedence, either, in Star Trek. In "Mirror, Mirror," Kirk sees changes in the Empire by "reading his Spocks" right, to paraphrase. In other words, Spock is a man of honor in every dimension or reality. Into Darkness's crack'd mirror structure and perspective reveals the same point. Kirk and Spock will always be friends, and always be heroes -- to the point of self-sacrifice -- no matter what "facts" change in the universe.
This will be my last example because I don't like giving these hater arguments any more air-supply on this blog, a place that, I hope, tends to be a place for a positive exploration of genre film and television.
But haters have blinders regarding plot holes, or the movie's lack of scientific accuracy (in relation to Spock's volcano cold fusion).
I think most of us agree, The Wrath of Khan is the greatest Star Trek movie yet made, even though it is premised on such a sloppy conceit.
So I suppose Picard ignored the warp speed limit again and went to Warp 500 to get there in time?
Once more, First Contact is the best Next Gen movie, by a mile And yet it too is the product of sloppy plotting and questionable science in places.
What seems plain is that Into Darkness boasts exactly the same sort of flaws in logic and narrative and science that these other productions do. Yet it is widely pilloried for possessing them, whereas "old" Trek gets an absolute pass, and sometimes even veneration.
In a new production -- one that isn’t slathered in the warm golden light of nostalgia -- every problem is magnified and talked about again and again, whether it actually exists or not. That problem then becomes a meme which is mindlessly repeated.
These voices are aided and abetted, and granted a certain air of legitimacy by a pervasive YouTube culture of nitpickers that cantankerously dissects each and every detail of movies.
That's fine, it's the bread-and-butter of a lot of people.
I am not exempt from dissecting films which are poorly constructed, or inconsistent. Indeed, it's part of a critic's job description to think analytically.
Yet in many cases -- and this is crucial -- all sense of proportionality has been lost, and haters use rampant negativity and sarcasm to attack art and artists.
All that energy could be better used to instead to gaze at the artistic purpose of a film and see how all the pieces fit together, or almost fit together.
Instead, the supposed fact that Into Darkness is "bad" is now the starting point of virtually every article written about the franchise circa 2014. Even though they are intellectually dishonest, the haters have drowned out reasonable voices in the debate. Not because they are right. But because they are loud. And relentless.
Certainly, we've seen this with Prometheus (2012), The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008), and the visceral attacks on the Star Wars prequels as well. There seems a to be a certain level of glee in the modern fan culture pronouncing yourself "smarter" than a work of art, rather than attempting to study what the film has to say, and how well it makes its case. Or perhaps, even describing, with facts and reason, why the film in question falls apart.
As I noted above, haters don't understand proportionality, and that is why, in the final analysis, I have such trouble with them. It's a binary world in which they dwell: love or hate. Praise or tear down. Life is much messier than that, and so are movies, actually. Even a bad movie may feature remarkable ideas, or good execution in spots.
To which I might add: only a Sith trades in absolutes.
Sorry, I mixed my franchises there.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret: The old Star Trek movies aren’t perfect either. And an honest accounting of them would tell you that several -- and I mean several -- verge on terrible.
Just imagine, for a moment what fans would have said if J.J. Abrams had put his Enterprise crew in a dune buggy with rubber tires/wheels. Or had them roast marshmallows and wear denim jeans on shore leave. Or had Spock get a zit.
Cue the torches, folks. We're running that fucker out of town!
The best Star Trek films -- Abrams entries included -- are entertaining works of art and ones, at their best, that try to appeal to the greatest angels of our human nature. They tell us something about ourselves, and the human potential to grow. Star Trek Into Darkness fits proudly into that tradition.
Personally, I feel that Star Trek works best as a TV series, for many reasons. There is less pressure involved, for one thing. An artist can be brave enough to be ambitious, and risk failure, because there's always another episode, another opportunity to deliver. I would prefer Star Trek to exist as a TV series, because the franchise can go deep and probe into more mature storytelling, like Mad Men, or Walking Dead, or Sons of Anarchy. It can return to the form where it once excelled in the 1960s and in the 1990s.
But if Star Trek is to exist as a blockbuster movie franchise then this kind of experimentation isn't going to happen, and to demand otherwise is mere fantasy-land considering the money the studio lays out.
The movies are never going to become "Metamorphosis" or "The Inner Light," as much as I love and cherish and re-watch those stories. They are always going to be, instead, "Where No Man Has Gone Before" (or, to pick another example, "Space Seed.")
Lot of action, lots of color, and -- if we are fortunate enough -- a light (but recognizable) commentary on who we are as a people.
The haters might, reasonably, adjust their expectations and realize what kind of art form they are watching, and what the demands and parameters of that art form truly are circa 2014-2015.
Occasionally Hollywood blockbuster movie-making really works, and the system extrudes a Wrath of Khan or An Undiscovered Country. Yay!
But sometimes it spills out a Nemesis.
So, Jason, when I consider the haters, I am reminded of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), and this line of dialogue.
There are many positives to see in the J.J. Treks, but the haters have to see with better eyes.
Using the same eyes they apply to every other Star Trek movie would be a good start to improving their vision.
Don't forget to e-mail me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com.