JJ Abrams’ Star Trek movies aren’t just bad. They’re stupid.
Sure, they’re gorgeous to look at. The reimagining of the ship and bridge (but not so much the God-awful Engineering) is majestic. Casting ranges from excellent to okay – at least nothing objectionable. The score is brilliant. As a package, it’s atmospheric, and creates the aura of The Original Series – well, if The Original Series had the budget JJ had.
Cosmetically, the movies will seduce you, if you let them.
But, for the moment, let’s take the Star Trek element out of this discussion. I don’t want people to think I’m criticizing these movies just because they didn’t do Star Trek right, or that they offended my Trek purist sensibilities. That would actually be indemnifying the movies from why they’re bad. Yes, they do stuff Trek. They stuff it into the stratosphere. But at their core, all Trek aside, they’re just bad, if not lazy storytelling.
Let’s consider that for a moment: storytelling. What makes a good story? In modern Hollywood, hellbent on delivering franchises, it’s action, explosions, and bubblegum fare that really doesn’t challenge the intellect. This is fast-food, spoon-fed moviemaking – if you’re easy enough, it’ll entertain you for the couple of hours it unfolds, but you usually won’t take much out of it, and come a year or two, it’ll be indistinguishable from the plethora of other indistinguishable action flicks.
For mine, a good story doesn’t have to be weighty. It doesn’t have to be Citizen Kane. It doesn’t have to be meaningful, or innovative, or moving, or substantial in those ways. It can just be a romp. I have no problems with that. There have been some great action romps. But what it needs to contain is tight plotting, believable scenarios (within the laws of that universe), and a logical motivation driving characters from Point A to Point B to Point C, etc.
That, for me, is story.
JJ’s Star Treks are not – ironically – logical movies. If you stop to consider the motivations of characters, you’ll be left wondering why they take the courses they do. In fact, they’re implausible. Underpinning this is a string of contrivances, a lack of any justifiable fluency in the narrative, substituted instead with coincidences. Characters stumble from one scene to the next, driven almost entirely by happenstance.
Watching these movies, it feels as if JJ and his writing (ha!) team sat around a table, brainstorming ideas of what they’d like to see in their movies – what would look spectacular visually, what would make a great action scene, what would be a fantastic surprise. In isolation, none of these events have to make sense in the universe they’re creating. They can (when they bother trying) rationalise it later with some flippant justification, hoping you’ll be too stunned by the sensory bludgeoning, you won’t question the lobotomized convenience of it all.
Search the Net. There are any number of sites which dissect the stupidity behind both movies. No, these aren’t just angry, indignant geeks – or at least not exclusively. They’re people who want a good story, who want tight plotting, who want to believe the evolution of actions and events is both believable and justifiable. That’s what these people question, but they’re dismissed as Trekkies who consider JJ’s movies sacrilegious simply because he’s had the temerity to reboot the franchise.
I have no problem with that as a concept. Reboot away. But make sense of it. And be faithful to the source material. Just because it’s an action movie doesn’t mean it has to be stupid. Action movies weren’t always this way. And it’s fine to reimagine Trek so that it can appeal to the masses. But remain dedicated to the core of what made Trek unique.
Now that’s come up, let’s look at what JJ’s done to Star Trek: if you watch any of the shows, they’re actually about hope, about this impossible dream that one day, humanity grows up, evolves, becomes adult, and explores the stars, learning, growing, maturing. They’re about complex relationships between diverse crews, about contemporary events expressed and explored through science fiction allegory. Even when there is war, it’s about the horrors of war and the repercussions for humanity. This is not a people who enter battle lightly or willingly.
They’re basically about every single thing JJ Abrams has missed in both his movies.
It’s not that these are bad movies, or just exclusively that they’re bad movies. They’re bad storytelling. Worst, they’re the vision of filmmakers who can hit all the right chords of Star Trek and yet not once really understand tonally what it was all about.
Obviously, these movies weren’t pitched at Star Trek fans. If they come along for the ride, great – and some will, simply out of desperation for the franchise to persevere, or out of longing for Trek, or because they’ll accept anything in the absence of good Trek. Watch Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. Many Star Trek fans have learned to swallow just about anything.
This a franchise pitched to the mass market, to people who flock to Transformer movies and can accept a Spider-Man reboot just years after its superior predecessor(s) screened, to audiences that simply like movies that really contain nothing at all, as long as they’re stylish doing it.
In an age where something like 50 Shades of Grey can be a best-seller, JJ Abrams’ Star Treks appeal to the lowest common denominator. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad if it was an intended marketing strategy, but it’s not.
The reality is if they weren’t operating off the Star Trek currency, most people would recognise them for the bland, stupid, convenient stories they are.
JJ can thank his stars that he has the Star Trek to hide behind.