Unlike much of the world, American audiences will not get to lay eyes on J.J. Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness until May 16 (or in IMAX later today). But looking forward to this film is a tricky prospect. In some ways it's destined to be a lot of fun, but in others it's almost certainly going to disappoint. Rather than set a useful consensus, the film's divisive critical reviews only bear this dichotomy out.
It would be so much easier if J.J. Abrams were a bad filmmaker. We could see or ignore Star Trek Into Darkness with the same casual regard reserved for all other films made by medium-grade journeyman who color within studio dictated lines and have no agenda to push. But Abrams is not one of these directors. In his way, Abrams is a stylist and maybe even a bit of a visionary. As a director, he displays a confident hand at casting, pacing and creating memorable set pieces.
He's also a firm believer that the needs of the moment far outweigh the needs of the whole, a characteristic that can lead to a lot of logical problems when revisiting his films. And most importantly, Abrams is not very interested in what you think about him, or what you think a Star Trek film should or should not do.
The fact of the matter is that Abrams' Star Trek reboot/prequel/sidequel has a ton of problems but is a total blast to watch. You want to hate it but can't. Part of this is casting. Abrams can profess to not "get" the original Star Trek all he wants, but he clearly perceived the primacy of the show's central Kirk-Spock-Bones trio of characters and knew everything else would fall apart if he didn't nail this crucial element. Luckily, he did.
And he didn't stop there. The whole Enterprise crew is well cast. When you walk away from Star Trek, you instantly want a sequel not so much to see this crew go against known enemies like Khan or Klingons, but simply to see this crew do anything at all. I personally wouldn't kick a film where they all just eat pizza and cram for finals out of bed.
On top of that, Abrams' Star Trek is just fun to look at. Joke all you want about lens flares and the Apple Store, but the film is often quite beautiful and more visually assured than many other modern science fiction films. It's not the Star Trek universe we know, but it's a nice place to spend a couple hours.
Abrams also knows how to orchestrate an action set piece, another rare commodity these days. Even his Mission: Impossible III, which suffered from a flat, TV-quality visual style, felt wildly exciting when getting down to its action business. His Star Trek is even better. The film's opening scene, in which we witness both the birth of Kirk and the death of his father at the hands of grumpy time-traveling Romulan Nero is an easy favorite, but there's also Kirk and Sulu's fight high above Vulcan, or Spock and Kirk's video game-like raid of Nero's ship, the Narada. Even Kirk running away from those snow monsters looked and felt pretty great.
But are these action set pieces what Star Trek is really all about? When asked about the best action scenes from the original Star Trek cast, many fans are likely to point out the Nebula battle at the end of Wrath of Khan or the similar showdown that encompasses first season episode "Balance of Terror." The thing about these choices is that they're both built upon quiet dread and mounting tension, like a game of chess told through the vocabulary of naval warfare.
Abrams' Trek is way more like Star Wars. Or, as someone noted on Twitter recently (I'm afraid I can't remember to whom I should attribute this): old-school Star Trek is about the Navy, while Abrams' Star Trek is about the Air Force. The announcement that Abrams would be taking over George Lucas' much beloved space opera was tarnished slightly by the pesky idea that he kind of already had.
From a certain -- albeit nerdy -- perspective, what Abrams has done with Star Trek can be seen as arrogant and misguided to the point of villainy. Abrams has the talent of an auteur but the heart of a cold studio executive. A guy like that is not only easy to hate but kind of fun to hate, as well. This is especially true when it comes to Abrams' absurd devotion to secrecy.
Which brings us to Star Trek Into Darkness. Right from the get-go, Abrams makes his mission statement clear by casually transforming his series' titular "Trek" from a noun to a verb. Not only that, but we are now apparently "trekking" into the the kind of overdramatic, dark plot lines Abrams' first Star Trek seemed to make a deliberate stance against (though it did see the death of over five billion Vulcans, so maybe not).
This challenging of what Star Trek fans hold dear plays out further with Abrams' choice of villain. (The true identity of Benedict Cumberbatch's character is now available for all to see on IMDb, making it no longer a secret or spoiler. Nevertheless, I'll refrain from uttering his name. But you know who he is.) Abrams chose to revisit the Star Trek universe's best known bad guy in hopes of exciting audiences for a world-class showdown the likes of which they've already seen once before, but never this shiny. And yet, instead of capitalizing on this, Abrams spent his entire promotional phase keeping Cumberbatch's identity secret, thus negating the marketability of a character who was chosen solely for marketability.
And speaking of marketability, it seems the stars have been taken out of the Star Trek equation. While I'm sure there's plenty of intergalactic trekking afoot in the film, Star Trek Into Darkness' ads paint a very terrestrial Star Trek film, as if Abrams wants to distance the franchise from its fundamental exploration of the universe in favor of ground-level terrorism on Earth, the implication being that Abrams wants to strip Trek of its more nerdy elements.
And maybe he does. Arrogant though that may be, it's a very strong stance which indicates Abrams is at least doing something about which he feels strongly, a notion antithetical to ethos-free journeyman directors. Abrams is not really interested in doing Star Trek as we know it, but it's not the worst crime in the world since he is at least replacing it with something interesting and fun to watch.
And our cast is back, with added definition and shorthand typical of modern sequels. That alone ensures at least some enjoyment from the film, even if nothing else works.
But I wouldn't count on that being the case either. Star Trek Into Darkness looks even more action packed than the first film, with a plot based directly on conflict rather than the tricky business of rebooting a franchise. Like the first film, it's likely Abrams has given us another adventure at which we can curse while simultaneously loving, which in turn makes us curse at ourselves for being so gullible, after which we all watch Wrath of Khan and calm down.