Length: 132 minutes
Release Date: May 16, 2013
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Stars: 4 out of 5
The “Star Trek” franchise has had almost as many guardians as the Enterprise has had captains. Each has left a stamp on the movies and television shows-though not, alas, on the internet fan fiction-and each has found “Star Trek” to be an almost perfect tabloid to express both their strengths and weaknesses as executive producers. Gene Roddenberry was the first, of course, and his midwifing of the franchise earned him the title “Great Bird of the Galaxy.” He deserved the title, if only for the care he showed in bringing his vision of a utopian future for humanity to life. Unfortunately, Roddenberry occasionally took a break from being a visionary genius to actually write episodes of the Original Series (ST:TOS, to fans). The real writing genius of TOS was always Gene L. Coon, to whom the world owes Klingons, logical Vulcans, and the cliché of the expendable red-shirt.
Roddenberry would bring the show back in the late 1980s (ST: TNG), only to have it struggle through its first two seasons largely by reprising old TOS scripts. With Gene’s death, the mantle passed to Rick Berman, who was essentially handed the framework of Gene Roddenberry’s sweeping vision, but who had the good sense to hire Jeri Taylor to write it all up. Berman and Taylor would eventually be responsible for the later, better seasons of TNG as well as the entire runs of “Voyager” and “Deep Space Nine.” These were all Roddenberry’s concepts, but with competent writers and directors working from his brilliant inspiration, “Star Trek” cruised into its mid-90s golden age. The Berman/Taylor team would eventually come to grief on the shoals of “Enterprise,” a regrettable effort at a “Star Trek” prequel. At last, more than a decade after his death, Roddenberry’s ideas had all been used up, and the franchise choked on Hollywood cliché until the end.
What seemed to be the end, anyway. In 2009, J.J. Abrams released a gritty reboot of the entire franchise, framing his “Star Trek” remake as what was essentially an origin story for the crew of the original Enterprise. Casting aside such jejune notions as continuity or franchise canon, Abrams took the kind of risk that gives studio executives a heart condition. The 2009 film was set in an alternate history, which was easily the most inspired end-run around die hard “Star Trek” nitpickers-a term used rather affectionately on the convention circuit-as can be imagined. Via a simple plot device, Abrams was free to remake the series in his own image. It was brilliant.
Well, half-brilliant. The latest offering in the lineup is “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which has been throwing off mixed signals since before its release. It’s successful at the box office, which makes it gold as far as the studio is concerned, but it seems to have faced a certain difficulty in getting made in the first place. Usually, the number of producers credited on a film gives some clue to how much work had to be done to line up financing. Ideally, one executive producer will bring the money, one producer will shout at the director for going over the budget, and perhaps an assistant producer or two will finish out the lineup. As the shoot runs on or faces funding hurdles, more producers will be brought onto the project to secure more financing, get access to another production company’s facilities, or whatever. “Star Trek Into Darkness” has thirteen producer credits. In any other movie, directed by anyone other than J.J. Abrams, this would certainly not be a vote of confidence.
The mixed signal comes from the rumor that Abrams is already signed to produce and direct “Star Trek 3,” which is currently in preproduction. Sequels are for safe bets, not gambles. One is left to conclude that Abrams really knows what he’s doing, Trek-wise. Indeed, it’s even possible Abrams was the genius who thought to cast Simon Pegg as Scotty.
The plot of “Star Trek Into Darkness” is fairly typical. A distress signal leads to the discovery of a terrifying madman who-in another heedless reimagining-turns out to be one Khan Singh (the awesomely named Benedict Cumberbatch). Abrams’ style with “Star Trek” seems to turn not on the visionary wonder of the great dreamer Gene Roddenberry or on the marketability of tight jumpsuits of Rick Berman, but rather on “Star Trek” being a fun shoot ’em up action film. This interpretation continues to draw audiences and keep the franchise alive and kicking, inspiring generations of future scientists, engineers and film reviewers alike.