It's not often my wife and I go to the movies these days. As we sat in the SilverCity Metropolis theatre in Burnaby, BC last Saturday night, trying to have a conversation over the objections of a constant stream of advertisements, announcements and asinine celebrity trivia games emanating from the screen before the film started, we could not remember the last time we had been in a cinema together. It was probably before the birth of our first child. Who has time to go to the movies with small children at home? We did, last Saturday, thanks to my mother-in-law. So we opted for a film that would be more impressive on the big screen than streamed to our 28 inch TV through Netflix. We chose Star Trek Into Darkness (in 3D).
My wife is not exactly a trekkie, but she was a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation back in the day. She's definitely more Star Trek than Star Wars. As for me, I appreciate Star Trek from afar. It certainly never caught a hold of me like Star Wars, and I'm not conversant in the storylines and characters. But I do enjoy the old episodes--I mean genuinely enjoy them for what they are, rather than for the smug, ironic, I-know-more-about-the-future-than-some-dead-guy-named-Gene-Roddenberry stance I might adopt while watching them if I was younger and more hip. I certainly do not feel any Star-Wars-fan hostility towards Star Trek. In truth, they've never seemed to me to be competing in the same space. One is science fiction, the other is fantasy.
Now that director JJ Abrams is in charge of both Star Trek and the new Star Wars films, part of my motivation for seeing Star Trek Into Darkness was to get a sense of what Abrams might do with Episode VII. I have noticed, but not blogged about, a number of recent pieces online (such as this) complaining that the new Star Trek is not Star Trek at all, but Star Wars. Having now seen Star Trek Into Darkness, I can say this with confidence: whether it is truly Star Trek or not I'll leave to the trekkies, but it certainly is not Star Wars.
At lunch with my sister April and daughter Beatrice earlier on Saturday, my sister described my five-year-old girl as having one speed: full on. Star Trek Into Darkness is the same: nothing but action and movement. That may sounds like a winning formula for a Hollywood film. In fact it's just as tiring and wearing on a body as Beatrice can be at the worst of times. "Settle down", I wanted to tell this hyperactive child of a film, "just take it easy for a minute. Now, what is it you're trying to tell me?"
And that's the chief difference between Star Trek Into Darkness and the original three Star Wars films. Think back to those films. There are long stretches of them that have little "action" at all, where by "action" I mean the current Hollywood definition of the word, which generally involves two superhumans pummelling each other relentlessly, yet largely inconsequentially, on some sort of fast-moving platform while time (in one way or another) runs out.
Compare the original Star Wars films: Threepio and Artoo wander through the Tatooine wastes; Luke learns the ways of the Force from an unlikely mentor; Luke surrenders to Vader and struggles to control his rage as the Emperor taunts him with the imminent destruction of the Rebellion. None of these scenes from the original trilogy involves "action" in the things-blowing-up sense of that word. But there is another, older sense of that word. It means plot. It means anything that happens in a story to advance it, irrespective of the pace at which the advancement occurs. Each of these scenes is replete with action in that sense.
There is little advance-the-story action in Star Trek Into Darkness. There is rather little story at all. In its place is a long list of pretexts for destroying numerous things in rapid succession. Even the dialogue is fast. The actors deliver their lines quickly, one speaking immediately after the other as if they all know they must speak fast or be drowned out by the sound of the next explosion. The result is a film that is at once exhausting and boring. After the first hour or so of amusement-park velocity, you give up trying to keep up and allow yourself to be dragged along for the ride.
The original three Star Wars films were not like this. The pace they had was effective because it punctuated the story. An exclamation point was truly exclamatory. The narrative lilted from slow to fast and back to slow, and it was the rhythm that generated the excitement. Abrams' Star Trek hardly has rhythm at all. It starts in a panic, shifts into another panic, followed by several more, then panics its way to the finish.
There is a second profound difference between Star Trek Into Darkness and the old-time Star Wars, namely that the Star Trek characters are all superhuman. I am not referring here to the villain "John Harrison" who is, after all, supposed to be a superman. I mean Kirk and Spock and even lesser figures like Scotty. These characters, in Abrams' hands, are constantly diving from terrible heights, suffering horrendous beatings and accomplishing improbable things, such that they bear more resemblance to deathless videogame avatars than actual people.
Again, this was not so in Star Wars. Recall Luke and Leia's Death Star chasm swing. Compared to the CGI-abetted feats constantly trotted out before filmgoers today, this act was utterly unremarkable. What made it exciting was not that it was superheroic, but merely that it was brave. Had Luke and Leia accomplished seven other death-defying feats in the previous 60 minutes of the film by that point, as have the leads in Star Trek Into Darkness, there would have been nothing climactic about it. Ironically, even as Luke Skywalker becomes semi-magical in the later films through his mastery of the Force, his heroism never tips into superheroism. He never becomes too big to fail. Indeed, his ultimate success is not accomplished by physical force at all.
Even with my only general knowledge of Star Trek, I can appreciate that this film was not much in keeping with the franchise's character. Matt Zoller Seitz put it well on RogerEbert.com:
Less a classic "Star Trek" adventure than a "Star Trek"-flavored action flick, shot in the frenzied, handheld, cut-cut-cut style that’s become Hollywood’s norm, director J.J. Abrams’ latest could have been titled "The Bourne Federation."
But that sort of criticism is not the same as saying that there is too much Star Wars in Abrams' new Star Trek. To the contrary, there is not enough. I left Star Trek Into Darkness feeling little confidence that Episode VII would feel like Star Wars. Unless Abrams departs radically from the formula that is bringing him and his studio financial--if not critical--success, the new Star Wars will feel like the latest Star Trek: two hours of breakneck boredom.