I liked Star Trek: Into Darkness. In fact, I enjoyed myself a great deal. Sadly, such is not the case for many moviegoers.
Just like the rest of our American lives, our moviegoing world is polarized. Most of us are seeing the latest Star Trek movie and coming away entertained. A vocal minority is strongly angered by its many violations of sci-fi logic and its inattention to canon Star Trek elements and themes. The feud tends to go down like so: “The plot doesn’t make sense! J.J. Abrams is eviscerating Rodenberry’s soul for profit!” vs. “Shut up nerds. Turn off your brains and enjoy a big dumb action movie. That’s all it’s supposed to be and it’s good for what it is.”
Is there any room for some in-between? Like maybe someone who thoroughly enjoyed the film on a visual and emotional level while acknowledging with a nod that the plot is a little weak and expected more from AAA talent? I applaud the Trek team: JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci for putting emotion and character squarely at the center of harrowing action sci-fi. Star Trek 2 is a movie that, like many of Abrams and Lindelof’s collaborations, is a good time in the moment, but doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.
Plots in sci-fi stories are always a pickle. You want to introduce fantastical, cool gadgets and powers that let our heroes and villains achieve the impossible. The problem is when you introduce too many of these things, getting characters into dire situations becomes a hopeless muddle of “well, couldn’t we just do this impossible thing? No…we can’t because of this made-up obstacle.”
The source material that Trek nerds love so much: the original Star Trek series and its superior successor The Next Generation–seriously, I can’t overstress this–was almost entirely made up of the crew positing incomprehensible sci-fi solutions to incomprehensible sci-fi problems. Sure, they took pains to be consistent with their sci-fi logic, but dramatically speaking, this absolutely sucks. It’s fine if you’re nerd enough to actually think about the fantasy logic. It’s fine if you have a mediocre television show with mediocre actors and a lot of time to generate ad revenue. It’s fine if you’ve spent enough hours in the show’s universe to understand everything they’re saying. But it’s not fine if you want to watch an emotionally compelling, exciting fantasy film that comes packaged with a sense of adventure and peril–and all that in a 2 hour span.
But the truth is that bad movie logic is still annoying for everyone. Great effects, good acting, and emotional intensity are all a little less pleasing without a sensible sequence of events. In fact, logic is all the more necessary when the direction and acting are good enough to get the audience to actually care about the characters who are in peril. When someone you care about is in danger, you naturally start thinking of all the possible ways to get him out of it, and when you have so many fantastical plot devices flying around, a million plausible alternatives present themselves.
Yes, sci-fi is trouble. But the polarity of “everything sucks” vs. “turn your brain off” have been navigated by nimble writers and thoughtful direction. Here are a few ways previous sci-fi films and shows have dealt with the problem:
1. Less plot – The original Wrath of Khan had it right. It was a straight revenge flick. No shifty alliances, no military conspiracy, just a bad guy hell bent on killing a good guy because he hates him. Good guy’s best friend sacrifices himself to save good guy. Simplistic? Maybe. But it works, kids. Struggle and sacrifice is all you need for good drama. The most recent two Star Trek movies share a common problem: the villain has weird motivations. Each one has a tragic component to them, they retaliate against wrongs done them, but each one, in the middle of the film, accomplishes their vengeance, but then, inexplicably they try to destroy Kirk, Starfleet and even all of Earth if they can. This completely negates all their previously held sense of justice. Forty-five minutes into the film, they flip from vengeful to maniacal, as if it’s just the next phase of their plan. Interestingly, The Wrath of Khan addresses just this problem. Khan’s first mate asks why he wants to go after Kirk when they are now free. The answer? “He tasks me!” Khan’s just a supercilious bastard. His revenge trip has nothing to do with just desserts, it’s all about ego. Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness could have benefited from little scenes like this to better develop the villain’s motivations instead of just supposing that a tragic past is enough to make anybody a monster.
2. Less sci-fi – This is the Blade Runner scenario in which you don’t focus on fantastical things when you don’t need to. That film’s plot was anything but simple, but the sci-fi landscape certainly was. Robots that look like people, flying cars and that’s all. The rest is just set dressing. Holding back on extraneous sci-fi information works to your movie’s advantage. Star Trek 2 would’ve had fewer problems sans trans-warp beaming, super-blood, cold-fusion bombs and long-range people-missiles. They’re all more trouble than they’re worth.
3. Make things look hard – This is the Star Wars scenario in which fantastical things seem to have unexplained limitations. This comes through the “soft logic” of careful direction and a cultivated atmosphere. Sure Stormtroopers are awful shots and everything works out for our heroes, but at least they seem scared enough to be constantly running away. Nobody ever cuts through an entire squad single-handedly. Battles are lengthy and dirty. Sure, none of our heroes ever get waxed, but perilous situations seem to naturally suppress our heroes’ options. Han Solo spends a good deal more time cowering behind walls than going Rambo. Star Trek 2 could have learned from that.
4. Respect death – The ultimate limitation that all action films must accept is death. Breaking the rule of death is almost always a poor decision. I’ll concede that The Search for Spock ultimately reversed Wrath of Khan’s tragic ending, but at least the resurrection was put off for another film. For several years, Spock was dead. Wrath of Khan’s tragic climax can still stand alone as an epic finale.
Basically, you gotta have less of something. Perhaps that’s just what a modern movie audience can’t abide. More more more. Whatever does more wins the day. Whatever’s willing to cram in more action, more changes of scene, more characters and more ‘splosions is going to get the money. Maybe that’s true, but I don’t see why a little more brains and directorial finesse couldn’t be employed to make the ‘splosions and space missiles make a bit more sense or at least appear to. Good sci-fi always requires leaps of logic, but they should at least be little ones.