Destroy All Monsters: I Think We've Been This Way Before, Mr. Spock

Matt Brown, Columnist

They can remember it for you wholesale, and they do. At some point, we licensed our pop cultural nostalgia to a handful of multinational conglomerates (well, to be fair, they always owned the licenses) and now they're selling them back to us - though, I guess, not at wholesale, but rather at a horrible markup that is tallied in both dollars and broken hearts. The reboot, the prequel-sequel, the Further Installments Of... this train ride has been chugging along for a while, but bouncing around the vapid hall of mirrors of Star Trek Into Darkness, I began to wonder if it isn't time to get off.

We can, appropriately enough, blame The Phantom Menace for all this; appropriately because a) most people blame The Phantom Menace for everything anyway, up to and including the American financial crisis; and b) J.J. Abrams, the director of Star Trek Into Darkness, will next find himself trying to out-Phantom that Menace by way of the yet-untitled Star Wars Episode VII.

I like J.J. Abrams. I do. He's "one of us," if one of us was given the keys to the kingdom and, apparently, no creative oversight whatsoever. He's the most consistent purveyor of "pretty good" movies to work in A-level Hollywood since maybe 1946. I mean, the guy always makes "pretty good" movies. Super 8 was "pretty good." His Star Trek movies have been "pretty good," although Into Darkness is also "pretty worrisome." His Star Wars movie will be "pretty good" - and in the world Star Wars now lives in, where it's not a creative project but a profit center line item in a big Disney spreadsheet, "pretty good" isn't just good enough, it's basically the requirement. "Pretty good" - no more, no less.

In the last decade's epidemic of strip-mining an audience's nostalgia for the pop culture they loved in their youth, The Phantom Menace was Patient Zero. It was cunningly crafted, not to give you something new to like, but to resell you the things you already liked. Leaving aside whatever else you hate about the prequel trilogy, the thing about those films that ultimately bugged me the most was the degree to which it was all just a closed loop. Instead of Darth Vader we got Darth Maul, and instead of Boba Fett we got Jango Fett, and stormtroopers were just clone troopers who hadn't realized they were stormtroopers yet. Very little in the way of wholly new concepts were added to the saga's landscape. (Tatooine - a miscellaneous ball of mud in the Outer Rim whose very unremarkability drives Luke's desire to get away from there in Episode IV - is visited in all three Star Wars prequel films.) The trappings and content of Episodes I, II, and III were - intentionally, mind you - just reflections of the trappings and content of Episodes IV, V, and VI.

This makes a hair of sense from a storytelling perspective, I suppose, but it's the least ambitious and therefore least interesting way to tell a story. The original Star Wars Trilogy - made with relatively limited budget and resources at a time when every fantastical element was a real pain in the ass to put on screen - teased and alluded to a much larger universe beyond its onscreen borders, spurring the imagination of its young audience and creating a million playdates in a million back yards. The Star Wars prequel trilogy - made with hundreds of millions of dollars and a "we can do anything" digital paintbox - teased and alluded to... the original Star Wars Trilogy.

And, as the prequels proved, this is the name of the game. You all claim to hate them, but they made billions - because they were, by definition, irresistible and pre-sold, because you loved the thing they were based on. The raft of prequels, reboots and reborquels that have been popping up ever since aren't here to tell new and innovative stories. They're here to sell you more of your nostalgia; and to do that, they need to tap your familiarity nerve repeatedly to release the endorphins. Skyfall might itself be a terrific movie, but it still needs to land on those final two beats, where M is behind his desk and Moneypenny is behind her desk, because it's 1962 apparently and there are secretaries again, and you and your parents can walk out of the theatres with the rosy glow of having seen the DB-5 rolling down London's streets.

This is Hall of Mirrors filmmaking, where every image only exists in reflection/relation to another image somewhere else, and it reaches its zenith in Star Trek Into Darkness, which is closed-loop storytelling of the highest order. Here we have a film where the entirety of the narrative tension is drawn, not from anything within the film itself, but from the audience's presumed familiarity with Star Trek II: The Wrath of (spoiler!) Khan.

The best example in the film is actually one of the least significant, plotwise: if you didn't know who Carol Marcus is, her presence in Into Darkness would make no sense whatsoever. But you do know who Carol Marcus is, because you've seen The Wrath of Khan... and so her entire non-relationship with Kirk throughout Into Darkness is lent an unearned frisson, so much so that in the final scene in the movie when Kirk greets her on the bridge of the Enterprise, one nearly expects the camera to pan down to reveal a pregnant belly.

In Abrams' 2009 Star Trek film, the constant riffing and recontextualizing of "the way it used to be" was part and parcel of the narrative concept (and the fun). Crazy Eric Bana pulled a Marty McFly on human history and things went down the same, but different, from how Leonard Nimoy remembered them. And so, Uhura and Spock making out on the transporter pad isn't just a cheeky wink at what the audience thinks it knows about the relationships between the Star Trek characters; it's also an affirmation that a New 52 level reboot has taken place, meaning that the rules have changed.

But here comes dark, lumbering Star Trek Into Darkness, whose purpose (among other things) seems to be to affirm that the rules haven't changed much after all. Given a rebooted universe (rebooted, we were told, to clear away all the baggage that four decades of Star Trek continuity brought, which was theoretically keeping away new audiences) and a wide open landscape from which to paint a brand new story, JJ Abrams and his team plunge us right back into the established continuity anyway. Sure, it's a bit different - largely by way of explaining why the Botany Bay would have been found in 2259 instead of 2267 - and it's been amped up to modern blockbuster standards, which mostly means that Khan can leap great distances and beat people up quickly. But basically, given unlimited resources and storytelling potential, the Abrams team dove straight down the nearest, most familiar rabbit hole, and brought back the person they presume to be this franchise's signature villain.

The resulting film is not just using the established continuity of the pre-reboot Star Trek franchise, it's entirely dependent on it, like a critical care patient who can't breathe without a ventilator. It's nowhere near as graceful as its narrative forebear, of course - Star Trek II didn't care much for Roddenberry's ethos, either, but it was such a human story - but Star Trek Into Darkness is a weird and fascinating narrative experiment nonetheless, burying all of a movie's dramatic framework on a DVD that some of your audience might have watched at some point in the last twenty years. It's also as unambitious a "new" piece of this franchise as The Phantom Menace was for the other Star saga.

Which, again, is entirely the point. There's a reason we're besotted by remakes, reboots, and reborquels; there's a reason Dan Aykroyd is still plugging away at Ghostbusters 3, insisting there's an audience for it - because there is. Because there are enough people with enough warm fuzzies about the Ghostbusters that no matter what, if that movie gets made, it's going to make money.

This all has a lot less to do with some sort of creative vacuum in Hollywoodland (although the relationship between blockbuster filmmaking and people like Abrams and Lindelof, who grew up on the same properties the machine is trying to nostalgize, is worth exploring) than the simple blue ocean economics. The system can and will locate and exploit any area of the market that has gone unlocated and unexploited. And given that we are all pre-sold on Star Trek, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman, James Bond, and the rest - I mean, really, is Into Darkness going to be the first Star Trek blu-ray I don't buy? - the economic value of our nostalgia is rich and deep indeed. But boy, "pretty good" filmmaking is getting tiring.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column about Hollywood and pop culture.

Around the Internet:
  • theblueroom

    DESTROY ALL NERDS

    Funny that it is only these nerd obsessed, overzealous fanboys, that seem to hate INTO DARKNESS, and literally every other reviewer, critic, and/or non-Star Trek fan, seem to love this film. These overzealous fans not only hate... but DESPISE this film.

    Funny thing is that I loved the film, and drumroll please... I am an avid Star Trek fan and have been for 30+ years. This is the best Star Trek since, well, um... Wrath of Khan?? The recasting is beyond spot on, and I was beyond entertained by Abrams latest. Totally expecting, especially after all these numerous negative fanboy rantings, to hate this film. J.J. Abrams completely succeeded in rebooting a franchise the right way, and I could not disagree with Mr. Brown any more. Abrams succeeded in creating a new Star Trek that all non-nerd, non-Trekkies, non-Comic Converntion geeks, could love and be entertained by. This IS how you reboot a franchise. Demonstrated by the glowing critical reviews and what seemingly all viewing members of the mass audience can attest to... Abrams did it right. End of stroy. Can't WAIT for Star Wars. Thanks for almost making me miss this film in the theaters due to your negative review. Remind me not to read your future review of the next Star Wars film.

    "I mean, really, is Into Darkness going to be the first Star Trek blu-ray I don't buy?" CRYBABY. Sorry, please, don't buy it... and mercifully spare the rest of us you biased and irritating fanboy re-review of the upcomming Blu Ray.

  • TheGhostOfGriffinMill

    Um... I could be wrong, but I thought Matt was saying that the film was good enough that, of course he was going to buy the BluRay. I don't think this was a critique of the film per se, more the process endemic in studio film-making now: remix instead of truly re-boot.

    Like you, I grew up on TREK and have been a life-long fan. I LIKED this film and I LIKE JJ as a director, but the material within the film is all re-sourced and VERY slightly re-imagined but, ultimately, devoted to what came before. I think that was Matt's point? And, if so, one I totally agree with.

    All that said, does it really matter beyond this kind of self-selected discussion? No, not really. The machine will run the way it runs, make what it makes, and we will lament when something good could have been great. That's just the way of it. Should we not have these discussions? No. We care. We love cinema, we love movies, we love story. Anything worth caring about is worth discussing.

    And, just my opinion, but one should almost NEVER use reviews alone as a guide to go or not go to a movie (or a restaurant or whatever). After 30+ years of film-going and reading reviews, there are -- maybe -- two reviewers whose insights/opinions line up so consistently and so often with mine that I (sometimes) go with their view enough to not see it myself. If a review from a blogger you don't know and apparently don't care for might be enough for you to steer clear of a franchise you love, I think some critical re-evaluation of your compass is in order.

  • davebaxter

    Hey, theblueroom, don't read Matt's future review of the next Star Wars film. Sorry, please, don't read it...and mercifully spare the rest of us your biased and irritating fanboy re-indignation that other people have critiques and counter-opinions about things you personally like. CRYBABY.

  • I thought Into Darkness was okay but not great, however I get what Matt Brown is trying to say. That with 2009's Star Trek movie hitting the reset button that he wanted something brand new. Not just something riffing off of older Star Trek movies, but taking the chance to doing something new.

    As for appealing to a wider audience, well it looks like there's been some drop off from 2009's Star Trek. Despite the additional 3D prices and wider IMAX release, it isn't doing much better. That based on polling data, the audience is a lot older and more male than 2009's Star Trek. Yes, it's mainstream, but their audience is already beginning to narrowing down.

  • TheGhostOfGriffinMill

    Even though I like JJ's movies, there's something I can't quite quantify that always -- for me, anyway -- makes them a one-timer for me.

    Prior to this latest TREK, I re-watched MI3, SUPER 8 and STAR TREK and -- aside from the lens-flare headache -- the main impression I was left with was similar to Matt's thesis: they're all "pretty good". But, somehow, that's just not enough.

    If I'm flipping through the channels on a Sunday? There is none that I would stay on. I'd keep going, or move on after a minute or two.

    Even IRON MAN 3 which I think is also of the "pretty good" ilk (and, for me, that's mostly because it feels to me like more Shane Black canon than Marvel) is something I could re-watch if it were on.

    (In fact, I did -- my 7 year old made me take him back a second time and I still enjoyed it enough to not nap off).

    And I honestly don't know what it is about JJ's stuff -- I like it. The scripting is never as good as the directing, but it's never bad. And he is one of the best casting directors working today -- SUPER 8 is as perfectly cast as any movie I've seen in a long, long time. I find myself WANTING to like all of his things even more than I end up liking them.

    But something about his work always feels one-and-done for me, non repeat-viewing-able. Don't know why...

  • Kurt

    Fast Food Cinema. Meal forgotten, on to the next one. That is how I feel with both NuTrek and Marvel-Disney product these days...nothing sticks around, yet they all get massive front loaded success, and but the smaller studio product out of production. To belabour the metaphor, there are fewer and fewer half decent restaurants (or even accessable super-grungy hole-inthe-wall type places) because the profit margin and consistency of Return on Investment is in the fast food.

    Meanwhile our cinema-brains simply rot away or we have to spend all our time at film festivals.

    Thank Christ MUD and UPSTREAM COLOR and other passion-projects are still out there for a bit of counterprogramming.

  • dumbass

    right on spot!

  • Benjamin Mah

    Thank you for articulating everything wrong with Into Darkness way better than I could.

  • Cedric Chou Ya-Li

    Great article, and my feeling exactly!

  • MarsHottentot

    New 52? That is some insider nerdball, ironically enough.

  • Thanks, I try. ;)

  • its nerdism, a genre unto itself. the hall of mirrors is your own obsessions playing back to you, and they make billions of bucks because there is a whole micro-autistic culture of film geeks that are archiving cinema rather than experiencing it, and this kind of in-the-know is what made the subtext easter eggs of Lost into front and center text with the future incarnation storytelling.

    It is an aesthetic. Tastes can be discerning, but in and of itself it matters how the aesthetic is used and to what effect. If it is just name-dropping, winking, branding, toy-merchandising, source material circle jerk, that it is a vapid application of the aesthetic, the same way one can play with Americana as an aesthetic but saturate it Michael Bay style to something reeking of car commercials.

    I don't think Abrams' Star Trek use of nerdism aesthetic is vapid, and in particular with Into Darkness, I don't think he is operating paint-by-number in strict observation of Wrath of Khan... in fact there are so many dissimilarities between the two projects (to the very look and behavior of Kahn) that most people are bitching about why it should even be called a Kahn movie. This story is not just a reboot, or reboquel as you said, it is an alternate universe which allows for in the narrative explicit some unique privilege to the homages that are sprinkled through - there may even be a long-term narrative thrust (akin to Lost) to show how behaviors in different realities may not be coincidental but driven by some yet unseen cosmic force. On that level at least Abrams is doing something new with the concept of homage. I don't think Into Darkness is as slavish to the source material as you let on. There are the same characters because in the alternate universe they exist, and there is a knowing, nerdist re-calibrating of the experience in foreknowledge (like the audience) of what came before (an attitude of storytelling being 'one of us' rather than behaving aloof to that reality of nerdism). But Into Darkness is an original story that just uses the previous for grace notes only.

    It plays with geek expectations but it does it to their advantage, what they THINK they know about what will happen, subverting it in points while all the while creating a movie experience that is meant to be fun albeit less goofy than its predecessor. You want to hang out with this crew, you are in a somewhat familiar world, but different, and the dissonance creates a tension that would not be their otherwise had this been your father's Trek. Rather than submerge fully into nostalgia wankery, he uses it as a platform to tell new stories... the cinematic equivalent of what in comic books I believe are called "what ifs".

    The point is not how this fits into a neat canon to obsess over... it is to pull the rug from under the fans, use what they know against them, so as to jolt them into an experience. Nerdist as a narrative tactic as much as a nostalgic flourish.

  • pylgrim

    I actually have to agree with you. I'm pretty geeky myself, but for one reason or the other I never really got into Trek (though I remember seeing and enjoying some TNG episodes here and there) and I loved this movie. Then one of my friends told me how [SPOILERS] Kirk's death scene and Spock's reaction mirror similar events in RoK and I thought it was quite cute and clever that J.J. decided to invert the roles.

    In other words: As a non trekkie, with no point of reference, I enjoyed the movie. Learning about the original references added to that enjoyment. Abrams did a great job of making this franchise approachable to the uneducated, while rewarding long-term fans for their loyalty with winks and call-backs spread throughout the movie. Too bad the fans chose to take insult at them.

  • Pa Kent Says Maybe

    You think, you think, you think. But, you're wrong.

    Abrams is doing nothing that is creative, in the least. He's marketing brand types, rejiggering names and supposed types, reducing everything to single notes, and taking advantage of a particular consumerist, self-destructive addiction.

    Nu Kirk is a hot-head. He will be a hot-head in every Nu Trek movie. He will have to learn how to control his hot-headedness, every time, although everything that happens, every time, will result from his having "hot-head." Nu Spock is emotionless. Except, he's angry all the time, which is an emotion, and he cries, a lot, which is also an emotion. Which is the opposite of being emotionless, but whatever. Nuhuru's the Black chick.

    Abrams is Mama Bird, and you are slurping vomit.

    Call it Nerdism or whatever you want but admit what it is: Shallow. And, while we're admitting things, admit what you are: An apologist. All your talk about dissonance and tension that would not be "their" in "your Father's Trek" is "an ungrateful spawn's Blah-Blah-Blah." Star Trek had Drama, Characters, and it had a Premise. It didn't need the manufactured gimmickry of clever name-dropping.

    "What ifs" are not new stories. New is something else. Google it.

  • TheGhostOfGriffinMill

    But my take-away from Matt's article is: why even do that? If you're going to re-boot for a wider, younger audience than the core TREK fan, give some nods to that original supporter -- I liked Bones' Gorn delivery nugget -- but you're clearing the deck. Why are you relying almost EXCLUSIVELY on what came before?

    Are there differences between Khan Mark I and Khan Mark II? Yes. Many. But I don't think that's the point Matt's making here. To me, the point is: why use Khan AT ALL? So far through two movies we have Romulans, old Spock, Klingons, new Khan.

    To me, what I'm waiting for is whoever comes after JJ to do what Brannon Braga did when he created the Borg -- create something new for STAR TREK that resonates and feels fresh. Was/were the Borg derivative of a number of sci-fi tropes? Yes, obviously. But for TREK, it was a NEW story point that grew and grew in popularity and significance until it became a cornerstone of the TREK-verse as deeply ingrained (for better and worse) as the Klingons, Khan or anything else.

    THAT kind of creativity is what makes good-into-great and this re-booted franchise is, imo, still waiting for something like that.

    "Pretty good" indeed.

  • Nicely done sir... I coined the term "preboot" to describe similar sentiments a year ago for a film that I believe you liked much more than me.

    http://twitchfilm.com/news/201...

    Meanwhile, I thought this TREK was fabbo, and did the dance between nostalgia and summer blockbuster better than any JJ work to date. Frankly, I loved the hell out of it, non-canonical elements and all. This film may be my cotton candy (in a way that the Marvel Universe is not), but it still remains yummy for me. For now, at least, I've yet to get sick of it, and can always throw in ST:V to remind what we could be dealing with.

  • There was a long time when I really, really hoped Bandersnatch was playing Sybok.

  • I admit that would have been kind of cool...

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