Pop-culture recycling doesn’t get much knottier than this. In 2009, J.J. Abrams directed “Star Trek,” a reboot of a popular movie franchise spun off from a legendary TV series. The film succeeded beyond all expectations — it was rousing and sharp, nostalgic yet forward-thinking, an adventure for Trekkies and newbies and everyone in between. It was also a powerful reminder that the reason this particular movie franchise got off the ground in the first place had more than a little to do with the galaxy-altering success of “Star Wars.”
In 1979, the maw of Hollywood was hungry for space operas, and here was a mythical TV series, with its army of fans, that had had a major influence on George Lucas’s Movie That Changed The World. The first three “Star Wars” films are often thought of (with justification) as a joystick update of a “Buck Rogers” serial. But really, it was the innovation of “Star Trek” — the TV series — to treat an outer-space universe of rubber-gilled aliens and lurching superships and tech-jock pilots as casually miraculous, eye-popping science. The whole Han Solo tone of wisecracks at warp drive (or light speed, or whatever we’ll be calling it in ten years) was, to a degree, a knockoff of the gospel according to Gene Roddenberry.
As long as William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and company were starring in them, the original wave of “Trek” movies, of which there were six (I count the “Next Generation” films as, in essence, a different series), were always a slightly awkward hybrid, with one foot stuck in the stodgy land of ’60s television and the other in the post-“Star Wars” nebula of FX dazzle. The godawful first movie was actually entitled “Star Trek — The Motion Picture,” which makes it sound like something you might watch at a nickelodeon. If I had to choose my all-time favorite “Star Trek” film, it would still probably be “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” even though it’s a movie whose human (or Klingon, or genetically engineered mutant tyrant) drama is ultimately more memorable than its cheesy-awesome trapped-in-the-’80s spectacle. Ricardo Montalbán, seething with vengeance and a kind of mad-dog disco-chest-thumping virility, rocked and ruled, and what more could any “Star Trek” fan really want? None of the next four films in the series could hold a phaser to it.
But then along came J.J. Abrams. By the time of his reboot, the meaning of special effects in movies had changed. In the CGI era, they were no longer added value — they’d become the value. The directors of all six “Star Trek” films (Robert Wise, Nicholas Meyer, and, yes, Messrs. Nimoy and Shatner) suddenly looked like mechanics from a distant century. Abrams, a visual wizard, was the first filmmaker to conceive and direct a “Star Trek” adventure as if it was…well, “Star Wars.”
It took genuine showbiz audacity to try and refill a set of roles as iconic as William Shatner’s mellifluously self-addicted hambone stud Captain James T. Kirk, or Leonard Nimoy’s dryly inscrutable, raised-dagger-eyebrow Mr. Spock, or DeForest Kelley’s loyal grouch Bones, and so on. But Abrams did it. Not just by recruiting a fantastic set of actors, but by cueing them to grasp something subtle: that beneath the sci-fi bluster, the drama of “Star Trek” was all play, and the play itself could be intensely dramatic. Abrams filled the vastness of space with the magic of tossed-off, fast-break personality. Yet he also took a page from George Lucas by balancing intimacy and spectacle, often at the same moment. And that was no coincidence. By the time of his second “Star Trek” movie, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” it was more or less evident that Abrams was auditioning for “Star Wars.” He wanted to captain that franchise, and he earned the promotion by proving himself to be a master of retrofitted nostalgia.
That was his achievement in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” a picture that gives off a depth charge of sinister excitement I’ll continue to go to bat for, even as I realize it’s a movie that many “Star Trek” fans dislike so intensely they feel betrayed by it. In casting Benedict Cumberbatch as a version of Khan, the amoral mutant superman who treats any planet of lesser beings as if it were an insect colony to be smooshed, Abrams cut corners in “Trek” mythology in a way that I, as an un-Trekkie, don’t pretend to totally understand — but more than that, I couldn’t pretend to see why it mattered that much. Cumberbatch is riveting, the most elegant of monsters, an onion-skin sociopath cunning enough to manipulate Kirk and his team even as he tells them a good portion of the truth. He’s also a savage who teases out the savagery in others, notably Spock. (In “Into Darkness,” the tug-of-war between logic and anger in Zachary Quinto’s performance is, to me, a high point in Spockiana.) The reason that I bring up how hated “Star Trek Into Darkness” is in so many quarters isn’t to pick a fight with Trekkies, but to ask: If the creators of the “Star Trek” films aren’t allowed to manipulate the mythology, then what are they going to do? Where is there left for the series to boldly go?
I don’t believe that “Star Trek Beyond” is the answer. Justin Lin’s new film delivers in terms of action, but it’s a deluxe place-holder, earthbound in spirit and a bit leaden, all too rooted in ancient interplanetary tropes. It has visual extravagance (especially in the vertiginous climax), as well as tasty bits and pieces of the characters’ personalities, but it rarely gets both things together in the same place, and that’s a serious setback. The movie’s caution feels, on some level, like a reaction to the negative response to “Into Darkness.” It suggests the possibility of a franchise that’s content to tread water, to be a series of mere “episodes” rather than what “Into Darkness” was trying to be (and, to me, succeeded at being): an adventure that pushed its characters to the frontier of their emotions. As a culture, we’ve been watching “Star Trek” for half a century now, and the “Star Trek” films have every right to tap our affection for things that are old. But if they don’t leaven that with things that are new, they’ll quickly come to seem like yesterday’s voyage.