Star Trek: Into Darkness
One of the criticisms of Abrams -- perhaps the foremost criticism of him -- is that he likes to let other directors do the hard work of staking out new territory, and then he comes in into fully delineated terrain, and makes some adjustments -- "Sally would work better with Jonathon, and the couch should go there--". With his last film everybody had him as of the dutiful flock of Spielberg, and with this film, at least at the beginning -- the same. It's Raiders of the Lost Ark, with tribesman chasing down our interloper heroes, spears thrown, an artifact used to momentarily buy time by tricking the tribesmen into forgetting their current purpose and supplicating themselves, and an escape into an airship (no snake, but discord of a kind: Spock and Kirk feuding). But okay, in truth this sort of chase is how he began his last Star Trek film, so maybe this is just how he gets a number of his films revved up. The possibility, though, that Abrams is a bit too comfortable being in a great director's shadow, being a "mini-me," clasped in clothing and appenedendums to someone/something solace-offering and protecting, comes more to the fore --very irritatingly to the fore -- when we realize that Kirk and his crew aren't actually adults out on their own adventures, but more like misbehaving kids back home with disappointed parents, who can't believe what they made of the freedom granted them to explore the woods. This is the way it was in Abrams’ Mission Impossible 3, if you remember. And I bring up this film because, for me, this is not a crew who will ever credibly go on some five-year journey all on their own, but more like a team of top-notch agents, who will go out on raiding missions but always at the end back to home base, reconnecting with an older and more entrenched culture, that coddles them, relieves them of some of the responsibility of their own actions. Mind you, Abrams has this way of making it seem that if it's too much just your own braced against the world, where you're the head, accountable to no one, or when you're engaged in affairs that are a bit too much gravitas -- as in this film, when a great-power world war is threatened -- then there's no room for play. Everything has to be rigidly taught (taught, as in tight), and often angry as hell, so that you've got so much seriousness going on it'll ostensibly allay any moment that sneaks in that reveals how you're as nervous as hell and feeling totally not up to it! Older characters seem to manage this okay, and in truth get to be relaxed about it -- witness the cowboy reaction,"Ah hell," the admiral offers Kirk when he learns he's been talking to Khan. Ostensibly it's more their turf, like as if Cold War and WW2 was more their turf rather than our current more insouciant foreign policy. Abrams does better when things are allowed to be not so serious, when the seriousness has been tempered down, and affect and warmth and can slowly infiltrate and build into something. When Kirk decides not to seek out and kill Khan, but rather capture him and have him go through due-process, you feel it in the theater like a relief of tension; and it is no surprise that on their mission to capture him we get some development in the Uhura-Spock relationship which had been crushed by all the emergent seriousness, with tendrils for a later more whole-hog exploration of it --"What is that even like?" What is that even like?, or what would that be like?, is in fact a question that in effect gets floated up a number of times in the film -- what is like to be fired by your best friend (Scotty, by Kirk)?; what is it like to feel someone else's death (Spock, through Pike)?; what is like to see McCoy flirt?; to see Scotty souced? And it is a question that gets its best reaction and exploration from us when we've been given a climate suited for empathic identification rather than route response. Down-play the stakes a bit, and we get that -- I swear the film would have been just as good if the whole thing took place in a bar, exempting of course Khan, who could be checked into every once in awhile for bedazzlement at what one superhuman can do to whole line-ups of opponents.
No doubt, it is partly owing to Abrams' deeply democratic nature that he has more than a few of the crew serve as captain (Kirk, Spock, Sulu, and -- in effect -- Uhura, when she leads the encounter between the crew and the Klingons), but just as true is surely because he seems to intrinsically identify a position of ultimate command as confining, as something you almost want to loft for someone else to do (sucker!): Don't necessarily think of Sulu as privileged here, for instance; he's more stationed while everyone else cavorts into space.
Back to my thought that what this crew is is a team of elite special agents, never completely detached from home base. At some point in the film I began to think of it as akin to the last James Bond movie -- Skyfall. Two great genius agents (Kirk and Khan; Bond and Raoul) betrayed by an older, very near retirement-aged Mother or Father who ultimately had bequeathed them. I have to admit I actually did not enjoy this Trek all that much, and felt that when things threatened to be taken out of the youngins' hands and given to seniors who didn't seem so equivocating and abashed at going out on their own, even though this meant huge regression to Clash-of-Civilizations war, it looked to be more captivating than the plentiful smaller shows that Abrams put on. So in compensense I did force myself to think upon how much more evolved this special-agent film was to Skyfall. We were supposed to root for the militaristic turn in Skyfall, with headquarters being drawn back to a WW2 bunker rather than kept open but vulnerable in the city, with M quoting Tennyson, about old men, old values, returning undaunted in a world of threat. We were supposed to hate counsels and trial-justice. We were discouraged to empathize: never for a moment were we supposed to like Raoul, or consider that he had just cause (even though he was sacrificed for heaven's sake!) -- rather perhaps heap more on his misery, by insulting his bold fashion (I liked his shirt, myself). It's very bad when you essentially have a twin of yourself but cannot think of anything nice to say about him, because this means you're as far away as you can be from empathizing for your unwanted qualities being grafted onto him for dismissal. Into Darkness sidesteps this darkness -- we are to like law courts, hate or at least regret old dinosaurs returning, like a relaxed atmosphere that kindles an appreciation of nuance, and of course throughout thoroughly enjoy and like Khan -- and tries to fold all kinds of calamities – including twice the devastation of good parts of a downtown -- into it that can still be managed in a non-inflated, non-emergency measures, unalarmist way. There is an evolved person in Abrams, however much it is still true he's a boy-adult head-of-family caught as a fulcrum in a Serious Man / Everybody Loves Raymond world. Making something of the domestic, because he likes the living/family room, but also because there’s no way he can allow himself out.