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Star Trek, Star Wars & Avatar; Putting Sci-Fi Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness, Avatar 2 Fan Art & Star Wars Ep VII Fan art

In almost everything, there is subtext, intentional or not. In the ‘not’ category is the significant black cloud coming with the silver lining of three massive developments in movieland this year. Firstly, after months of feverish speculation, J.J. Abrams was chosen as the man to helm the return of Star Wars to the big screen; he confirmed his worthiness for the role with the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, a mega-hit blockbuster action adventure putting the highly rated Star Trek 2009 into the shadows; almost in an attempt to draw attention away from Disney and Spielberg’s protégé, James Cameron announced that the most successful film of all time, his film Avatar, would indeed have the three sequels he had long discussed, thankfully with different screen writers covering the wordy bits. Cue much jubilation from fandom; the silver lining. The malignant black cloud, the subtext, was the continued throes of the science-fiction genre as it is starved to death.

An incredibly pessimistic response, for sure; it would certainly be healthier to look at the stark fact that Hollywood’s multi-billion dollar investments are giving fans what they want. This has been proven by hard numbers. Star Wars is the biggest cinematic franchise of all time, in terms of widespread revenue and the potency of its merchandising. Cameron’s Avatar made more than $2 billion, as well as spawning a new source of social angst for Halloween fancy dress party goers. By shifting the sensibilities and opening up the saga to a new audience, Abrams revolutionized the Star Trek franchise with similar financial benefits. It had fallen into disrepair both critical and commercial in 2002 with the disastrous Star Trek: Nemesis, a film so toxic that it almost killed the career of a current cinema superstar. But all of these factors are tinged with a tragic irony that will be lost on those who invest in what these enterprises offer.

Zachary Quinto, Bennedict Cumberbatch & Chris Pine in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Younger = More punching according to Into Darkness

This is best personified with Into Darkness. The fact is you will not see another film this year that offers the same high-octane, restless and huge scale spectacle entertainment. Opening inside a volcano and somehow growing larger, faster and bolder from then on in, it is an acid trip of action and set piece. Even in critical terms, it is a commendable endeavor and a tribute to the boyish enthusiasm and cinematic nous of its director; rarely does a full so crowded, fast and at times incoherent result in such a fun experience. Few filmmakers would have avoided a mess in trying to harness so many elements at such high speed. You could go even further and praise Abrams for opening up Star Trek as an institution to a completely different corners of the market. All that had to be done to achieve this was removal of the franchise’s beating heart and soul.

Go back eleven years to Nemesis. By this point, it had become clear that the crew of The Next Generation could no longer carry the name or the expectations of Trek, a megalith of 20th Century fiction spanning five different serials on television and ten feature length adventures at the movies. Trying too hard to both evoke memory of Trek’s most critically acclaimed film to date, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and also push an ageing cast into action hero roles, it wound up in an overly dark, overly formulaic underwhelming storm of ill-disciplined noise and death. The box office, especially when compared to what came before, proved a fatal misstep and an inappropriate send off to the cast of such a beloved show. This had begun long before Nemesis however. Only the mishandled Star Trek: Generations actually tried to play to the strengths of characters better suited to philosophical quagmires than fist fights and gunfights. Despite being hugely popular and raucous fun, First Contact tried to be Moby Dick and came closer to Die Hard in Space.

LeVar Burton, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, Patrick Stewart, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden & Jonathan Frakes, promotional still for Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987)
The Next Gen crew left their philosophical smarts on the TV set

Name the major criticisms of The Next Generation’s forays into cinema and you notice a strange trend; unfocussed and occasionally incoherent plotting at the writing stage, attempting to move the show away from its thought over fight tradition, making an action movie with Star Trek characters instead of making a Star Trek movie with some action. Ironically, considering the fact that it redeemed the name, Abrams’ reboot can quite legitimately be tarred with that same brush. Rather than fixing the problems, it reshaped the world around which this universe is set in an effort to make these faults acceptable. Make the cast younger to make their status as action heroes less incongruous. Create an alternate timeline to ensure that nothing is off-limits when it comes to destruction or retconning. Hit the accelerator to make sure that nobody notices the plot.

This was merely notable with Star Trek 2009. It is positively overwhelming when viewing Star Trek Into Darkness. When you stop to actually think about a set up involving double agent super human relics, treasonous admirals and the threat of intergalactic war, you realize that so much of the story is perilously underwritten. Key elements fuelling the story are dismissed with a casual shrug in the same manner as Nemesis. Compare Shinzon lampshading the presence of his super-ship to the similar manner in which Admiral Marcus ‘explains’ the discovery of Khan and his resultant positioning within Starfleet’s high command. Attempting to mask this with admittedly thrilling interludes and pleasing references to the show’s history is a knowing admission of error, especially when these tie ins reveal a huge contrast in thematic quality and depth.

Without the references to Star Trek II, Khan is no better written than Nemesis's Shinzon
Without the references to Star Trek II, Khan is no better written than Nemesis’s Shinzon

These are semantics, however. The bigger cause for concern is that in loud, verbose and breakneck style Into Darkness doesn’t have a story to tell and instead acts as a catalyst for confrontations, mega-battles and punching on top of flying cars. At its core, Star Trek, even when at its most hokey and ridiculous with dwarfs and green women, was an ideas show. This element of the show was crystallized by The Next Generation, which replaced a womanizing, alpha male captain with a philosopher who was badass by dint of his morality and verbal put downs, not his fighting smarts or physical prowess. Setting it in space and in the future allowed for a number of circumstances and scenarios simply not possible on the Oregon Trail. This is the most basic and fundamental law of science-fiction as a genre of storytelling; only invoke it when there is no other way to express your idea or tell your story. By this law, Into Darkness isn’t sci-fi; it is Mission Impossible 5 with the gimmick of including starships and future-tech.

And here-in lies the crux of the problem, the reason that Avatar 4 and Star Wars: Episode 9 represent such a threat to the legacy of forward thinking storytellers and deep thinkers like Stanislav Lem, Phillip K. Dick, Jules Verne and even Stanley Kubrick. There is now an institutionalized focus on using science-fiction as a means to create big-budget blockbuster movies on a greater scale than essentially boil down to “X in Space”. Despite being created by a sci-fi purist of yester year (The first two Terminators perfectly fit the genre’s qualification requirements and then som) Avatar’s biggest weakness is the unoriginality of its story, which boils down to Dances With Wolves by way of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The original Star Wars is a fantasy story using a sci-fi setting, as prefaced by its iconic ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far far away”, and one that borrows heavily from history and bears numerous allusions to earthbound conflicts. There are no bold ideas or new lines of thinking to be found in Abrams’ Star Trek, Star Wars or especially the formulaic Avatar.

Sam Worthington in Avatar (2009)
Here come the $equels

But how could there be? As already noted by almost every single film fan with the capacity to notice things, Hollywood’s future strategy is a long conveyor belt of remakes, reboots and continuations. It is what makes the announcement of Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s next project, so refreshing. Even that small morsel of hope is tempered by the realization that almost nobody else on the planet would be allowed the opportunity to make an original film of such scale, budget and nature. 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the greatest pieces of science-fiction ever produced, would never be made today. The same can be said for Ridley Scott classics Alien and Blade Runner. Similarly, one of the few films to really attempt to justify its space bound setting, Moon, was a beneficiary of happy circumstance. On a comparatively tiny budget and making use of the writer’s strike to acquire the services of a top class technical department, Duncan Jones’ debut only reached the critical heights and therefore broader levels of attention that it did through luck. Even more lambasted efforts, such as the underrated Pandorum, managed to reach screens thanks to investment from abroad. Hollywood isn’t interested in making genre savvy pieces independent from old franchises regardless of quality in a classic case of devaluing the intelligence of its audience.

The reference to Nolan is apt because his 2010 colossus Inception proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that a big budget and ambitious film could be intelligent and concept driven without bearing a recognizable name and still be commercially and critically successful. One could net a considerable windfall by betting that somebody at executive level has attempted to peddle the merits of a sequel to its director at least once in the last three years. There is something very depressing that rather than attempting to create new iconic stories and legacies, the industry is merely milking the pre-set ones. The original Star Wars was a huge gamble and a film that probably shouldn’t have worked, yet did big time. Its two resulting sequels were not sure things, but started a dynasty and signaled the maniacal monarchy that is George Lucas’ latter day career. These same risks are no longer being taken out of fear of losing money. Money men will look at the disaster of John Carter and suggest that this justifies their conservatism, completely oblivious to the fact that Carter failed based on its own lack of merit rather than because barely anybody had heard of it before filming commenced.

Star Wars (1978) Promotional Art
The magic of nostalgia, mercilessly exploited every year from 2015 onwards.

Avatar and its sequels perhaps offer the final denouement. The film was unthinkably successful thanks to genius marketing and its perfect timing to truly launch the 3D revolution. Whether or not you were swayed by the computer generated environments or not, however, you surely cannot deny that at a most basic storytelling level it is remarkably unremarkable and probably the most derivative thing in Cameron’s CV. In short, not really appealing when it comes to expanding its universe with further installments, especially since it is a self contained film despite Cameron’s claims that further sequels were always on the agenda. But that is exactly what’s happening, and it has nothing to do with creative vision. It made over $2 billion. That stark fact means that it is a name to be exploited and a financial opportunity to be mined and ultimately sucked dry. Even if the follow ups don’t reach that level of reimbursement, they will create a cash pile even Scrooge McDuck would be overwhelmed by.

Yes, filmmaking is a business and yes, these three developments this year represent that business in blooming, prolific form. The future is bright for the industry. That success, however, is effectively killing off a genre for good and ensuring that the days of space setting by necessity and other worlds as a means to bigger questions are consigned to ancient history. To the tune of several billion big ones, science-fiction has been acquired as a play ground for action movies and blockbuster, driving out visionary idealists and philosophers. It is a state of affairs that could quite easily have been the basis for a Phillip K. Dick story. Yes, it is that dystopian.

Better concentrate of that silver lining then.

This has been a Strange Interpretation…

Scott Patterson


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