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Through This Lens: J.J. Abrams’ ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’

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Star Trek: Into Darkness

Directed by J.J. Abrams

USA/2013

The camera in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness often operates as though it were a satellite in space – at times orbiting actors, but not as tightly bound to the laws of gravity. In the first shot, the camera is entering a colorful planet’s atmosphere, slowing down as it catches wind resistance and using its zoom to call attention to some ruckus happening on the ground – a very literal approach to dropping the audience into the middle of the action. As Captain Kirk is chased by the planet’s inhabitants, the camera flies alongside Kirk, or high over the tree tops, the camera shows no limits to where it can and cannot go, serving as a metaphor for the Starship Enterprise itself, boldly exploring the space as it sees fit. This limitless camera – and Abrams’ willingness to put it in impossible vantage points made possible by all the technological achievements made over the 100+ years of film – is perhaps the most endearing quality of the film (along with Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice of course).

While this freedom of movement is at times exciting, it can also become dizzying or, at its worst, comically tedious. Some of the most intense decisions happen on the starship’s bridge, the first of which is how to save Mr. Spock from a volcano that is about to erupt at any second. During this sequence Abrams keeps the camera in constant motion, sometimes repetitively using the exact same movements and compositions: the track from left to right focusing on Captain Kirk, for example. There are three shots in a row of Uhura in which the camera starts in one spot and pushes in on her dramatically as it becomes more and more possible that Spock, the man she loves, won’t make it out of this alive. This push-in dolly shot technique has been historically used to dramatically emphasize a moment – think of Steven Spielberg using his dolly to close in on someone staring at something in awe –  like an alien or a dinosaur or an Abraham Lincoln. Abrams uses this technique in excess, pushing in on characters and objects repetitively to the point that the effect has the opposite effect, becoming campy, which may just be the intention considering the source material. Once the drama with Spock and the volcano is resolved, the movie goes into a brief aside about a man who is a manipulated by Cumberbatch’s Kahn to blow up a building in order to cure his daughter from a fatal illness. This aside begins with another push-in, this time on an alarm clock waking the man up to start his day, which seems completely over the top after using the move so much in the previous scene. When the man puts his ring in a glass of water, creating some type of chemical reaction to blow up a library, Abrams starts in a close-up on the glass, pulls out to show the man taking his ring off, and then pushes back into the glass and the subsequent chemical reaction. While this is an interesting technique on its own, it becomes mundane in a film where this happens repeatedly to the point that it loses its effectiveness.

The same could be said for Abrams’ use of lens flares in the film. While often ridiculed, lens flares can be used to enhance the mood of a film or unite characters or themes in a film. Rob Zombie, for a recent example, used this technique quite effectively in his film The Lords of Salem,  which I wrote about in more detail here. In Abrams’ film, lens flares often distract from or outright obfuscate the actors’ faces – particularly during dramatic scenes giving the impression that he doesn’t trust the actors to provide the necessary emotions, or that these emotions get in the way of a movie nearly incapable of sitting still. When Uhura and Spock look at each other before they kiss, a flare creeps in from a light source that isn’t even being filmed, pulling attention away from a tender moment. The worst of these moments comes when Carol, played by Alice Eve, tells her father that he’ll have to kill her with the rest of the Enterprise’s crew. The flare of the lights around her intensify as the camera slowly pushes in on her delivering probably the only interesting lines she’s had the whole film. Sometimes it feels like the camera is trying to avoid the flares, and other times it’s as though it is trying to assist them, but the actors lose out regardless.

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It’s easy to see Abrams’ influences in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Spielberg being the most obvious. The Earth of the future looks a lot like the one in Minority Report and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, cold and blue. The most colorful planet is the one in which the people are primitive and with no real technological advancements. Earth has some color, usually the green leaves of trees which are at this point in the future merely decorations for the urban landscapes. The darkest planet is Klingon, ravaged by a race of war mongers. It’s one of the most interesting statements in the film – that our planet has moved from the primitive one, closer to the dark one inhabited by war mongers. The Spielberg connection is also apparent in those camera movements – the push-ins mentioned above are a staple of the Spielberg playbook – and Abrams’ movements on the ship’s bridge, with the sweeping tracks from side to side, are similar to the ones Spielberg used while showing Tom Cruise manipulating those fancy screens to hunt down pre-criminals.

Stanley Kubrick is another clear influence. Abrams takes the scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey in which an astronaut jogs through a circular ship as it rotates in space, and turns it into a deadly obstacle course for Captain Kirk and Scotty(Simon Pegg) to navigate. During a critical scene in which Kirk interrogates Khan, Abrams makes another homage to 2001 and the evil computer system HAL. The scene begins with the use of an extremely wide-angled lens that distorts the image so that the walls curve, a type of lens that shows up at no other time in the film and is a clear reference to the the fish-eye lens Kubrick used to represent HAL’s perspective. To make the reference to HAL even clearer, one can see round black glass with flashing red lights that are on many of the walls in the room. While this particular reference to 2001 seems at first cute, albeit superfluous, it comes at a point in which Kirk learns that he’s not being told the whole story by his commanding officers and that there might be an enemy from within the Starfleet. That a proxy for “HAL” is watching as Kirk learns this subtly adds to the conspiracy that Kirk and his crew are being used, and that they’re possibly being monitored.

Sadly, every interesting and expertly executed visual technique or cue is surrounded by missteps or overexposure. The reliance on blue and orange to symbolize opposite sides and conflict seems blasé in the current cinematic climate; a trope that has run its course and – like the lens flare – lends itself more to eyerolls than excitement. None of this is nearly as lazy as hiding Checkov out-of-frame while Scotty and Kirk hang perilously from a railing, only to have Checkov miraculously enter the frame from seemingly nowhere to save them. Why didn’t they see him crawling over to save them? Why didn’t he say he was on his way to help? It’s a cheap effect at creating suspense – using what the audience can’t see against them – and expecting them to believe the characters couldn’t see it either. While the creative potential for such a film as Star Trek: Into Darkness is unlimited by technological advancements and a massive studio budget, it instead falls victim to having too many toys to play with. Suffocating under the weight of its own style leaves the film unable to successfully tell what could have been an engaging and culturally relevant story about the men and women who are sacrificed and manipulated for the gains of the elite.


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