“I don’t ‘get’ Star Trek.” If you mention our distinctly American phenomenon in a random group of people, chances are at least one person will volunteer that common refrain. When the franchise mantle was handed to J.J. Abrams, its popularity had withered from the mainstream marketplace, though die-hard fans remained as committed as ever. With the pedigree Abrams has built for himself, it seemed a virtual certain bet he could reinvigorate the motion picture arm of the Star Trek universe. Abrams past work includes (take a deep breath): TV shows Fringe, Revolution, Person of Interest, Alcatraz, Undercovers, Alias, Felicity, Lost, and films Super 8, Cloverfield, Mission Impossible III, and the upcoming 5, Star Trek (2009), and he wrote the screenplays for Armageddon and 1992’s Mel Gibson vehicle Forever Young.
To put the franchise popularity’s decline into context, the last of the original Star Trek films, Nemesis (2002) had earned less money than any other Star Trek film before it ($43 million). The first film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, had earned nearly twice as much ($82 million), and that was in 1979. It’s little surprise that Abrams decided drastic measures were necessary.
Abrams approach included several core decisions: 1) Eliminate the original actors. Shoehorning an 80 year old William Shatner into a Captain’s uniform wasn’t likely to re-invigorate the movie-going public’s interest. 2) Eliminate the original time-line. In fairness, there’s no point in remaking the original films. Creating an alternate universe allows for countless new interpretations. This no doubt offends many purists, but opens up opportunities to attract a broader audience. 3) Throw away as much of the original philosophy as possible. Experts will argue Star Trek has endured, not due to incredible set pieces or great fight sequences, but because of its binding humanist outlook. Abrams decided to take a different tack: adrenaline, in as pure a form as possible.
Fast forward to today, and Abrams has taken that formula, and ran with it. That’s not to say Star Trek Into Darkness is a bad film, or even a bland one – far, far from it. The bulk of this film is action, effects, and bravado, amp’d up like no other Trek film before it, while lightly seasoned with Star Trek mythology, aliens, anecdotes, romance, and not-so-inside jokes.
To make a film a tent-pole, major summer blockbuster, the primary resource needed is money. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns reboot enjoyed a mind-boggling 270 million dollar production budget in 2006. Warner Brother’s return on their investment wasn’t exactly gratifying: box office receipts of $200 million domestic, and $190 million international. Seven years later, Abrams has managed to make Into Darkness for just $180 million – a 1/3 smaller budget. With 30 minutes of Imax footage, grand set pieces, nuanced cgi, massive battle sequences, 3D filming, and huge ensemble cast, it looks like he’s managed a budgetary hat trick, for as far as the senses are concerned, nothing is left off the table in this film.
Again, purists might be offended by how far afield the new Trek films have run from the original essence that made Trek work. There is a logical explanation, with a 98.7% statistical likelihood to be correct. The movie industry has evolved, and the buzz word today is “emerging markets.” In short, there is more money to be made overseas than there is in the US. It’s so important today that many, if not most, big budget American films are actually being released to most international markets before we see them in the U.S. (See: Iron Man 3, or Fast & Furious 6, which is already out internationally, etc). A typical box office gross today is 2/3’s international, 1/3 domestic, and many popular films follow that trend. Right now, with only 17 days in release, Iron Man 3‘s take is over $300m domestic, over $700 international. Avatar (2009) scored a whopping $700m domestic + $2 billion foreign. (2 Billion – with a “B”).
If there’s one point that’s clear, Star Trek is as American as apple pie. While science fiction can find enthusiasts around the world, it might be the decades old “space race” between Russia and the U.S. that’s responsible for our exaggerated zeal. It’s true that a space “shuttle” and even part of the original opening voice-over were lifted directly from ancient (1950’s) NASA literature. According to thespacereview.com, Gene Roddenberry lifted part of the dialogue from the March 1958 non-technical document “Introduction to Outer Space,” which reads, “…the compelling urge of man to explore and to discover, the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before.” (article 506/1, Dwayne A. Day, 12/28/05).
2009: How did Abrams’ reboot fair? $257m domestic / $127m foreign. That’s a near perfect 66% / 33% split – and dismal by today’s standards, despite bettering some of the original films’ 80/20 splits. Its strongest foreign market was the U.K., grossing $35m, with strong performance in Germany and Australia, but just $4m through its entire run in Russia. And given the expected 33/66 split, the studio sees about $370 million left on the table. However, considering its budget of “just” $150 million, it was still a substantial success worthy of a sequel.
Since then, beyond simple speculation, we can look to the almighty powers that be (the executive producers) to see what was to come with Into Darkness. The answer is any sci-fiction fan’s worst nightmare: focus groups. Yes, Paramount (film right’s owners since ST1), along with SkyDance and Bad Robot (Abrams’ production company) co-produced the project, with building international receipts as their prime directive. According to thewrap.com (May 08, 2013), Abrams and crew trekked across the globe showing bits of the film, and asking viewers what they liked, or didn’t. “Ditch Spock’s ears,” writes TheWrap. Sacrilege! In short, all the qualities that define Star Trek should be phased out.
Paramount asks a lot of Abrams, not just to revive a languishing property, but in addition, make the 12th film in the franchise the first one to have the foreign box office out gross the domestic. Given that’s become a near requirement to make a modern blockbuster turn a profit, Abrams’ final product fulfills their wish, at least in terms of molding it to that market.
Star Trek Into Darkness begins on the fictional planet Niribu. Niribu exists in real world superstition: According to wikipedia, Niribu is a doomsday planet. Generally beyond Neptune, it travels a 350 year elliptical orbit, which eventually will collide with earth. Originated by Zecharia Sitchin, his imagined planet has been adopted copiously into other prophesies as well as literature.
Back into Darkness: Kirk and Spock are on Trek iteration Niribu, which is moments from self implosion. Spock triggers a “cold fusion device” which instantly solidifies a volcano, saving a fledgling humanoid species from extinction. Unfortunately, Spock is in said volcano, and the only way to get him out is for the Enterprise to move in close, in full view of imperiled humanoid species. This violates the Federation Prime Directive: Do not interfere with a species’ evolution. Having barely grasped command of fire, seeing a massive space ship ever so slightly qualifies. This adventure is a preface, and clearly featured in trailers, so little is being revealed here. On return to Earth, however, Kirk violated the Prime Directive, so the visit isn’t the brief pit-stop he imagined. Hint: violating the PD can result in being demoted, stripped of command, ejection from Star Fleet, or worse.
Abrams’s Prime Directive, however, is to appeal to an international audience, so very little time is spent in investigative committees, or on personal conflicts. Before the sun sets, terrorism, phasers, assassinations and betrayals are piling up faster than a tribble’s extended family, and the Enterprise (which bears hardly any resemblance to a science vessel anymore, by the way) is off to parts known and unknown to catch the baddies and bring them to justice… or wait, blow them to smithereens (alteration credited: Paramount’s international focus groups). And then blow more stuff to smithereens. And then more. In fact, the Enterprise’s trip back to Earth looks more like a round of the 1980’s arcade game Defender than any episode of Star Trek ever aired on TV.
As mentioned early on, the film is running on rocket fuel and rarely takes time to refill the tank. That’s actually fine. The effects are fantastic, the various strands of plot are interwoven with skill, and while Trek lore is downplayed, it’s not forgotten. The main characters remain true to their original incarnations, and all of the most well known trivia is used for maximum effect: red shirts, Klingons, unnecessary nods to creatures large and small find a place in this film, and Abrams knows how to include the material in a way that satirizes the original without offending most hard core fans. As a summer popcorn actioner, Into Darkness has phasers set to maximum.
So far, Into Darkness is enjoying a modest improvement in foreign markets. With an over $80m domestic opening weekend, it’s also taken over $80m in foreign markets, including an $8m premiere in Russia (twice the entire run there for the last film). While it works for Into Darkness, it remains to be seen if the franchise will endure with pumped up action, while muting the interpersonal charm and philosophical underpinnings than have given Star Trek its remarkably deep roots.
Misc. Footnote: Amidst claims of sexism, it should be noted that Abrams had originally included scenes for many major characters to appear “out of uniform.” It’s in the editing room where some of those scenes were eliminated. Here’s the Bededict Cumberbatch nude scene:
Want more Trek info? Check out my ST:ID preview here.