The word “reboot” came into common usage as a term for restarting a computer, often after it had mysteriously seized up and ceased responding to you every whim. While one might simply be rebooting in order to allow software installation to complete its process, it’s the former definition that has stuck, and been adopted by Hollywood.
Now, reboot is used rather profligately to refer to any version of a previously told tale which varies in any way from the orthodoxy or iconography of the original version. It’s a restart, a new beginning. On TV, 1313 Mockingbird Lane was a reboot of The Munsters; Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a reboot of the failed film of the same name. In film, we are awash in reboots, with one failed attempt to reboot the Chris Reeve Superman films already forgotten and yet a new version in the works, while Batman has been rebooted twice: by Tim Burton and by Christopher Nolan. Burton wiped away the camp while indulging his own dark and flamboyant predilections; Nolan drained the stories of color and humor as he stripped them down to nihilistic, vengeful basics.
Reboot is a new marketing buzzword as well, swallowed whole by the entertainment press. In succession, the past few James Bonds (Dalton, Brosnan, Craig) were rolled out as reboots of the venerable tentpole movie series. We were even sold the idea that Skyfall was a reboot, simply so the producers could distance themselves from the debacle that was Quantum of Solace, the disappointing follow-up to the bracing Casino Royale. Fittingly for the Bond films, “reboot” is code for “forget the old, this is new,” even when the changes aren’t always that radical.
Despite the penchant for the reboot, which implies a fresh take, Hollywood marketing seems to be a startlingly imitative practice, and we constantly see posters and even trailers that seem to mimic others. Romantic comedies all look a certain way, so it really doesn’t matter whether we know the difference between Jessica Alba or Jessica Biel; action movies typically fetishize outsized weapons for obvious and Freudian reasons.
Which brings me to today’s whirlwind of comment about how much the newly released Star Trek Into Darkness poster resembles the art of posters from the Dark Knight series. I will leave it to others to do the comparative breakdown (here’s The Atlantic), but this appropriation of iconography strikes me, at least for now, as seriously wrongheaded.
As I’ve said, and as anyone who has seen the films knows, the Nolan Batman is a tortured soul meting out harsh justice in a city gone to seed. He’s a lone wolf, violent and alone. Now while James T. Kirk may be a hothead and at times reckless, he’s also the leader of a familial team, and even though the Star Trek template began in the 1960s, it has remained essentially unchanged through five TV series and a spate of films (of varying quality). While both Kirk and Bruce Wayne may live by the motto, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” Wayne took that as a call to solitude and self-denial, while for Kirk and his successors (Picard, Sisko, Janeway, Archer) it’s a motto to instill in others, a higher calling.
So the new Star Trek poster is provoking massive cognitive dissonance, not just because it seems to be a copycat, but because it has substituted one set of values, that of the (wildly commercially successful) newest Batman, in place of an entirely different ethos, the deeply humane roots of Star Trek.
I don’t think anyone is particularly fooled about the craven marketing ploy, but for me at least, seems a misstep. The previous Star Trek film, which didn’t so much as reboot the story as provide the origin tale we’d been denied, managed to merge up-to-date pacing and techniques with the core messages that drove Gene Roddenberry a half century ago. I wouldn’t call it a reboot, but merely a refreshing, and it was superb entertainment that found favor with audiences old and new; I was certainly among them.
So the new poster, instead of starting the drumbeat of excitement for the next installment, raises only doubt; the film’s title is complicit in this as well. At best, I can hope that the poster is merely the work of imitative hacks who think art from one successful series can simply be pasted onto another; at worst, I worry that Star Trek, which I have embraced from its earliest days and love even when it’s at its cheesiest, has gone over to the dark side. If I want dark, I can watch The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad (I’ve never watched either).
When it comes to the Star Trek brand, I don’t mind innovation, but I don’t want it wholly reinvented. I can accept new actors. I welcome brave new worlds. But leave the characters and the spirit alone. They’re what keep me coming back for more, literally decade after decade.
And so I wait with trepidation. My shields are up.