Every filmmaker in Hollywood worth his final cut has a signature visual flourish that functions something like a filmic fingerprint. For Martin Scorsese, it’s the long, uninterrupted tracking shot. For John Woo, the balletic deployment of two-handed gun violence. Wes Anderson never met a painterly tableau he didn’t like. And Steven Spielberg favors the slow zoom in just about every one of his movies.
J.J. Abrams, meanwhile, tends toward a cinematographic trope that looks, at first glance, like a screw-up -- lens flare -- i.e. intentionally flooding the camera frame with light to deliberately wash out or obscure the imagery on-screen. His 2011 sci-fi thriller “Super 8” is packed with hazy flashes of light, as is the filmmaker’s 2009 “Star Trek” movie reboot.
But what was once the cinematic equivalent of a nervous tic has become a full-blown body tremor. And critics say the director needs a lens flare intervention.
Abrams’ presumed summer blockbuster “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which arrives in theaters May 17, features so much hazy blue light bombarding the starship Enterprise’s flight deck that audience members would be forgiven for mistaking the lens flares (rendered even more vivid in 3-D) for incoming photon torpedoes.
With the movie opening earlier this month across Europe, Asia and Australia, early reviewers, most of whom like the movie, nevertheless have taken the director to task for showcasing so many diffuse bursts of light rather than leaving them on the editing bay floor where they say they belong.
“In ‘Star Trek Into Darkness,’ [Abrams] does his best to ensure gratuitous use of lens flare will live long and prosper,” Luke Buckmaster wrote on Crikey, an Australian media blog. “Only the most ambitious film critics profess to interpret why he does this, other than to observe that the effect looks kind of cool.”
In the Guardian UK, critic Andrew Pulver puts the convention within context of a notorious music video vixen, noting that “ ‘Into Darkness’ is slathered in so much lens flare it looks like a Kylie Minogue video.”
In his “Into Darkness” review, Shadowlocked.com’s Lewis Bazley seems to resign himself to Abrams’ continuing abuse of the light flare treatment. “… if you tease [Abrams] for his love of lens flare, he’ll just double his efforts to obscure some of every shot with refracted light,” Bazley writes.
Abrams’ over-reliance on lens flare prompted the wags at Boy Genius Comedy to lampoon the director with a short called “Lens Flare: The Movie” featuring a group of young people who fear alien invasion but are rendered too blind by lens flash trickery to do anything about it.
For his part, at a 2009 news conference for “Star Trek,” Abrams admitted having his cinematographer employ flashlights and mirrors to achieve lens flare -- and getting a little carried away with the visual technique. “I wanted a visual system that felt unique,” the filmmaker said. “I know there are certain shots where even I watch and think, ‘Oh that’s ridiculous, that was too many.’ But I love the idea that the future was so bright it couldn’t be contained in the frame.”
Into darkness indeed.
Follow Chris Lee on Twitter: @__chrislee