Monday, May 20, 2013

Blogorium Review: Star Trek - Into Darkness

 There's an inconvenient truth I find myself dealing with when it comes to JJ Abrams' Star Trek movies - they are not, never were, and never will be made with Star Trek fans in mind. While the degree of "paying original fans lip service" isn't anywhere as heinous or calculating as, say the Michael Bay / Platinum Dunes model, when I hear Abrams or screenwriters Damon Lindelof (Lost) Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (the Transformers trilogy) say that Star Trek: Into Darkness is a "love letter to Star Trek fans,"* I know this not to be true.

 And that's okay: the 2009 re-whatever you want to call Star Trek was a breath of fresh air to a series that choked to death with the one-two punch of Nemesis and Enterprise. It was a distillation of what the average audience knew about Star Trek into an action packed, thrill a minute hero's journey that borrowed heavily from Star Wars. To be honest, it was refreshing, even if it wasn't really Star Trek. Since Star Trek is probably never going to be "Star Trek" again, I was happy enough with what they'd come up with: the adventures of an "alternate universe" original crew and Leonard Nimoy along for the ride, as needed.

 I bring this up because it puts me in a strange predicament with Star Trek: Into Darkness, because when people ask me what I thought, my immediate answer is "it's pretty good." Not great, not awful, but somewhere in the high middle range. I don't think repeat viewings are going to change how I feel about the movie, because what I like about the movie (most of it) is seriously off-set by what I really, REALLY didn't like (three or four scenes).

 The problem is that what would be an otherwise crackerjack adventure with the new crew of the Enterprise (on the cusp of their "five year mission") is undermined by trying to insert a very specific kind of fan service in exactly the wrong way. So if you aren't aware of the worst kept secret in the history of Abrams' misdirection, just stop right here. Don't watch any old Trek, and especially don't watch "Space Seed" or Star Trek II. There be spoilers in these here waters, and I won't be treading lightly beyond this point.


 Okay. you were warned, so let's get into the meat of the review. Rather than bitching like a Star Trek fanboy, something I've already demonstrated is pointless when dealing with post-2009 Trek films, I'll actually begin with what I really liked, because there's a lot to like.

 For one, the fact that Abrams, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof did inject some political commentary into the film and in a way that's consistent with how the reboot happened, story-wise. So Nero came back from the future, destroyed most of Starfleet, destroyed Vulcan, and nearly got Earth too. Enter Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), who is much more interested in defending Earth from any threats, present or future. He's even willing to go proactive, both in investing in weapons research and even pre-emptive war mongering, if need be. So he tracks down the Botany Bay and revives Khan (Cumberbatch), and uses his superior intellect to create better ships, better weapons, and to plant the seeds for war with the Klingons. Marcus doesn't trust the Klingons, so better to strike first than be caught with our pants down like when Nero arrived.

 Right away they've done two very interesting things with the Star Trek mythos that make the most out of a "new" history: 1) Starfleet is a conflicted organization unsure of its place in the universe, and cooler heads are clearly not prevailing. It's a nice parallel to the post-9/11 mindset, and lest ye think I'm straining to reach that one, the film ends with a title card saluting our soldiers for the last twelve years. It never feels heavy handed or too obvious because it's a logical extension of what happened in the last movie. Rather than just move on, some of the upper echelon in Starfleet are understandably concerned about this happening again.

 The second is, if you're willing to just put Space Seed aside, that they re-created Khan. They can go in any direction with him because his purpose has changed in this alternate universe. Like the new yet somewhat familiar relationships that Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, et al are forging, we're no longer burdened by the Khan who tried to take the Enterprise or who ended up on Ceti Alpha V only to escape and die trying to take his revenge on Admiral Kirk. It doesn't have to happen that way. He's basically a new character who serves a different role.

 Considering that the Kirk / Spock dynamic is still evolving and that Scotty has a character arc we've never really seen from the Chief Engineer before in Into Darkness, it isn't unreasonable to just take Khan and roll with him in ways we wouldn't expect. And, to some degree, they do. It's unexpected to see Kirk and Khan team up to stop Admiral Marcus and the USS Vengeance (which looks a bit like the Enterprise D crossed with the Battlestar Galactica). There's some genuine misdirection about what Khan is doing and what he wants for the first half of the film, but because his name is so recognizable, even to non-Star Trek fans, the spectre of the past kept creeping into the film, and that's where Into Star Trek: Into Darkness lost me again and again.

 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is in all likelihood the film held in highest regard by Star Trek fans. It may not be the most successful (that belongs to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, or as non-Trek fans call it, "the one with the whales") but you're unlikely to find a fan of the series that doesn't love it. Wrath of Khan was both a blessing and a curse for the Star Trek film franchise: it proved that Trek didn't have to be glacially paced for average moviegoers (as The Motion Picture was) and that the original series could be mined for clever extensions of stories.

 The downside is that, with the exception of Star Trek IV - a movie with the cojones not to have villain but instead be about a space whale probe - every Trek movie that followed mistakenly tried to recreate the success of Khan. They're variations, to be sure, but the singular villain who takes on Kirk and company in order to do something potentially catastrophic to Starfleet / their home world / space and time / religion in general shows up in the good and the bad films to follow. The Borg Queen, Shinzon, Kruge, General Chang, and even Nero are essentially attempts to recreate Khan. While they work in different ways for their respective films, none of them come even close.

 Khan casts a long shadow over Star Trek, so if you're not going to just leave him alone in the reboot universe, the best possible thing to do is at least not remind viewers that you're cribbing mercilessly from Star Trek II, especially when you happen to be making your equivalent Star Trek II. But they did, and when it happens I'm afraid that it derails Into Darkness at points when I was really enjoying the story being told.

 So let's take three scenes, avoiding the shoe-horning of Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) into the story - she does a fine job with the limited character she has - into the story:

 1. The reveal that "John Harrison" is not actually some terrorist that Admiral Marcus sent Kirk to kill is handled, to put it mildly, badly. If it isn't evident that Cumberbatch is playing Khan when you walk in, watching him single-handedly take out a Klingon patrol and withstand a barrage of attacks from Kirk (while surrendering) should be the tip-off. It still makes sense that all of this happens because Kirk is understandably upset that "Harrison" killed Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood, whose presence will be sorely missed).

 When they finally have "Harrison" behind bars, Kirk and Spock interrogate him and he reveals that his name is Khan - something that means nothing to James Kirk. However, it's meant to be a BIG reveal for the audience, which is why the camera pulls in on Cumberbatch and then holds for what feels like ten seconds so the audience can gasp. It's purely a moment for the audience and not the characters, because there's no significance for them what this means. It also doesn't work because it's so transparently a moment of "look at who it is! It's KHAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!!! you guys!"

 2. Worse still is a moment later in the film, one that desperately needed to be left on the cutting room floor. No matter how much I appreciate seeing Leonard Nimoy as Spock, when Zachary Quinto's Spock calls him on "New Vulcan" and puts it up on the viewscreen for everybody to see, what happens next is a belly flop. Nimoy is asked to skirt around an exposition dump, one that exists for no apparent reason, since what young Spock does next didn't require his older counterpart's experience at all. It's mostly a moment to remind audiences that Spock died saving the Enterprise in Star Trek II, and that Khan is very dangerous even though we're essentially dealing with a different version of the character. This brings us to...

 3. The "death" scene. I'm inclined to imagine what happened in the writer's room went something like this:

 "Hey, I've got an idea - let's do the 'radiation scene' in our movie, just like they did in Wrath of Khan!"

 "That's a great idea! It's poignant and will really drive home the relationship between Kirk and Spock. We'll have them argue for the entire movie, and then when one dies saving the ship, it'll crystallize what their friendship really means!"

 "How about this, you guys? What if, instead of Spock sacrificing himself, it's Kirk that does it? Then Kirk can tell Spock about being afraid of dying and what it means to be friends!"

 "That's great! The Trek fans will NEVER see that coming!!!"

 "I've got an even better idea! After Kirk dies, Spock can scream 'KHAAAAAAAAN!' And then he can chase him down and have a fist fight!"


 "Whatever you guys are doing is great - but don't actually kill Kirk. Bring him back with Khan's blod or something like that - show that it brings a dead Tribble back to life or something stupid like that. I'm going to work on Star Wars - there has to be some big secret I can withhold to fuck with them for the next two years..."

 The "death scene" is in Star Trek: Into Darkness specifically to remind audiences of Wrath of Khan. There's no other reason for it, and forcing it into the story when it's abundantly clear that Kirk isn't going to stay dead is no better than crass manipulation of the very fandom they claim to be writing a "love letter" to. The "death" is meaningless, rendering the point of Kirk's sacrificing comparably pointless. The first film clearly established that you can trade in on the iconic imagery of Star Trek without interrupting the flow of the story, threadbare as it may be. One thing I'd never done until Into Darkness was laugh out loud when a major character died for the "needs of the many", but it's done in this film without ever earning the relationship between Kirk and Spock.

 Fortunately for Stark Trek: Into Darkness, the pace is so relentless that you just don't have much time to be bothered. Before you know it, we're off to the next setpiece (and an impressive one, at that, as the Vengeance crashes into Starfleet headquarters) and Khan, Spock, and eventually Uhura have an improbable but visually exciting fight.

 But don't let that lead you to believe that it didn't linger with me, to keep me from enjoying the film as a whole. While I really liked Scotty resigning over a moral disagreement with Kirk and Spock's rationale for choosing not to deal with death emotionally, or Cumberbatch in general as Khan, it's a nagging feeling that parts of the film didn't need to be there. There's enough happening in the story, from Kirk's abandonment issues to Admiral Marcus' misguided war-mongering that we didn't need to be reminded of another, arguably better Star Trek movie. And not just those of us who represent the "Trekker / Trekkie" contingent - the average audience is done a disservice because of the insistence to adhere to a storyline the writers and director aren't beholden to any more.

 I hope that wherever the third Star Trek film goes, it doesn't feel burdened to re-introduce things everybody already remembers, or if it does, that they can be integrated more consistently with the story. The five year mission begins at the end of Into Darkness, so let's see what Strange New Worlds are out there - there are plenty of great Star Trek movies we haven't already seen out there to be made...

* I must admit that I'm paraphrasing because I can't remember the actual article, but the general idea is the same.

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