Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

I am by my own admission a poor Trekkie. I've seen all of the films, but I fell asleep during Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It's not as bad as people say, but it was Christmas night and the film is still stunningly boring. My Original Series education has been very limited. I've seen all of The Next Generation and five seasons of Deep Space Nine, but only one of Voyager. I gave up on Enterprise after the first episode; and yes, I mean part one of the two-part series premiere. When they announced that we were going to get a film going back to the early days of the Original Series crew with new, young actors in the role, I was curious, and by the time I found myself at the not-quite-World Premiere at the Sydney Opera House in 2009 I was pretty psyched. The cast was there, the press was everywhere, it was a huge event and I was ready for a fresh take on Star Trek.
"I'm so excited I just filled my pants."
What did I get? A routine sci-fi action film with Star Trek iconography and character names but a disappointingly limited resemblance to the franchise it was seeking to revive. The audience seemed to approve; many of them were to be overheard loudly admitting that they had never seen any Star Trek before, but they enjoyed this. And can you blame them? People like action films, and as CGI-laden blockbusters go the 2009 film ticked all the right boxes. But to me, it didn't really feel like Star Trek. Gone was the philosophy, the satire, the allegory, the exploration of issues. It was a mostly character-driven drama full of huge computer-generated explosions. As time went on, my frustration grew. Suddenly Star Trek was this completely different beast to what it had been before, and everyone loved this loud, brash new coat of paint while everything before was just shoved a little deeper into its bin of nerdy lameness by comparison to the hot new thing. That's not to say that the Star Trek TV Series, or what I've seen of them, are perfect; the analogies can be laboured and they occasionally tread an uneasy line between compelling and corny, but at the end of the day, they were primarily about ideas. The modern films, put simply, are not.
That's our fault, of course, because we're the people who pay to see this sort of thing. And at the end of the day Star Trek Into Darkness didn't leave me wanting to demand Paramount reimburse me for the time I wasted watching its excessive action scenes and rather infantile statements about humanity because it was adequate as Hollywood blockbusters go. My complaint is just that to get their dosh they have to derail a franchise which used to at least somewhat aim at intellectual questions. But that's still our fault, seeing something for its superficialities rather than its depths. I can't really blame Star Trek Into Darkness for being what it is, because it's not responsible. I just think it's a shame.
Khan can jump thirty metres? Well we can jump one hundred
into water completely unharmed!
The film opens well enough with the Enterprise crew doing what it has always done in each of its many iterations throughout television history: violating the Prime Directive. To save Mr. Spock, who is attempting to save a primitive society by freezing the innards of an erupting volcano, the Enterprise must be revealed to the natives, who all look like their flaky skin is just cheap facepaint. Spock complains that it wasn't logical and they go home to get chewed out something fierce by Pike, who objects to the volcano-freezing, because apparently that was the Prime Directive violation. So letting innocent sentients die in a natural disaster is an ethical dilemma, which in addition takes higher priority than flying a starship right over them. Kirk gets his arse kicked back down to the academy, and then Mickey from New Doctor Who blows up Section 31. Kirk gets promoted back to Commander so they can hunt down John Harrison, the mysterious rogue agent responsible for Mickey's self-combustion, but then Harrison attacks all the Captains at a big meeting, Pike is killed, and Kirk gets promoted right back up to Captain of the Enterprise so he can hunt down Harrison. Why was this necessary? Kirk never really has to face the consequences of his decision, and it just feels like a rehash of the Kirk-needing-to-learn-responsibility thing that the previous film spends agonising hours dwelling upon, especially when he has two big chin-wags with Pike on the subject. It's odd that the film begins with what feels like the end of an "episode"-style adventure and follows it up with what you might imagine would happen - loads of stuffing around. Anyway, Scotty's figured out where Harrison went: Kronos, homeworld of the Klingons.
Holy shit!
In the future, buildings will look stupid.
You can hear the shuffling fabric of all the fanboys crossing their legs in the audience. Apparently a galactic pissing contest between the Federation and the Klingon Empire is getting all hot and heavy, so it's up to Kirk to hot-foot it to the Neutral Zone to take out Harrison, who is conveniently hiding in an otherwise uninhabited region of Kronos, thus rendering him a safe target without collateral damage. Of course it's all a big set-up but c'mon, the Klingon Empire has an uninhabited region on its home planet? Earth is like skyscrapers up the arse. Anyway, they've got a special payload of fancy-dan new photon torpedos just for this purpose, but Scotty isn't having any of it. There's something I find a bit unconvincing about Simon Pegg's Scotty. Don't get me wrong, I like Simon Pegg - his sitcom Spaced is to this day probably the only true geek TV show ever made - but when I see him in this I just see Simon Pegg in a Starfleet uniform putting on a very broad Scottish accent. He complains that it seems like a military operation, and that the Enterprise is meant to be a ship of explorers. Hear hear, Scotty; but Kirk doesn't object to his resignation too much because he's just so mad about Pike getting killed. We're repeatedly given the impression that Starfleet is becoming militarised. The grey dress uniforms with officer caps on Earth give off a disquieting impression of belligerence and Admiral Marcus claims that war with the Klingons or some other, as yet unknown, foe is of a certainty. It's very much reinforced to us that the militarisation of Starfleet is a bad thing, and I certainly empathised with Scotty's point of view, but in a film that relies so heavily on action to give the audience its kicks the intention and the method seem massively inconsistent.
"Captain, I'm experiencing a female emotion."
So Scotty pisses off with his stupid and needless alien midget sidekick and Chekhov, whose entire character is based on having a slightly silly accent, is promoted to Chief Engineer. Off they trot to the Neutral Zone, but the engines shit themselves and Chekhov gets to run around looking incompetent not knowing what's going on. Meanwhile Kirk, Spock, Uhura and two stiffs get into a ship referenced as deriving from the "Mudd incident" - more pointless fanservice - and head for Kronos.
This affords us the film's first truly hollow ship sequence as they get chased around by some Klingon vessels and we're expected to care while a bunch of CG toys fly through CG canyons. It feels and looks fake; something about the design, the filming style with its genuinely not overstated predilection for lens flares and the appearance of the motion and collision combines in a way that feels less realistic than Shatner and Nimoy exploring polystyrene rocks on the Planet of the Two Sets.
Uhura and Spock have some big lovers' spat that continues the film's rather bizarre insistence that the characters routinely fail to remember the cultural differences between humans and Vulcans of which they are all fully aware, complaining about Spock's attitude towards emotion. He's a Vulcan, for heaven's sake, it'd be like me telling off a dog for having fur or being smelly.
Once they land Uhura tries to talk things over with the Klingons so that they can get Harrison and leave. Think that works? Of course not, this is Reboot Trek, they have to have a massive gun battle where Harrison appears wielding two huge laser cannons. He takes out all the Klingons, Kirk punches him a bunch of times which does nothing, cluing him in that this chap is not all that he seems, and it's back to the Enterprise for the classic interrogation sequence.
Harrison is Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock fame, who is systematically carving a niche for himself as the moving image's go-to guy for any and all psychologically unusual sneering Ubermenschen. His performance is the same as his interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, really - a cold, arrogant sociopath who in this role is basically every captured supervillain ever. He's a stooge for Admiral Marcus of Starfleet, apparently, and clues Kirk in to a secret location. Kirk basically phones Scotty about this on his communicator, all is forgiven, and they decide it's time to investigate the payload of suspicious torpedos with which the Enterprise is outfitted. For some reason which I can't really remember this role is given to Doctor McCoy and Carol Marcus.
"You green-blooded son of a bitch!"
-me to the person who limited McCoy's presence
Let's talk about Doctor McCoy for a sec. Back in the day, Doctor McCoy was one of the "big three" or "power trio" of Star Trek: The Original Series. Spock was the highly logical and pragmatic one, Kirk the in-between mediator, and McCoy the emotional and compassionate one; it's the classic Freudian trinity of superego, ego and id which has informed so many timeless threesomes in fiction. But in this film the focus is almost exclusively on Spock, the rational one, and Kirk, the irrational one. There's no middle-ground role for Kirk; he's in the traditional McCoy role. So McCoy gets shunted into a secondary role which mostly exists for comic relief. This is a shame, because Karl Urban's performance of the character, while occasionally bordering on a caricature of DeForest Kelley's portrayal of the good doctor, is one of the most watchable presences in the film. Sadly his dialogue in this mostly lists between jokes and constantly haranguing Kirk about everything possible, and he is more or less relegated to the secondary-crew role possibly below that of Scotty and Uhura, which is particularly a shame because Uhura is pretty boring and doesn't display much of the charm with which the character was originally endowed.
"I too am having an emotion!"
Our other Doctor is Carol Marcus, whose name you may recognise from The Wrath of Khan as being an old flame of Kirk with whom he fathered a child. That's all you'll recognise, however, because the characters are completely different. She doesn't serve much purpose, mostly just helping to open the torpedo and bartering completely unsuccessfully with Admiral Marcus, her father, for the life of the crew. The most egregious moment comes, however, when she is discussing with Kirk the possibility of transporting one of the torpedos to a nearby planetoid a safe distance from the Enterprise so it can be opened. Apparently the middle of her conversation with Kirk was the ideal time for her to change clothes, so she gets him to turn his back and she starts stripping off. He of course turns around while she's standing there in her underwear in one of the most ridiculously forced moments I've ever seen. Couldn't she have just waited for Kirk to go and then change? It's not like they needed to leave immediately, and she goes with McCoy anyway. And there's no later romantic or sexual moment between them for this to build tension towards. It's like some executive at Paramount told them that the film had to have a woman in just her bra and pants at some point or it was a no go, so they just threw it in at the most arbitrary time imaginable. I'm not saying it was an offensive sight; its inclusion at that moment just makes no narrative sense and feels incredibly exploitative. Was it meant to be some kind of reference to the Original Series by evoking the good ol' days of Sixties sexism? I mean, you see Kirk with his shirt off in bed early in the film but none of the blokes ever just start stripping down for no reason.
Nonetheless McCoy and Carol Marcus, who has a British accent despite having an American father, disarm the torpedo and find a frozen guy inside. He's been frozen for hundreds of years, apparently, so they go confront Cumberbatch to discover his true identity. His name? Khan.
Holy shit!
This was one of the internet's most poorly kept secrets and it has been speculated upon for months, if not years, which is fortunate because I think if it hadn't I would have ripped my chair out of the floor of the cinema and thrown it at the screen. As it was I just rolled my eyes a little bit. It is so weak of them to just rehash the Star Trek sequel of days gone by. I also don't understand why he doesn't look like Ricardo Montalbán; even in the reboot-universe, the timeline split long, long after Khan was put into suspended animation. How come in that he is an exotic-looking Hispanic-as-Indian superman and now he's this out of shape white dude? I'm not saying Cumberbatch is fat or something; he's just physically unintimidating and unimpressive besides his unsettling face.
Pew pew! Pew pew pew!
Anyway Khan is all annoyed at Admiral Marcus because he kept his genetically engineered buddies hostage to force him to develop superweapons for him. Khan's brain must be pretty damn super if he's capable of improving technology from three hundred years after his own time, some of which was reverse-engineered from a time traveller from at least another hundred years or so in the future. Speak of the devil, Admiral Marcus shows up in a huge CGI nightmare of a ship which looks like the Enterprise on steroids, with the essential dark-grey paint job and harsh, blocky lines so that we know this is the bad guy's ship. Marcus demands Khan, Kirk says no because he's learned the error of his ways at some point and wants Khan to stand trial and they head back to Earth, although not before the other ship, the Vengeance, knocks them out of warp. Apparently Warp is a sort of blue tunnel where if you get pushed through the side - because Federation starships are basically bumper cars that can bash each other around - you just stop moving above lightspeed. Earth and Kronos must be bloody close to each other or their warp drives must be ridiculously good because even despite the Vengeance's interruption they're already near Earth, which took about five seconds. There's absolutely no sense of distance in this film despite being, y'know, set in space which is huge. Even when the engine cocked up above Kronos earlier they'd still reached it despite travelling for about a minute. Apparently starships in the reboot universe are not so much vehicles as they are places for Chris Pine to march up and down corridors, because he does a hell of a lot of that in this film.
Technology stolen from Dan Dreiberg.
So Admiral Marcus is about to blow the Enterprise to Kingdom Come for the apparent reason that basically he's just a bit of a prick that way, with huge phasers with individual lights running down the sides deploying from his ship and so on, when all the power goes out, because who else but Scotty has stowed away. The only way to survive is to head over there and take out the Admiral, so Kirk teams up with Khan and they blast across to the ship through space in a needlessly long sequence involving jetpacks and debris collisions where the ensuing very large, visible fractures in Kirk's space helmet don't cause him to, y'know, suffocate and die. This bit takes ages but it's boring and pointless so let's just forget about it. They may as well have just had Chekhov muster enough transporter power or something. Spock calls up true-Spock, Leonard Nimoy, who tells him that Khan's a bad guy. I hadn't realised.
Should have had a nice cold pint and waited
for all this to blow over.
Anyway Kirk, Khan and Scotty run down a lot of corridors and beat up some guys, they take the bridge, Scotty stuns Khan, Khan doesn't like that one bit and takes them all out before killing Marcus in a satisfyingly brutal execution before swapping Kirk, Scotty and Carol for his frozen crew. Oh no! Khan betrayed them! Who would have expected that?!? Good thing Spock swapped the frozen crew with real explosives in the torpedos! Both ships go into a death dive, but Kirk has learned the power of self-sacrifice and climbs into the irradiated warp core to save the Enterprise. He does this, incidentally, by hanging from a beam and kicking it several times in a way that looks like it would do nothing. I just can't fathom some of the choices that were made for these scenes. Then we get a role-reversal of the classic Spock sacrifice from The Wrath of Khan, now with Spock the survivor outside, with the "ship out of danger" line maintained, and Spock realising that Kirk saved him because he was his friend. Awww. Then Kirk kicks the bucket and Spock screams "Khan!"
"I have been, and always will be,
referencing superior films."
You can take this one of two ways: either it's a tribute to the previous film or it's a pretentious postmodern piss-take winking at the audience who are all gratifying themselves immensely at the sight of all this fan-service. To me it just seems cheap, like they couldn't be bothered thinking up their own emotional drama so they just swapped a few elements around of one that was done much better in an earlier film and passed it off as referential. Personally I thought it was an unbelievably cheesy and lame moment that just made the whole thing look desperately unimaginative and bordered on parody, intentional or not. Beyond that it's really the film's only moment of genuine emotional pathos, with Spock learning nothing more than the power of friendship. Character drama is all well and good but to me it feels like this is just rehashing trite, simplistic themes which have been explored endlessly beforehand countless times in innumerable works.
Khan crashes his ship into San Francisco to fulfil every modern Hollywood blockbuster's urban collateral damage quota, gets into a big punch up with Spock, gets stunned by Uhura and punched some more, and recaptured so that McCoy can use his blood to revive Kirk. So that's the big emotional payoff for Kirk's sacrifice - he is instantly resurrected. Sure, Spock was resurrected in the original films too, but at least it wasn't straight away. Beyond the final fight with Khan there's no real crisis, and as everyone knows the best way to handle grief is to go punch some guy in the face. Kirk's death feels insubstantial, and is afforded none of the weight of a scene like, say, Spock's funeral in The Wrath of Khan, which is, as all right-thinking people know, the only movie where it is permissible to perhaps shed a single manly tear.
"It's lobster that's been fed... with Kobe beef."
So they have some big ceremony back on Earth and Kirk recites some solemn words - which are, apparently, the "Space, the final frontier" words, which seems incredibly out-of-place and forced, more or less ending things. It's one of the film's several amusingly poor dialogue moments. Another standout one is when Uhura sternly informs Kirk that "You brought me here because I speak Klingon. Let me speak Klingon." Perhaps she should then have proceeded to stand there rattling off Klingon words at Kirk increasingly excitedly like the biggest nerd at the convention. The top spot for absolute worst dialogue in the film, however, is when an outraged Kirk informs Khan indignantly "You are a criminal!" with his face inflating like a blowfish. Cumberbatch gets some corny bad guy lines too, about savagery and so on, and McCoy's 'humorous' complaining starts to grate after a while. He gets the especially weak token "I'm a Doctor, not..." line, in this case reminding Spock that he's not a "torpedo technician." Thank you for clearing that up, Doctor McCoy. Sulu gets a few moments but mostly exists to walk from the helm to the Captain's chair and back, and Chekhov basically just gets to run around looking hopeless, dropping his Vs and at one point saving Kirk and Scotty from an atrociously cliché 'hanging from a bridge over a pit' sequence, which is an action conceit which should be excised from cinema forever. While I appreciated Scotty getting more of a role in this one over the last he still seems a bit underdeveloped and the crew overall feels imbalanced. Uhura fades more and more into the background after her relationship issues with Spock are resolved as well. Cumberbatch is passable as Khan but at times I felt like he just didn't care about what he was doing, which is fair enough I suppose. I couldn't really be arsed talking about the main two because there's not that much to say. Like the first film, Chris Pine as Kirk just feels like "Hollywood action movie protagonist" and Quinto as Spock is okay, I suppose, but unfortunately none of the dialogue gives him the same opportunities as Nimoy; he comes across as weirdly clueless at times, because Vulcan emotional control apparently means staring at people with a bemused expression most of the time.
Most of what happens in the film.
The main problem with this film is that there is just too much action: the opening sequence, the attack on the meeting, Kronos, and the extended spaceship battle, infiltration and following battle at the end, which is not sufficiently broken up, followed by Spock's pursuit of and punch-up with Khan; it feels like the film's final climactic moments are stretched out to occupy about a quarter of the entire film, with lurching sets and Kirk and Khan shooting through space and them running around corridors and stuff blowing up everywhere, and it just goes on and on and on. The whole Klingon tension plot and any surrounding political consideration is completely abandoned after they leave Kronos; the Enterprise and the Vengeance have this huge confrontation on the edge of the Neutral Zone (yet they can apparently see Kronos right there) and the Klingons never appear and apparently do nothing, and we basically never see or hear about them again. Similarly, Khan's concern for his crew is an interesting character element, but they never get defrosted and we never see any of them, and it's not really explored in much detail. Even the militarisation of the Federation and the terrorist threat of Khan is not given much attention beyond the Admiral wishing to protect "our way of life" - this issue goes unresolved at the end, they still have the sinister uniforms - and Khan's presented as more of a genocidal maniac than a marginalised extremist; most of his threatening lines about safety and so on from the trailers are abandoned.
"Captain, I really must insist that you bump this."
That the whole film is so breathlessly desperate to be exciting and action-packed does nothing in its favour, and the parade of artificial-looking CGI sequences and set pieces feel more and more hollow and undramatic as the film continues, to the point where a huge starship ploughing through skyscrapers is no more consequential than knocking over a house of cards, and where the Vengeance barraging the Enterprise with phaser fire and torpedos could just be a moment from a video game; we see some people get sucked into space but it's no one important and it's given no mind. Back in the Sixties the best they had was sets and model shots, and so they took creative directions to make stories interesting. Now that we're living in their future and have the technology to make mayhem in space seem real, we apparently don't care if we don't see that other stuff anymore. It's not a horrible film, and as an action blockbuster it's fine, although as a Star Trek film I find it extremely bland and underwhelming. The performances are all adequate, it looks decent and the plot is reasonably well paced, but it drags due to the excessive action. When there isn't action, the dialogue is routine at best and insipid at worst; is it any surprise that this film and the one before were written by the same guys whose screenplay credits also include the first two atrocious Michael Bay Transformers films? I honestly can't say which I'd rather watch; it's all equally insubstantial. I could blame J.J. Abrams or some other individual but the whole thing is far too corporate and shallow for responsibility to lie at the feet of any single entity. Hopefully with the director moving onto Disney's new Star Wars project it's time for the franchise to share the bizarrely forgiving fate of Khan and his eugenics chums, and be put back on ice.

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