Saturday, May 18, 2013

movie review: 'star trek: into darkness'

"I've never really been a fan of Star Trek.

Granted, I've seen the movies, but I've never watched the TV show, and while I have vague ideas about certain popular elements of the franchise (most drawn from when I had to research elements of the franchise for a high school debate), I've never really cared about it all that much. You could say that it was because I was exposed to Star Wars before Star Trek, but for the most part, I just have never really been interested.

That being said, I respect Star Trek for what it is, and Gene Roddenberry's original vision of the franchise. It was a series filled with great dreams of manifest destiny, of going to places where no human has gone before, exploring that last great frontier. As a guy with more than a passing interest in science, I have huge respect for that drive, and I'm still pissed that the US space program, once one of the frontrunners of science and technology in the world, has been gutted over the past several years.

So with that in mind, it might not come as any surprise to most of you that I never really liked the Star Trek reboot. Oh, don't get me wrong, McCoy and Scotty were great, and Spock was pretty good, but the writing was very subpar (even on the standards of Star Trek) and Chris Pine has the emotional range of a tree stump and is maybe a tenth as likeable. He is a terrible Captain Kirk, and I sincerely hope that they don't continue this franchise - I mean, when your writing sucks and your leading man is awful, your franchise doesn't have much hope."

I wrote those paragraphs a bit less than two years ago as a part of my Transformers: Dark of the Moon review that I published on Facebook (spoiler alert, that movie was shit), and to the most part, I stand by them. Having had more of a chance to get familiar with the Star Trek franchise (albeit not to the level of serious fandom), I can definitely see why the franchise earned its place among sci-fi and pop culture. There have been rough patches and bad spots, but generally the series had some respectable concepts and occasional moments of absolute brilliance.

And really, so much of my admiration of the Trek franchise comes from two factors: the embrace of intelligence and philosophy in the plotting (at least in the better episodes); and the thematic undercurrent of futuristic utopianism. Star Trek, unlike some of its counterparts, tended towards an optimistic belief in humankind, that we as a species were good enough to go where no man has gone before, that we could indeed begin to colonize the galaxy.

And then J.J. Abrams reinvented the franchise as a popcorn action flick for the lowest common denominator.

And you know, as much as I strongly disagree with Abrams being selected as the director of the upcoming Star Wars film, I'd take him as a director there over Star Trek any day of the goddamn week, mostly because Star Trek is a franchise that at least tries to have more intellectual heft than Star Wars. To see a franchise like Star Trek boiled down to an at-best action blockbuster isn't just bad, it's depressing. It reflects the state of modern action movies, which has absolutely no faith in the intellect of its audience, and where elements of legitimate science are tossed aside in favour of ridiculous action setpieces that can only hope to make some vestige of sense on a good day. It gets even worse when I saw The Daily Show interview with J.J. Abrams where he flat-out admits he didn't like the original Star Trek series because it was 'too philosophical' - that's the fucking POINT! It's science fiction, and so much of science is inherently linked to philosophy that when you strip away the philosophy, you lose the rich undercurrent of meaning that made the Star Trek movies at least engaging

And frankly, that's one of the reasons J.J. Abrams has never endeared himself to me as a director of anything - because I look at him and I don't see anything besides some decent technical chops in direction and writing. Yes, the man can write a decent homage and build a decent mystery. But so many of the pay-offs to those mysteries are so limp and lacking in meaning that all the weight of his films gets sucked out the airlock. As a filmmaker, I have no goddamn idea what Abrams is trying to say or any underlying philosophy behind his work, and as much as he clearly worships Spielberg, he has none of the genuine heart and optimism in his direction and composition that makes his movies feel like Spielberg. Looking at the great popular directors - Kubrick, Spielberg, Lucas, Mallick, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese - all of them had deep thematic resonance in their films that made them stand out and mean something, damn it! There's a reason that so many gangsters began adopting Vito and Michael Corleone's mannerisms after seeing The Godfather, and it wasn't just because they 'sounded cool' - it was because on a subconscious level the performances and script had a resonant power and dignity and class that so many gangsters deeply desired.

Hell, take a look at the modern wave of directors. Shane Black, Neil Blomkamp, Michael Mann, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan, they all have something to say with their direction that can elevate their films. Hell, even fucking Michael Bay and Uwe Boll and Tyler fucking Perry have something to say through their direction and writing when they make films! Sure, it might be absolutely incompetent or repugnant, but at least it's something attempting to add weight and mood and atmosphere and meaning to what they put on screen. But with directors like J.J. Abrams and Tim Story, I see none of that ambition, none of that underlying philosophy that steers their camera. At best, I see technical proficiency - that's it. At worst, I see a complete misunderstanding and disregard of theme and symbolism, to say nothing of the intellectual properties from which their films are derived.

And coming back to Star Trek, it really doesn't help matters when you replace William Shatner (who isn't that good of an actor, but has had some great moments) with Chris Pine, the biggest walking dearth of charisma this side of Tyler Perry (who was, incidentally, in the Star Trek reboot in 2009). Coupled with a lightweight script and a forgettable villain, Star Trek is a film that might have satisfied box offices with impressive revenue, but did so by catering to the lowest of the cultural demographic.

But to be completely fair, Chris Pine has improved marginally as an actor in the past four years, and when buzz began to circulate that Benedict Cumberbatch (he of the magnificent Sherlock BBC series) would be joining the cast as the main villain, I was intrigued despite myself. Sure, I had no hope in J.J. Abrams as a director, and I had no illusions that the writing would be good, but at least they'd have to take the film in an interesting direction, right? They've already established the new cast, that'd mean we'd be forced to see character development now that the origin stories are out of the way. It couldn't be that bad, right?

Oh, I was wrong. It wasn't just that bad - it was worse than I ever could have imagined. In fact, Star Trek: Into Darkness stands as a colossal failure of a movie - and to discuss it, I'll need to go into deeper detail on why it fails, and that'll require spoilers, which I will place after the jump and/or the next several paragraphs. Like with Iron Man 3, you will have plenty of warning.

Let's start with the good. Most of the characters aren't bad - Karl Urban as McCoy, Zoe Seldana as Uhura, Simon Pegg as Scotty, and even John Cho delivers impressively as Sulu. The score is excellent, and for the most part, the film seems well-shot (although I'd still argue Abrams moves the camera around way too much and the lens flares do get aggravating). The dialogue can occasionally be witty or humorous, with Zachary Quinto's Spock getting some great laughs simply by giving Chris Pine's Kirk a look or simply due to some awkward silence (although I will say the audience I saw this film with was way too eager to give this film any sort of laughter, which was frustrating).

As for new characters, Peter Weller did deliver as the Starfleet Admiral, and it's always nice to see Robocop take the screen. And yeah, the inner Sherlock geek inside of me loved Benedict Cumberbatch's intense terrorist John Harrison and it was more than a little awesome to watch him kicking all amounts of ass. Cumberbatch is working his ass off here, trying to invest his character with as much depth and complexity as he can, and on a surface level, he's kind of awesome.

And that's also precisely where I have to stop talking about the good things and go into the real, disastrous problems with this movie (before discussing the spoilers that make me and other Trek fans scream bloody murder). For starters, as occasional beautiful as this film can be, it has a strange weightlessness to it that really threw me off, mostly due to the camera's gymnastics and the extreme overuse of CGI. I had a really hard time getting invested in the characters and the plot because too much of the direction stripped away the weight of the film. This comes from a major issue of pacing, which is half a problem of the script (I'll get to this) and half the issue of the editing, which is very choppy and doesn't allow the film to breathe in the slightest. Say what you will about the 2009 Star Trek movie, but at least it took the time to have slower moments and get acquainted more with the characters and what they think and feel. Into Darkness, on the other hand, feels rushed in the worst possible way, and has no idea how to build to a proper emotional climax. For a quick example, Kirk loses captaincy of the Enterprise and gains it back within ten, absolutely tension-less minutes, right at the beginning of the film.

Granted, any character development feels like it was blasted out the nearest airlock, because no character goes through the slightest bit of an arc in this film, or at least not one that hadn't been blatantly recycled from better movies, mostly from the 2009 reboot. Kirk's in particular feels like a major retread from the last film, with him learning absolutely nothing by the end of this movie. Now, I could typically overlook some of this, but Chris Pine's terribly wooden acting and the awful, awful script just make it shit-blisteringly obvious. I wouldn't be surprised that if at some point, they just copy-and-pasted dialogue straight from the previous movie.

And speaking of dialogue, this is also an issue where the script falls apart completely - mostly because nobody in this film talks like a reasonable human being!  Sure, you can get away with hammy dramatics (this is Star Trek, after all), but when you contrast it with the weak witticisms that feel forklifted in from your average sitcom, the tone completely collapses. And while Simon Pegg and Karl Urban play their characters damn near perfectly, neither of them are on screen long enough to save this film. The one thing that Cumberbatch does that's inestimably good for this movie is add real heft and emotion to his lines, so much to the point where his character was a lot more engaging than the rest of the film.  

And now I have to get to spoilers. No jokes, after this paragraph, I'm going to spoil every single one of the twists that Abrams piles into this shit and explain why they turn this film into the colossal pile of junk it is. If you want my advice, skip this movie. Sure, on the surface, it's the average popcorn flick and if you have an air-cooled brain and just want to watch flashing lights on the screen, you'll probably find this movie engaging. But if you're looking to think in this movie, or you're a fan of Trek at all, this movie isn't worth the heart palpitations you're going to get coming out of this movie. Do not see this, do not give Abrams any of your money to see this, do not validate his filmmaking or his 'mystery box' ethos of plotting. And I'm about to smash that mystery box apart in the next paragraph: you have been warned.

Okay, let's get the most obvious twist out of the way: Benedict Cumberbatch's character is Khan.

And while anyone who was reading the buzz on this film guessed this months ago, it's also the main point where the movie completely falls apart into obvious plotholes and disaster.  Up until his reveal, the plotholes exist, but they could be overlooked for the most part. The one that most stood out early on was the 'trans-human warp drive or something like that, which allows humans to teleport between star systems and allows Khan to escape from earth to Kronos, the Klingon homeworld - which opens up a whole can of worms. For instance, don't these transporters require precise locations - if you're looking to transport from one world to another (both planets, I should add, which are spinning and orbiting their suns very fast), this does seem impossible (particularly when it comes to the rest of the transporter shit that gets dragged up in this movie). And if these devices exist and are common knowledge, why doesn't Kirk and Spock use one of them to transport themselves to Kronos and recover Khan without the Klingons ever noticing. And furthermore, don't these devices render the entire Starfleet absolutely fucking pointless?

But let's put all of that aside and consider the introduction of Khan into this story - because, on the surface, it works. Benedict Cumberbatch's performance carries it half of the way, and most people will be satisfied with that. And sure, the writers do provide enough for most viewers to explain who Khan is and why his character in the movie (his character was woken from cryo-sleep by Peter Weller's Admiral Marcus and and then enlisted to build weapons in order to wage war against a rising Klingon threat - a threat that at no point we ever see - and then Khan escapes and tries to rescue his crew who Weller was holding hostage). 

Let's begin with the immediate plothole discussion in this case before I get into why this doesn't work. To recap, Khan attempts to smuggle his people free by loading them into experimental photon torpedoes, before being discovered by Admiral Marcus and being forced to flee. But here's where the entire plot of the movie explodes: the entire mission of the Enterprise is to fly to the edge of Klingon space and launch these seventy-two torpedoes at Khan, thus triggering the war Marcus wants with the Klingons. But if Marcus knows the rest of Khan's crew are inside the torpedoes, this gives Khan exactly what he wants (his crew), and not only will Khan be able to escape, he's also in possession of the knowledge of Marcus' secret shipyards (and on that note, I don't buy for a second Marcus was able to build that massive new cruiser completely in secret - between money, materials, and personnel, someone would have noticed). And furthermore, he wants Khan dead, so what sense would it make to launch all of Khan's crew back to him - which wouldn't kill him or his crew because there are no explosives in the torpedoes?

But okay, what if Marcus doesn't know about the contents of the torpedoes - but that makes even less sense, because he wouldn't have had a problem revealing to Kirk and Scotty what the contents of the torpedoes were for a proper launch instead of them being 'classified'! If he's so willing to keep the torpedo production off the books and secret (which I'd buy, because he's trying to keep this militarization under wraps), why doesn't he send someone to verify that the torpedoes are legit, particularly considering Khan designed them? And why on earth did he grant Kirk's request to let Spock be first officer again, when it was clear that Spock would be able to speak to Kirk's conscience and convince Kirk that launching torpedoes against Klingon space is tantamount to an act of war? And going deeper into Marcus' plan, which seemed to be launching torpedoes to kill Khan and then crippling the Enterprise in Klingon space so that a Klingon patrol will see the Enterprise and consider the behaviour an act of war, it seems to rely a lot on chance - particularly when we see no Klingon spacecraft or evidence of outgoing aggression anywhere in the movie!

But you know, those are plotholes and me nitpicking - the average movie-going audience isn't going to dissect the movie this far. They aren't going to ask the question what Admiral Marcus' motivations are (which seem to be 'I want war, durr'), or why immediately after Khan kills Admiral Marcus, he turns psycho-evil and decides to go on a murder spree and betray everybody (a consistent characterization, what?). They aren't going to try and analyze why the political commentary that Marcus' campaign advocates doesn't make a bit of sense (if they're trying to make the Cheney analogue, having coherent motivations for war would be a good start - Cheney had reasons for wanting to prosecute wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you know). And the majority of them will be able to ignore the fact that many people in this movie seem to leap from huge heights that should shatter every bone in their legs. But you know, that's movie logic and while I'm pissed off that the themes and motifs in this movie are at best shallow and incoherent, most people won't care about that.

But let's return to the character of Khan and ask why he is in the movie. Well, from an outsider's perspective, that answer is simple: like the presence of Zod in the upcoming Superman movie, he's a character that the audience will know. And the reason they know him is because that character was the main villain in the classic sci-fi film Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. And you know, in a reboot series, you can get away with this sort of thing, provided you take the character in an original direction and the performance is there. And in the latter case, you can argue that Benedict Cumberbatch does his damnedest to make his version of Khan striking and memorable and distinct from that of Ricardo Montalban. 

But where the immersion in the film receives a massive crack comes when Zachary Quinto's Spock sends out a transmission to New Vulcan - and contacts Leonard Nimoy's Spock. The one who fought and died in the fight against Khan in the original series (he got better). And then you realize that the reason why the character of Khan worked so well as a villain in Wrath of Khan was because he was a fully-fleshed out character, both from the original series and the movie. The history of the Eugenics Wars, the deep-seated rage he had towards Kirk, they all added up to form a complex and dynamic character in Khan even as a villain. But here, while Benedict Cumberbatch is delivering a great performance, the script doesn't provide half of the depth and rationale behind Khan's character besides 'durr, he's evil'. It's impossible to get invested in that character, and it gets even harder when the movie itself draws explicit parallels to the events of Wrath of Khan.

And you know, even with all of that, it could still work. Fine, the complexity's been dumbed down and you could drive a star cruiser through the plotholes, but fine. And even though Chris Pine has the charisma of applesauce and Benedict Cumberbatch has a character that is more plot device than human (I wish I was kidding here), I guess you could still get drama out of that...

Which is why J.J. Abrams then proceeds to spend the next half-hour of the film remaking the end of Wrath of Khan

I'm not joking here either. Two critically damaged Federation ships facing off against each other and spiraling towards destruction (in this case, impact with Earth), one commandeered by the enemy, and the Enterprise suffering fatal malfunctions in the warp core. Instead of Spock going to fix the core and incapacitating McCoy who tries to stop him, it's Kirk going to fix the core and incapacitating Scotty who tries to stop him. And after Kirk gets the warp core back online via kicking it (because that's how engineering works), he gets fatal radiation poisoning. And like the classic scene between Kirk and Spock in Wrath of Khan, where Spock dies inside the core, the roles are reversed where Kirk dies on inside the core with Spock on the other side of the glass. And after a scene that would have been heartfelt if it wasn't so obvious it was a blatant rip-off, Spock bellows out 'KHHHAAAAANNNNNN!!!' (because that's something Spock, the half-Vulcan would do) and I had to repress my urge to scream bloody murder.

Oh, but the film doesn't end yet. No, we have to sit through an idiotic foot chase and bout of hand-to-hand combat where Spock attempts to capture Khan, because Khan has a healing factor in his blood that might just bring Kirk back to life (because that's how biology works). Never mind the rest of Khan's crew, who are all on board the Enterprise already and can be removed from their cryo-pods and who all have the healing factor (they do this in order to put Kirk inside one of them so he can be healed) - nope, you need Khan. So then Spock and Uhura somehow bring Khan down, get his blood, and Kirk comes back to life, and any shred of dramatic weight evaporates with bad jokes and absolutely nothing learned.

I wish I was fucking kidding.

So as I walked out of this film in a seething rage, my friend didn't seem to have nearly the same problems with it. Turns out he'd never seen Wrath of Khan, and that got me thinking that maybe this was a way to reintroduce that iconic moment of Trek to a new generation. But here's where that falls apart: the fact that Star Trek: Into Darkness constantly makes reference to the fact that all of the events of Wrath of Khan happened. The second they contacted Nimoy's Spock, you are forcibly reminded of the fact that the previous continuity exists, and that all of this happened before. There's no commentary, there's no additional insight, there certainly isn't any emotional heft to this, because even to the viewer that hasn't seen Wrath of Khan, the niggling knowledge has been planted that this has already been done. And for those of us who have seen Wrath of Khan and had a real emotional reaction to that scene, this comes as a slap in the face. And since this reboot doesn't have the balls to actually kill Kirk, he gets revived through a cheap, insulting plot device and the film reveals itself as the hollow, worthless cash-in that it is. 

There's no soul to this movie. Say what you want about the original series of Trek, even the bad stuff, but at least there was something behind it that had the capacity to tug on emotions and make us care. Yeah, a lot of it sucked and was completely silly and stupid, but when it worked as intelligent, philosophical sci-fi, it was moving and powerful and had that force of human manifest destiny that spoke to generations of people. And Wrath of Khan is often considered the pinnacle of that series not just because of the real emotional undercurrents, but because it was willing to take risks with the characters - and since we got attached to those characters, we cared.

I don't care about this film. I didn't care when Kirk 'died', because I knew J.J. Abrams and his writers didn't care enough to actually play that out. The plotting of this film doesn't flow organically based upon characters - it's the mechanical, soulless construction of a 'build-your-own-mystery' template. The twists are there, but they say nothing and mean nothing other than to be just another fucking twist. And as much as Abrams and company clearly like Wrath of Khan, they have absolutely no idea why that film worked, and instead have chosen to shamelessly copy scenes and plot wholesale to attempt to wring some sort of emotion from the audience - and the saddest thing is that for most audiences, it'll be enough. J.J. Abrams spent over fifteen times the budget of Wrath of Khan to make this film, and for all of that money, we got a soulless waste of a movie that the average movie-goer will forget in a week.

I've never really been a fan of Star Trek - but even I can say that Star Trek deserves better than this worthless, plagiarized trash. I do not recommend this film, and instead of standing in line for hours waiting to see it or giving J.J. Abrams any more of your money, I advise you all to go on Netflix or dig through your VHS collection and dig up that old copy of Wrath of Khan. Watch that instead. Trust me, it's better.

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