Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Fan's Notes: What Does and Doesn't Work About Star Trek Into Darkness (With Spoilers)

Posted By on Tue, May 21, 2013 at 11:53 AM

You just feel safer in a room full of Trekkies. A diverse crowd, it is, but one that shares at least a few of the same ideals. Progressives, fans of justice, equality, and weird stuff. Imaginative folk who take the horrors and cruelties of modern life personally and just want to have some hope on a cosmic scale. Trekkies are on the whole good people, and they give a shit. About most things. The world is a messed up and terrifying place, and your chances of being murdered in a room full of Trekkies is significantly lower than in a room full of most others.

Which is why Star Trek Into Darkness, the second in a new incarnation of the series, is going to be an interesting social experiment. Your classic Trekkies are a reliable variable — but what about the audiences who are just in for this week's summer blockbuster? The way summer movies work these days, there's a certain obligatory feeling to event movies. Once you've seen Iron Man 3 and The Great Gatsby, what do you do to kill time until Furious 6? You go see the new Star Trek film — it's what's there. That's certainly how Paramount wants it: it has shaped the film to appeal to the global marketplace, sanding down any of those rough edges that kept previous Trek films from reaching their full economic potential outside of the U.S.

The reconceived Captain Kirk is exactly how this new Trek wants to be seen — impetuous, edgy, reckless, anti-authoritarian, sexy, cool, unbound by canon or history ... but also capable in ways that the stodgy powers-that-be simply aren't. It is a testament to Chris Pine's charm that his Jim Kirk isn't a lad mag cliché or simply a pale Shatnerian echo, and it's that willingness to commit that helps anchor this crew.

But Kirk's cowboyism requires a specific balance, and Zachary Quinto's Spock is a unique achievement as well, making each conversation into a journey, of a mind finding its way along a new path. Quinto's youth makes all the difference in the world in this iteration of Kirk/Spock. That balance is also a suitable representation of the conflict between real-deal Trekkies and casual moviegoers/studio execs/exhibitors.

• As for J.J. Abrams, tasked with this grand reconception of the Star Trek enterprise, much has been made of his unfamiliarity/disdain for the original Trek, and well-publicized is his overwhelming artistic need to make Star Trek cool. At best, this is arrogant and headstrong, and at worst it's pernicious and hubristic. Abrams has visual gifts as a director, among them a knack for a well-timed rack focus that really does show his care for '70s storytelling. His value of "coolness" above all else, though ... well, I'm sure he'll be very happy making the new Star Wars films.

• There's no reason to be bothered by the reconceived Klin (this film's big alien showcase), as IDIC (and previous Trek canon) have demonstrated that they have lots of racial and social diversity, though this new look falls somewhere on the makeup continuum between the revised Freddy Krueger of Wes Craven's New Nightmare and the Creeper from the Jeepers Creepers diptych. Granted, it would be nice if the creative powers behind this incarnation of Trek would familiarize themselves with some of the exceptional noncanonical writings about the Klinzhai and Rihannsu (that would be Klingons and Romulans, for those of you who are casual Trekfolk or just killing time at work).

But sometimes it feels like an obstinate attempt to change things just to be different. It's still very difficult to come to terms with the cavalier way the new creative team blotted out four-plus decades worth of history in the previous film, and though it is explicitly stated in the 2009 Trek that it's an alternate timeline, a lot of good Trekkies walked ... and you can't blame them for that. Like I said, pernicious and hubristic.

• But Star Trek endures. It can handle just about anything and always find a way to come back, to reconstitute itself. So why not see what Hollywood can do when given the rich iconographies of all that is Trek. Why not gather its distinctivenesses and cherry-pick some new combinations of elements? Get really creative with all the possibilities that four-plus decades of material can offer ... Or do like Hollywood always does, and take the X-Men 2 or Star Trek: Nemesis route, and just remix The Wrath of Khan ...

Make no mistake, Benedict Cumberbatch is playing Khan, in what may be the worst-kept secret in the history of movie marketing. But here's the thing that Paramount and Bad Robot should have realized: it doesn't matter. Knowing it's a Khan story going in doesn't change how you're going to experience it in the slightest. Cumberbatch's Khan is interesting. He doesn't have the grand eloquence of Ricardo Montalban, but who does? He gets to Blade Runner up the place, which is intriguing (and genuinely shocking), and his introduction as a terrorist mastermind is handled fairly well. Let's see to what extent he can bring it in 2028 once what he does here has some time to resonate in the subconscious, or subkhanscious ...

• Making Khan the focus of this new film, honestly, is a mistake. It doesn't kill the film, but it pulls the rug out from under itself by rushing back to the continuity, or khantinuity, that this new series seemed so eager to rid itself of. To make a story like Wrath of Khan work, you need backstory, yes. But also time; something that's been slowly gathering strength. You can't introduce someone and also have their grand, culminating act of revenge occur in the same film.

The Kurtzman/Orci/Lindelof screenwriting team actually finds an interesting way to hit some of the main story beats of Wrath of Khan without making any egregious narrative-hobbling mistakes. But it would have made more sense not to involve the 20th century's favorite genetically modified warlord at all, thereby not having to deal with the expectations and impressions of fans who've seen elements of Khan pop up across the spectrum of pop culture for the past 31 years. Without the structure of episodic television, it can be difficult to build the subtleties and nuances that allow for truly well-rounded characters. And you'd think, given Abrams and his merry band's experience with episodic TV with Alias, Lost, and Fringe, that they'd know that.

• Here's something to ponder, what with technology where it is and with effects companies collapsing into entropy after shaping billions of dollars worth of admissions the world over — Arex and M'Ress are possible. The tripedal Edoan and felinoid Caitian, both previously confined to the abstract realms of Trek (novels, comics, and the animated series) could be Gollumized and put in a live-action context. Is that something that the world needs? Who can say. But it is an interesting thought, and a possible way to break further ground in motion capture rendering. Surely someone at Paramount had the thought that this could be their Gollum. Given the Internet's predilection for sci-fi and cats, M'Ress alone would be a meme generator unparalleled in mainstream movies.

• Watching Abrams' Trek films, cabaret hypnotists start to make more sense. When you watch one of the new Treks, you get sucked in: the flaws are there, and noticeable, but the ride you're on doesn't make them feel worth pursuing at the time. Afterward, when you start thinking in depth about what you saw, that's when things start getting all crumbly. There are some unbelievably stupid things that happen in this film, things which could have been taken care of with another script draft and a bit more consistency of character. But in the moment, you let it slide. Perhaps this is a moral failing of modern audiences, or maybe just a genuine desire to be entertained.

But it works. The advantage that Abrams-era Trek earns (and exploits) is its willingness to be a little goofy — taking the subtext of Shatnerian performance and letting it color all the emotions on display. There's a humor in the original series that doesn't carry over to any of the successive incarnations of the Enterprise, and this cast works with that. Fortunately, Abrams isn't quite the sadist that Joss Whedon or Russell T. Davies is, but to a certain extent that's just because he's not as invested in the proceedings. Abrams' sadistic tendencies are in the big picture — annihilating the planet Vulcan, shunting beloved characters to the edge of the universe just so he can look upon the Trek of today and say, 'This is what I have done.'

• The most interesting aspect of Star Trek Into Darkness is how it expresses the change in Federation focus between the events of the first film and second. In the original film series, there is an unspoken but noticeable shift toward militarization — the fleetwide red uniforms being the most visible of signifiers (especially after the drab color schemes of the unifroms in Star trek: The Motion Picture) for a shift in the perspective of the UFP. In this new incarnation, we've gone full-on Starship Troopers, with grey uniforms that carry almost fascist undertones merely by color and cut. Our Khan lays this shift at the feet of the events of the first film, with the renegade time traveler Nero's appearance and destruction of the planet Vulcan serving to kickstart the military aspects of Starfleet into an accelerated gear.

It even becomes a major plot point with Engineer Scott (Simon Pegg), which actually served as a rather satisfying confrontation to this adjusted mission statement that seems completely adrift from the concepts of the Federation as initially established. It's not realistic, some would say, to expect a utopian organization to be without corruption and destabilizing influences, to which the ideal response is, “This is supposed to be idealistic science fiction, and if you want realism from a film with laser guns and aliens and miniskirts, then I question your priorities.”

• The biggest problem with Star Trek Into Darkness, beyond dead Tribbles and soap opera-style character arcs and curing death, is that it doesn't seem at all interested in asking any profound or intellectual questions. Rollicking space adventure is something the filmmakers have demonstrated that they are readily capable of. But where's the heart? Where's the mind?

People love to slag 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture as boring. But lots of people said that about 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yes, the comparison is a fair one. ST: TMP has a lot on its mind, including the spiritual evolution of all carbon-based life. It's the film where Spock wept, having realized that that simple emotional response was an expression equal to the infinite knowledge of the universe. It's the film that posited imagination and conditional theory as the means by which all evolution would occur. And naturally, despite its unheralded success, the powers that be stepped in and walled off Gene Roddenberry's involvement, because who wants to do all that thinking, anyway?

Does J.J. Abrams have that kind of vision? I don't know. He's great at re-expressing previous idioms (late-'70s/early '80s Spielberg, classic intrigue-based action flicks, space opera), but as far as getting a distinct artistic perspective or idea across in his films — we haven't seen it yet. Which means he's kind of perfect for the Star Wars films. But even as he moves on to that, he'll likely still have some controlling influence on the new voyages of Star Trek.

So wouldn't it be amazing if we could get a big budget sci-fi epic that isn't afraid of being too cerebral? Audiences are becoming more and more sophisticated in how they take in visual information, so why not? Why couldn't an established series that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars also use its brain? The mode, then, is cautious optimism — same as the last time. Perhaps all we can expect from cinematic Star Trek from here on out is lasers and intrigue. But maybe the human adventure can encompass multitudes. As a certain pointy-eared philosopher once said, there are always possibilities.

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