Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

(Movie Review)

            I suppose I should follow Internet convention and announce the following: ****SPOILERS ALERT****

Why I Watched This Movie
          I was a huge Trekkie in my youth. 
            Admittedly, these days I’m somewhat of a lapsed Trekkie.  (I stopped watching the TV shows in 1996.) But I still show up for the big events like a new movie.  And I still have nostalgia for the old show.
            To check up on my Trekkie credentials, you can see my review of the 2009 Star Trek here.  And you can see my fourth grade report on Star Trek here.

            Because I’m going to be reviewing this movie from the perspective of a Trekkie, I suppose I should start out with what seems to be the big question:
Is It Sacrilege to Reboot Star Trek as an Action Franchise?
          I’m in agreement with Ron Moore [LINK HERE] who makes a distinction between the Star Trek movies and the Star Trek TV shows.
            The original Star Trek functioned, as Gene Rodenberry famously described it, as a Wagon Train to the Stars.  (Or a mobile Twilight Zone if you like.)
            Every week the Enterprise crew would explore a new planet.  Something strange would be going on.  The mystery would slowly boil for about a half hour, and then the strange twist would be revealed at the end.
            This works fine as a TV show because your expectations and your level of investment are different for TV.  You don’t have to leave your house.  You’re not expecting anything special because you know it’s a weekly TV show and whatever happens the same characters will all be back next week.
            And if the episode is slightly disappointing, it doesn’t really matter because you’ll get another episode next week. (And let’s face it, these “strange planet of the week” episodes could be quite hit or miss.  It’s not always easy to write an intelligent storyline, and a number of the old Star Trek episodes were underwhelming.)

            Now imagine the movie.  You get yourself all hyped up months in advance.  The Hollywood marketing machine is doing everything it can to milk the excitement.  You call your friends, put on pants, drive to the cinema, buy your big size popcorn and soda…..Imagine if after all that you got another slow boiler “mystery planet of the week” type Star Trek.
            It just doesn’t work as a cinema release.  You need something more exciting. Hollywood understands this 100%, and I don’t disagree with them.
            Of course the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies have taken the adrenaline up a notch from even the old Star Trek movies, but things have changed since the 1980s and each generation demands more intense cinematic thrills than the last one.  And if you’re going to make an action movie, you might as well try and make it a good one.

            Someday Star Trek will probably be back on the small screen, and then we can do more intellectual stories. 
            But as far as the movies go, I’m totally okay with this being all action.
            The question is: as an action film, is it any good?

The Review
          I have a number of friends and co-workers who absolutely hated this movie. 
            I actually liked it.  I thought overall it was an entertaining action film— albeit one with some very serious flaws.  There were a couple of very poor decisions in the script, but I’ve decided they didn’t spoil the whole movie for me.  
            The action sequences in this film were solid.  It didn’t break any new ground, but there was enough chasing, jumping, running and shooting to keep me happy.

            The characters also worked well for me. 
            At some point in the future, this rebooted Trek may run into awkwardness because the actors can’t play organic characters, and are locked into imitating caricatures previously established by other actors.  (That is, assuming this new crew gets a lot more future outings, which—given how long it took them to make just one sequel—they might not.)
            However for the moment, the writers are showing skill at keeping these characters interesting.  The new writers expertly milk the classic conflict of Spock’s cold considered logic and obsession for following the rules versus Kirk’s rash impulsiveness and fondness for rule breaking.  This is not new of course—it’s part of what gave the original series its charm.  But if we’re going to reboot the original characters than we are also rebooting the old personality conflicts, and I thought the new movie writers handled this well.  They also adopted it to the structure of the movie by having the characters develop over the course of the story.  At the beginning of the movie Kirk and Spock are at loggerheads, and by the end of the movie they both come to appreciate the benefits of the other’s position.
            I was entertained, and I thought the movie was respectful to the series, and that’s enough for me to give it a cautious thumbs up.  (Other Trekkies will disagree of course.  Passionate arguing about Star Trek is what being a Trekkie is all about.)

Things I Didn’t Like
          And now I get to my complaints.
          This FAQ article [LINK HERE] does a good job of pointing out all the plot holes in the movie.  I agree with almost all of it with some minor exceptions.  (I’m not sure if it was Khan’s plan all along to put the 72 torpedoes on the Enterprise, or if this was what Admiral Marcus did, and Khan was just reacting to the situation.  The movie got a little bit confusing on what exactly Khan’s master plan had been.  Also I didn’t mind that the movie stuck with Trek canon about the Eugenics wars in the 1990s.  I just accept that Star Trek is taking place in a different timeline than our own universe.  And I actually liked Leonard Nimoy’s cameo.  But all the rest of their criticisms I agree with.)

            Fortunately for this movie, the pacing is fast enough that you don’t get time to think about most of these plot holes as you get rushed from one action sequence to another.
             The other point is that if you wanted to get nit-picky, you could do this kind of FAQ with just about every movie and TV episode from the Star Trek canon.  Most of Star Trek won’t hold up to this kind of close scrutiny, and the further back in time you go, the worse it gets. 
            (If, hypothetically, you could somehow wipe the memory of all the original episodes from the minds of Trekkies, and then re-introduce these 1960s episodes as New Trek, how much do you want to bet they would be complaining that these new episodes were ruining the franchise?  I can think of more than a few original Star Trek episodes that just don’t make a lot of logical sense.)

            Star Trek fandom is an interesting phenomenon.  The fans are often more intelligent than the show. And although the original series was very cheesy, the fans have expected the show to move on and mature as they have. And neither of these are bad things.  (As much as the writers hate being nit-picked by the fans, it helps to keep the standards high.) 
            But at a certain point you either have to give up and just wash your hands of the entire franchise, or accept that from time to time there will be stupid plot points, and I’m choosing the latter.

           The one thing that I am really upset about, and it’s the same thing that every other reviewer is upset about, is the decision to replay the ending of the Wrath of Khan by killing off Kirk and then bringing him back to life.
            The idea is so terrible, it’s difficult to see how it ever got into the movie.  Who could have possibly thought that this was a good idea?  And how did this get passed the whole studio process?

            The lesson really should have been learned from the Star Wars prequels.  George Lucas thought it would be a good idea to have scenes in the Star Wars prequels that paralleled scenes in the original Star Wars trilogy.  It was an interesting idea, but it fell completely flat and everyone hated it, and I naively assumed the lesson had been learned.
            I can kind of understand what was in George Lucas’s mind, because it seems like the kind of literary theme that your high school English teacher really loved—one scene foreshadowing a future scene, another scene calling back to a previous scene.
            But the thing is there’s an art to this kind of stuff, and it doesn’t work if you do it clumsily.  There needs to be a certain amount of subtlety.  And ideally the way to do it would be to have things subtlety foreshadowed in one movie which pay off in another movie.  (Which is impossible to do in a franchise that spans 30 years, so it probably just shouldn’t even be attempted.)
            Also you should probably have a larger thematic point and not just repeat scenes just for the sake of repeating them.
            And, like a lot of ambitious literary techniques, they have to be pulled off exactly right or they end up looking really stupid.  And that’s what happened to George Lucas, and what happened to J.J. Abrams.
            (Lucas I can forgive, because he didn’t know any better.  Abrams really should have taken a lesson from the failed Star Wars prequels.  I agree with the avclub’s reviewer [LINK HERE] that this kind of thing makes me really nervous about how Abrams plans to do the new Star Wars movies now.)
            And I have more complaints.  It’s one thing to replay an action scene, but J.J. Abrams attempts to replay a tragic scene.  This was never going to work.  Tragedy simply cannot be replayed.  You can’t use the same emotional punches twice and expect the impact to be the same.  I may have gotten teary-eyed at the original Spock’s death, but I’m not going to cry over the same scene twice. 
            And even worse, by reversing the roles of Kirk and Spock, and then even re-using and reversing the original dialogue, J.J. Abrams decides to try and milk pathos while simultaneously wink at how cute he’s being.  You can play this scene for tragedy, or you can play it for cuteness but you can’t do both.
            The whole thing culminates in the worst decision of all—to have Spock yell out “KHAAAAAN!”  This was Kirk’s most memorable line from the original Wrath of Khan, but it’s memorable in part because people love to make fun of it.  The line is a parody of itself.  Attempting to force this line into a tragic scene is a terrible idea.
            Once again I have to ask the question—how did a scene this bad manage to make it into the movie?  Aren’t whole teams of people involved in making a big-budget studio film like this?  Did they all sign off on this scene?  Wasn’t there one voice of sanity in the room?

            The best defense that can be given of Kirk’s death is that it is quick.  Once I realized what J.J. Abrams was doing, I was scared this was going to be a long drawn out death scene like in the original, but Abrams doesn’t allow the scene to linger or slow the movie down.  We’re given a quick death scene, and then immediately treated to more explosions, running, jumping, and fist fighting.  The scene is quickly forgotten, and it’s almost forgivable.
            Almost.  Except that killing off a main character and then bringing him back to life is such a desperate story-telling technique that it should only be used with extreme caution.  In life, death means something, and death is supposed to mean something in fiction as well. The possibility of death is what gives any fictional story its stakes.  If death can be reversed, the story loses all sense of stakes.
            (After decades of abusing this narrative technique, this is precisely the problem American comic books have written themselves into.  They kill off a major character now, and absolutely no one cares anymore.)
            I know it’s part of classic Trek now, but it was a questionable move the first time they killed off a main character only to immediately bring him back in the next movie.  But at least they had the sense to make the death seem meaningful, and wait a couple years before bringing the character back to life.  Here they kill a character off for no apparent reason, and then just immediately bring him back to life.
            And at least in the original, the writers put in the effort to give us a good reason why Spock’s body could be brought to back to life.  In this movie, Kirk is just brought back to death by magic blood, a very lazy solution if there ever was one.

Things I Liked About the Movie
          Alright, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, here are a few more positives about the movie.

            Benedict Cumberbatch did a great job as Khan.  (Once you get passed the fact that it’s a little strange to re-cast a British man as Khan, and I’ve already decided I’m going to cut the new re-booted Trek a little slack when it comes to visual representations of old characters.)
            And I know it didn’t really add much to the plots, but I really liked the fact that they brought Leonard Nimoy in for a quick cameo.  It helps to remind us that this new Star Trek universe is still connected tangentially to the old Star Trek continuity. 
            (Many people have already pointed out that old Spock completely contradicts himself, saying essentially “I know I said I was never going to tell you anything about the timeline, but in this case I’m going to make an exception.” It works if you accept that people can be inconsistent in real life, and can make exceptions as circumstances warrant.)

            Given the huge antagonism between Kirk and Khan in the original series, I thought it was kind of cool that Kirk and Khan teamed up for a while in this movie against a common enemy.  And I thought the script made it believable, giving them each ample motivation to attempt to use the other.

            Also, once I got passed how stupid Kirk’s death scene was, I liked the switch-up at the end of the movie where it was Spock who fought the final battle against Khan instead of Kirk.
            Although Kirk and Khan traditionally had the grudge match against each other, it does almost make more sense for Spock to take down Khan in the end.  Khan is genetically engineered to have super-human strength, and in the original series Vulcans are also portrayed as having super-human strength.  So when it comes to hand to hand combat, Spock is really the one who should be fighting Khan.

            (Although actually, if you watch the original Star Trek closely, the super Vulcan strength is something they’re very inconsistent on.  Sometimes Vulcans are portrayed as much stronger than humans, sometimes they’re not.  Also, since Romulans share the same genetic make-up as Vulcans, they should also in theory have the same super strength, but the show is also very inconsistent about this.
            For that matter, I’m not sure Khan’s powers are consistent with his portrayal in the original series.  I’m going to have to re-watch Space Seed to be definite on this, but I think originally he was just a slightly stronger than average human in the original incarnation, not superman.)

            And while I’m nitpicking on these little details, what would a Star Trek review be without continuity nitpicks?  (As I said above, I’m not going to let these ruin the movie for me, but I’m still going to point out what I caught.)

Continuity Nitpicks
          Since J.J. Abrams created a new tangent universe, he’s bought himself a fair amount of flexibility as far as established continuity goes, but everything that happened before Nero created the new universe is still in continuity, which means Khan’s origins are still in continuity, and Star Trek: Enterprise is still in continuity in this new universe.
            In their fourth season, Star Trek: Enterprise actually went through the trouble of doing a 2 part storyline explaining once and for all why Klingons in the original series don’t have the ridges on their foreheads as a result of genetic engineering gone wrong..  
            Since the J.J. Abrams movies take place in the time period of what would have been the original series, the Klingons should look like they do in the original series with no forehead ridges.
            (Remember now, this is not me being more geeky than the show.  The show itself went out if its way to establish this continuity point.  I would have been content to just allow the show a certain artistic license when it comes to visual representations of characters, but now it’s an established part of Star Trek continuity that Klingons during the time frame of the original series are suffering from the results of genetic experiments and therefore do not have forehead ridges. 
            Although admittedly I think you could find an easy way out of this by just positing that in the alternate universe the Klingons somehow found a cure quicker.)

* In his review, Locke Peterseim points out [LINK] that when Khan was originally defrosted from suspended animation, he wasn’t so angry.  It was being marooned on the planet for 20 years that drove him insane. 
            This movie did attempt to give Khan another reason for vengeance—anger that he was being used by Admiral Marcus.  It’s a judgment call whether you think that this was enough to drive him to extremes or not.

* And back to the thing about Khan’s blood: Nowhere in the original Star Trek were we given any hint that Khan’s blood could bring people back to life from the dead.  And since Khan was created by genetic engineering, it doesn’t even really make sense.  (A genetically engineered human being would have the best of whatever DNA was available in the gene pool, but there’s no regenerative blood gene.)  Plus, in the original Wrath of Khan, Khan is driven to vengeance because in part because his wife died.  Why didn’t he just bring her back to life with his magic blood?

* Technology, what it can and can’t do, is always very inconsistent in Star Trek.  So it’s almost pointless to mention this stuff, but in past episodes it was difficult for them to use communicators across long distances.  Here Kirk calls Scotty all the way back on earth
            The fact that Khan is able to transport himself all the way to Klingon space also seems inconsistent with the Star Trek universe, but at least the movie addressed this head on by reminding us that Scotty had created a new transport technology in the 2009 Star Trek.

Other Notes
* Put me in the group of people who think the title for this movie is really awful.

* Whether you love this latest Star Trek movie, or hate it, it’s worth remembering that at this point the franchise has already seen much, much worse.  (Nemesis, for example.)  So although some reviewers are complaining about how the franchise is being ruined (this Salon.com review, for example), it’s important to keep things in perspective.  In 30 years’ time, this movie will just be another footnote in the franchise’s history, and in the years to come I’m sure we can expect more good Trek and more bad Trek as well.

* Before I saw this movie, I heard people were mocking J.J. Abrams for his overuse of lens flares.  I thought people were just being hyper-critical but, wow, he really does use lens flares a lot in this movie. 
            I don’t mind lens flares per se.  They can kind of produce a cool dramatic effect when used sparingly at the right time.  But you don’t need them in every shot.

* Whisky’s review is here with further thoughts here.  Many of the links above are stolen from Whisky.

* And one last Star Trek related link before I close out this review.  I’m a big fan of the Star Trek reviews at sfdebris.com.
            They’re not perfect—the humor is corny and often forced—but he does a good job of editing each Star Trek episode down to 10 minutes and, once you get passed the bad jokes, often has some intelligent commentary as well.  It’s perfect for the Trekkie with short attention span.
            To see why Khan made such a great villain in the original Star Trek universe, see SF Debris’s review of Space Seed [HERE] and The Wrath of Khan [HERE].

Link of the Day
“Future of the Euro Zone Looks Pretty Dim”

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