Friday, May 24, 2013

WOULD RATHER BE DOING THE KESSEL RUN? J.J. Abrams Shows His Love for One Space Opera and Disdain for Another in “Star Trek Into Darkness”.

Star Wars…<ahem>…Trek Into Darkness is akin to the central conceit of The Wizard of Oz: The movie works if you allow yourself to be taken in by the spectacle but fail to look for the man behind the curtain. In that, the film is slick, drawing one in with its razzle dazzle. It’s only after you step away and start thinking about it that you realize it’s an onion: The more you peel back the layers, the more likely it will sting your eyes and make them tear.

Director J.J. Abrams, working off a script by scribes Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, presents less of a Star Trek film and more of quasi “Star Wars demo reel” meets “Lucas/Spielberg’s Greatest Hits”. Tons of homages to films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, just to name a few. The plot centers around terrorism taking place within the Federation itself from ostensibly one of its own, Starfleet Officer John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock, The Hobbit) who is out for…

Oh, forget it. 

He’s Khan.
 Yes, that Khan.

Khan Noonian Singh, the closest thing to an arch-nemesis that all of Star Trek ever had and antagonist of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Khan declares war on the Federation particularly against Starfleet Commander-In-Chief Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller, Robocop, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns), father to Lieutenant Carol Marcus (Alice Eve, Men in Black III, The Raven)...

Yes…that Carol Marcus.

Ms. Marcus, who is baby mama to James T. Kirk’s love child in the “prime universe”, the main female point of interest in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan...

See where I’m going with this?

In fact, a complete chunk of the film is basically the closing act of the original Star Trek II reversed. It’s debatable whether the last third of the movie counts as "homage" or "pandering". After all, the producers have said that in this rebooted universe certain events can (re)occur, just not in the way they previously unfolded.

That’s all well and good, but when it goes so far as to crib a certain iconic moment…
…yes, that iconic moment…

...well, with apologies to Zachary Quinto, Bill Shatner did it better.

Look, I’m not going to lie.  I was caught up in the spectacle of the film and had a smile on my face through most of it. Primary players Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, (the under-utilized) Karl Urban, and Zoe Saldana, are much more comfortable in their inherited pop culture skins this time around, and the camaraderie between Kirk (Pine) and Spock (Quinto) is a welcome change from their antagonism in the previous outing, though their “bromance” seems somewhat forced at times. Unfortunately for Pine and Quinto, Shatner and Leonard Nimoy had the advantage of having countless filmed hours to build up the brotherhood between the characters. George Takei/Sulu fans will enjoy John Cho’s little moments, and Chekov fans will probably get a little worried when Anton Yelchin’s version is asked to wear a red shirt and is reassigned to Engineering (a subtle nod to the Chekov/Khan conundrum of Star Trek II). Simon Pegg brings some comic relief to Scotty (especially in one literal “running gag” that goes a bit too long).  Cumberbatch makes for a very intense, menacing villain but, quite frankly, he could have played a whole different character and still have been just as effective (and don’t get me started on Kahn's characterization inconsistencies given that Eric Bana’s Nero screwed up the timeline centuries after Khan was exiled into space…).

Khan is such a pervasive presence in the Star Trek lore that his usage is somewhat of a cheat; a way to artificially create tension instead of letting the story do it on its own, which also (rather unfairly) invites comparison with the Khan of old, who was (in the hands of the late, great Ricardo Montalban) much more charming and rakishly charismatic; a self-contained villain who only let his mask slip when thwarted by his supposed lesser, the infuriating James T. Kirk. Further, his obsessive insanity isn’t manifest until years of exile on Ceti Alpha V, which never took place in this universe. Even worse is that, for whatever reason, this version of Starfleet does not have access to either the internet or history books; it takes a pandering cameo in the form of Leonard Nimoy to explain to the crew of the NuEnterprise how dangerous Khan really is.  And, all that quibbling aside, director Abrams had the opportunity to turn the character of Khan on its ear, but instead of taking the leap prefers to play the safe, familiar route instead. Oh, the film gives new reasons why both NuKirk and NuSpock would have a mad on against Khan, but it feels forced and contrived.

“Past versus present” discourse aside, the film on its own merits contains heavy handed, post-9/11 zeitgeist (but then, this is nothing new of Star Trek as a whole in the past decade plus) and plot holes large enough to fill a black hole, especially in terms to a resurrection in the film…, not that resurrection...

...but one similar to it with the means to effect that resurrection built...rather, telegraphed with all the subtlety of an elephant in a china shop...into the story. However, instead of using the resources at hand to effect said miracle within the ship, let’s just make it more complicated for no other logical (pun intended) reason other than to justify an extraneously unnecessary chase/fight scene and get another good look at Zoe Saldana’s derriere (you’ll understand what I mean when you see it). 

There’s everything a Star Wars…>AHEM<…Trek fan could enjoy: space battles, explosions, gratuitous women in underwear shots (not that I'm complaining on that one), thrills, chills, and lens flare…lots and LOTS of lens flare, which can make a slouching character holding a cup of coffee seem inspiringly heroic. However, the essence of Star Trek (exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life), is given only perfunctory lip service. There are also themes regarding humility (Kirk gets more comeuppances in this film than the character has gotten in its entire existence), and nature versus nurture (Spock/Khan) but they also seemed forced.  The film essentially panders in a way that is incongruently insulting but entertaining.

However, the entertainment, and the joy of the film, comes primarily from the actors. The chemistry of all the players is spot on (with perhaps Weller being a VERY minor blip in those terms). Heir apparent to John Williams Michael Giacchino’s score in turns elevates the action but evinces a bit of acoustical boredom; his motifs somehow diminished in presentation compared to that of the previous outing. Though, quite frankly, his theme for Khan is much more inspired and satisfying than the turgid brashness of Nero's theme.

In a sense, this film is schizophrenic. Some films are just to be taken at face value. Try to dwell on them too much and your brain starts to hurt. Star Trek Into Darkness is one such film. So if you see it, just enjoy it at the moment then think of something else immediately afterwards. In the meantime, we’ll just sit back and wait for the film that J.J. Abrams REALLY wants to direct ("Paging John Williams…John Williams…you’re wanted at the soundstage...").

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