Monday, May 20, 2013

Further Thoughts On Star Trek Into Darkness

In my review for Star Trek Into Darkness, I made every attempt possible to avoid spoiling the film’s many twists, which made it difficult for me to express my feelings about the movie positive and negative in any great detail. The following is my attempt to fill in those intentional gaps and address the things I couldn’t talk about specifically in the earlier review, and as such it will contain many spoilers, so if you want to go into the movie fresh, stop reading now. If you’ve already seen the movie or don’t really care, read on if you would like to hear my unencumbered thoughts about the movie.

Spoilers start here. Seriously, last chance to break away and remain blissfully unaware of the twists in the new Star Trek movie…Okay. The bad guy is Khan. Khan Noonian Singh, leader of the Augments, super soldiers from Earth’s past cryogenically frozen and awoken into the present, famously played previously by Ricardo Montalban in the Original Series episode Space Seed, and years later in the second film of the first film series, Star Trek II: Wrath Of Khan. Sorry if I’m hammering the point home, but I spent so much time and energy trying to avoid saying this in my larger review that it’s almost cathartic just to get it out there.

First off, I have to hand it to Karl Urban, who let slip in an interview some time ago that the villain would actually be the godlike Gary Mitchell in what now appears to be some clever bit of misdirection. As I mentioned in my review, I was legitimately surprised that they actually went with Kahn, but only because I didn’t expect the writers of Lost and Fringe to do the thing everyone expected them to do, and assumed they would either create an original villain, or at least go with someone more obscure and thus more interesting.

But, you know, maybe not too obscure

When news of the second film first came out, it almost seemed like a forgone conclusion that Khan would be the villain, as if it were now some sacred tradition for second Star Trek installments, and I never really understood this. In this new universe, the events of Space Seed that introduced Khan had yet to occur, let alone the sequel film that made the character culturally indelible. It seemed like there were a lot of places this series could and should go before even broaching this subject, and the final film, which attempts to remake both Space Seed and Wrath of Khan, tries to do too much too fast as a result.

Don’t get me wrong, Benedict Cumberbatch is awesome as Khan, and at the risk of losing a lot of Trekkie street cred, I’d go so far as to say he was better than Montalban himself. But that’s just it, the reason the original Khan was so great and is so fondly remembered is not because he was individually great, but because he was one half of a classic dichotomy between epically bitter enemies. Kirk and Khan enhanced each other in the original film, and in this new one that relationship is stripped bare of everything that made it so captivating. The same kinds of scenes are invoked, with the two characters facing off against each other ship to ship, but the reason I should be excited is never developed.

A lot of the movie is like that in the second half as whole scenes are lifted to create this notion that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The most egregious is the irradiation scene, where in the original Spock sacrifices his life to save his crew, and here Kirk does the same, only to be saved at the last minute by a plot device we see coming a mile away. We get the scene with the tearful goodbyes and an angry “Khaan!” for our trouble, but because we know they’re going to figure out how to save him before the end (by this point, we’ve seen the magic resurrection formula in action), it has none of the emotional weight of the original and is ultimately an insult rather than a tribute.

The end of Wrath of Khan, when Kirk chokes up while eulogizing his friend, making the observation that his soul was the most human he had ever encountered, is one of the few moments in cinema that will always make me cry. To take the event that precipitated that and re-use it for a cheap bit of unearned pathos that everyone in the audience knows will be made better in a few minutes is just wrong. If the film had actually had the balls to kill Kirk and have Spock assume the mantle of Captain for the rest of this series, to truly establish this as an alternate universe, then I might have at least respected it, but as it is, it’s a stunt designed to play on our love of a classic film the producers of this one could never hope to surpass.

Like this, but less shitty.

One of the biggest problems I have with remakes, and as far as I’m concerned this movie qualifies as one, is that they all too often substitute references to the original for actual substance. They may understand superficially what made the original cool, but not what made it great. This film is no exception, chock full of easy fanservice jokes that come out of nowhere as if to make me feel guilty for not appreciating their feeble attempt at catering to my obsessive love for what they are otherwise butchering. Yeah, maybe the iconic death of a beloved character is turned into a gag excuse for a nostalgic screaming joke, but we mentioned The Gorn, and even had a Tribble in it!

I mentioned in my review how much I thought the acting took a huge step back from the previous movie, and I think in retrospect, it goes deeper than the individual performances of the actors. The way these characters are being handled just seems different somehow, and not in a good way, tilting deliberately it would seem toward caricature rather than homage. There was a moment in the first film where Kirk balloons up thanks to an allergic reaction, which while funny, comes off as completely out of place with the tone of the rest of the movie, and as I sat watching Spock and Uhura bicker like teenagers on their way to a dangerous mission on freaking Qo’noS, its as if this entire movie has taken its queues from that one out of place scene.

There’s always room for humor in Star Trek, but not at the expense of my capacity to take the larger story seriously, and I think this movie takes it a few steps too far. This series is and always has been a mechanism for attracting new fans to Star Trek, and I can’t really complain that it isn’t my Star Trek, especially considering I already have 28 seasons and 10 movies made for fans like me that I can always go back to (and that’s not even counting the Animated series). And that being said, as I pointed out in my original review, it is entertaining independent of my problems as a fan. It just could have been so much more than it was, and this series has so much more potential than evidenced here, even with the big explosions and cool looking set pieces.

It remains to be seen whether or not they can right the ship with the next one, or if there will even be a next one any time soon. Obviously it made enough money to justify a sequel, but with Abrams moving on to Star Wars, at the very least we should see it go into a slightly different direction under a different director and possibly a different writing team as well. I owe it to Gene Roddenberry’s ghost to stick with it for at least one more movie, but if I see anything about Genesis devices or saving the Whales in the past, even this stalwart Trek fanboy will have to give it up. And that will be a sad day indeed.

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