Sunday, June 9, 2013

Star Trek - Now With Less Tyler Perry, More Robocop

The summer blockbuster season is back up in full swing as of Iron Man 3.

With this in mind, I've since taken a look at two of the other heavy hitters of the season, which will be discussed over the next two days.  It was going to be one piece, but to be honest, this first one wound up taking more to discuss than I expected.  Further, I should warn, if you're sensitive to spoilers, you're gonna want to leave when I tell you.  I'll try and keep it free to that point, but understand that near the end, we'll be going all in.

That said, as one of the most anticipated releases of this summer, next up on deck we have Star Trek: Into Darkness J.J. Abrams's long-awaited sequel to his successful 2009 reboot.  I have to admit, I went into this with some reservations, largely thanks to the advanced spoiler that leaked out from Australian screenings regarding the film's antagonist.  However, upon hearing some good word of mouth, I decided to give the movie a shot for myself and see how it rated.

The result is admittedly, better than I was expecting, but not without its share of problems.

"OK, before we land, let's all get our stories straight for the insurance..."

The story, as spoiler-free as I can recount it, is pretty straightforward.  In the aftermath of the events of 2009's Trek, Starfleet has been entering into a more militarized mode.  Nearly seeing the Earth destroyed before their very eyes will do this.  In the middle of all of this, and after a rather elaborate opening action scene in which Kirk and Spock (Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto respectively) lock horns over ideals, we learn that the Federation now has a new enemy - a former officer turned terrorist by the name of John Harrison (played by currently popular British actor Benedict Cumberbatch.)  After Harrison carries out an assault on Starfleet's leaders and makes things personal for Kirk, Kirk agrees to take the Enterprise within enemy territory to capture Harrison and bring him back to stand justice.  As he soon learns, however, things are definitely not as clear cut as he thinks, and the Enterprise finds itself drawn into a conspiracy which will shake everything they've held dear to this point.

And that's about as spoiler-free as I can make this in an overview.  Of course, I imagine most of you already knew that.

In actually discussing how it does, I suppose I should start with probably the strongest point of this film - and still the strongest from the last as well.  Just as before, the cast on this are still as good as they were in the last film.  Everyone manages to embody the classic roles well while also managing to provide enough of their own touches (and, like last time, the power players this time around again go to Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, who continues to knock the character out of the park while doing justice to the late DeForest Kelly and Simon Pegg, whose Scotty is coming closer and closer to the late James Doohan.)  Honestly, this is the one thing that I think really has carried both movies above anything else - they've nailed the right balance among themselves so that some of the best moments in this movie are just some of the character interaction.

To the new movies' credit, they ARE making a bit more concession that maybe Kirk's 'meet new species and plow them' style of diplomacy has its limits.

Likewise, the new cast and returning supporting actors help further support the movie's strong side.  Both returning actor Bruce Greenwood as Christopher Pike and Peter Weller as Admiral Marcus both do well put putting the face on the new Starfleet.  Cumberbatch, meanwhile, makes Harrison into an interesting, if at first enigmatic antagonist.  Compared to Eric Bana's stint as Nero in the last movie, this is the one area where I'd say the acting saw a considerable improvement (though part of that is also a matter of the script, which we'll come to later.)  About the only really shaky point in the cast comes with Alice Eve as the new incarnation of Kirk's ex (though not in this timeline) Carol Marcus.  Again, parts of this also come with the fact that she's really only given so much to work with in this character, and not much is substantial.

In the middle of the road on this one is the direction.  Honestly, one of the big problems I had with the '09 Trek, and it comes through here, is that Abrams is really just a capable director.  His work isn't problematic, but at the same time, it's not terribly memorable or unique.  He gets from point a to point b, and, jokes about lens flare aside, he can get it to look nice along the way, but it's like a shiny Christmas tree ornament - pretty, but hollow.  In this case it works because he has some very good players to make an impression in otherwise only passing story.

Karl Urban's Christmas bonus plan to sell Benedict Cumberbatch's arm to fans on eBay - legal? No way in Hell.  Profitable?  Big time.

Speaking of, we come to the script as the big sticking point.  For all those people concerned about spoilers, now might be a good time to leave, because some of the problems I am going to be discussing WILL get into spoilers, particularly for the movie's last act.  In starting, I just want to say, I don't actually think Into Darkness has a bad story.  Not as a concept, anyway.  In fact, the idea of Starfleet risking a more militarized form in the face of a cold war is a chance to go back to part of what put Star Trek on the map - using science fiction to explore contemporary issues.  The parallels in that storyline, and the idea of Starfleet striking up deals with questionable sources to make sure they can fight back, are pretty easy to interpret.  Plus, it's nice to see them acknowledge the events of the first movie rather than treat them as though it were just another day in the life of Starfleet.

again, so we're clear, if you don't want to be spoiled NOW would be a good time to leave.

Had they stuck with just this storyline, I think I would have really been happier with this movie.  Unfortunately, returning scriptwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and newcomer Damon Lindelof decided this wasn't enough to make a movie on.  What resulted was a script that demonstrates the drawback in having a film worked on by fans of the material.  When done right, it can guarantee a work is handled with a good level of respect - here, it leads to an abundance of callbacks and shoutouts to previous Trek works (for a more comprehensive list than I will go into here, look up one of the more recent Mr. Plinkett videos, where he outlines many of the things the movie nods to.)  Unfortunately, where the references in the first film were fun and sometimes rather tongue in cheek(such as Scotty's comment regarding Admiral Archer's dog), here they feel arbitrary.  Most damning of these being, as some of you would likely already guess - is the mid-movie reveal, after the filmmakers swore it wouldn't happen, that Cumberbatch's Harrison was in fact, fan favorite villain Khan Noonien Singh.  This I found particularly disappointing since, on his own, Harrison was actually a pretty interesting antagonist - a former Federation officer and co-conspirator with Admiral Marcus who decides to go rogue, in a movie exploring the idea of increased militarization to jump-start a war gives a writer and an actor a lot to play with in a character.  Having them then decide "it turns out he's Khan" doesn't really add that much to the overall proceedings, beyond a particular plot element that I will get into a bit more from here.  Even the reveal feels more like it's being done for the audience than it is for the movie: Cumberbatch declares, in a dramatic reveal "My name is Khan."  Unfortunately, for the crew of the Enterprise, who haven't met him yet, this introduction doesn't amount to much.  Had he introduced himself by his full name, THEN it could have an impact.  As it is, only revealing his first name makes the reveal feel like it's done for us more than the characters.  The other big problem that comes with the Khan reveal is that, once it's on the table, it essentially hijacks the movie and its message.  At first it doesn't seem like it will, and we instead get the interesting idea of a conspiracy within the Federation to try and get the drop on the Klingons in a war Marcus feels is inevitable.  Frankly, the idea of Harrison being a false flag villain to Marcus as the real villain has a lot of promise.  Unfortunately, once Harrison becomes Khan, he quickly turns the table and completely hobbles Marcus as an antagonist.  This becomes even more problematic because the film's way of revealing 'no, Khan hasn't changed at all' is particularly clumsy: young Spock calls his future self (Leonard Nimoy coming back for another guest stint) who outright tells him that this guy is trouble.  I like Nimoy as much as the next person, but his presence in the movie just feels like a crutch for the writers to have Cumberbatch decide to throw aside his 'amiable antagonist' in favor of full blown villainy.  Additionally, beyond the shortcut factor, it is a pretty big breach of the rule of 'show, don't tell.'

Further, the character's legacy hijacks much of the third act of the movie, turning it into a repurposed, reheated version of The Wrath of Khan.  This then leads into a rather problematic ending where, besides the number of shout-outs, the writers still attempt (in another arbitrary fashion) to surprise people by only swapping parts of the equation: in this case changing things so Kirk is the one to sacrifice his life for the ship (complete with some lines being lifted from WoK wholesale) and instead working the resurrection into this movie - care of a new plot element in which Khan's blood has healing powers (an element introduced in the beginning of the movie as a sort of genetic Chekov's, not that Chekov.)  As a result, where the first Khan was dealt with in a brutal deathmatch that truly tested the Enterprise and pushed its crew to their limit, here they come close to their limits, but are backed off by the above mentioned Chekov gun, and the ship to ship deathmatch gets pushed aside in favor of a city chase and fist fight.

No, not this one either.

OK, sorry, that was probably more than some of you needed to hear about the ending.  I just feel like, had this story been entrusted to other writers, it really could have turned into one of the more memorable Trek films with something to say for itself.  As it is, the finished film looks nice, and has some individual scenes of note (one scene in particular between Greenwood and Pine is probably the one moment in the whole film I'd say really had the strongest sense of heart,) but overall is just "Okay."  The script that starts off promising becomes sadly lazy in the final act, and rehashes better Trek movies to cover its finish.  Some of the references are actually fun ones, but many feel like they were simply there for the sake of having the references.  As it is, I don't think it's a bad film, so much as I feel like it could have been a better film. I still feel like I got my money's worth, but I will find myself wondering at what could have been.

 One down, one to go.  Keep an eye out tomorrow for the follow-up piece.  Which, to my surprise, I actually wound up enjoying more than this.

I know.  I'm scared too.

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