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Monday, May 27, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Hey there Chaos fanatics and cultists! Welcome back to another edition of Chaos Corner. As promised, I have a review of Star Trek Into Darkness. So, is STID a success for the rebooted franchise, or does it simply show that Star Trek '09 was a one trick pony, and is already out of steam? Let's look into that, shall we?



Full confession first- I have always loved Star Trek. I grew up watching re-runs of TOS, and of course I watched TNG almost religiously (though I began to fade out from it by season 6). I never got into DS9 or any of the other spin offs. To me, they lacked the cool, fun, action-packed, and often zany aspects of TOS, and also lacked the elegance and intelligence of TNG. So, my Trek love lies with TOS and TNG. I know that each show has its good qualities and defenders, and I recognize their valid points (I know MANY feel DS9 is superior), but I just love TOS and TNG. To me those are what I think of when I think of Trek.

Oops. Wrong franchise.
However, as much as I enjoy Trek, there are some who take it a bit too far in my opinion. Now, I am not at all trying to rain on any one's parade- you believe what you believe and that's cool. I am just giving my humble perspective for your consideration. I just believe that there are some people who take Trek and its lore a bit too seriously. They have a vision of what Trek is and must be, and anything that violates that is "blasphemy", to be condemned. Many have accused the rebooted Trek to be a crime against Roddenberry's vision, a scheme to make money. However, I feel that they forget a few things:


1- Trek was created by Gene Roddenberry, who was a TV writer/producer. He made Trek originally to entertain. Yes, he had thought provoking ideas, and even some morally challenging ones, but overall, he was a TV guy- he wanted his show to sell. He wanted it to make money. After all, he pitched it as "Wagon Train to the Stars" to NBC in order for them to pick it up so he would get money. There is NOTHING wrong with that- that does not diminish the moral lessons of many of the episodes nor does it weaken the overall vision of the future. However, at its core, Trek was a TV show designed to get ratings and make money. Just like any other show.

2- Trek is not the creation of just one person- it is in fact the culmination of many, many creative people. Indeed, some of the best episodes weren't written by Roddenberry at all: Coon, Fontana, Bixby, Ellison, and many more are responsible for the best ones. It was also the product of the actors (Nimoy had a concrete vision of Spock and demanded that he be listened to about the character), outside forces (Martin Luther King urging that Nichelle Nichols stay on as Uhura), NBC studio execs, die-hard fans, and of course all the other creative people that poured blood, sweat, and tears into each episode. Thus, while it is Roddenberry's overall "big vision", the fact is that many people added, subtracted, filled in, and otherwise enhanced that vision and made it something that audiences could relate to. Thus, you cannot say simply that something holds true to Roddenberry, as it isn't just him. Trek is the culmination of many, many different views and ideas.

3- Since Trek is the creation of so many voices, there is no true consistency here at all. TOS episodes varied wildly like this: some mentioned money, some said there was no such thing. Some said that they used "hours" and "minutes", while others had Kirk saying that they could "convert" to it. There's the connotation that religion is superstition and passe, but in one episode they mention a Christmas Party. I could go on. TOS is inconsistent, because of the new ground it was breaking and the fact that so many were involved. Later, TNG would become more consistent in its mythology, but even then- seasons 1 & 2 have things that don't gel with later episodes. Again, this is fine- it just shows that this isn't a single vision, but is instead one open to interpretation.

Everyone in the 23rd century is just so enlightened... sure they are.

4- Humanity is a work in progress. Many fans cling to this idea that humanity is so very evolved in terms of their morality, behavior, and understanding and tolerance for others by the future period of Trek. Some feel that Roddenberry has shown us a future in which humanity is almost saintly. Nonsense! That would truly defeat the real message behind Trek- which is that humanity is a work in progress, and that we are on a path to improvement. We are NOT there yet (not now, not in the 23rd or even 24th century), but we are getting there. Some have fought with me on this, stating that humanity has generally evolved and are more enlightened. From our prospective yes, but they really aren't that much different from us. How do else do you explain all those blinkered admirals/commodores they come across? Or the Mudds? Or angry/jealous crew members? Or General Order 24? Or miners that want to smash the Horta to bits? Indeed, most of the time the antagonists are other humans! Even Kirk/Picard don't always live up to the high ideals- they get there, but it does take them time. Thus, the future isn't a utopia (it's way better, but there are still problems). Showing when it isn't perfect, showing the messy as well as the pristine is just fine, in fact, it makes the times when the heroes succeed in upholding truth and compassion all the more compelling.

I know that was a long one, but I needed to get that out. Many condemned Star Trek 2009 for being a violation of Roddenberry's vision, and that the minds behind it were either totally inept or simply greedily trying to exploit Trek. To that, I say look at 1-4 above. Did they really "ruin" Trek? No- it is just another interpretation, another voice. While it is far from a perfect Trek movie, it does get a lot right- the generally optimistic view of things, the camaraderie, the aspiration to improve and be a better person. Yes, there are plot holes, some stupid attempts at humor, and things that don't quite gel with almost 50 years of previous Trek cannon. Basically, to get around that, you need to see the reboot not as an "alternate timeline" that is an offshoot, but rather as a mirror, mirror type instead, thus you can account for those differences. Overall, I thought they breathed new life into Trek, and I enjoyed it immensely.

OK- but what about this one? What about Star Trek Into Darkness? Well, if you liked Trek '09, you'll enjoy this too, give or take. If you think my above 1-4 ideas are simply wrong, then this will not change your mind at all. STID takes place shortly after Trek 09. Kirk is a young, cocky and inexperienced captain. He's a troublemaker with his own strong views, which unfortunately gets him in trouble with Starfleet command (and 2 great scenes between Kirk and Pike) when he violates the Prime Directive (something Kirk routinely did in TOS, by the way). However, any controversy surrounding Kirk's actions gets forgotten when a "terrorist", John Harrison, attacks Starfleet twice in as many days. Kirk is ordered to go after the renegade, but of course, something just doesn't add up. Kirk must not only capture Harrison, but must also untangle a mystery that threatens not just his crew, but the entire meaning of Starfleet itself.

I wish to avoid major spoilers, so I'm going to run down a simple Good/Bad listing. At some point in the future, I'll do a more in-depth review (I need to see it again, actually). So:

Good:
+ The cast of this reboot Trek is truly miraculous. Each actor tries to recapture the spirit of their characters, while also making them their own. Chris Pine really comes into his own here as Kirk. He is like the original Kirk in so many ways, and yet his a bit more flawed. Pine does a great job of transformation in here- he's a bit out of his depth, but he struggles to do what is right. He is a rule breaker, and he and the crew realize that some rules must be broken in order to attain a greater truth. Quinto is again sublime as Spock- he is still incredibly cold here (like a first season Spock) and doesn't understand Kirk's emotionalism at all, and while he's kissing Uhura, he doesn't actually "get it"(love) either. Spock also undergoes a great character arc, and by the end he is now in his place, by Kirk's side, trusting Kirk and being his friend. Though those two are the stars, the rest of the cast are also great, with Karl Urban and Simon Pegg nearly stealing the show- both embody their characters so well, adding some humor and some real great character moments for both. Basically, the entire crew is just great- a fantastic reinterpretation of the classic characters. I would also like to say that Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller and Bennedict Cumberbatch (whom I have never seen in anything before) are also very good, though Cumberbatch suffers from being underwritten (more on that below), and he is under somebody else's rather big shadow, which he can't just get out from under (not his fault). Basically, whatever the faults of the story, this cast is amazing, and I know I want to see more from them.

+ STID is an allegory, in the best tradition of Trek. Now, not all of Trek's episodes were allegories, but quite a few were. This movie is indeed an allegory for recent events- Harrison's actions are those of a terrorist, but that's not where the allegory is. Certain members of Starfleet (and perhaps some in the Federation itself?) were deeply shaken by the events of Trek '09. The destruction of Vulcan was a seismic event, changing everything for Starfleet. What if there's another threat like this? How can we stop the Narada or something even worse the next time? Well, some in Starfleet believe that they must be prepared to respond, doing anything and everything it takes to be ready- including doing morally questionable things. Some believe that Starfleet's primary purpose of being explorers is now outdated and far too weak for this dangerous galaxy, and that it should, instead, be refocused on military aspects and stopping threats before they happen. Sound familiar, doesn't it? Now, your politics really shouldn't matter here- this movie could be a critique of Bush (premptive war) OR Obama (drone strikes) in equal measure. The point is that this isn't a simple action or sci-fi movie- it has a question about our tactics in the War on Terror, kind of like Iron Man 3, but quite better, actually.  This isn't a cackling comic book villain here, instead, Starfleet's actions could well be a logical response to events, but it also sets the stage for "unintended consequences". Kirk isn't just fighting for the lives of his crew, he is fighting to save Starfleet from itself and this new, distorted mission; and the ending to this ideological conflict is just perfect. I don't want to say any more, but there is a real allegory here, and it is appreciated, and worthy of the Trek tradition.

+ The action and special effects are simply amazing. The planet of Nibiru made me smile, as I just kept thinking of those basic TOS and TNG sets- seeing Nibiru got me thinking how grand Trek really is- every new planet was different, and a sight to behold. Earth has never been so fully realized- there is a thriving, multicultural civilization here, not just Starfleet personnel. Kronos is briefly seen, and the Klingons are nicely designed here. Finally, the Enterprise herself is great, and a few key battle scenes are just amazing (my favorite is the Enterprise being chased at warp speed by a "superior" vessel, as it is realized incredibly well). The fisticuffs and more personal action bits are also well handled, particularly Harrison's attack on Starfleet HQ and the fight inside that "superior vessel"- they are exciting and clear to follow. Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Enterprise falling in orbit, burning up as it falls- it looks amazing.


Bad:
- This movie, even more than its predecessor incredibly, leans a bit too much on older Trek episodes and movies. Now, I don't mind that they are using the past to inform them, but the creative minds here stole lots and lots from previous movies in particular. I mean there were action bits and scenes that really didn't simply echo the older stuff, but they basically just copied and pasted at times. Trek '09 did some of that, but it felt like a fresh, new whole. Here, some of these beats feel like just that, copies of older bits fused together. This is a shame, as the cast, special effects, and overall allegorical plot are so good, that this "theft" is no longer required- you may have needed it to connect Trek '09 to the rest of Trek and give comfort to confused/nostalgic movie goers, but now, they have established themselves- I don't think they need to copy wholesale from older Trek- they can go in their own direction, and I truly hope they do in the next one.

- The plot at times is a bit too convoluted for its own good at times. It becomes tough at first to follow who is f***ing who over and why at first, and even after its all revealed it just feels a bit too messy. I wish they could have streamlined it just a bit more, as the convolution only weakens the plot, action, and allegorical themes. Yes, Abrams and co. were desperate to hide certain elements, but they actually confuse the movie in the end, rather than adding to the movie.

- The technological inconsistency here is astounding. Yes, the Enterprise's abilities varied within the run of episodes, but it shouldn't vary within the movie, from scene to scene! That is just outrageous. Why can't they beam again? They can use personal communicators over how far a distance? How fast can they get to Kronos? Huh? Yes, there are many moments where it is very, very inconsistent. Now, I DO NOT want technobabble, but ship abilities are added and dropped for plot convenience a bit too much, and it is jarring.


- At a future point, I want to discuss the films villains in detail, but I can't because I don't want to give spoilers away. The villains are great, and you can see where they are coming from and why they do what they do. However, it is Harrison that suffers here- I don't want to spoil anything, but while the actor gives a great performance, he is hampered by two things. First, he is under the shadow of a previous actor, one that is very difficult to get out of. Though Cummberbatch is great at being both menacing and sympathetic, it is almost impossible to live up to what came before in the role. He could have, if he hadn't been UNDERWRITTEN. That is the second, and much greater flaw. They have made his character a bit of a pawn, and this guy is nobody's pawn, ever. That is what makes him a badass. The writers should have done one of two things with him:

a) make him the REAL villain, as if he planned these events all along, and now they have come to fruition and if he succeeds he will conquer the galaxy. There's no grand speech here, no real view into just what kind of threat he poses. They depend too much on what you know of the character from previously. But, as a result, he comes off as too one dimensional in THIS movie; he needs to be built up in this timeline, not simply as a wink wink from the old. That is what you really need for this character; he IS larger than life, and should be made that way within the context of THIS movie. Instead, he's a bit of a pawn, who tries to break out of being such, but he never quite succeeds.

OR

b) mess with audiences expectations and make him a real good guy. With this character, you COULD pull that off. It is an alternate universe. Situations are totally different. One could have tweaked it that way, thus the audience would be thinking one thing, and then they'd be hit with the notion that in this reality nothing is the same, and thus unpredictable. Thus, you could give the old time fans a real knocking- using their knowledge of Trek cannon against them.


OK- so how do I rate the movie. That is tough. Looking at it from the view of just Trek '09, I would give it 3 Marks of Chaos. It is fun, enjoyable, with great performances and has a nice allegory. However, its flaws are notable, and the fact is that these flaws could have been avoided with a bit more care just makes it worse in that regard. In the long view of Trek, that is hard to say, as it borrows a bit too much from the cannon at times, but is also a lot of fun and is solid sci-fi allegory (most of the older movies didn't quite do that to this level). So, for now, let's just say 3 Marks of Chaos and call it a day. However, I do want to see more from this cast. They are excellent, and have great chemistry and the acting chops. Perhaps we need another voice, new writers and director, a creative vision that won't lean quite so much on the past. I think that is a Trek worth looking forward to.





Until next time...


2 comments:

  1. I absolutely love the Star Trek universe and am a fan of TOS as well as nearly all of the spin-offs especially DS9. I initially thought that there was no way they could make a Star Trek show work without a ship ... boy was I wrong. TOS, TNG and DS9 was superb with fantastic writing that made Star Trek great ie it made you think as opposed to the many dumbed down TV shows on air. Voyager was ok too as I liked the uniqueness of a hologram doctor as a main character.

    Nice write-up on the movie btw. I liked the movie as it makes Star Trek cool but wished the story line could have been stronger. But I guess if they made the audience think too much the movie would loss mass appeal.

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  2. I just can't get into DS9, try as I might- I don't know, it's probably just me.

    I too wish that STID was stronger, as all the elements are there. Particularly the allegorical themes were handled quite well- present for all to see and think on, without beating you over the head with it. But yes, there are lots of faults as well. Can we get a Trek that is cool and fun while also being smart? Of course- and I do have faith that it will happen.

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