18 May 2013

TO SEEK OUT OLD LIFE, AND FAMILIAR CIVILIZATIONS

There's not much point at all in discussing Star Trek Into Darkness without employing spoilers, big huge damn spoilers. One of them is a spoiler for something that's really damn obvious and you've almost certainly figured it out already if you're actually interested in the movie enough to read a blogger's review of it. One of them is a spoiler for something that's... also kind of obvious, if you've read more than a couple of reviews, given how much they all play peekaboo with one certain plot point almost all the way to the end. Anyway, I'm going to spoil the hell out of the movie, so watch yourself.

I will not, however, be spoiling it as much as the filmmakers did when they gave it such godawful title as Star Trek Into Darkness.

So, the important thing to keep in mind is that I didn't like the beloved 2009 Star Trek, and I was certainly not feeling very enthusiastic about the prospect of a sequel that once again dragged in the screenwriting team of Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, whose work together typifies just about all that I detest about the modern state of big-budget popcorn movies, this time bringing along Damon Lindelof, whose work has become more and more cripplingly inauthentic and gimmicky as time goes by. But really, as I am honest, there were only two things I absolutely despised about Star Trek, and Into Darkness manages to fix them both. One was the ghastly over-use of J.J. Abrams's lens flares, and while the new film surely has more than any reasonable director would feel comfortable signing his name to, it still has many fewer, and some of them are even used in a way that feels like it ties into anything at all thematically or in the mise en scène. The other thing was Chris Pine's interpretation of hotshot starship captain James T. Kirk as all the awful, douchbaggy, bro-ish things that retrograde masculinists have decided makes for a cool dude that would be worth hanging out with, where in fact he's just eminently slappable. Pine's performance this time around, though still limited by the fact that he's not a terribly good actor, is so much more layered and feeling than anything in any scene of the earlier film that he's basically playing a different character, one who isn't really any more like William Shatner's iconic performance, but is at least a hell of a lot more enjoyable to watch on his own terms than I, for one, found him last time.

I think it's fair to say that Pine's more soulful, less crass Kirk single-handedly drags Into Darkness over the hump into being an enjoyable summertime action-adventure romp, because for the most part, the film is a carbon copy of the last one, in both its strengths and weaknesses, with a few little wobbles here and a few little waggles there. Once again, the absolute best-in-show among the cast are Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, an ill-tempered southern crank, and Zachary Quinto as Spock, half-human/half-Vulcan science officer with a yen for logic and rules and priggishness; once again the worst is Anton Yelchin's no-holds-barred cartoon of a Russian that would have made Rocky & Bullwinkle blink; once again, I am mortified on Zoë Saldana's behalf that this is apparently what Orci and Kurtzman and Lindelof and Abrams thinks counts as a strong female character (if anything, she's worse this time around, being defined almost entirely as the always-worried girlfriend). Where the visual effects were, in 2009, jaw-droppingly realistic and detailed and oh-so-tangible for CGI, so again do I hardly expect to see anything more eye-popping and gorgeous in 2013 (it helps that almost everything is metallic or plastic). The action scenes supplied by those effects are once again huge and bruising and not necessarily imaginative, though they are all kinds of impressively massive. Michael Giacchino's score is again a rousing bit of populist pomp, and I'm even inclined to say it's better this time.

And once again, I simply don't fucking get J.J. Abrams. The man doesn't know what to do with a movie camera: re-watching the 2009 film just a couple of days ago in preparation, I was aghast all over again at how excitedly he flings it around the set in drunken loops and a remarkably frustrating trick where he starts the camera at a really skewed angle and then backs up and spirals until it's straight up (or a little skewed the other way, even), the kind of movement that you can't really get away with unless you're dramatising a character's complete psychotic break from reality, not just pepping up a routine dialogue scene. And the close-ups, the absolute fingerprint on every frame that yes, this man got his start in TV, and never met a wide shot he liked. Into Darkness is certainly better on all fronts than Star Trek, but it's also just as certainly a huge step backwards from 2011's Super 8, suggesting that maybe that film wasn't actually a sign of artistic creativity but well-chosen pilfering from Steven Spielberg's closet. Regardless, Abram's pixie-stix style serves mostly to drain the gorgeous visuals and emphatically grand action sequences of their energy, and while at 132 minutes, Into Darkness is already the second-longest Star Treks ever, Abrams manages to make it feel even longer.

Then there's the script. Which is, charitably, a disaster. As is not remotely a surprise, given all the "ooh boy, I bet you just can't guess who the villain is!" innuendo, the villain is 20th Century genetic superman Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch), also the villain of the consensus pick for the best of all 12 Trek features, 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He's been changed around quite a lot - he's something closer to a terrorist than a despot this time, and he's at the center of a metaphor for the run-up to the Iraq War (the film is - gallingly - dedicated to the soldiers of post-9/11 America, tasteless overreach like you don't expect to see in a mindless popcorn movie). But Khan he still is, and that gives the filmmakers an excuse to make Into Darkness something of a fantasia on the themes of The Wrath of Khan, and the result is awful: on the one hand, the whole point of the Abrams-led Star Trek reboot is to shake of the dust and make something that's not beholden to the past (I still think that it was a terrible decision to keep the new films somewhat in continuity with the rest of the franchise: a clean break and fresh slate would have been so much easier to work with), and on the other hand, Into Darkness at times feels like nothing but a two-hour collection of subtle in-jokes for all the fans who's obsessive nitpickiness is exactly the thing that the reboot was supposed to address. Harry Mudd! Tribbles! Neutral Zones! Carol Marcus (played, blankly, by Alice Eve)! A pointless cameo from Leonard Nimoy's Old Parallel Universe Spock (I desperately hope they skip this in the next movie)! And, of course, an inversion of The Wrath of Khan's famous death scene, which falls completely flat for almost every reason: because the Pine/Quinto iteration of Kirk and Spock don't have decades of fan goodwill to draw from, like the Shatner/Nimoy iteration did; because the film has already put a Chekovian gun (Anton, not Pavel) in, about Khan's magical blood, and so Kirk's death feels completely consequence-free; because the moment is so self-conscious about mirroring the older scene - down to the fucking blocking - that it has absolutely no hint of sincerity about it, just pastiche; because the use of "KHAAAAAAAN!" here is, unbelievably, even campier and cornier than it was in the original.

It's a surreally misjudged ending that absolutely blows all the accumulated goodwill the movie was able to stir up, which for me wasn't that much to begin with: the best I can say about Cumberbatch's Khan is that he's a much more particular and menacing villain than Eric Bana's utterly milquetoast baddie from 2009, but he has absolutely no flair, no Ricardo Montalban-esque sense of scale (and if it's not fair to compare the two actors, it's also not fair to have every damn moment of this film waving its hands and calling attention to established Trek lore), just a serpentine sense of villainy that's totally one-note; hard to say if it's the actor's fault or the script's, but either way this isn't a very memorable or intense villain, just a nasty dude who manages to outwit the heroes in the most transparent ways.

What saves it, barely, is the characters; or really, not even the characters as such (just like in almost every single Star Trek ever, most of the cast ends up staring blankly with their thumbs up their asses), but Kirk and Spock and slightly less McCoy. What caught me completely off-guard with Into Darkness is that's structurally a dramatic love story: a couple that has been together just long enough to predict each other's foibles, being tried, almost breaking, but discovering through stress and conflict how much they need each other. The wrinkle being that it's a love story about two heterosexual males, one of whom isn't human, and yet the dynamic that Pine and Quinto hit from the first scene to the last is so comfortable and lived-in, turning even the strained, hack screenwriting dialogue that passes for banter into the kind of easygoing back-and-forth that feels like real people with a real history talking. Honestly, there's a depth and warmth of character here that you don't expect to see in any modern popcorn movie, certainly not one that otherwise feels so sleekly generic. There's a lot of shabby storytelling and mismanaged visuals to overcome, but the rich central relationship is what Star Trek is about, in a way I found completely lacking from the first movie: not a story about spaceships and explosions and interplanetary intrigue, but about the way that humanity still exists and thrives in the face of all those things. Whatever other flaws the movie has, its heart and soul are well intact.

6/10

Reviews in this series
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Nimoy, 1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Nimoy, 1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Shatner, 1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer, 1991)
Star Trek: Generations (Carson, 1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (Frakes, 1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (Frakes, 1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (Baird, 2002)
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)

25 comments:

Chris D said...

I still felt like new-Kirk was an aggravating twerp, but that's just about the only point we disagree on.

I'd prepared myself to go into the movie as a generic sci-fi action movie like the first one, but the way Abrams keeps begging comparisons to the original series scuttled that, as did the unimpressive action (the editing in the shootout with the klingons in particular was atrocious). I was angry during the death scene, right up until Spock screamed "KHAAAAAAAAN!" a propos of nothing at all, at which point I was just embarrassed.

I still think Abrams is an intuitive choice for the new Star Wars for some reason, though. As long as he can learn to use shots that aren't medium shots or closeups between now and then.

Tim said...

I think he feels like a good fit for Star Wars because that's basically what he's been trying to force Star Trek to become for two movies now. The moral of the story might be "don't hand off 40-year-old franchises to directors who openly admit they don't like that franchise", if the Abrams Trek films weren't so damned proftiable.

MrRoivas said...

One thing that really fucking drove me up the wall was how the beginning of the movie used the Prime Directive. Apparently if a species doesn't have warp capability, Star Fleet doesn't give a shit if they all die in a huge fireball.

Brian Malbon said...

I think you mean awesome badass Karl Urban as McCoy, not pop country star Keith.

Vilsal said...

Benedict Cumberbatch AND Kirk/Spock? It's like tumblr's wet dream.

The.Watcher said...

Hmm, I got scared off by the huge bold SPOILERS!!! warning at the beginning, so forgive me if my question is answered in the review proper. I am on complete media blackout for it, not even having seen the trailer.

You gave the original remake (how amazing is it that those two words do not form an oxymoron?) a 6 as well, while I loved the hell out of it and its lens-flares - it was probably around an 8.5 for me - so would I be correct in assuming that this one is just as good, or mediocre, for you, as that one, and not worse?

Thrash Til' Death said...

I'll go on record as saying I liked it, a good deal more than the first one in fact, which I also liked. A lot of problems at the script level, obviously, particularly when it comes to Khan's motivations and chronology. I've been trying for a week now to figure out how, when why his friend ended up in those torpedos and I just can't. The plotting just flies the fuck off the rails around the point of the Big Reveal, to the point that you can actually feel it happening in real time and not just in retrospect.

But plotholes aside, I enjoyed it as a slice of popcorn entertainment. The action, I though, was well staged and well-executed, for the most part, generally less hectic than the first film. Moreover, I just enjoyed spending time in the characters' company. Karl Urban and ESPECIALLY Simon Pegg are a riot. One thing that immediately leapt out at me was how improved Chris Pine was, and Kirk's character improves correspondingly. In the first film, it felt less like Kirk being placed as captain forced him to mature, so much as it vindicated him in his immaturity. This movie feels a bit more critical of his behaviour and puts him more through his paces. Even if the "get out of death free" clause at the end felt cheap, he still demonstrates himself to be willing to take responsibility and sacrifice himself for his ship and crew. That is a good thing and something I want to see in my movie heroes.

Katheli said...

I liked your review and agree with almost all of your points, except I liked the ending and Benedict Cumberbatch's Khan (but then I never saw Wrath of Khan, so that's probably why).

I found Chris Pine's Kirk much more likeable and nuanced this time around, I would even go so far as to say to me Kirk was more interesting than just about any other character (including Spock) in this movie.

Spock, IMO, suffered from the awful Spock/Uhura relationship - really, whose bright idea was that? It didn't help that the emotional core of the movie is Kirk/Spock which makes Spock/Uhura seem more like "no, they're not gay!" show than a legitimate couple.

Also, the character Uhura suffers immensely from being essentially "the girlfriend" and not much else. The treatment of female characters in these 2 movies is as sexist as the Transformers movies are and that's not something you want to aspire to. Uhura was basically relegated to nagging girlfriend mode (she had ONE scene which didn't focus around her worrying about / being pissed at / squabbling with / making out with Spock. And what exactly was Carol Marcus' point? That one scene where she stripped down to her underwear for no reason at all? Looking pretty? She was completely irrelevant in the movie.

It's especially jarring after The Avengers (by no means a perfect movie) managed to have two female badass characters who were, while sexy, not romantically attached to their male counterparts and weren't completely relegated to being eye candy.

But I actually did like this film much better than the first one - I thought the crew interactions (already being friends) worked much better than all the bitching that was going on in the 2009 one.

Tim said...

MrRoivas- That's a fair point, but Star Trek is so full of stories that use the Prime Directive in arbitrary ways, I honestly didn't even notice it.

Brian- Yikes! Fixed, thanks.

The.Watcher- Don't know if you can actually read this comment, but I'd say that it is mostly made at the same level of quality, but I thought Pine's Kirk was so much better that the human level actually worked for me this time, so instead of a "bad" 6, it's a "good" 6.

Thrash- Those are good ol' Lindelof plotholes, is what those are. So busy trying to keep the audience guessing, it doesn't end up hanging together.

Katheli- I am madly in love of every single word that you've said. 100% agreed.

Jeremy said...

Mostly agreed especially with the rating, but Uhura wasn't that bad. She took point on that Klingon mission when the chips were down, and she beamed down on the ship to save Spock's ass and stun the shit out of Khan. Could've done more, but you could say the same for most of the cast.

Jeremy said...

I'll tell which chick was useless, CAROL MARCUS. What was the point of her character besides blatant fan service? Even her dad connection was useless. And that "Turn around" scene was completely pointless except to show Alice Eve in her underwear. LOL

Vulcan Nerve Pinch was hype, tho

Tim said...

Fair points, both. Uhura certainly had more impact on the plot than Chekhov or Sulu (poor Sulu, always gets the short end of the stick in the movies. Also in the TV show and the extended universe novels).

And the Carol stripping scene was easily the most pointless thing that happened in that whole movie.

Andrew Testerman said...

I dug it. As a gent whose familiarity with Star Trek begins and ends with the Final Voyage of the Enterprise sketch from Saturday Night Live, I've enjoyed the past two films. This one, in particular, has me curious about tracking down the original series on Hulu or renting Wrath of Khan to look for the parallels. Maybe that's the stance that Paramount is taking with the reboot: woo in and please the unwashed masses, and bank on the Trekkers turning up anyway.

Rick said...

I have only one or two complaints about Into Darkness, minor ones at that I'm sure:

1.) If I wanted to watch Wrath of Khan, I would have watched Wrath of Khan,, not this remake in all but name.

2.) I think Cumberbatch is a good actor, but whenever someone uses his voice (like Cumberbatch's use of his rumbling baritone) to emphasize his 'evil' nature, I turn off.

This is a terrible film and the praise it gets leaves me, a non-Trekker who for years thought the character's name was ZULU (not Sulu), disheartened at how easily people are pleased.

Finally, given that Yelchin IS Russian and speaks it fluently and has no accent, why would he keep making Chekov a joke (and I say this as someone who likes him and didn't dislike the first Star Trek reboot)?

The.Watcher said...

Oh my lord, it's so difficult for me to overstate how much I despised this sequel. It was so laughably terrible - my friend and I just kept looking around the theatre at the audience, wondering why they were laughing at the painfully unfunny jokes, or sitting on the edge of their seats when it was obvious who was, and who wasn't, gonna die.

The story, though, that takes the cake. It makes no sense, on any level, whatsoever. The commander bad guy, Weller, was laughably bad. Cumberbatch slept through his scenes, there were numerous, and long, exposition dumps where literally nothing happened... Khan's whole backstory makes no sense... what a fucking mess.

Not Fenimore said...

Yeah, the death scene killed it for me. It was the funniest goddamned thing I've seen in theatres in a while, at what is presumably supposed to be the moment of peak dramatic intensity. I was sitting there, getting increasingly pissed off through the whole stupid plagiarized sequence, and then Spock screams "KHAAAAAAAAAAAN!" and I burst out laughing. XD

I think my short review would be "I don't mind a remake stealing a plot so long as the character beats are fresh; but not the other way around."

McAlister Grant said...

I haven't seen the movie. Do they make any attempt to explain why Khan Noonien Singh is now a pasty white British dude?

Brian said...

Sulu gets one moment per film, it seems.

The sword fight in 2009 and the threatening Harrison in this one.

Brian said...

Also, if the intention was for Harrison saying his name is actually Kahn to be a big surprise, having Spock identify the science officer as Carol Marcus kind of ruined that, at least for me. "It's the woman from WoK? KAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHNNNNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!"

Tim said...

And of course, the Sulu rule applies to the original movies, as well: "Don't call me Tiny" leaps to mind.

Brian said...

Very true.

Oh Sulu, gets to be bad-ass for 3 minutes once every few years...

Unknown said...

I enjoyed this one slightly more than the first (which I thought was a shiny pile of shit). Mostly this is due to Pine's Kirk being slightly less of a slappable douche-canoe, but even that may have just been the after-effects of Admiral Pike's epic "Reason You Suck" Speech.

I will say that my eyes nearly rolled out of their sockets at the death scene. And if I hadn't been on a date, I might have walked out when New-Spock called Old-Spock for a "How to Beat Khan" cheat-sheet. That was just downright insulting.

--Matt

Fedor Ilitchev said...

I liked the start of this film – sure, it felt like the rebooted Star Wars, but it seemed to be working… the first disconnect came with the *close-up* of the enterprise underwater which is also when the music kicked in at its strongest. It’s obvious what Abrams is going for there – but the fact that the shot is an unintelligible close-up makes it totally fail. This makes the viewer wonder at the competence of the man to whom they have entrusted their attention for these two hours… but , for the next few scenes, things are working rather well again – indeed, this is where some of the Kirk/Spock moments that Tim spoke highly of take place. I also like how the information surrounding the 1st terrorist attack is conveyed to us – almost elegant in its minimalism. Things continue flowing smoothly right up to the Starfleet meeting.

I actually really like the moment when Harrison attacks right when his intent is being guessed at. It’s clever because Kirk’s questions do put the audience themselves in a Sherlokean deductive mode and the attack’s surprise actually feels legitimately surprising. But then it’s a bit hard not to wonder why the attack is so relatively inefficient, especially compared to the first terrorist incident? If you can have that much explosive power in a little ring, surely there are more effective ways of killing a bunch of people in a room in a multistory building.
As that attack progressed, I had to ask myself what the whole point of Kirk’s demotion / promotion swing was. If they were going to have this attack, it might have been more satisfying to have the local Starfleet command people all killed and have a demotee like Kirk have to pick-up the pieces, thus redeeming himself in the process. That would have been exciting and it would have given a kind of retrospective meaning to some of the events that took place early in the film.

Moreover, it would have worked well with the rules theme – as all those guys would have gotten killed precisely as a result of their blind following of the rules. As a matter of fact, I think that theme could have actually taken this movie all the way – Kirk would have to fight Harrison by breaking rule after rule – until he came across one that he couldn’t break… or maybe one that Harrison couldn’t break… or something like that – but there is obvious potential there, and though this has always been a major theme in tng and some of the earlier os films, there is still mileage in it… particularly because it is ever so relevant to our absurdly bureaucratic and techno-centric time – though the following of rules is of benefit to the group, what does it turn the individual into? What is the role of a hero who might feel at home in something like the Iliad in a world where a man’s virtue is largely defined in terms of his ability to follow the rules?

Fedor Ilitchev said...

...Abrams and the screenwriters could have gone that way… or many other interesting ways. But for some sad and all too familiar reasons, they went the necropheliac way instead – they dug up Wrath of Khan and started playing with it.

Ok, that image is probably too much, and I apologize… but I was really not very fond of just about everything that happened for the remainder of this movie. Tim’s review does a great job of pointing out a lot of the film’s failures so I need not repeat them here. One thing he didn’t really talk enough about was the *arbitrariness* of so many of the key moments. Klingons for the sake of Klingons. Uhura trying to talk to the Klingons for the sake of having something to do. Harrison being there in the first place… for the sake of Klingons. The ship getting sucked into the planet’s gravitational field… for the sake of having a crisis. Its all terribly arbitrary and the same arbitrariness applies on the micro-scale. For instance, the Spock / Khan fight, I think, is pretty great – until it is resolved… through Uhura beaming down there and shooting Khan a bunch of times – how boring is that?! This is precisely the kind of thing that was done so well in the Avengers – but I guess Abrams just doesn’t have Whedon’s scene-level creativity.

The other problem is that the film has no focus, no through-line, no thematic center. Actually, this is the same problem. Why the two-faced admiral? Why the inconsistent Khan character? Who is the villain here? What we are dealing with is not good thought provoking ambiguity but cheap attempts to manipulate the audience and to cover-up the glaring lack of substance at the center.

How a.d.d. do you have to be to write, let alone like, a script like this? and yet the vast majority of internet critics think that it’s a fantastic film.

Perhaps that is a sign of the true darkness referred to in the title.
If anything, this film and others like it have made me look at piracy differently. Perhaps that it is destroying Hollywood is not a bad thing after all – a day may come when this kind of art that lets the huge-budget effects and set-pieces do all the work becomes economically untenable and then the robust story will once again have to re-assert itself as the central focus of cinematic art.

Soldier on, Tim…

Rick Rische said...

Just watched it. I'm slow like that.

I agree on nearly all of your points, Tim (and most of the comments as well), so all I'm left with is the subjective impression that I found this sequel a fuckton more watchable than the first one, which I liked even less than Tim did.
I'd rate the first movie at 4, maybe 4.5, and this one at about 6.5. (In the plus column- Chris Pine's performance, the Pine/ Quinto dynamic, a LOT fewer lens flares, terrific visual effects etc.)
The one aspect I'd emphasize as contributing to the watchability factor here is Michael Giacchino's score, which I felt was leaps and bounds better than his music for "Star Trek". As a huge Giacchino fan (his contribution to "Lost" can't be over-emphasized) I've been consistently underwhelmed by his non-Pixar feature scores, but his STID score was terrific (IMO), with a variety of different themes, moods, interesting orchestrations etc.
I just may pick it up and give it a listen outside the context of the movie, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for his ST score.