May 24, 2013

A Spoiler-Filled STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS Rant, or Why J.J. Abrams Should Stick To STAR WARS


"Is this who we are now?  Because I thought we were explorers."
I'm done with J.J. Abrams's infamous "mystery box."

Let's get this out of the way right up front.  It's Khan.  We've all been saying he's Khan since Benicio del Toro was almost cast back in 2011.  But Abrams and friends refused to acknowledge as much whenever asked, believing in this misguided marketing strategy centered around keeping the villain's identity a mystery.  And yeah, that would've been cool if most of the English speaking world had spent the last few months convinced it was the wrong guy.  In that case, the eventual reveal would have been shocking and made a real impact on the audience.  But that's not what happened.  As soon as everyone had worked out Benedict Cumberbatch's identity, Abrams and Paramount should have ditched the mystery box and been upfront with us: "Yeah, alright, he's Khan.  But this Khan is different!"  That at least would have been honest.  Instead they chose to double down, telling us all that he was "John Harrison", which only further cemented everyone's belief that we'd be seeing Khan and annoyed  people in the process.

Ironically, people have pointed out that Marvel actually played the villain shell game far more effectively with Iron Man 3.  (Spoilers for IM3 too.)  Everyone was so focused on Ben Kingsley's Mandarin that when he was revealed to simply be Aldrich Killian's puppet, audiences were truly caught off guard.  Comparatively, when Cumberbatch growls, "My name...is Khan", the long awaited confirmation of the obvious lands with a wet thud.  The parallel between Star Trek and Iron Man is ironic because in reality both movies are perpetrating almost identical bait-and-switch routines.  It turns out that while Khan is certainly a criminal, the one who's actually pulling the strings is Admiral Robocop, who was secretly a militaristic asshole all along.  It's hardly a shocking revelation, (especially since the very first announcement of Peter Weller's casting described him as another villain) but it certainly would have played better if most of the audience wasn't still fuming about being misled for a year and a half.

But this leads me to my biggest complaint with the movie: it's a waste of Khan.  I always felt it was a mistake to revisit the character in the first place.  The whole point of reforging the timeline was to give the filmmakers the creative freedom to blaze a new path through a familiar universe without being slaves to continuity.  Immediately bringing back an old nemesis is dumb, especially someone as iconic as Khan.  What's worse, they don't even use him intelligently!  Khan is a genetically engineered "superman" who is always both the smartest and the strongest guy in the room.  He's a master strategist, as ruthless as he is brilliant while also being charismatic as hell.  What made him so memorable in Wrath Of Khan was seeing how that brilliance and charisma were twisted into mad vengeance after Kirk inadvertently banished him to a desert wasteland for 15 years.  He may be a relic from 300 years in the past, but he's still always a step ahead.  Doesn't that sound like a fascinating character?

Instead of all that, we get a guy with magic anti-death blood* who can punch hard.

No, seriously though.  Like, SO HARD.

And he has no agenda of his own!  Khan should be the evil mastermind, but instead he's just Peter Weller's attack dog that manages to break his leash.  Khan attacks Starfleet because he thinks that Admiral Robocop killed his crew, and when he finds out they're still alive he manipulates Kirk in order to kill the Admiral and save his people so they can get back to the business of being badasses.  He's a dick to Kirk, that much is sure, but Khan ultimately doesn't care about him one way or the other.  Kirk's just a means to a very murky end.  If it had been revealed that Khan was actually using Admiral Robocop all along for his own nefarious purposes...well at least that would have been worthy of the name Khan.

That's the other thing.  When it comes right down to it, Cumberbatch's character is really Khan in name only.  Let's ignore the fact that he's magically gone from Hispanic to British with utterly no explanation.  (Carol Marcus is also British in this new timeline despite having an all American daddy.)  His entire backstory is told in such broad strokes as to become practically irrelevant.  Khan was originally a major historical figure, the Hitler of the Eugenics Wars in the 1990's.  (How did I miss those?)  He and his genetically enhanced followers sought to cleanse the Earth of inferior beings, so they were eventually captured, cryogenically frozen and shot out into space.  All of that should remain the same even in the new Abrams timeline, but almost none of it is mentioned.  Instead, we get a phone call to Old Spock (I love Leonard Nimoy, but that shit is just lazy) solely to assure us that Khan is indeed the most evil evil who ever evil-ed.  Essentially, if you're not a Trekkie and you haven't seen Wrath Of Khan before walking into this movie, Cumberbatch's character is just another asshole with nebulous superhuman abilities.  We're not presented with a version of Khan that is in any way compelling in his own right or even connected to Ricardo Montalban's Khan in any meaningful way.  (Cumberbatch has said that he deliberately avoided watching Montalban in order to make the character his own.)  The fact that he's named Khan is just this side of an easter egg.  Within the context of Star Trek Into Darkness, he's just a hired gun who's gone rogue.  To extend the Iron Man 3 comparison, he's not even Ben Kingsley.  He's James Badge Dale.

It's ultimately indicative of a seeming bewilderment as to how to treat both the original canon and the Trekkies in the audience.  Both of Abrams's movies are jam-packed with references both casual and overt to people, places and events from the original continuity.  But in this latest outing there's no sense of direction within the material.  Writers Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof seem intent on keeping as many familiar elements as possible, but are then willing to fundamentally change them for no discernible reason.  It's almost as if they were given a mandate that the movie must contain X number of Trek references "to keep the nerds happy" but no one actually cared about how they were used.  At it's heart, Star Trek Into Darkness is about the struggle for the soul of Starfleet.  In light of Nero's attack and with the Klingon Empire looming on the horizon, Admiral Robocop is convinced that the galaxy is filled with nothing but dire threats to humanity.  He wants to turn Starfleet away from exploration in favor of pure militarism and Kirk gets caught in the middle.  On the one hand he wants revenge for the murder of Christopher Pike, but he's got Scotty and Spock rightfully pointing out the legal and moral quandaries of executing an accused criminal without trial.  And that could be a very compelling story in its own right!  Some of my favorite stuff from DS9 came from the years when they were engaged in a protracted war with The Dominion, forcing Sisko and crew to make some tough choices while grappling with their own consciences.  My point is, Benedict Cumberbatch's character could have been just plain old "John Harrison," rogue agent of Section 31 who seeks revenge against the superiors who betrayed him and it wouldn't dramatically impact the story.  It doesn't require that he be Khan.  You tweak a few minor details and the movie remains essentially the same.

In fact, it probably would have been better.  If not for Khan, we certainly would have been spared the rehashing of one of the greatest death scenes of all time.  The moment is telegraphed from a mile away and much of the dialogue is identical just to drive the point home.  Reversing the roles might seem like a good way to alter the dynamics of the scene, but it's dramatically stupid.  That scene is so effective in Wrath Of Khan for a number of different reasons, including Spock's simulated death during the Kobayashi Maru sequence which deflates the audience's expectations and the fact that the whole movie is about how we choose to accept death and growing old.  The scene carries so much weight because Spock and Kirk are lifelong friends with an incredibly rich history together.  In Abrams's riff, not only do the characters lack the bond that drives that scene, but we all know that Kirk's not going to stay dead, giving the scene zero dramatic stakes.**  At least when Spock died, he fucking DIED.  Yeah, he came back in the next film, but there's a difference between spending an entire movie showing just how far Kirk and his crew are willing to go (including stealing and then sacrificing the Enterprise) just on the mere chance that they can restore their friend, versus sending Spock on a five minute footchase atop flying cars.  The only reason the scene works on any level at all is due to the talents of Pine and Quinto, who really sell the shit out of it.  Quinto even manages to make the infamous "KHAAAAAAAAN!" scream work, at least to the point where the audience didn't immediately burst out laughing and/or groaning.

But why do I need to see all that stuff AGAIN?  If I want to watch Wrath Of Khan, I'll watch Wrath Of Khan.  Who wants Diet Khan when you can have the real thing?  I'm sure the writers think they're putting their own interesting spin on this stuff, but it ends up coming off as disrespectful to the source material.  I've long maintained that the reason I hate CBS's The Big Bang Theory is because, while it gets all the references factually correct, the series lacks any true geek soul.  It always feels like a show written by cool kids with some kind of Nerd Wikipedia.  Somehow the same feeling persists throughout Star Trek Into Darkness.  When it's all said and done, I can't tell who Abrams is trying to play to here: he bends over backwards to insert Khan into the story and bases the entire marketing strategy around his presence, but then doesn't actually DO ANYTHING with him.  They essentially reshoot one of the single best scenes in the entire franchise, but eliminate everything that made it so great in the first place.  It's like he's somehow kowtowing to fans while simultaneously spitting in their faces.

This is hard  for me to write, because I really, really wanted to love this movie.  My lifelong love of Star Trek has been well documented and when it came to this summer's big releases, Star Trek Into Darkness was one of those flicks for which I had some seriously high hopes.  (As opposed to something like Pacific Rim, for which I have seriously high expectations - a subtle but important distinction.)  Abrams's first Star Trek is a movie that works in spite of itself.  I love the meandering, philosophical approach of most of the original Trek series as well as the focused storytelling of the good (i.e. even numbered) Trek movies but, much like the last few Brosnan-era Bond films, the franchise had become bloated and stale. It needed a good kick in the pants and that's exactly what Abrams managed to do with his alternate timeline reboot.

I really can't oversell just how miraculous that film's success truly was.  The idea of revisiting iconic characters like Kirk, Spock and McCoy without Shatner, Nimoy and Kelly seemed like pure folly on paper, but Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and (surprisingly enough) Karl Urban all managed to charm the pants off of both diehard Trekkies and non-fans alike.  Moreover, the script for that first movie is all over the fucking map, a result of going into production in the midst of the writers' strike and having to shape a fair amount of the story after the fact.  Seriously, the entire second act of that movie is a mess; everything between the destruction of Vulcan and Kirk taking command of the Enterprise makes negative sense.  But the cast is so charming and you're having so much damn fun that you barely notice until it's all over.

I wish I could say the same about Star Trek Into Darkness.  (That title is still absurd.  In the entirety of this franchise, the word "trek" has never and should never be used as a verb.)  That's not to say the film is a total disaster.  The opening scene is fun, if a bit braindead - Kirk fucking around with a race of primitives and stealing something solely because "they were worshiping it" is vintage Original Series, whereas Spock rappelling into a volcano is about six kinds of silly.  And while lots of people complained about an underwater Enterprise, I'm more annoyed that the ship is constantly flying through planets' atmospheres.  Starfleet ships don't land, that's why they have orbital spacedocks and are equipped with shuttlecraft.  The Godfather III helicopter assassination scene at Starfleet HQ is a nice bit of action, as is the chase and accompanying shootout on Qo'nos (incorrectly spelled "Kronos" on screen for no particular reason) and Kirk and Khan's space jump.  I would, however, like to request a moratorium on chase/fight scenes that take place in a shifting gravity field.  Yes, it was awesome in Inception, but it was super-lame in Total Recall and just kind of dull here.

Pine and Quinto are both at the top of their game and Simon Pegg does really great work as Scotty this time around.  Much like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, it's nice to see him actually get something to do in these movies.  There isn't NEARLY enough of Karl Urban's Bones (a sentence I never thought I'd find myself typing before actually seeing him in the role) and Harold Sulu gets one really kickass moment before getting relegated to the background with a red shirted Checkov.  (The look on Anton Yelchin's face when Kirk tells him to change shirts is pretty great.)  I don't really have a problem with the Uhura/Spock romance.  What I do have a problem with is that other than one staredown with a Klingon, Zoe Saldana doesn't do anything in this movie that isn't about their relationship.  The woman has incredible screen presence and it's a shame to see her so stranded.  Alice Eve is similarly wasted as Carol Marcus's Lingerie, although I suspect that the intention is to set up her love affair with Kirk in the next film.  Benedict Cumberbatch is good because Benedict Cumberbatch is ALWAYS good, even in a role as ill-conceived as this one.  And I'm always happy to see Peter Weller getting some work.

Star Trek Into Darkness is entertaining enough that non-Trekkies will have a blast while watching it and probably forgive the film's dumber moments.  It's hardly the kind of thing that will put the franchise back in cryostasis (see what I did there?) and even with a somewhat disappointing box office draw, a third movie is assured.  The film ends with the Enterprise heading out on its five year mission of exploration into deep space, a prospect which is still rife with intriguing possibilities.  When Voyager premiered, I was excited at the prospect of a ship being stranded in the unknown, encountering all new aliens and natural phenomena.  The sense of real exploration was one of the strengths of The Original Series and something that got lost as The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine focused so much energy on familiar races like the Klingons and the Cardassians.  It still feels very possible that Abrams is trying to set up some kind of huge conflict with the Klingons next time around.  After all, they're a fan favorite who remain underexposed in this new timeline.   But I'm hoping for more.  I'm hoping for a story based on discovery, something entirely new from the established canon.  I'm hoping for a movie that takes place way out on the galactic frontier, with Earth nowhere to be seen.  I'm hoping for a movie that finally mines the wonderful threefold relationship between Kirk, Spock and Bones.  I'm hoping for a movie in which Kirk actually wears his gold uniform shirt for more than 20 minutes of screen time, instead of constantly putting him in "cooler" looking uniforms and disguises.***

But most of all, I'm hoping for a brand new creative team next time around.  The rebooted franchise has been defined by Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof.  But Abrams has Star Wars to deal with now (which is what he always wanted in the first place) and those writers have plenty of other projects to keep them busy.  They did the impossible: they brought Star Trek back from the dead, found a capable group of actors to take up the mantle and managed to inject a sense of real adventure into a franchise that most considered intellectual and boring.  I'll be forever grateful to them for reviving my favorite thing in the world.  But now is the time to bring some fresh creative energy to the table.  I'm sure there are no shortage of writers and directors who would love the chance to come play in the Starfleet sandbox, so let's hand over control to someone who will really focus on strong storytelling.  (I'm looking at you, Brad Bird...)  All the moving pieces are already in place and there are an infinite number of directions you can take the Enterprise and her crew from this point on.

Let's try to avoid space whales.




*Bones injecting Khan's blood into the dead tribble might be the clunkiest moment in the whole damn movie.  It's like that shot of the cook in Hunt For Red October, only less subtle.

**It's also ridiculous that Bones can't use the magic blood from one of the 72 other frozen people sitting in sickbay to cure Kirk from acute death.  It could have been explained away in a single throwaway line of technobabble and the fact that they didn't even try shows just how little regard the writers truly have for the audience.

***I'm convinced that someone involved thinks the classic uniforms look "too silly."  It's this kind of thinking that has superheros like Spider-Man and Iron Man constantly taking off their masks throughout their respective movies, and it's dumb.

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Title: Star Trek Into Darkness
Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bennedict Cumberbatch, Peter Weller, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - IMAX 3D