23 May 2013

First Impressions: Star Trek Into Darkness

It already feels as if every movie this summer is filling the zeitgeist, grabbing pop culture by the balls and neglecting to let go until it's forcibly pushed out by the next big event film to come along. We are experiencing so many rapidfire additions to franchise film canon that we have barely room to breathe. No later are we jazzing on Iron Man than we are re-reading Fitzgerald, and then looking up Gorn Porn in favor of Star Trek. Oh, you haven't looked at Gorn Porn this week? Yeah right.

What? No pecs?
First thing's first - while watching Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), I hadn't gripped a seat like that since Star Trek (2009). That's saying something. It really is just about as perfect of a sequel as you can get, and it improves on the original in almost every way, at least in the moment. This movie seems incredible while you're watching it but after it settles in and you actually think about it for a few days it seems less special. This undoubtedly has much to do with the combination of a breakneck pace and genuinely thrilling action set pieces with a middling, derivative emotional narrative large the fault of its muffed villain reveal, which is becoming a stupid trend this summer. Needless to say, SPOILERS to come, although you must be abstaining from the entire Internet to still be into the darkness of what I speak.

It seems bizarre that for the first two really big movies of Summer, the marketing focused heavily on the supposed groundbreaking, iconic performance of the film's villain, and in both cases there was some level of deception involved that belied an ineffective twist. The first was Iron Man 3 (2013)'s mangling of the Mandarin, which had its own merits in making a statement on how we perceive villains both real and fictional, but ultimately falls flat because of a spurned expectation (both of fanboys and within the movie itself). It also ends up merely swapping one stereotypical comic book villain for another.

As for Star Trek Into Darkness, it isn't a total shock that James Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is Khan, but he just ends up being less fearsome or interesting than he was made out to be in the marketing material. This is again a problem with expectation, and marketing shouldn't impact a pure evaluation of the film, but needless to say, using Star Trek's best known villain comes with some necessary comparisons. There is this notable riff between those purest of Trekkies who favor the psychological slow burn of much of the television series' as well as the earlier films, including The Wrath of Khan (1982), from which J.J. Abrams lifts much of Into Darkness' most potent scenes.

So let's really get into this dude, because in so many ways he's the core of this film. The narrative flows spectacularly as this mystery around James Harrison brews, but the conflict never seems as personal or drastic as it needs to be - again, it needs to be as intense as Ricardo Montalban vs. James T. Kirk in Wrath of Khan. It needs to be - you've laid the cards flat and need to deliver. Now, Cumberbatch's Khan did blow up a library and then executed Pike (how was that the only one hit in that chamber, by the way? Not just from a practical standpoint, but wouldn't it have helped the stakes if we saw more of the Starfleet leadership perish?), but after that everything seems murky. Maybe it's because Khan's plan is never clear (does he just want to take over the world with the rest of his Übermensch? I guess). Maybe it's because it feels awfully easy to track this guy back to the Klingon homeworld with the support of Admiral Marcus (that's because he wanted to start a war...I guess...maybe to profit from it similar again to Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian from Iron Man 3?). Also similar to Iron Man 3 (it just keeps coming) there is something empty about standard hero-villain revenge plots.

Perhaps the most potent reason the film feels off from a narrative standpoint is because all of Kirk's rage over the Death of Pike is diffused by the time he is working alongside Khan. At the same time, for much of the film Spock has a level of emotional disinterest in him (duh) so it's then sort of unfulfilling for Spock to be the one to defeat him. It's a playful reversal of their fortunes in Wrath of Khan, having Kirk die of radiation poising rather than Spock, but Khan has always been Kirk's archenemy. At the end when Kirk is filled with Khan blood he could at least react like Jerry did when he learned he had a pint of Newman in him.

It is important to note that while the end is ultimately a meek re-hash of the end of Wrath of Khan (1982), with the roles of Spock and Kirk reversed, the rest of the film is a very original story. And of course, in a stroke of Transformers: Revenge of the Swollen (2009), the film gets its cake and eats it too - all the emotional weight of the main hero's death with none of the lasting consequences. Thus is the age of big franchise moviemaking.

Now, Orci and Kurtzman have talked at length at how they wanted to find a way to work Khan in naturally as if he fit the story and could have been any villain. That's the biggest bullshit you'll read this whole week. Why would an Admiral thaw out someone frozen in the 1990s to design weaponry and starships far more advanced than what everyone else had in 2259? Khan claims it was for his savagery - because no one in the contemporary Star Trek Universe understands war like he did in the 90s. That doesn't really stick well. If I want to develop the most advanced weapons in the world today I'm not going to thaw out Napoleon.

Benny is admirably spectacular, though, but doesn't really get any good scenes against Kirk that wasn't in the trailer. The other most notable acting job is probably Quinto's Spock, who has become very reliable at balancing emotion and logic to really flesh out what could have been a lifeless and tepid character. Giving Spock a GF to bring out these emotions was probably one of the best decisions made in this reboot.

As mentioned earlier, while there are many flaws to this thing, while watching it, it feels awesome. J.J. proves once again with this film he can direct the hell out of an action scene, probably better than anyone currently working in movies. It succeeds for so long based on its budding tension and genuinely heart-racing thrills, but there's ultimately a lot of homage bordering on plagiarism rather than innovation. The opening scene serves the same purpose as that of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and in this case, right down to the chase of the primiative people with spears. The idea of an unrelated scene opening up a movie to introduce the characters has since become a common trope, but its presence here seems to also justify Abrams as the heir apparent to the Lucas / Spielberg blockbuster throne. Considering this and Super 8 (2011), though, he is starting to build a career more on homage and nostalgia rather than from original work. Like Spielberg, though, he is aware that the "moment" in film is far superior to continuity.

That's ultimately the divergent moment in this film. The action is spectacular, but the actual set-ups and emotional pay-offs that center around the villain are lacking in a traditional sense. Sure Kirk defeated Khan in the sense that he sacrificed his life to save the crew, thus ultimately answer Pike's challenge to "dare to do better" than his father (which does wrap up his arc rather neatly), but the film needed if not a physical battle between Kirk and Khan, than at least an intellectual match between Spock and Khan to really justify Khan's presence in the entire movie. After all, his most devastating act, crashing the USS Vengeance into San Francisco isn't done out of hate but out of desperation.

On that note, there's this weird 9/11 moment when this happens. Khan is reduced to a terrorist rather than a grand strategist or warlord here (as it would seem, all contemporary movie villains), and his crash into a city, killing thousands of people can easily be seen as allegory to 9/11, although it is hardly commented on besides an otherwise non sequitor honorific at the end that reads more as an apology than anything heartfelt considering the relative disconnect between the film's contents and the tragic day of September 11th, 2001. My feeling is that early screenings made the connection and the producers though "Well, shit, we didn't see that coming" so they slapped on the tribute.

Overall, though, Star Trek Into Darkness is an upstanding film. It's time, however, to quickly abandon the stars for fast cars and hangovers. Now that's a summer.

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