Saturday, May 25, 2013

In Which I Review Star Trek Into Darkness

Confession: When I was eight, my dad introduced me to Star Trek. It was our bi-monthly weekend together and he asked if I wanted to watch his favorite TV show with him. I wasn't sure what to expect but ten minutes into The Devil in the Dark I was hooked. It was weird and kooky and strangely compelling. As an eight year old I doubt I was able to grasp the deeper meanings and philosophical discourse Roddenberry was trying make, but the monster and storyline were cool--which is really all an eight year old needs. We spent the rest of the weekend held up in the basement, several large pizzas at our disposal, watching the original series. That was my first introduction into the world of science fiction. 

Unless you've been living under a rock the past few months, there was no escaping the news that a new Star Trek movie was hitting theaters early summer 2013. This newest installment in the now 45+ year old franchise is entitled Star Trek Into Darkness staring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Benedict Cumberbatch. In the months leading up to its release, the big question remained: who was the villain? Given that this movie follows the 2009 Abrams movie Star Trek, in which we meet the main cast--the original crew of the Enterprise with shiny new toys-- many of the fans expected the sequel to follow the original iterations of the franchise, meaning that the villain for this movie would be Khan Noonien Singh--a genetically enhanced ubermensch who attempted to kill Kirk and his friends and steal the Enterprise.

I can't be the only one who didn't want Cumberbatch to play Khan. It's not that Cumberbatch wouldn't do a standup job; his talents as an actor are many--from creepy pedophile in Atonement to the high functioning sociopath detective Sherlock Holmes in the BBC's brilliant modern adaption Sherlock--Cumberbatch steals every scene he's in. His deep tenor voice, piercing stare, and ability to deliver lines in a cold, calculated manner made him the ideal candidate to play Khan. But when the 2009 movie came out and Orci and Kurtzman's excellent script set down a new timeline, one full of new possibility to again go where no man had gone before, I fully expected they would live up that potential. Instead of rehashing old stories that, let's face it, are never going to compare to the original simply because the originals came first and are thus indelibly imprinted on the hearts of fans, they had a whole new world to play with. This movie strikes a blow to all that creativity.

For the first third of the movie it looked like all the rumors that Cumberbatch was playing Khan were unjustified. His character, John Harrison, was simply a rogue Starfleet officer who blew up buildings and stole things but also saved dying little girls. Fleshing out this original character would have been far more interesting than the (predictable) revelation that John Harrison was a pseudonym and this cold and calculating individual who could remain standing after Kirk's attempt to beat him to a pulp... was Khan.

The second two thirds of the movie attempted to put Space Seed and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan into a blender and produce a smooth mixture of the two. It didn't work. None of the ideas present in the original TV episode or movie were developed fully. The TV episode is about the dangers of genetic enhancement, about trying to become god-men and how human beings need their flaws rather than to become Supermen. The movie demonstrates the importance of sacrifice (more on that below), ideas of power and technology, creation and destruction, and the simple yet powerful notion that simply being cleverer, thinking outside the box and in more than one dimension are enough to conquer foes. In the end of the original movie, Kirk defeats Khan by, yes firing at his stolen spaceship, but more importantly, by out thinking him. In the 2013 version, Spock defeats Khan by beating him senseless, breaking his arms, while Uhura repeatedly fires a phaser at him.

When did science fiction become all about explosions, gun fights, space fights, and violence? To be sure, in Space Opera, a good fight scene has always been a part of the genre. But did they always last for 10 minutes? Where are the quiet moments of philosophical reflection? One of the best parts of the classic Star Trek are the moments between Kirk, Spock and Bones in which they discuss what is morally right versus what is legally right and how best to serve multiple masters. Spock's logic and Bones's compassion--while at times antithetical--serve as guide posts for Kirk in his quest to be the best captain possible. These new Stark Trek films (the first one I loved) focus more on the relationship between Spock and Kirk and leave Bones as the awkward third wheel, who's only job is to provide snarky comments. His character has been so reduced, I struggled to see the original Bones. And while the writers can claim "new timeline, new character traits" they are clearly not following their own sage advice as this movie was simply a remake of a previous character. Cherry picking pieces of canon and not other is a bad move to make.

In an attempt to make a not-so-thinly veiled reference to the original Khan movie, one of the climaxes of the movie finds Spock and Kirk on opposite sides of a glass door, radiation contaminating one side. If this sounds familiar, it's because it is. It is one of the most poignant, heart wrenching, shocking scenes in Star Trek--the full scene can be viewed here. By this point in Wrath of Khan, the relationship between Spock and Kirk is 15 years strong and an important element in popular culture. As a young girl, seeing Wrath of Khan for the first time, I was floored. I did not understand how they could kill Spock. Watching that beloved character die was traumatic. Not so in this new iteration. Instead of Spock dying, the movie writers switched our principle's, letting Kirk do the dying. It failed on multiple levels. While Pine and Quinto do William Shatner and Leonerd Nemoy credit, they've only been playing these iconic characters for 4 hours on screen--2 of which were spent loathing each other. The relationship between these two is not strong enough yet to warrant such a death scene. But perhaps the most irritating thing about this scene is not the bastardization of the classic, but how Kirk is revived (you didn't think they'd really kill him did you)? In the original, Spock's rebirth is carefully thought out--science and technology going hand in hand to give life where there was lifelessness. This new movie uses one of the worst plot devices known to modern man: the Deus Ex Machina.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, the Deus Ex Machina was perfectly acceptable. Lowering a god down to solve all the problems of the common man played into the overall outlook of life. However, I am deeply disappointed in how Kirk's death was resolved: magic blood provided by Khan himself (taken forcefully of course). It's poor writing. Does this mean death is forever cured? That Starfleet can now bring back anyone from the dead? Did they use it to revive all the souls killed when the ship crashed into San Fransisco? This is the problem with the Dues Ex Machina; it raises more questions than it solves.

The magic blood and death scene were my two biggest complaints overall. But controversy surrounding one scene should also be brought up. At one point Carol Marcus, played by Alicia Eve, is changing into new gear, preparing to go outside the space craft. As she is changing, she repeatedly tells Captain Kirk not to look--an order he fails to obey, ogling Carol, scantly clad in her black underwear. In the original series, Kirk is a bit of a ladies man. It's annoying, but it's 60s science fiction. Things have progressed since then--you may have heard of something called the feminist movement? What I found disquieting about the scene in question is not Carol in her underwear, it's Kirk's looking at her when she has told him not to. In that moment when he turns around and stares at her, Kirk has removed Carol's own agency to have control over her body and who gets to look at her. He has reduced her to an object that he gets to find pleasure in--whether she wishes it or not. It's a dangerous precedent, especially in a culture where rape and objectification have yet to--quite simply--go away.

Other complaints about Star Trek Into Darkness (briefly)
--The Nibiru expedition at the beginning of the movie would have been a better plot for this movie. THAT scene felt like a classic episode of Star Trek in which our crew finds new civilizations and explores them (it's almost as if that's the entire point of Star Trek in the first place....*sarcasm*)
--The Enterprise underwater. Because it's okay to ignore science in science-fiction now, apparently.
--Klingon's for no apparent reason, other than say "Hey! Look! We gave you Klingons!" (in battle helmets!)
--Time jumps. Did Starfleet do anything about the plot Admiral Marcus concocted that would bring about war with the Klingons? We'll never know because the film suddenly jumps a year.
--"Where no ONE has gone before" *sigh* Writers, I'm sorry but until you get Next Gen it's "where no MAN" has gone before. Ok? Leave the saying alone.

Things I liked about Star Trek Into Darkness (briefly)
--It is funny. While Bones may be tragically underused, he does get some of the best lines.
--As simply a movie, it's decent. It's fast paced with great acting and fantastic visuals.
--Simon Pegg as Scotty. In the 2009 film he was given very little to do. This time around they used Pegg brilliantly. 
--Cumberbatch, Cumberbatch, Cumberbatch, Cumberbatch. Even though I wish they had made him an original villain, Benedict Cumberbatch shines in this film.

Overall Grade: C (see it because it is Star Trek after all but then go home and watch Space Seed and Wrath of Khan on Netflix)

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