Anyone else notice the remarkable similarity between the major plot points of Star Trek Into Darkness and William Friedkin’s 1985 To Live and Die in L. A.?
To Live and Die in L. A.:
William Petersen’s older, father-figure type partner, Michael Greene, is killed by bad guy Willem Dafoe. Petersen seeks revenge, but his new partner, John Pankow, is a stickler for the law. Eventually, Petersen is killed by Dafoe, but his partner, having seen the error of his ways, pursues and dispatches the bad buy. Along the way, a friend, Debra Feuer, betrays and almost gets them killed.
Star Trek Into Darkness:
Kirk’s father-figure, Captain Pike, is killed by bad guy Khan. Kirk seeks revenge, but his new (again) first officer Spock is a stickler for the law. Eventually, Kirk dies (although not in hand to hand combat), but his first officer, Spock, having seen the error of his ways, pursues and dispatches the bad guy. Along the way, a friend, Admiral Marcus, betrays and almost gets them killed.
It’s hard to see the plot of To Live and Die in L.A. as anything other than a string of cliches. Except, perhaps, its ending. Killing off a character before he can fulfill his goal, then having him replaced by someone else who goes on to fulfill that goal, is something that usually happens in the first act. Happening as late into the film as it does in Friedkin’s film is unusual. Here’s what Friedkin says about it in his book, The Friedkin Connection:
Halfway through production, it occurred to me that Petersen’s character, Chance, had to die. This was not in the script or the novel, but I though it was unexpected and justified, given that he lived constantly on the edge. He wasn’t a superhero immune to danger. In the final confrontation between Chance and Masters (Dafoe), it would be Chance who was killed. I didn’t have an ending until discovering during production that Vukovich (Pankow) becomes Chance in appearance and attitude after Chance’s death. (The Friedkin Connection, p. 391)
At first I thought that the similarity between the plots was nothing more than a coincidence. As they say, there are no new plots. There are enough differences between the two films that there’s no danger anyone will be sued, but the fact that the each of Friedkin’s major plot points, including its most unusual one, shows up in Star Trek makes me wonder:
Did the Star Trek Into Darkness writers steal their plot from To Live and Die in L. A. ?
TONS OF SPOILERS BELOW!
Last night the family and I sat in for the red (actually white) carpet part of the Star Trek 2 premiere up on Hollywood Blvd. We sat in the bleachers (having been warned so many times that if we left our seats for even a second we would be dragged away by security guards we wondered if we were back in kindergarten) as the stars walked by. They were all (mostly) there (missing: Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, and Benedict Cumberbatch), even the writers (who said that they had been rewriting as recently as three weeks ago–not a good sign, perhaps, but not unusual), and we bowed down to them all (for the benefit of the cameras).
Then we saw the movie.
Here are some of my, somewhat random, thoughts:
1. After all the denials and flat out lies about the identity of Cumberbatch’s character, it turns out that the rumors were correct all along. His character is Khan. “My name is Khan. John Harrison is a code name cover.” How different from the first film which includes Khan in its title. The big secret in that film was the ending. Knowing who the villain was helped promote the film. Yes, creating a mystery around the villain’s identity help to drive PR for the film, but ultimately it was anti climatic and left a bad taste in the mouth due to the flat out lying needed to keep the mystery going.
2. Cumberbatch’s Khan is played with one monotonous note (despite that tear that he sheds at one point, which I guess is supposed to give him depth and make him sympathetic, but has far less effect than would a tear falling from a robot’s eye), especially compared to Montalban’s. My wife, Kelly, a Cumberbatch fan, simply said, “He’s boring.”
3. Too much of Cumberbatch’s story is told rather than shown. It’s told as back story. For example, how he was found and why and what happened after that. He tells the story of how he was found despite not being the one who did the finding. That character is Peter Weller, Admiral Marcus. There’s a good reason why he doesn’t tell the story, but Khan was not there, so not only are we not shown this important part of the story (the equivalent of Star Trek never having done the Space Seed episode), but it’s told second hand.
4. Star Trek 2 is yet another example of post 9/11 cinema: movies that exploit our fears around that day by featuring images evocative of planes flying into buildings and innocent people being killed. Why do Hollywood filmmakers do this? To exploit our collective trauma for the purpose of making their fortunes.
5. The characters. Strip away the accents of Checkov and Scotty and little remains. Uhura’s character? She’s female. Black. Knows a lot of alien tongues. And loves Spock. Is this really an improvement over the original? But the movie does worse by Spock. He’s reduced to a stickler for regulations. And it’s partly because of him that the troubles occur: he convinces Kirk not to kill Khan outright as Kirk has been ordered to do by Marcus. This does not make much sense given that Kirk has already been stripped of his command due to a lax attitude towards regulations. Even if Spock is right, that a suspect deserves to be tried before execution, his orders are to kill. You’d think that if he has doubts about these orders then there would be a means to address them through regulation channels in Starfleet. Instead, he disobeys the orders once again.
6. Khan’s backstory is similar to that of Wesley Snipe’s character (Simon Phoenix) in Demolition Man, and just as stupid, which is why Cracked.com put Demolition Man at #5 on a list of 6 Movie Plots Made Possible by Bafflingly Bad Decisions.
7. To Live and Die in LA was fresh in my mind, having just seen it a few days ago, and it was interesting to note the similarities in the two films’ plots.
Partners A and B. Older partner (B), father figure type, is killed by bad guy. Surviving partner (A) seeks revenge, joins with new partner (C) who is a stickler for rules and regulations (aka the law). The surviving partner (A) dies, but the new partner (C) dispatches the bad guy (after realizing how dead wrong he was to be a stickler for the law).
This is the plot, in broad strokes, of both films. In other words, it’s a cliché. Star Trek 2‘s major variation is bringing the surviving partner (A), that is, Kirk, back to life. You might think that it’s only due to its being SF that this can happen, but “miracles” of this kind can pop up in every Hollywood genre. (The “homage” reference for this specific “miracle” is not just Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, but also the “Amok Time”episode of ST: TOS in which Spock seemingly kills Kirk.)
Is the only difference between ’80′s LA and the future world of Star Trek that in one the cops race around in gas guzzlers while in the other they race around in warp powered starships? Is this the best plot to reveal what’s unique about and specific to Star Trek? I think not. Roddenberry’s vision of the future entailed more than a change in scenery or replacing guns with phasers and bombs with photon torpedoes. Roddenberry’s society of the future is truly different than ours. Life in his future is better, not just its machines. I don’t think Abrams gets this.
Perhaps the most common action movie plot is that in which the hero’s attempt to bring in the bad guy is deterred by bureaucrats who are sticklers for the law. Was Dirty Harry the first movie to use this plot? It certainly was not the last, but despite it’s becoming a cliché this does not prevent a film such as Star Trek Into Darkness from bringing it out once again. It should be noted that this plot has a conservative bias, that is, it prevents the law and civil rights as being little more of a hindrance to law enforcement. Roddeberry’s Star Trek was not without its conservative aspects, but in general it took a liberal stance on most issues. At the core of J. J. Abrams’ reboot is the transformation of Roddenberry’s liberal show into a conservative film. Roddenberry’s show got away with non-mainstream stances because it was SF. Abrams does not have to worry about this because his film reflects what are currently mainstream views of justice. This does not mean that the majority of its viewers hold these views, although this may in fact be the case, but that it reflects the views most commonly found in mainstream media.
Compare Into Darkness with “The Devil in the Dark.” The latter is about an alien creature that terrorizes a mine community for reasons somewhat similar to Khan’s. It’s the last of it’s kind and its offspring are being killed (unwittingly) by the miners, so when it kills miners it does so to protect its offspring. Spock leads the way in attempting to understand why the creature does what it does, but in the end, he is willing to kill it to save Kirk. Kirk, however, stops him. This is almost exactly the opposite of what happens in Into Darkness.
Next to no one in the mainstream today questions the Establishment the way Star Trek did in the Sixties. Certainly not the guys who made Star Trek Into Darkness. In fact, they do the opposite: they clearly endorse what’s going on today* (see note at bottom for details). This used to be called propaganda.
8. J. J. Abrams seems to define action filmmaking as characters running and it’s obvious that the sets are designed to maximize this. My first couple of films in film school were mostly people running. If only I had stuck to that, perhaps I’d have a career.
9. One of the clichés of the original Star Trek series (unfortunately continued in ST: TNG) was that of the ticking time bomb. Abrams’ first Star Trek managed to avoid literal ticking time bombs, but it’s a sign of the second film’s dearth of creativity that he resorts to several ticking bombs.
10. Speaking of clichés. Cumberbatch is a bad guy who allows himself to be captured. Could he have gotten this idea from The Joker in The Dark Knight? Or maybe it was Loki in The Avengers?
11. In the end what do we have? A lot of running, volcanoes that don’t explode, bombs that explode, bombs that don’t explode. To borrow the title of another film that’s soon to be released: Star Trek Into Darkness would be more accurately titled, Star Trek: Much Ado About Nothing. Sure, it can be exciting from scene to scene, so long as you can keep yourself from thinking about what you are watching, but in the end it adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
12. I was very impressed with the production design, especially the pre-title Raiders of the Lost Ark-ish scenes on the alien planet and scenes involving the Enterprise engine. Scott Chambliss is the credited production designer, but I was not much impressed by his earlier work on Cowboys & Aliens and Star Trek.
13. Looking at the film’s 88% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as the projected $100 million or more boxoffice opening projections, I can’t help but think that I’m in the minority. Perhaps, but I’m not alone:
Star Trek Into Darkness is not the worst Star Trek movie. I would probably watch this film again before I rewatch The Final Frontier or Insurrection or Nemesis. That said, I would prefer not to rewatch any of these films – Star Trek Into Darkness included – because they are all very bad movies. (Badass Digest)
Into Darkness remains visually impressive, fast-paced and, if you can switch your brain off, fun. But it’s also derivative, unsatisfying and apparently terrified of doing anything new, which is a very odd position for a movie set in a new, unrestrained and exciting continuity to be in. (The Wertzone)
Have we been conditioned to expect so little from Hollywood that we cannot call this movie out for what it is?
BOXOFFICE UPDATE: 5/19/13
Star Trek Into Darkness just hasn’t performed as well as Paramount or anyone else was expecting at the North American box office. The J.J. Abrams helmed sequel is light years away from being considered a flop, but it won’t end up coming anywhere near the predicted $80 million weekend and 4 1/2-day total of $100 million. Instead, an increase of 30% on Saturday means it took an additional $27.2 million after Friday’s disappointing $22 million, while analysts now predict a Sunday gross of $21.2 million. That equals around a $70.5 million weekend and an $84.1 million domestic cume. Unfortunately, not even the higher priced 3D and IMAX tickets were enough for Star Trek Into Darkness to beat Star Trek’s opening back in 2009. (source)
14. It should not be overlooked that the film ends in such a way that a sequel involving Khan is almost certain. This is a wise choice given that the apparent reason for using Khan in this film above all the other possibilities was that he is the very best of the Star Trek villains. Given that, why would they want to kill him off just as he’s getting started? Perhaps this film should not be looked at as a Wrath of Khan remake, as many are doing, so much as a “Space Seed” remake with a few odds and ends from the movies and other TV episodes thrown in. Heaven help us.
Back to the red carpet for one last observation.
I went to film school with Bryan Burk (producer on Star Trek and most of Abrams’ film and TV work), but I don’t remember him being so short. In fact, he’s shorter, by about an inch, than J. J. who is apparently 5′ 7″ (which would be 3″ below the average for U. S. males, but truthfully he looks even shorter). Can’t help but wonder if that’s the reason Burk and J. J. get along.
(*For the benefit of people from the future: what is going on today? Most relevant to Star Trek Into Darkness, the executive branch of the US government claims the right to unilaterally and secretly order the assassination of anyone, even US citizens, throughout the world just as Admiral Marcus orders the assassination of Khan. The US government’s executive branch is also carrying out indefinite detention, without charges or trial, of alleged terrorists; and claims the right to launch wars without congressional authorization. This is the status quo that Star Trek endorses.)
If Hellzapoppin‘ topped the Youtube hit list, the world would be a much better place. This film, based on a story idea by Marx Brothers scribe Nat Perrin (no surprise), and a Broadway play starring Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, the same wacky duo who run wild through the film, was released in 1941, same year as Citizen Kane. Which film is better? Why not watch Hellzapoppin‘ now so you too can judge?
Update 4/24/13: You can read a recent (albeit spoiler-filled) piece on the film here.
The Further Adventures of Uncle Sam: Part 2 (1970) by Dale Case and Bob Mitchell is one of my favorites. (Complete list of favorites is here.) If you like American underground comics of the Sixties or Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat, you will probably like this. It may best be described as a string of political cartoons connected by a story that features Uncle Sam, the bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty, and literal money men. There’s more invention and imagination going on in this short than in most of the animated features of recent years combined. (Note: it’s called Part 2 even though there was no Part 1, just as Star Wars was called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope long before Lucas made the prequels.)
It won the Grand Prix at Annecy International Animated Film Festival in 1971. You can purchase a DVD that includes this film as well as a bunch of other great animated shorts here. (Note: the version of Bob’s Birthday included in this set is, unfortunately, in French.)
Everyone knows that when you go to San Diego Comic-Con, you spend a lot of time standing in line. You stand in line to get your ticket. (Luckily, this is a process that has speeded up quite a bit the last few years.) Then you stand in line to get in. Then you stand in line at booths for signings, merchandise, swag, whatever. And a big part of all of this is knowing that just because you stand in line for hours does not mean that the thing you are standing in line for will still be there when you get to the front of the line.
Standing in line for hours to see someone present what amounts to nothing more than a promo for something that they want you to buy tends to put you in a philosophical mood. It certainly makes you more conscious than you ever were of lines outside of Comic-Con. Is there any place where we don’t find ourselves standing in line: waiting for the bus, waiting at the bank to withdraw or deposit; waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store; we stand in line at the traffic light. Wasn’t it Socrates who said: “Life is just one fucking long line to the graveyard?”
But it also makes you more aware of something else: that there are many, many people who do not even have the privilege of standing in line. The truth is that many people never get into Comic-Con. Most because they don’t have the money, but many simply because there aren’t enough tickets. In other words, there’s a shortage of resources at Comic-Con. There’s just not enough to go around. But isn’t this true everywhere we look? We live in a society of scarcity.
However, the mother of all lines is the line for Hall H. This is a relatively new development at Comic-Con. I believe Hall H opened for the first time in 2006, and it was built mainly because of the demand for certain panels which were relatively new to Comic-Con: movie panels where directors attempt to generate buzz for their latest films. I say directors because most of the time the directors are there. The first ones I remember seeing at Comic-Con came before Hall H was built, and the big one was Sam Raimi for Spider-Man. He was all by himself. I don’t even remember him showing any footage. All he did was answer questions. That was in 2001. This year Raimi returned to Comic-Con with Oz, the Great and Powerful.
I don’t go to panels to see footage. I go to panels to see the people behind the products, whether comics, films, TV; and I go especially to be entertained. This year any panel that was hosted by Chris Hardwicke fulfilled the entertainment quotient, but there were no panels (if you don’t count Trailer Park) where I was thinking, “I wish I was somewhere else.” They were all at least a little entertaining or of interest in some way. However, there were still a handful of panels that stood out. Here are the best ones I attended. (Everyone talks about how much Comic-Con has changed since its origin as a comic book convention. The fact that most of the best panels I attended were not comic book related suggests that the time has come to change the name of this convention. The most obvious? Nerd-Con or Geek-Con.)
- The Campaign. This had the ideal combination: great host in Chris Hardwicke, entertaining panelists Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, and entertaining footage. They didn’t just show a trailer; they showed footage; and it was fucking hilarious. So, I’ll be first in line to see the movie, right? Nope. Why ruin the Comic-Con experience by seeing the film? And why ignore “The Comic-Con Effect, the scientifically proven psychological effect whereby all crap looks great at Comic-Con? (The people who line up to ask questions also help make panels entertaining. I felt sorry for the guy who said he was a failed stand-up comedian. They skewered him. Hopefully, he was a studio plant being paid to be humiliated.)
- The Expendables 2. We saw the first Expendables panel two years ago, and were entertained enough to be looking forward to this year’s version. Stallone and his friends did not disappoint. If only he could bottle the spirit that comes through on these panels and put it in a film, we’d really have something. (We were saddened to hear about the death of Mr. Stallone’s son on Friday.)
- Kevin Smith. There were a few dead stretches, but considering that this was mostly one man going non-stop for 90 minutes, it was amazing. Smith manages to be entertaining in a gut laughing kind of way without being a stand-up comedian. How does he do it? Perhaps it has something to do with his obsessions: body functions and fluids.
- Jackie Chan. I loved it when he used his mouth like a jazz musician to make sounds describing what he said should be the rhythm of an action scene. (Unfortunately, the panel ended on a dull note when Chan introduced someone he brought in from France.) This was the only panel I heard anyone discuss later on when I overheard the owner of Giant Robot talking to Matt Groening about the panel. Groening’s reaction? “Jackie Chan was here?!” That was probably the reaction of many people when they heard the news. Sorry you couldn’t be there.
- Marvel’s movie panel. Three words: ROBERT DOWNEY, JR. ‘Nuf said. But just in case it wasn’t enough, there was also Edgar Wright with the Ant-Man test footage we had heard about (the footage apparently was designed to answer the question: Can a ant-sized man still kick ass? A more interesting question: Would the Comic Con guards have been able to keep an army of ant-sized aliens out of Hall H? Of course, Wright should have shown his footage again); and Jon Favreau giving advice to new Iron Man director Shane Black (and Edgar Wright, wherever he was): “If you want to connect with the fans, you have to show your footage twice.” Black took the advice. (Is stuff like this scripted or truly impromptu? In any case, watching the footage again enabled me to confirm my first impression: it’s boring.)
- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. If you’re going to live or die with your footage, this is the way to do it. Peter Jackson came all the way from New Zealand with more than 10 minutes of footage from The Hobbit. Bonus: we didn’t get to see Benedict “Sherlock Holmes” Cumberbatch on a Star Trek 2 panel because Paramount decided they didn’t have anything to show, but we did get to see Martin Freeman, Cumberbatch’s Watson in the BBC series Sherlock, who, of course, plays Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.
- The other Warner Bros./Legendary panels. Zack “Awesome” Snyder and Man of Steel; a Godzilla concept trailer with narration by J. Robert “I am become death” Oppenheimer; and Del Toro and giant robots. What more do you want?
- I was entertained just watching the hands of the directors as they talked.
We were disappointed that there was no Entertainment Weekly Visionaries panel this year. Hope they weren’t implying that there were no visionaries in attendance.
A note on the Firefly panel, which shows up on some lists as among the best of the show: I’ve never seen Firefly and I didn’t even try to get into that panel, but I have to wonder if all those people trying to get in were there as fans of the show or primarily as fans of the post-Avengers Joss Whedon. I’ve seen Whedon in action before, and I doubt he made his panel as entertaining as any of the panels on my list. Even though we passed on the panel, we did have a Firefly related moment Thursday morning. While in line for Hall H, we happened to end up immediately behind a friend of my wife who happens to be the wife of one of the crew members on the Firefly panel the next day. We hadn’t known she was going to be in Hall H, and we never saw her again at the show. Weird coincidences like this happen a lot at Comic-Con. Why not? It is, after all, a magical place, a Brigadoon for geeks and nerds.
A note about the first panel of the show, the Twilight panel. As most everyone knows, Gisela Gagliardi, who had been camping out with other Twilight fans, was killed after being hit by a car earlier in the week. David Glanzer, who I had heard of, but never seen till then, came out and said a few words about it, then the show started as if nothing happened. The truth is that what Glanzer said, or the way he said it, was a bit distasteful. Perhaps it would have been better if nothing had been said.
On Friday we found ourselves standing in line next to Matt (Life in Hell/The Simpsons/Futurama) Groening. Here’s a making of video for the painting Brecht Evens did for Matt Groening. (I could have put up the video of Evens making the watercolor sketch he did below, but isn’t it more fun to use the one with Groening? Hopefully, Mr. Groening agrees.) Don’t expect to hear much talking – the audio mostly gives you an idea of how noisy it can get on the convention floor.
Here are some of the sketches that artists were kind enough to do for me:
The Image Comics 20th Anniversary panel was our last panel. I was at the first Image Comics panel at Comic-Con, which must have been in 1992. Robert Kirkman was not with Image back then and joked that he was filling in for Todd McFarland, who also was not on the panel in 1992. I only remember Liefeld, Valentino, and Silvestri from that panel, but it’s also possible that Jim Lee, whose name was not mentioned during this year’s panel, was there twenty years ago as well as Larson and Portacio. I hadn’t seen any of these guys since that panel 20 years ago. They’ve aged better than most.
Every year people complain about this or that about Comic-Con. Some say they will never come back. I’m sure there are legitimate complaints to be made, but my only complaint was that it had to end.
But at least we know when the Geek Brigadoon will appear again: July 18-21, 2013. The countdown has already begun.
1. Every year people lose their badges. It even happened to me a few years ago. But there’s something you should do that will make it more difficult to lose your badge. This tip I comes from my wife’s friend.
When you register you get a badge and a badge holder. The reason most people lose their badges is because the badge holder falls off of the lanyard. But you can make the connection more secure by attaching the hook to the badge holder so that it goes through the hole in the holder AND through the metal latch/pin, as shown in the picture below.
2. My wife, Kelly, has more words and pictures about SDCC 2012 here.
UPDATE: JULY 19, 2012:
3. Even though I said above that I have no complaints, recent developments have led me to write this. My son desperately wanted a My Little Pony figure from the Hasbro booth. He stood in line for hours Saturday morning only to find it sold out when he got to the front. (He also wanted a Bruticus, which was also sold out, but that’s another story.) Not only was it sold out for the day, it was sold out for the convention. But somehow Hasbro has dug up some more and has been putting them on their site the last couple of days, but they sell out within minutes. The problem is that many of the people who buy these “exclusives” are not buying them because they want them. They are buying them to sell them on ebay. This Pony figure, for example, is going for more than $200. Even at the Convention you will see booths selling the “exclusives” at inflated prices. Hasbro has limits on the number anyone in line can buy. For Pony, it was three. Why not one? At least for the first couple of days to give everyone who wants one a chance to get one. (Image sold a collection of Walking Dead comics that could only be bought after winning a lottery. But they stopped using the lottery after the first two days.) And why not scan badges so that the same people cannot get in line again and again?
But this has been the status quo for years about which many have been complaining for an equal number of years. Therefore, I will not be holding my breath in expectation of any change in this system for the better.
4. I’ve heard that some vendors did poor business this year. This doesn’t quite jive with my experience of finding so many sell-outs, but in any case vendors should obviously note what does sell at Con: exclusives, or at least the perception that you are getting something rare and wonderful. The easiest way to do this is with a personal appearance by an artist who signs the book. Exclusive means rare. Habro’s Con exclusives turned out not to be exclusive to Con. As I said, they are selling some of them on their website. But they remain hard to get and rare. Vendors who come to Con with nothing more than what Amazon offers, especially if it’s at a higher price, than what Amazon charges, are unlikely to attract much interest at a show like this. We go to see things that we can’t see elsewhere. This includes toys, books, comics, as well as panel events and even swag. We don’t want to be reminded of our ordinary lives before and after Con. It all has to be special. Offer me something special, and I will not only buy it at Con, I will line up hours in advance just to get a ticket that gives me a chance to buy it. If you are not offering me some kind of magic for my cash, you might as well stay home.
5. I might as well mention this, too: we had problems connecting to the internet with our Droid this year. This was a new development. We ran into at least one other person who had the same problem, but someone with the same carrier, Verizon, did not have the problem. He suggested that it was because he had 4G whereas our phone used 3G. Who knows? But the problem was real and persisted throughout the show. Hopefully, the cause will have vanished by next year.