Star Trek Into Darkness: Some Thoughts
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 presents 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.
Roberto Orci, one of the credited writers of Star Trek Into Darkness, recently said, in a comment on a Star Trek site (comment #398): “To paraphrase of [sic] one of my great and beloved heroes, George W. Bush, ‘we’re the deciders….'” Is it no wonder that with writers such as this the series has taken a turn away from Roddenberry’s liberalism? (It’s possible that he’s merely baiting the fans and not being sincere when he said this, but given the evidence of the film, I suspect not.)
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.)