Sunday, May 26, 2013
Star Trek Into Darkness (J. J. Abrams, 2013)
Not one of the best Trek films, but one of the better ones. Never meandering, the most entertaining action movie I've seen in a long while. Internally sloppy script is exacerbated by ill-conceived attempts to tie into Trek history. Brilliant score. Highly recommended.
One thing I always enjoyed about the Star Trek franchise, pre-J. J. Abrams, was how much effort the writers across all the TV series and movies put into maintaining a consistent continuity, with each project merely adding to the history of what always remained the same fictional universe. As a fan who had followed everything post-Next Generation, I had invested quite a lot of my own life in that world, and so I appreciated that the writers kept it going and never left me feeling like I had wasted my time keeping up with all this developing mythology. That said, what bothers me most about the "rebooted" film series is that they haven't just dumped the old lore entirely but are still trying to tie into it, even as characters and events in the new movies have diverged dramatically from previous canon. The new movies try to have it both ways; this is supposed to be a fresh start to bring in new audiences, but, at the same time, so much of Into Darkness especially depends on the viewer having seen, in this case, The Wrath of Khan. It gets to be a real mess, but, worse than that, even as the references and connections are sometimes rewarding as fanservice, it often feels like Abrams's team is just appropriating old canon in order to lend the new movies weight and credibility that they haven't earned on their own merits.
The big twist in this movie is that the villain, despite all the pre-release materials insisting otherwise, is none other than Khan, the titular antagonist of the most well-regarded film in the franchise. But why exactly did that need to be a twist? Why the deception? The revelation that he is Khan would only mean anything to fans of the old movies, but, even then, the reveal is only worth maybe a few seconds of going "Ohhhhh . . . . " It's such cheap gratification compared to the Iron Man 3 twist, which 1) had significant in-story repercussions, rather than just being playful marketing (although it was that too), and 2) was effective and fun even for people who knew nothing of the comics (although those who did know the comics would have appreciated an extra dimension to the twist).
The upside of entangling Into Darkness with Wrath of Khan is, I suppose, that the new movie could resonate with the old in occasionally clever ways, playing against history and fan expectations. This could make for a fun (if needless) game of "spot the difference."
Kirk's sacrifice was, for the most part, well-done. Internal to the character's Into Darkness arc, I thought it made sense. Not only had I felt, up to that point, that Kirk was strangely the one member of his crew without a clear function—he didn't seem much as a commander; Scotty and Uhura never would have challenged the Shatner Kirk's authority the way they gave lip to new Kirk—but his sacrifice also felt like the proper payoff to his and Spock's relationship, beginning from the movie's opening scene. When the dying Kirk says to Spock, "And this is what you would have done," it's a great, honest, and touching moment that reflects how these two characters, as headstrong as each is, have grown together and learned from one another. Factoring in the added resonance to Wrath of Khan, the line gave me an extra chill. Of course, for a number of reasons, the scene still doesn't touch the sacrifice scene in Wrath of Khan. Mostly, even though new Kirk and Spock have fine chemistry, because the characters (and actors) haven't had the many years and dozens of television episodes' worth of history that original Kirk and Spock had going into Wrath of Khan, the new movie was never going to be able to manage the same unique weight of the original moment. But if you take the Into Darkness scene on its own merits (if you can take it on its own merits, which the filmmakers seem reluctant to let you do), then it's still a good moment.
Spock yelling "Khan!" was far too much. For anybody who got the reference, it could only be enjoyed as comedy, but if it was intended as comedy here, then it was rather tacky and ruined a moment that I had been on the way to finding genuinely moving.
That was not the worst moment for me, however. My least favorite moment, by far, was Leonard Nimoy's gratuitous cameo as old Spock. More than anything else I've mentioned, this scene really encapsulated what I find most distasteful about new Trek. They can't just let old be old and new be new, with a clean break between; they have to remind us that the new movies do connect to old canon, thereby reminding longtime fans also that all that history they invested so much of their lives in was canonically erased by a genocidal time traveler.
Its relationship with old Trek aside, this is still a movie sloppy with plot holes and unintended raised questions galore. They barely touch on the implications of the discovery of the miraculous properties of Khan's blood, which can not only cure cancer (or whatever that girl at the beginning had) but can even resurrect the dead. In the short term, yeah, it's the key to saving Kirk, but shouldn't it also revolutionize medical science and even irrevocably alter society by effectively curing death? And if this is actually old science (since Khan and crew were cryogenically frozen centuries ago), why didn't it already revolutionize medicine and life long ago? If there are no negative side effects (as with, say, steroids), why isn't everyone in the future as perfect as Khan? (Yeah, I know old Trek had an answer, which Into Darkness glosses over, but, to be honest, I've never bought the outlawing of genetic engineering as being the likely course of the future.) Also, aren't the rest of Khan's crew also supermen? In which case, shouldn't they have the same super-blood? In which case, why did they need to bring Khan in alive, and so urgently, in order to save Kirk?
For that matter, once it's all done, why is Khan merely refrozen and stored with the rest of his crew? Are they saving his superior intellect again for the next rainy day? By the end of the movie, this guy has done more damage, claimed more lives than probably every other villain in all of this year's summer action movies combined. Doesn't the public need to see someone stand trial for crashing a gigantic top-secret Starfleet ship into San Francisco? All that destruction and loss of life goes barely acknowledged, even though the reality is that, whatever Khan's endgame was (which isn't clear), if he didn't outright win, the good guys still lost pretty badly in this one. Instead, it ends on a note of, essentially, "Five-year expedition, baby!" (Maybe those weren't Kirk's exact words, but close enough.)
For all its faults, Star Trek Into Darkness was nevertheless a thoroughly entertaining film. I was engaged all the way through, and I honestly felt it was the most satisfying and expertly directed action movie I'd seen in years—chase sequences, fistfights, and giant ships shooting other ships out of warp (I swear, that last one was ripped right out of my imagination (which probably means I saw it somewhere else once, and that was where Into Darkness ripped it off from)). The value of this is not to be overlooked, even if I'm not going to spend a lot of words explaining why it's great. I mean, if I had the movie on home video to reference, I probably could give a blow-by-blow breakdown arguing why that Spock-Khan fight is so much better—more thoughtfully constructed and more gratifying—than any of the fights in the latter two Star Wars prequels (giving me at least some hope for Episode VII), but who really cares? It's something you recognize in the moment, but, unless you're an enthusiast of the craft, talking about it only dilutes its potency. The bottom line: I hated a lot of things about this movie, but I loved the experience of watching it.