Monday, March 31, 2014

Let’s Review a Movie: Star Trek Into Darkness or Star Trek XII: Boldly Going Nowhere (2013)

All right after several months it’s time to take a better look at the most recent release from the franchise that kicked off this blog.  And oh boy is there a lot to discuss.  As I’ve said before all my early thought opinions are subject to change and this is such an occasion.  In my first thoughts review I originally said that this film was better than the 2009 film and I have changed my mind.  This outing is not better than the last movie this is worse, so much worse.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think the rebooting of Star Trek has been poorly handled and since the same team was back for the second film my expectations for this release were wandering around at the bottom of a mineshaft, but even I never thought it would be this bad.  In fact I didn’t even think it had to try very hard to excel beyond its predecessor.  All I wanted to see that would uplift this reboot for me as a viewer was for the writers to stop taking things from Wrath of Khan and to do something that was truly their own within the universe they built, and I think they totally failed to do either of these things.  This film is an injustice to the wonderful cast, to all the artists behind the scenes, and a complete insult to the franchise as a whole.

Now I think the reason I originally viewed this as better than the first film was because initially it looked like it was going to move forward from that film.  In the first act Kirk was set up to have a character arc, there was talk of morally questionable actions giving us a theme to work with, something that was completely lacking in the last movie.  With the heavier emphasis on the military side of Starfleet it looked like the universe would build on the big events of the last film specifically the loss of Vulcan and how that changes how things are done by the organizations in this world.  There were actually scenes that used visuals to do the emotional storytelling and it worked!  Yes, the opening with the Enterprise in the water and the whole mission surrounding that scenario stunk, but the premise that followed that was good enough that I started to think the good might just out weigh the bad here…and then the whole film just dissolved into a reference ridden mess that literally makes no sense at all at any point.

The plot is a ghastly mess there is no other way to describe it.  Nero’s motivations in the last film might have been stupid, but at least his actions stemming from them had some kind of logical progression.   He destroys Vulcan so Spock will know his pain and proceeds to attack the homeworlds of other Federation members to continue that revenge.  Here Khan supposedly wanted revenge on Marcus and that’s why he got the guy to attack Section 31 so he could then go and shoot up HQ, but when Khan is talking to Kirk in the brig he knows that the Enterprise is damaged; and that Marcus is going to come for Kirk and his crew.  So it seems like this plan was made up in advance by Marcus, but why if Khan wanted revenge on this man did he go to the Klingon homeworld?  Why go along with the plan made up by the man you supposedly loath?  In fact if shooting up HQ was about getting revenge on Marcus why did Khan even think Marcus would be coming for Kirk?  Didn’t he want Marcus dead?  He did crush his skull like a grape on the bridge of the Vengeance.  How was he sure his attack on HQ hadn’t killed him?  For that matter how was Khan sure his crew was dead?  He said he was discovered trying to save them and had to flee, and I love how Marcus doesn’t think to tell anyone there’s a madman on the loose.  Khan is free to walk around London and make bargains with desperate parents in hospitals and no one bats an eye.  But if Khan was sure his crew was dead why did he change his mind when he heard about the torpedoes?  Did he think Marcus wouldn’t remove his crew from the torpedoes?      

The whole thing kind of works better if we assume Marcus and Khan are working together and the attack on Starfleet was just a rouse to give Marcus a reason to do a pre-emptive struck on the Klingons to get that war that is somehow going to protect the Federation, because when I think about protecting my territory that has recently been attacked and a great deal of equipment and personnel lost I think about antagonizing my hostile neighbor.  However, this blows Khan’s revenge motive completely to pieces and thus undermines the already shaky theme, and also that interpretation doesn’t gel with the last half of the film.  If Khan was doing everything on Marcus’ orders then once Kirk has him in the brig he could reveal everything and seek Kirk’s support against Marcus.  They could have been working as a team and that would have made this film distinct because it’s a relationship that hasn’t been done before with these characters.  The movie tries to do that with Kirk and Khan going over to the Vengeance, but again if all Khan wanted was revenge, and the name of the ship is kind of a big tip off about what the film is supposed to be about, then he would have simply killed Marcus at HQ and then stolen the Vengeance.  Going to Qo’noS achieves nothing. 

Furthermore there is absolutely no reason Khan needed to be in this movie at all. Having some 300 year old dictator making you advanced ships and weapons is just plain stupid.  It’s like bringing back Da Vinci and expecting him to be able to build you a better helicopter.  Now before this film was released I avoided spoilers, but I do have to admit to thinking that they were probably going to use Khan here.  They already went to that well for the first film in terms of motivation for Nero so they probably would go all the way this time.  The whole “we swear he isn’t Khan” thing came across as protesting too much and it turns out I was right.  However, I was also of the mind that Khan could be done well here if they explored the character within the context of the new universe.  I described this Kirk as a realist versus the idealist that Kirk Prime was, how would Khan interact with a character like this versus how it was in ‘Space Seed’?  Would his peaceful, but no freedom rule be more accepted in a universe that has to think more about their security in the wake of Nero’s attack?  Would his savage nature as he describes it be more intrigued by a universe that is darker than the optimistic prime universe?  There were a lot of possibilities to explore in something like that.  Instead of making Khan his own thing though they just made him some generic strong guy with no intelligence to back up the “I’m better at everything” line.  The only reason they used Khan was purely as a reference to a superior film and they proceeded to keep mining that film for one of its themes, its dialogue, and for the topper on the shit sundae they took the death scene too.  Before we get to that scene though let’s talk about the character they stuck in the chamber this time. 

Kirk is still such an asshole in this film.  He is still arrogant he is still rude and yet I couldn’t help, but like him a lot more than in the first film; probably because there were hints of the professional man that Kirk Prime is buried in there somewhere.  I’m putting all that on Chris Pine though because with the bedroom scene and the underwear scene, and Kirk harping on Spock to be his friend and the one time he starts to think that maybe the problem is him he gets shot done by Uhura tells me the writers think Kirk is fine just as he is.  Also the whole demotion thing is over and done with before we even get mid-way through the film so that tells me how seriously they’re taking this whole character arc business.  Still we do get to see Kirk delegate tasks and sound confident when he does so.  Kirk does get to rethink his actions in going after Khan when he chooses to take him back to Starfleet for a proper trial, for better or worse.  But when we get to the death scene it ruins all this for me because that doesn’t tie into Kirk’s growth, what little of it there is.  Self-sacrifice was already a part of Kirk’s character in the first film.  He threw himself off the drill platform to save Sulu.  He later told Sulu to fire on the Narada if he had the advantage even if he and Spock were still onboard.  So I don’t think Kirk giving his life for his crew shows growth because this part of the character was always present it wasn’t built by the circumstances in this film.  In my opinion what would have worked was having Kirk order someone else down to that chamber.  That would show that Kirk has learned to respect the chair because he respects that he has to make the big decisions about who lives and who dies.  That he can’t simply rely on blind luck to see everyone through.  The other half of the death scene with the friendship with Spock also falls flat, but that has more to do with Spock than Kirk.  

Now for Spock I honestly don’t know what happened with this character here.  I don’t think Quinto did a bad job in the last film.  Sure I thought the relationship with Uhura didn’t work and the public displays of emotions were a bit over the top, but on the whole it wasn’t a bad performance.  Here…guh.  It’s like the writers forgot how Spock works, in every other scene he either sounds confused or angry.  Also his entire character arc about feelings doesn’t work because it’s a rehashing of what he went through in the last film.  In the last film his father told him that he shouldn’t bottle up his feelings.  Spock Prime told him that there were times that it was okay to put aside logic and do what feels right.  And Spock went to serve on the Enterprise, showing that he has indeed learned that having feelings is okay.  In my review of that film I talked about how concluding the character like this, along with having him in a relationship, was a disservice because the conflict of logic and emotion was lost; and apparently the writers agree with me because they pushed the reset button and put Spock right back at square one!  In this film his character arc is all about dealing with feelings…again.  So they’re basically admitting the last movie was pointless.  That film was supposed to be a Kirk and Spock story about them learning to work together and ending up as friends.  Here we get the set up that Spock just doesn’t understand friendship and needs to learn how important Kirk’s friendship is to him.  One: that is totally not how Vulcans work and Spock after serving on the Enterprise for a year should be familiar with how friendships work even if just from observing it with other crewmembers.  And two: if he doesn’t understand friendship why the hell is he even in a relationship with Uhura?!  Something that requires more intimacy in many respects than friendship, because you’re opening up so much of yourself to someone else.  Or at least you should be.  Now I hate Uhura dragging her personal feelings about how she thinks Spock doesn’t care up on Qo’noS.  Her making this complaint in the middle of an away mission in front of subordinates and the captain is absolutely unprofessional, but I do have to ask, what the hell has this relationship done for her lately?    If Spock can’t even express friendship you’d think the relationship would have gone south a long time ago.  Also why should Spock want to be friends with Kirk anyway?  The guy insults him, yells at him, and pushes him to be something he is not.  What made the Kirk and Spock friendship so great in the prime universe was that Kirk didn’t push Spock to be more human like McCoy sometimes did, or indeed everyone in this film.  Kirk didn’t push Spock to be more Vulcan like Sarek.  He just wanted Spock to be himself and that’s the greatest friend anyone could have.  That’s why the death scene with them doing the pressed hands against the glass doesn’t work.  It’s not about lifelong friends saying goodbye like the original was and it’s not even two guys on the verge of that friendship and then losing it.  It’s two guys who have spent most of the film being mad at each other, why should I care?  And even if I did care Spock screaming Khan utterly destroys any emotion that the audience might have felt as Kirk dies.  Yay for letting referencing override the story.

Getting back to Uhura for a moment I hate that everyone who isn’t Kirk and Spock gets shafted in this movie.  Sure Uhura actually gets to use her language skills on screen this time, but it means nothing really because the conversation she has with the Klingon patrol, whose new helmet  wearing and piercing their ridges designs still look stupid, doesn’t change the situation the characters are in.  Carol Marcus like Khan is not a proper character here she is a walking reference to a better movie.  Alice Eve certainly gives a fine performance, but her character doesn’t get to have a proper impact on events as they unfold.  In her one area of expertise she gets the old rip out the wires on the bomb cliché and that stupid underwear shuttle scene.  I mean I rolled my eyes at that when I saw it in the trailer, but I never realized the full scene would be so awful.  The entire scene is nothing but an excuse for T and A to appeal to the male fanbase, and I personally think that is an insult to the male part of the fanbase to say that they can’t be interested in the film without seeing a woman in her bra and knickers.  The same way they thought that to get women to see a Star Trek film they had to show Winona giving birth in the last film, because all women love babies.  Learning that that was the thought process behind that scene has utterly ruined the one scene I thought was truly emotionally gripping in the first film thanks so much for that guys /sarcasm.  Furthermore, it knocks Kirk’s character down again because if Kirk is supposed to think of his crew like his family than he should not forget their names.  It’s also a complete insult to Majel Barrett-Roddenberry’s memory to have Christine Chapel be nothing more than the butt of a stupid joke, and that the writers thought this scene would be some great wink to Kirk’s character just reinforces how much these guys do not get the character of James T Kirk.  Then we have that fact that McCoy cures death and doesn’t even get a thank you!  Boldly going nowhere is the more appropriate title for this film I think because we did in fact go nowhere for the characters or the situations.  The destruction of Vulcan in the last film doesn’t matter they're on New Vulcan, and are any other powers in the quadrant going to take advantage of the weakened Federation?  Apparently not, since the Romulans aren’t even mentioned and the Klingons become a non-factor after Khan killed off the patrol.  Kirk and Spock get to discover friendship…again, and everyone else gets to be window dressing.  Chekov gets to live in engineering for most of the film, Sulu gets one badass line, and Scotty gets to be the only morally righteous person purely as a plot convenience to get him on the Vengeance.   

To get some proper character growth the film really needed falling action and it had none.  We needed time to recover from the climax to deal with the fallout of Marcus’ whatever the hell he was doing and Khan’s attack on San Francisco.  Instead we skip ahead a year and Kirk makes a speech about how revenge isn’t their way.  Even though it totally is since Khan got revenge on Marcus.  Kirk tried to get revenge on Khan and Spock only stopped getting revenge on Khan because they needed his blood to save Kirk.  So, much for that the theme of revenge being a bad thing.  We don’t even get to see if Khan got a proper trial for his crimes we just see him refrozen and sitting in what I’m going to assume is the warehouse that the Ark of the Covenant sat in so there goes the moral questioning aspect too.  Then we’re off on the five year mission with a closing shot just like the 2009 film.  So what exactly was the point of this film if we didn’t go anywhere?  What we really needed was people reactions to everything, and not just Kirk and Spock thanking each other to close out a plot point that was dropped back on Qo’noS along with the Klingon war thread.  We needed to see Kirk dealing with the fact that his recklessness caused dozens of crewmembers deaths.  Or how about Carol losing her father, the man who she said raised her and who she seemed to have a very close relationship with?  Heck can we have one scene of Spock and Uhura having a loving relationship that doesn’t involve kissing in public; maybe with some Vulcan attributes like the finger kiss?

Between the mess of a plot that is basically an excuse for Khan to do things and characters with no proper growth this story really feels like it’s a first draft of a script and yet they had four years to work on this project.  I said in my early thoughts review that I felt like the filmmakers were going down a checklist of stuff that must be done and that feeling remains on repeat viewings.   We need to show that Kirk does have to grow so we have the demotion scene that changes nothing.  We need to show Uhura as a strong female character so we'll have her talk to the Klingons, but as I said that conversation doesn’t change anything.  If Khan had just come in shooting before anyone had even left the shuttle the story would have continued on exactly as it did.  We need to have a theme so we’ll have people talk about revenge, but we won’t put proper focus on it nor give it any resolution.  Also it frustrates me that these people just won’t do anything new.  They just keep going back to other Star Trek works including their own for inspiration and it is frankly boring to watch because I’ve already seen this done better by other people.  

Sure the writers don’t directly rip off Wrath of Khan because the story isn’t the same, but I don’t even know what to call what they've done here.  It’s not plagiarizing because that’s trying to pass off someone else’s work as your own.  Here the writers are banking on the audience being familiar with the movie Meyer and all made thirty years ago, because without it the emotional core is non-existent.  We’re supposed to care when the character says “my name is Khan.” But the only reason that name means anything is in the context of old continuity that they said they didn’t want to deal with so why do they keep bringing it up?  The story would have flowed so much better if he was just John Harrison, but no we have to keep standing on old Trek like a crutch, which is why we had the Leonard Nimoy cameo instead of Spock calling someone who could help them in the ship to ship battle, while spitting in the face of that canon at the same time. 

As I said nothing is added to this film by making John Harrison turn out to be Khan and a whole lot is taken away.  Specifically the message of diversity because Khan goes from a character of colour to a white man.  Yes this had been talked about a lot and it should be because people have a right to be angry.  One of the major pillars of the Star Trek franchise was to celebrate diversity.  In the 60’s it was a big deal to have an African American woman in a professional position seen as an equal to her peers.  To show a Russian not as a mortal enemy, but instead a trusted friend.  Everything from guest stars to background extras had this kind of thing going on, and that is true of Khan as well.  Yes, casting a Mexican to play a man from Northern India wasn’t the best choice, but I should not be comparing casting choices made nearly fifty years apart and find the one made in 1967 to be better.  That’s why these films fail as Star Trek films for me.  It’s not that the Enterprise design is different or that the actors are younger it’s that the heart of the franchise is gone.  

I honestly have no idea what they were trying to do with the reboot as a whole at this point.  They’ve created this weird mash up like Frankenstein’s monster and seem to have driven away a large chunk of the audience in the process.  General audiences don’t seem to care a whole lot about this release because of the four year gap between the two films, they’ve moved on to other blockbusters.  New fans of just the reboot seem to be mad that this film didn’t do anything clever or new and that was supposed to be the entire point of making this an alternate timeline, and I whole heartily agreed with them.  The older trekkies at least from where I’m standing don’t care about being pandered to by wink, wink shout outs instead of getting something with actual substance.  This wanting to have their cake and eat it too attitude has utterly slowed the momentum of creating a totally divergent universe because they're relying on nostalgia to do all the heavy lifting of character development and connection.  If they move away from the iconography too much they’d have to do that on their own and this team doesn’t seem capable of that.  Also they think that by referencing and paying lip service to what came before that they get what Star Trek really is when they clearly don’t. 

JJ Abrams and the writers are focused on giving the audience a fast-paced action movie, but some of the best episodes of any series don’t have action as their focus.  Stories like ‘Tapestry’, ‘The Inner Light’, ‘City on the Edge of Forever’, ‘In the Pale Moonlight’, ‘Message in a Bottle’, etc.  Even in the second pilot for the original show the action sequences were window dressing because the network wanted to see it.    The moral dilemma and the strong themes were the roots on which good Star Trek was built.  So they don’t get the core of the franchise and they don’t get the core of the characters either.  McCoy didn’t spend all his time quoting metaphors, and when Karl Urban tried to bring this up with JJ Abrams he got the “stop with the metaphors” line for his trouble.  Thanks for the effort Mr. Urban it’s nice to know someone cared about this project.  Kirk was not a womanizer, and Spock was actually an alien.  Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu while secondary characters still served the important function of pushing the idea that in the future we will see everyone as equal and judge them for who they are not what they are.  To old continuity diversity and story were important, here being cool is important.

With this film it obvious to me that the core production team doesn’t care about the source material and so they have utterly failed to make me care about the world they have created from it.  This wasn’t your father’s Star Trek and they’re right.  That Star Trek was about telling actual stories with fleshed out characters that had morals in them.  Yes because TV shows and movies are different lengths you do have to tell your story differently and that’s fine, but you can still have all that stuff and a good movie too.  With Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home they went into wanting to make a lighter fun comedy after the three heavy films they had before.  But there is still a theme of communication in there.  There is still a message of environmentalism.  They didn’t go in with the idea that this would be for a wider audience that was a happy accident.  It had broader marketability as a comedy with the instantly recognizable trek stuff out, at least in the trailers.  But at its core it is still Trek.  It’s still talking about us and our society through these characters and the characters themselves are being allowed to grow and change.  It’s when the franchise gets away from that that things go downhill, and other films in the franchise are guilty of this too, the TNG films especially, and the rest of them will have their day on the chopping block soon enough.

Even though there has been bad Trek before this I still have to say that all in all I think this film is awful.  Sure the music is still nice and the cast is great as always, but even that just ups the disappointment at this point because I’m tired of seeing such good talent wasted.  I mean the only character I liked in the last film, McCoy, is literally sitting in the back seat in this film!  They failed to grasp the core of the franchise.  They failed to move their new entity forward and make it distinct.  They’re still relying on nostalgia and references to carry the emotional core of the reboot and they won’t build up a proper continuity even though the whole point of the AU was not to be tied down to previous canon.  Apparently that canon is to be used for themes, dialogue, and characters instead of making new ones.  They again went back to the canon well for recycling their own plot points and yanking the ending wholesale from Wrath of Khan with more punching and washing the villain white while they were at it; and I don’t expect the third film if we ever get it to be a significant improvement on any of this.  Abrams won’t be there as a director, but will still be a producer thus holding a lot of creative sway.  Robert Orci is still on as a writer and has apparently learned nothing from the failures of this film if his interactions with the fans are anything to go by.  You had a great premise guys and lots of potential and you chucked in the trash in the name of action scenes that are so numerous I honestly get tired of it; and the referencing just makes me want to go watch the source material you took it all from.  So I’m going to stick with the Trek that, despite its flaws, not only had potential, but fulfilled it too.  You wanted a new audience for your reboot guys?  Fine, good luck counting on them to still be there in 2016.

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