Wednesday, May 15, 2013

SPOILER REVIEW: Star Trek into Darkness

Benedict Cumberbatch as the Star Trek franchise
JJ Abrams's War on Creativity scored a major victory this month with the release of Star Trek into Darkness. Facing the dual threats of a liberating, astronomical budget and a universe of narrative possibilities, Abrams valiantly fought them off with a timid rehash of a classic story that will fail to satisfy fans and non-fans alike. His refusal to surrender and make something up himself bodes well for a bright future in big-budget filmmaking.


There are plenty of spoiler-free reviews of this film out there. This one is spoileriffic, so it's hidden under the cut. Don't click through if you want to remain surprised, although as you'll discover, you probably won't be.

Marketing tells us that the aim of rebooting film franchises is to make them more accessible, clearing away the clutter to make room for new, exciting stories unburdened by past continuity.

Films like Star Trek into Darkness reveal what a laughable fallacy this is. After the moderately heavy lifting by JJ Abrams and his Bad Robot team in clearing Star Trek's decks in 2009, they have squandered it all by choosing to tell the laziest, most predictable story possible. Rather than venturing out to find a new story in the vast Star Trek universe, they've circled back to the most famous of the original Trek films, undoubtedly because executives told them to play it safe and stick with the greatest hits. The result: another revenge story about Khan Noonien Singh.

The hubristic secrecy about this film's story and the identity of Cumberbatch's character encapsulates how undeserving these films are of the resources and attention lavished on them. I agree with Abrams that marketing reveals too much about films before they're released, and applaud him for taking a stand against our spoiler-saturated movie culture. But the level of secrecy has to be earned by the secrets themselves. The louder the noise about the need to keep secrets, the more we expect them to justify that noise. So when the story ends up being straightforward and predictable, that noise feels like a con. Is Bad Robot's outspoken 'mystery box' strategy actually an attempt to compensate for a lack of confidence in their own storytelling capacity?

Consider the twist in Iron Man 3 (which I won't spoil here). We were given no inkling in the marketing that there was a mystery at all, and so it packed the punch it was meant to. By courting film geeks with the mystery box and withholding so much of the story from everyone else in the promotional materials, Abrams built immense expectations. He doesn't have to fulfill them for every single viewer, of course, because no twist can satisfy everyone. But you naturally expect more than a story that can still be inferred from the supposedly secretive trailers, especially when the few nuggets of Cumberbatch dialogue instantly make Khan the most likely suspect.

But no, Star Trek into Darkness fails to deliver more and doesn't even seem interested in trying. I went in spoiler-free but having heard and concurred with the speculation about Khan, and the film still only surprised me in the second act when it seemed Khan might not remain the antagonist. That would have been trickery worthy of the mystery box: have the audience puzzle over his identity, when the actual question is whether he's even the villain at all. That would have been a worthy subversion of Wrath of Khan.

But that would require them to ignore the character's proven nature from his original appearances as an innately power-hungry despot, which is what generated the stories they've chosen to revisit. By insisting on rehashing one of Trek's most famous villains, Bad Robot trapped themselves. Then again, to assume that following through on Khan's shift in allegiance even occurred to the creative team is perhaps too generous. Regardless, they insisted their story was worth keeping secret but chose to tell one that shouldn't surprise even the most inexperienced film viewer.

What also makes the mystery box baffling in this instance is that the choice of Khan as the villain matters very little to the plot. John Harrison could have been a product of a secret Starfleet project to create supersoldiers who then turns on his superiors and the plot could largely have remained the same if they'd wanted it to. But not having to remain true to Khan's conquering impulses would have allowed them to subvert expectations that Harrison was the villain and perhaps say something meaningful about neoconservatism and pre-emptive military action. 

That type of commentary is fundamental to Star Trek, but the writing team behind the Abrams films are either incapable, unwilling, or prohibited from engaging with social or political issues beyond namechecking them. So instead, the story is just about revenge... again. Despite their intention to create a more substantial villain, Cumberbatch's Khan is little more than a reboot of Eric Bana's Nero.

Bad Robot's simplistic approach to reinterpreting a storied franchise like Star Trek reaches its most egregious point with the cheap, painfully literal reinterpretation of the emotional climax of The Wrath of Khan. Instead of Spock dying from radiation poisoning to save the ship, Kirk does. Pine and Quinto perform their own version of the final conversation separated by glass, and just when you think the film can't be more shallow in its appropriation of an iconic Trek moment, Spock weeps and screams "Khaaaaan!!!"

This is remix culture at its worst, when a creative team entrusted with hundreds of millions of dollars don't have the wit to see that they've turned an emotional moment into self-parody because they're convinced they have to pay homage to the original version of it. They would have to be utterly misguided to think that such a tone-deaf callback would do anything but infuriate Star Trek fans, so it's clearly intended for the newbies who, at best, might have seen George scream "Khaaaan!" on Seinfeld. But then, replicating iconic Trek moments would be redundant because their target audience mostly won't get them anyway.

So what's the explanation? Laziness and insecurity. With apparently little faith in their ability to generate their own resonant moment, they superficially rearrange an existing one and call it a day, perhaps reassuring themselves that they're paying tribute to Trek's history.

What would make these more deep-seated problems more palatable would be if the script could muster simple logical consistency. But despite his writers having plenty of scripting time while he filmed Super 8, Abrams seemingly shot an early draft. Consider the following glaring plot holes:

  • Why does the Enterprise need to be underwater in the opening sequence? Being in orbit should, presumably, still conceal them from the planet's inhabitants, leaving aside the presumably absurd physics of the whole thing.
  • How did a superhuman from 300 years in Earth's past help Admiral Marcus build more advanced starships in the present? Is he precognitive or something?
  • Why is searching deep space on the off-chance of finding new weapons technology (which is how Marcus finds Khan's ship) an appropriate response to the destruction of Vulcan by rogue Romulans from the future who are now dead? This attempt to explain the differences in the Khan story as being a consequence of the altered timeline is pretty lame.
  • Leonard Nimoy's cameo is nice to watch, but he apparently merely tells young Spock that Khan's weakness is his dedication to his crew. Thanks, Spock Prime, but Khan had already made that quite clear by explaining that it motivates everything he's doing. So the cameo is nothing but fan service. Did they just shoot something off the cuff when Nimoy dropped by for a visit and not have the heart to cut him out?
  • Why is Spock beamed down alone at the climax, rather than stopped by his crew from going on a decidedly un-Vulcan and underresourced one-man mission of vengeance? 
  • Why is Uhura, a communications specialist, beamed down alone to back Spock up against Harrison instead of with a security contingent, or at all? And why does she spend most of the film wandering the bridge reacting to what's happening on the viewscreen? Doesn't she have duties?
  • Why will only Khan's blood revive Kirk, when they have dozens of his fellow superhumans in the next room, including the one they just removed from cryogenic storage in order to preserve Kirk's body? 
  • Not even a mention of the undoubtedly massive loss of life caused by the Vengeance crashing into San Francisco? Nope, just straight on to the banter, apparently. And the end of the movie too, with alarming and suspicious speed.
  • And best of all: magic blood that cures radiation poisoning and death.

This is what $200 million buys these days? I'm not naive, I know that scripting is rarely a high priority in big-budget filmmaking. But is insulting your audience's intelligence time after time a sound strategy? I guess the Transformers trilogy proves that it can be, so what do I know.

What's most galling is that a franchise renowned for its contemplation of moral and social quandaries and for a hopeful vision of a more compassionate future has been reduced to a noisy, unambitious, generic action-adventure that actively rejects meaning. Seeing Gene Roddenberry's credit shortly after the credits began jarred because it was hard to reconcile what his name represents with the film that just ended.

You may discredit a Trek fan's criticisms as only being valid for Trek fans, but they're not. By staying true to the franchise's essential nature, Abrams could have provided you with a fresher blockbuster than the usual explosion-laden stuff. Imagine a more optimistic but similarly probing examination of ethics to The Dark Knight, a rare big-budget film that uses its grand aesthetic to explore big ideas while still entertaining you.

Instead, you've been handed another explosion/revenge movie. The frustration of Trek fans with these films is not because JJ broke our toys or because we resent it being more popular. I'd venture that for most fans, the tragedy is that, in the right hands, Star Trek can be meaningful and resonant for everyone, not just the fans. But while Bad Robot clearly enjoys the trappings of Star Trek, such as big starships, the transporter, and Kirk and Spock, it's not committed to staying true to its heart.

Star Trek into Darkness is either a hollow, cynical exercise in brand exploitation that doesn't even have the wit to construct a plausible narrative to conceal its emptiness, or it's a technically accomplished but otherwise inept piece of filmmaking. Apart from some spot-on Kirk and Spock interactions, some nice design and effects, and Simon Pegg, there's virtually nothing to recommend here. Especially with a rushed, limp conclusion that sets up a sequel that can surely be nothing but the same story all over again, it doesn't even live up to its diverting but vacuous predecessor.

And just in case I haven't been quite enough of a bummer, Star Trek into Darkness doesn't bode well for Abrams's Star Wars: Episode VII. Based on the adventurous imagination he's presented us with this year, I expect the new trilogy to be about a young farm girl recruited by the Jedi who ends up fighting a legendary masked Sith lord who turns out to be her father... Luke Skywalker. Hey, people liked it last time.


phiq said...

I guess I'll skip this one...

Jack Reed said...

That's the best possible takeaway from this post.