Star Trek Into Darkness

The Waste of Khan

trekdarkStar Trek Into Darkness is exactly what its trailer advertises: a bunch of men doing cool things, and then a shot of a woman in her underwear.  I am less inclined to trust J.J. Abrams with Star Wars, despite his ability to direct large groups of characters (and on that topic, the bigger the group becomes, the thinner each individual character grows, reducing them to stock characters reliant on tropes, as seen here).  He’s also gotten his mitts on the Spielberg family-alien-movie genre (see Super 8), so with 2015’s galaxy-far-far-away installment on the celluloid horizon, Abrams could be thinking, “Star Wars, Star Trek, and E.T. are mine!”  I know sci-fi blockbusters are a slick slope, but leave the megalomania to the cretins at HBO.

The formula plot follows Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) and crew, including Spock (Zachary Quinto), heading to the Klingon homeworld after the so-generically-named-it-must-be-an-alias Jon Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a trusted Starfleet agent, lays waste to Starfleet HQ and kills Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) in the process, rendering the events of the first Star Trek film completely null, since the main conflict there was whether or not Kirk could rescue Pike from Eric Bana’s hammy Romulan villain.  Kirk, blinded by the desire for vengeance, accepts a dubious mission from Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller, aka RoboCop) to torch the area of the Klingon world where Harrison is hiding, which will hopefully destroy him.  Before too long, Harrison is revealed to be Khan Noonien Singh, a reimagining of one of the most famous Star Trek characters.  Here, he still embodies a flawed interpretation of Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” (superman), but he’s been transformed from Ricardo Montalbán’s nuanced, developed, sympathetic ethnic antagonist into a whitewashed anime ninja whose chief concern is making sure to wear long, flowing black leather whenever he has do to anything that requires strenuous movement.  He forms a short-lived alliance with Kirk in order to take care of Weller’s “magnificent bastard” villain, who turns on Kirk to get his hands on Khan.  The rest of the principal cast from the first movie – Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Chekhov (Anton Yelchin), Sulu (John Cho), and Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) – all reappear alongside the newcomer Carol Marcus (Kirk’s eventual wife if the old story is to be followed, played here by Alice Eve, complete with a dumb bob haircut that makes her look like a doll), and each gets roughly one short scene to remind us that they’re in the movie and to say their trademarked one-liners (Bones, of course, gets his obligatory “Dammit, man; I’m a doctor, not a __”).  Pegg is great as Scotty, so it’s a wonder that he receives a bit more material here than the rest.  Uhura, portrayed as a tough and confident woman in the first film, bickers with Spock in some truly funny scenes, and gets to fight a few times, although she’s never allowed to look like she knows what she’s doing, and yelps like a child when an enemy shows any resistance.

The best parts of the film occur when Abrams acknowledges the elements of the old series and movies that made the franchise (there’s that ugly “F’ word again) great.  At some points, the film re-imagines the entire Wrath of Khan mythos (Kirk’s temporary death-by-radiation, etc).  There’s also an encounter with Klingons (finally!), setting up a possible third film, which the fatcats in Hollywood will surely greenlight after such a big opening weekend.

Throw logic out the airlock here.  The film’s biggest problem is now Kirk.  Virtually every terrible thing that happens in the story is a direct result of Kirk’s negligence, lack of care for his crew, and refusal to follow the rules of Starfleet.  We are supposed to root for him when he makes controversial decisions that get his engineers sucked into space to suffer unspeakable deaths, and we’re expected to sympathize with him when he is caught.  Why would Abrams make this decision?  Is he trying to harken back to Josh Holloway’s “Sawyer” character on LOST?  There was a reason Sawyer was never in charge, friends.  Kirk is not only reckless and arrogant in this second installment, but he’s also sexist to the point that he briefly turns the Enterprise into a bit of a frat house (encouraging Bones to use pickup lines on Carol, etc).  Other questions arise: how exactly does one become instantly revived from death-by-radiation?  Why is Khan given the most powerful ship in Starfleet, hyped up throughout the film, and then not allowed to actually operate it?  Why is Khan completely invulnerable to Kirk’s attacks, only to later bruise and bleed after being knocked around by Spock?  Why don’t any of the women do anything?  How is the Enterprise able to function after dozens of crewmembers are sucked into space (read: redshirts)?  Who becomes leader of Starfleet after its longtime top Admiral is revealed to be a snake who gets their most powerful ship destroyed?  Why do the alien races all look like humans with weird growths on their faces?  Why are so many scenes, weapons, and uniforms 100% carbon copies of material from the Mass Effect series?  Isn’t there enough to work with in the Star Trek universe?  Where the f- is the colon in the title?  The most gripe-worthy bit is the new Khan, such a one-note antagonist that he makes Voldemort look three-dimensional.  The decision to make him a white Brit is beyond comprehension.  I understand the compulsion to cram every atom of vintage Trek into the new films, especially if there are only (!) two or three, but as Dennis Hopper once said, “Slow it down, man.”  You’re not doing anyone a favor by rushing through characters and events to the degree that the film series resembles a Wikipedia page.

I will concede that I had fun at this movie.  This may be because I saw it with my mother, the only true Trekkie I know, and we had fun predicting what would come next.  If you’re a fan of any kind of adventure film, action, and spectacle, this movie might do it for you.  You’ll just need to fit a nice black patch over your third eye for purposes of ignoring the boys’ club nonsense and gaps in logic.  “Enjoyment” is a word that gets thrown around far too often when describing what makes a piece of media “good.”  Enjoyment is subjective.  It has nothing to do with writing, story, originality, character depth, production quality, or anything else that determines artistic value.  Understand the difference.  Enjoy movies, but think about what you saw.  If thinking makes you unhappy, congratulations!  You are Hollywood’s target audience.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013); written by Damon Lindelof (big surprise!); directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Chris Pine, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, and Simon Pegg.

* I considered using the underwear shot as the photo at the top, for the sake of the automatic hits it would generate, which while proving a point, would be ultimately against what I do here, wouldn’t it?

*Hey, I’m working on another indie film.  Please support our Kickstarter here!

Prometheus

What are my chances?

Prometheus, previously titled Paradise, and which I’ve privately renamed Battle for the Planet of the Space Jockeys, is Ridley Scott’s reimagining of 1979’s Alien mythology.  This time, however, Scott is armed with twenty-first century movie effects and has poured copious amounts of CG into an otherwise live action film (which makes one wonder whether he would have done the same had he possessed the technology in the seventies).

The popular question concerning this film seems to be whether or not it is a direct prequel to Alien.  The short answer is no, because Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the original, didn’t write Prometheus, having passed away in 2009.  Instead, we’re stuck with Damon Lindelof, whose unbridled hubris and laconic dialogue rendered the final season of Lost nearly unwatchable.  Lindelof’s writing has not improved, but having screenplay groundwork previously laid by Jon Spaihts and a plot structure defined by Alien, he manages to keep the goings-on (relatively) tight in this case.  I did occasionally feel “Island Syndrome,” however, during certain scenes in which the actors were clearly making the dialogue sound better than it actually was.

Set several decades before Alien, the film follows Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original girl with the dragon tattoo), a religious archaeologist who discovers identical cave paintings all over the world, most recently on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.  Along with her romantic partner, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), whose sensibilities starkly contrast her own, Shaw receives funding from the Weyland corporation (the company of devious motives for which Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo worked in Alien) to follow the coordinates suggested by the paintings, which lead to a previously-unexplored world in outer space.  The two are joined by a crew that will bring back immediate memories of the motley group of marines in James Cameron’s Aliens, in that they are unprofessional, disagreeable, and harbor an inexplicable disdain for the protagonist.  The film’s deuteragonist, though, is David (Michael Fassbender), an android in the tradition of the other films.  While David is described as having no soul, he displays limitless curiosity, seemingly genuine care, and a very real sense of vengeance.  Going against a popular sci-fi trope, David doesn’t want to be like his creators (who are, in turn, searching for their own creators in space); in fact, he’s quite relieved to be nothing like them.  Also onboard is Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a Weyland executive with the compassion of a wolverine and the personality of an ice cube.  Guy Pearce makes an appearance as the elderly Peter Weyland, the megalomaniac who runs the company, and considering the tenure of his appearance in the film, I’m not sure why Scott couldn’t have cast a famous older actor instead of making Pearce go through five hours of makeup for a walk-on role.

The space expedition, as it must, quickly devolves into bad decisions, bickering, and jump-scares.  The less important/interesting members of the crew (a geologist and a biologist whom I mistook for mercenaries based upon their behavior) are the first to be picked off by the indigenous denizens of the planet, which clearly resemble the alien “facehugger” of the original film.  From here, however, the story does not fall into the slasher-movie structure of killing off each crew member one at a time as they grope around in the dark.  The discoveries and intrigue begin to pile up, including the revelation that the “space jockey,” a being discovered in passing by the crew of Alien, was a member of the species that may have spawned humanity and now wants to destroy us.

Sadly, Ridley Scott has never been as good with characters as his brother Tony (who along with Quentin Tarantino crafted True Romance, pound for pound one of my favorite films).  The former has always focused on set pieces before the people and stories inhabiting them, and therefore the character deepening (which should not be confused with character development) does not get off the ground until well into the adventure.  After Holloway, unbeknownst to Shaw (“but knownst to us” – Mel Brooks) has been intentionally infected with an alien agent by David, we get a tender scene in which Shaw reveals her sterility and her desire to “create life,” a possible motive for her obsessive quest for knowledge concerning the Engineers.  This is, for the most part, all we get.  The film relies on its action to familiarize us with the characters from there on out, and conversations between them serve to reinforce their respective dominant traits: Shaw is quixotic, Vickers is ostentatious, Holloway is a skeptic, Janek (Idris Elba) is a stoic, Fifield (Sean Harris) is a bit of an asshole, and so on.  Attempts to deepen them beyond these traits are glossed over.  David is the one who remains a mystery.  He gets his own scenes before anyone else does, puttering around on the ship for two years while the human crew members sleep through the countless light years it takes to reach the Engineer planet, and even though we get to spend this time with him, we’re never quite sure what he wants.  He’s always following orders, sure, but Fassbender often lets slip (in both his expressions and clever dialogue) that something more is going on in that milk-and-pasta-filled head of his.

Vickers is another anomaly.  While the rest of the crew, despite being esteemed scientists, continually fall into the Principle of the Inept Adventurer (moving toward scary places, thrusting their hands toward the maws of alien beasts, and taking their helmets off on an uncharted planet, which not even Buzz Lightyear was dumb enough to do), Vickers is always pragmatic.  She stays indoors when she knows something dangerous is outside.  She demands that everyone do their jobs and follow protocol.  When Holloway is infected, she will not let him back on the ship, and a scene reminiscent of one from Alien in which Ripley refuses to allow the infected Kane back onboard, yields ghastly results.  The issue is that the screenplay sets her up as an antagonist, then hints that she will eventually let her hair down (which she should, since the antagonistic forces in the film severely outnumber the good guys by the third act).  After the standoff scene, Shaw and Vickers are well-established as the yin and yang of the ship, two strong women made enemies by Vickers’ rash actions, but they barely, if ever, have another interaction before the story’s climax, and Vickers’ part in the film ends with an “isn’t that cool?” moment meant to inspire applause, but which rang hollow for me.

Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is the film’s character centerpiece and performance gem.  Once the cast is inevitably shaved, she is forced to carry on plenty of scenes by herself, and these contain the most revealing bits of her character’s steadfast nature.  The film’s most frightening scene comes when Shaw is implanted with an alien embryo (retaining the original film’s theme of unwanted pregnancy) and must perform a Caesarean section on herself in order to remove it.  Suddenly, the horror is real.  The tears are genuine.  The sci-fi landscape crumbles away for a few minutes and we are left in a whitewashed room with only our heroine and an impossible decision.  In this scene and forward, Shaw begins to mirror Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, the unwavering protagonist of the original film series: fixations on motherhood (Shaw is sterile and later must remove an alien fetus from her own body, Ripley’s daughter died and she must later care for an orphan), relentless pursuit of their respective alien Others (Shaw must gain knowledge, Ripley must destroy them), and a sort of quiet sympathy that radiates from both, despite their apparent two-hundred year gap (though their real-life timestamps are all too evident from their hairstyles).

Finally, H.R. Giger’s art style is well-preserved (the space jockey, the interior of the spaceship and pilot’s seat, the phallic-headed alien).  His name appears in the credits, but I do wonder if he was on set painting everything himself like he was decades ago.  Regardless, the use of his unique style (considered in the seventies to be too horrifying for audiences) is the linchpin for any argument in favor of this film being a true prequel (besides all the chestbursting, of course).

“Prequel” is a term I dislike for reasons created by George Lucas at the turn of the century.  Consider Prometheus, then, part of a grand mythology, one defined mostly in the imagination since it only spans three 120-minute films (I do not acknowledge Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, nor the Alien vs. Predator series), and a look at the other side of the mirror concerning powerful female figures through the sci-fi/horror ages – a rarity for genre fiction.

The Alien DNA is all there, but I promise, connecting stories with your imagination will work and satisfy much better than comparing graphics and storyboards.  It always has.

Prometheus (2012); written by Damon Lindelof; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, and Charlize Theron.

LOST: The End

You have to lift it up.

I suppose I should do this before the mist clears and I have to spend a lot of time away from the only television serial drama I’ve ever followed.  For those who live in a cave or don’t own a TV, ABC’s LOST ended for good this past sunday in a quiet-yet-climactic episode simply titled “The End.”  No matter what you thought of the plot events, especially the end (and I’ve heard some truly savage and thoughtless remarks about it), the episode was well-written, passionately acted, and full of the heart we’ve come to expect from this show and its cast and crew.  

This has generally been a great season, with the vintage LOST sectioned-off storyline patterns (we started at the Temple and moved to the battle against the Man in Black), and the best episodes, “Dr. Linus,” “The Last Recruit” and “The Candidate” were real gems.  

I’ve always loved the show but had my own judgements and observations.  Being a fiction and screenplay writer, my perspective has always been from that of the craft, which Damon, Carlton and the others have not always been too good with.  They’ve introduced multitudes of mysteries and red herrings, leaving a heavy suitcase full of them behind never to be spoken of again.  They’ve killed off great characters for the sake of A) writing themselves out of a hole, B) “cleaning up” the cast because they left themselves with too much material (in the proper style of inexperienced or tired, uninspired writers such as J.K. Rowling or Stephen King), and C) simple shock value.  They’re also guilty of throwing things in without a solution in mind: since the first season they’ve admitted to not having an original idea of what the “Monster” was, the origin of the Others, the mysterious secrets of the Island (including who the skeletons in episode 1.06 were), and who Jacob was.  There are also the cases of irresponsible writing: the character cleanups (rewatch the series and count the mass deaths), continuity errors and contradictions (what was the cabin for?  Who was inside and what was “help me” all about?  If MiB was Christian, how did he appear off-island twice and speak to Vincent?), preposterous things left unexplained (why were the Egyptians, a non-seafaring people, on the island?  Where did they quarry the stone to build the statue and the Temple?  How is the Dharma Initiative still receiving food-drops?), and having a sixteen year-old girl shot in the back of the head after begging for her life.  Yes, D&C could use a few crash-courses in writing (as good as they think they are), but luckily the performances and the direction of Jack Bender/Mario Van Peebles bring the sometimes-clunky scripts to vibrant life.

I respect the writers for burning their bridges at the end of each season, however.  The first time around, the characters were trying to get into the hatch and also build a raft to escape the island.  Both were accomplished in the season 1 finale.  In season 2, we were pushing the button.  At the end, the Swan exploded, so no way they could continue with that.  Season 3 focused mainly on the Others, most of whom die in the season’s climactic ending.  Season 4 featured the flashforwards, the mystery of who was in the coffin, and the battle against the freighter folks.  In the finale, we see Locke in the coffin and the freighter blows up.  Season 5 was Dharma season and involved time travel due to Ben not turning the Man in Black’s wheel hard enough, and in the end the wheel is put back in place and Jack detonates a hydrogen bomb in Dharmaville.  Season six was the end, and it ended.  Taking risks in a narrative is always good, though every package D&C delivered to us was chock-full of extras that didn’t always get resolved.  On one hand, I blame the viewers for latching onto every tiny detail and making a “mystery” of it (somewhat perpetuated by Lostpedia, which kept a record of what everyone was thinking just in case they forgot).

In any case, the series became a phenomenon that has never been seen in television before, and is unlikely to ever be seen again.  The fandom was something out of the Star Wars universe: the vast amounts of fan-designed t-shirts and swag; the internet games between seasons that fans would play just to get the slightest clue of what was to come; the viral videos featuring cast members; the Missing Pieces mobile episodes; the weekly podcasts and contests by both the creators and the fans; the tie-in novels (including the fictional Gary Troup’s ghost-written Bad Twin); the video game (Via Domus)  the musical tributes (see Sonic Weapon Fence).

LOST was at its best during the first three seasons, which focused on the interior development of the characters, relevant  flashbacks, and creative approaches to directing.  After the third season we moved in the science fiction and mythology direction, which was engaging in and of itself but simply did not fit a character-driven narrative.  The best material was in season 1, when we didn’t know what was coming and the most incredible revelations had to do with the characters’ personal lives (see 1.04, “Walkabout,” when Locke’s paralysis is revealed).  The premiere of season 4, entitled “The Beginning of the End,” was just that.  The story departed from character flashbacks and took a sharp turn toward violence, convoluted mythology, and fast-paced narrative.  Season 6 attempted to bring back the season 1 way of doing things, recalling the character reunion moments and revisiting the original beach camp where our survivors first met.  It was a truly inspired choice, and I retain my claim that “Dr. Linus” is the best episode of the final season.  Throughout the series the performances of Terry O’Quinn (Locke), Evangeline Lilly (Kate), Michael Emerson (Ben), Emilie de Ravin (Claire), Dominic Monaghan (Charlie), Matthew Fox (Jack), Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond) and several others have brought the show to all-new highs as far as expressing fear and passion, and I can’t imagine spending time in the dazzling world of this show without them.  

Michael Giacchino’s score is an integral part of the series’ lifeblood, and as the show goes on it becomes an organic piece of the story as though it’s invisible, not soundtrack music but a subtle (yet essential) piece of every scene.  One of the most amazing instances occurs in season 3’s finale, “Through the Looking Glass,” during Charlie’s sacrifice.  I can’t say how many times I’ve seen that episode and it still makes me rather misty.

I kept hearing the words “satisfied” and “explanations” thrown around in the weeks leading up to the series finale.  If you were upset or dissatisfied with the ending, it’s more or less because you planned on being upset or dissatisfied.  Even at the beginning of this season, I heard comments such as “They’re going to let a lot of people down this season.”  Nothing could have satisfied some viewers, even if they had written it themselves.  During the LOST-themed shindig I attended, shivers and tears crept upon me during certain scenes.  The climactic battle between Jack and Locke, the reappearance of Christian Shephard and the near-assurance that he wasn’t MiB, and most of all, the final moments of Jack lying in the bamboo forest, nurtured lovingly by Vincent in his final moments.  On one hand, the whole “moving on” ending with the characters in the church seems like the coward’s way out (i.e. leaving it open to interpretation and thus alienating less viewers), but there’s something almost beautiful about it.  Many dismiss it as the characters all being dead and waiting up for each other before moving onto their respective afterlives (as indicated by the different religious icons, and notably the island-moving wheel, on the stained-glass window).  That didn’t occur to me, but I won’t share my theory here unless someone really wants to read it.  In any case, it was great to see the entire cast together again, and the moment the final title came up after realizing the entire six years had happened in the blink of an eye… heavy. Just heavy.  I actually felt sad.  Probably too sad considering it’s a television show, but I invested a good amount of time and energy into it.  Matthew Fox’s portrayal of Jack Shephard, while all the while knowing his character’s fate, should serve as an inspiration to television actors and anyone involved in a serial project.

For posterity, I’ll share my top episodes.  “The Moth”: the story of Charlie’s life with Driveshaft, addiction to heroin and his redemption on the Island with the aid of John Locke, who creates a wonderful (if convenient) metaphor about a moth breaking through its pupal casing; “Tricia Tanaka is Dead”: The reveal of Hurley’s ultimate bad luck due to the numbers and his acceptance that he must “make his own luck” in life – this episode also contains some of the most lighthearted and feel-good moments of the series; “Par Avion”: Claire’s most important story, in which her mother is rendered comatose due to Claire totaling the car the two of them are riding in.  On-island, Claire deals with Charlie’s depression and Desmond’s secrets while attempting to capture tagged seagulls; “Man of Science, Man of Faith”: the premiere of season 2 in which Jack performs an impossible spinal surgery on a woman he later marries, and he meets Desmond while running a tour de stat in an abandoned stadium; “Outlaws;” Sawyer believes a troublesome island-dwelling boar is the reincarnation of a man he murdered in Australia.  He and Kate bond as outcasts while on an all-night hunt.   

From the very human relationships to the literature/film references to the late nights of theory-spinning with good friends, this show has taken us for a whirl.  Now, like the beached castaways waving to the crew of the raft in the first season, I must bid LOST a fond farewell.  I look forward to seeing how its legacy will live on and how it will inspire future entertainment, as well as the places this phenomenal ensemble cast will go.  

Good luck, brother.  See you in another life, yeah?

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