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!

Super 8

Drugs are so bad!

Due to the fact that upstate New York movie theatres are in summer blockbuster mode (i.e. I can’t see Everything Must Go, The Conspirator, etc. without driving thirty miles), I ended up attending Super 8‘s opening night, having only recalled its existence a few hours prior.  I will try not to let my review become influenced by the fact that my hand is pulsing from a recent laser surgery or that a teenage girl mistook me for her father on the way out of the theatre.

J.J. Abrams, if you haven’t figured it out yet, loves monster movies.  He also loves Steven Spielberg, having worked as a lackey on several of Spielberg’s earlier movies.  I’m not a big fan of either, but there you have it.  I am beginning to worry about Abrams just a little.  It’s fine to be known for one thing or stick to a theme or be heavily interested in a genre, but how did a six-season monster movie (LOST) and the rollercoaster that was Cloverfield not satisfy his proverbial monster movie itch?  I think I figured it out: despite his experience with monster material, he hasn’t yet made E.T.  This film is, quite literally, an amalgamation of E.T. and Cloverfield, with Spielberg producing.

While LOST and Cloverfield were figurative trainwrecks, Super 8 features a literal one.  Suspend your disbelief before this film begins: we’re in a world where you can get hit head on by a speeding train and survive with a few cuts on your face, where children are pure and adults are oblivious, where no one is miffed at the existence of actual alien life, and where the United States Air Force is evil.  This is a new one; isn’t it usually the Special Forces?  Maybe they’re getting a pass due to recent events.

The story follows Joe (Joel Courtney) and his group of friends, all familiar personalities with specific “skills” – one is chubby and abrasive, one likes to blow things up, one is a math nerd, and one is a girl.  Funny that every group of five or six friends in movies like this are only allowed one female member, and she’s always the love interest of the protagonist.  Is there some sort of contractual agreement amongst film characters?  Is there a “no girls allowed…except you, ’cause I like you” clause?  Frustrating.

The group of friends are making an awful zombie movie, like so many young people are these days (and apparently in the decades-old period of the film’s fiction), and this eventually brings them to the site of a horrible railway accident.  I guess we’re supposed to think the train was unmanned, since a casualty count is never mentioned, and the guy who causes the accident (a middle-school teacher with whom the kids are familiar) inexplicably survives.  A mystery begins to unravel after some cryptic words from the teacher, and the kids, specifically Joe and Alice (Elle Fanning) find themselves in danger.  An additional protagonist, Joe’s father Jack (Kyle Chandler) is introduced, as he’s a police officer and the only character whom we can accompany into the Air Force’s secret places and through whom we can receive the movie’s privileged/pivotal information.

The rest of the film, as good as it is in some ways, follows two or three stories: 1) the touching, if predictable, story between Joe and Alice, whose fathers hate each other; 2) the adventures of Jack, who is left in charge of the town after the sheriff has an unfortunate run-in with a mysterious creature, and his attempts to get to the bottom of why the Air Force is futzing around in his town; and 3) a series of cliche’d, routine suspense scenes featuring the aforementioned creature kidnapping and killing the town’s citizens at random.  In some ways, it seems like three different movies, and despite this not being a film for children, per se – heads get smashed, people smoke weed, and there’s at least one F-bomb – the story comes to a satisfying and feel-good (if not hopelessly par-for-the-course) conclusion.

Without spoiling too much, Alice disappears for awhile once the film reaches the 2/3 mark.  Aside from depriving the story of any female presence, this also denudes the movie of its best performer.  She is replaced with action sequences and violence, involving unneeded villain Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich), who attempts to ship the children god-knows-where in the dumbest vehicle possible, leading to an all-out gunfight against the mysterious creature.

Despite this, the film ends with the “human” element of the story and with the important characters, which says (to some degree) that Abrams knew what this story was really about.  In addition, if you stick around for the credits, you’ll get to see the results of the movie the kids made on the Super 8 reel.  It’s truly a wonderful payoff.

I should tell you this in advance: this is about as “blockbustery” as I get when it comes to summer films.  Aside from raw disinterest, I’m not getting free/advanced screenings, so if you want to know how bad Transformers 3 is, you might want to check with Roger Ebert.

Super 8 (2011); written and directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler.