Saturday, September 14, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness (Paramount/Skydance/Bad Robot, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Star Trek: Into Darkness (there’s no punctuation between the two halves of the title on the DVD box but, damnit, there should be, either a slash, a dash or a colon) is being ballyhooed for its home-video release as “the best-reviewed blockbuster of the year.” One can readily see why; it’s an impressive movie even though the conventions of the action blockbuster c. 2013 sit uneasily with the somewhat strained attempts at social commentary that were so much a part of the original Star Trek mythos in the late 1960’s and make an intriguing reappearance here. My own relationship with Star Trek began when the original shows were still airing and intensified when, the year after NBC cancelled the first version of the series, a local station “stripped” them, airing one episode a day in the afternoon, and during my last year in high school my family (my mom, my younger brother and I) watched them religiously. But, unlike a lot of other compulsive Trekkies, I really lost interest after the first shows aired and the series started spinning off into other realms — first reuniting the TV cast for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and also restarting a whole plethora of new Star Trek series on syndicated or cable channels: The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, Enterprise. I saw the first two episodes in the film cycle but skipped the rest, and occasionally tuned in The Next Generation and liked it O.K. but didn’t feel compelled to follow it with the near-religious dedication with which my family had approached the original run.

So I didn’t have that many preconceived notions to deal with when J. J. Abrams, whose Bad Robot production company co-produced this with Paramount (inheritors of the Star Trek franchise when they bought Lucille Ball’s Desilu Productions, which green-lighted the series in the first place; I once remember getting very huffy with someone who was saying he didn’t like Lucille Ball because he preferred more “serious” TV like Star Trek, and I angrily snapped back, “If it hadn’t been for Lucille Ball there would never have been a Star Trek!”) and something called Skydance Productions (whose logo shows the letters of the name literally dancing in space), launched a so-called “reboot” of the Star Trek franchise in 2009, dealing with the younger days of Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Lt. Uhura (Zoë Saldana), ship’s engineer Scott (Simon Pegg), Ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Mr. Sulu (John Cho) and the Enterprise’s previous captain, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Chris Pine is cuter and hotter than William Shatner was at his age, and he captures the arrogance and damn-the-rules-full-speed-ahead attitude of Captain Kirk without being as overbearing or overacting as much as Shatner did, but the rest of the cast members compare to the 1960’s originals about as well as a road-company cast of a Broadway musical compare to the original stars. They’re simply not as forceful or authoritative as personalities, however competent they may be as actors (and Zoë Saldana proved in Avatar that she can be fully convincing and even moving in a science-fiction role that doesn’t have the baggage of the Star Trek franchise’s history weighing her down), and it doesn’t help that the script (by Abrams, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof — all the writers have producer credits as well and their names are separated by ampersands, indicating that they worked on the script in relay rather than actually collaborating) begins with Spock and Uhura having a love affair, sort of — she’s having second thoughts because she’s put off by his Vulcan’s diffidence and unwillingness to display his emotions, but it really goes against the Star Trek grain at all for a Vulcan to be having this sort of an affair with a human since the original series was very clear about how Vulcans mated (though the explanation we got then didn’t account for Spock’s existence as a half-Vulcan, half-human in the first place).

The film is stolen by its villains, Khan — that’s right, the character originally introduced in the 1960’s in the episode “Space Seed” and then brought back in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in both of which he was played by Ricardo Montalban (whom Charles and I had just seen in a very different context in his 1953 MGM Technicolor extravaganza Latin Lovers); now he’s Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s best known for his performance as Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century “reboot” Sherlock from the BBC; and Admiral Marcus, head of Starfleet and commander of the Vengeance, a secretly built starship he’s had constructed to go after Khan after he awoke Khan from suspended animation, thinking Khan would be able to restore the warrior spirit that had gone missing from Starfleet. Instead Khan built himself an alternate identity as fictitious Starfleet official “John Harrison,” and in that guise murdered 42 Starfleet staff members in an attack on a secret base in London that was supposedly a library archive but was really a war-planning center for the final conflict between the Federation and the Klingons Marcus was sure was coming. After another conference in San Francisco, in which Christopher Pike — who’s just bucked Kirk down from Enterprise captain to first officer and re-taken command of the Enterprise himself after a long opening sequence on the planet Nibiru (which I couldn’t help but joke was at least a better name for a fictitious location than “Mosaque”!) in which Kirk broke the Prime Directive by rescuing Spock from an active volcano where he was setting off an ice bomb to protect the primitive Nibiruans from being obliterated by a volcano and thereby not having a chance to develop a civilization “naturally” — gets himself murdered by Harrison and his gunmen (I supposed in the Star Trek universe it would be “phasermen”). I was disappointed that Pike died; I was hoping that, in tribute to his appearance as a character on the original Star Trek episode “The Menagerie,” he would have survived but ended up in that odd high-tech wheelchair that looked like a sauna on wheels and was equipped with a beeper and a series of lights so he could answer yes-or-no questions even though he was otherwise too disabled to speak.

Anyway, Kirk re-takes command of the Enterprise and leads it to Cronos (a.k.a. " Qo’noS ”), a location on the Klingons’ home planet where Harrison is hiding. Kirk is under strict orders from Admiral Marcus to kill Harrison, a.k.a. Khan, but instead he takes him alive — the parallel to the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound (where it was an open secret among the military men involved that President Obama wanted bin Laden dead rather than alive, likely so he wouldn’t face the annoying political problem of just what to do with him, including where and how to try him) is obvious but blessedly understated, though later in the film Marcus and Kirk get into some pretty heated discussions of what to do with Khan that evoke the policy debates between Dick Cheney and Colin Powell inside the George W. Bush administration and Cheney’s later complaints that Obama was “losing the war on terror” by not being tough enough. Marcus plans to do whatever it takes to kill Khan, even if that means destroying the Enterprise and killing Kirk and everyone else on board — and though he gets offed well before the end, Khan commandeers the Vengeance and in the big final action scene uses it to stage a crash-attack on San Francisco that looks like 9/11 on steroids. Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a magnificent performance as Khan — it’s not as much of a stretch for him as it was for Ricardo Montalban, and those wondering how an actor who plays Sherlock Holmes could be so credible as a villain should remember how Basil Rathbone usually appeared as villains and his Holmes films were actually a departure from his usual type-casting as the villains he played with such authority in historical epics like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Tower of London — and Weller is equally good as Marcus, whose inventive solution when Captain Kirk reminds him that if he destroys the Enterprise he’ll be killing his daughter Carol (Alice Eve — a name which suggests what would have happened if Jerry Falwell had got his famous “Adam and Steve” line mixed up and started denouncing Lesbians: “God made Adam and Eve, not Alice and Eve”) is to use his transporter to beam her to the Vengeance so he can annihilate the Enterprise without adding his flesh-and-blood to the death toll.

But all the reasonably capable acting (and better than that from Cumberbatch, Weller and Eve, about the only Enterprise crew member who does not have the long shadow of a legendary performance by a better actor in the same role on the 1960’s TV show hanging over her) and often witty scripting can’t make up for a plot that seems glued together with chewing gum and suggests that the relay team of writers didn’t bother talking to each other. The writers also don’t seem to understand some basic elements of the Star Trek mythos; in the opening scene on Nibiru they have the Enterprise land on the planet and secrete itself under water — Gene Roddenberry’s original rule book for Star Trek writers made it clear that the Enterprise could not make it through an atmosphere and therefore never actually landed on a planet (his original prospectus for the show said that the ship “rarely” touched down on a planet surface, but he quickly changed that to “never” when he realized how much it would have cost to stage a planetary landing on a late 1960’s TV budget and how tacky it would have looked with the special effects available at the time) — and then there’s that whole bothersome business of a Spock/Uhura romance (aw, c’mon!) Star Trek: Into Darkness is obviously trying to be something more than your average summer-season superhero popcorn movie, and to a large measure it succeeds, but all too often it seems as arbitrarily plotted as a Republic serial, with the “story,” such as it is, serving only to move us from one action sequence to the next. (Remember that Leonard Nimoy, who makes his second appearance in the Abrams “reboot” as a character referred to in the credits as “Spock Prime” but really Spock’s older self returning from some sort of interstellar limbo to give his younger self advice, actually played his first science-fiction role in a Republic serial, Zombies of the Stratosphere, in 1952.) What’s more, this film and its predecessor in the Abrams reboot introduced time-travel to the Star Trek mythos, and an “trivia” post quotes director Abrams as saying, “The idea, now that we are in an independent timeline, allows us to use any of the ingredients from the past — or come up with brand-new ones — to make potential stories.” In other words, everything you thought you knew about Star Trek is subject to change and the writers can literally do anything they want from now on, no matter how roughshod it rides over Roddenberry’s original concept. Viewers, you have been warned …