Saturday, May 25, 2013

"Star Trek Into Darkness": review

I think it's fair to say that Nicholas Meyer, Shakespeare scholar and director of the underrated "Time After Time" (which starred Malcolm McDowell and David Warner as fictional versions of HG Wells and Jack the Ripper, respectively), was the Atlas who singlehandedly saved the Star Trek franchise from itself.

In 1979, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (ST:TMP) made its appearance. While beloved of some (personally, I thought the story had promise, in an Arthur C. Clarke sort of way), the movie was considered a monstrous tsunami of crap by most viewers, Trekkie and non-Trekkie alike. Poorly paced, awkwardly acted, and featuring no clear enemy—and thus, no dramatic tension—ST:TMP was a major disappointment that may well have signaled the end of Star Trek. Multiplying the disappointment was the fact that ST:TMP came out only two years after the record-shattering, culture-altering "Star Wars" had made its appearance. "Star Wars" revolutionized science-fiction filmmaking; by all rights, "Trek" should have followed in its footsteps. Instead, Gene Roddenberry, now thought radioactive, was ignominiously removed from direct creative control of the Star Trek franchise.

Fast-forward to 1982, and "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (ST2:TWOK). Nicholas Meyer, who had never seen a single episode of "Trek" before, was asked to direct this new feature. He also wrote the script, based on ideas that had been floating around Paramount Studios for a few years. The movie featured the biggest and baddest of the villains from the Trek universe: Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically engineered superman who had been a corpsicle (Larry Niven's term) for three centuries, thawed out by the Enterprise's crew and bent on domination. Khan was a force of nature: super-intelligent, super-strong, and super-motivated. But in the spirit of ancient Greek tragedy, Khan's flaw was his hubris, and in the TV episode in which he appeared, "The Space Seed," he ended up defeated and exiled on a lush planet, there to build whatever empire he saw fit to create. "It is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven," said Kirk to Spock, after Khan had asked Kirk whether Kirk was familiar with Milton.

ST2:TWOK brought this amazing villain back. Khan had been left on Ceti Alpha V, but we discover that Ceti Alpha VI, another planet in the solar system, exploded not long after Khan's arrival; the tremendous shock wave altered the orbit of Khan's planet, changing it instantly from a heaven to a hell. Khan's brave vision of the future was reduced to a struggle for survival, a struggle made all the more difficult by the presence of eel-like creatures that could quietly enter a human skull and wreak havoc in the victim's brain, engendering madness and death. Fifteen years of this harsh existence drove Khan insane, and after the death of his wife (Enterprise crewmember Lt. Marla McGivers, who chose to be exiled along with him), Khan's sole reason to live was the thought of vengeance against James T. Kirk.

What a motivation! How could the viewing public not be attracted to such a strong villain? Khan was the genius product of screenwriters at the top of their game. Pitting him against an aging Admiral Kirk was brilliant. The basic conflict in ST2:TWOK was primal, and throughout the history of Trek movies, the ones that have had revenge as a major theme have proven the best (e.g., "First Contact," 2009's "Star Trek"). Movie-making is a collaborative effort, but the success of ST2:TWOK rests almost entirely on the capable shoulders of Nick Meyer. Not only was he a talented screenwriter; he was also a talented director, allowing his actors to plumb depths and extremes they had never had the chance to explore previously. ST2:TWOK had a simple, linear plot and a very basic conflict. Upon these elements were layered other flourishes: flashes of wit and humor, petty squabbles between some of the most beloved characters that harked back to the interpersonal dynamic from the TV show (the debate between Spock and McCoy about the implications of the Genesis Device comes to mind), moments of tension and suspense and, as in the Star Wars films, a planet-destroying weapon.

It seems only just, then, that JJ Abrams would, in 2009, present us with a "Trek" reboot that owed an enormous creative debt to Nick Meyer's work. Like a student learning Chinese calligraphy, basing his work on those of the old masters, Abrams faithfully followed the Meyer template. Abrams's "Star Trek" was so laden with ST2 references that I ultimately had to stop counting them. What's interesting is that "Star Trek Into Darkness" (STID) continues the homage to Meyer with an even more explicit nod to ST2. It's impossible to elaborate further on what I mean without revealing crucial plot elements, so I'll leave the reader to ponder my insight, and I'll move on to a more standard appraisal of STID.

STID includes many of the elements we've come to expect of a JJ Abrams film: people desperately sprinting somewhere, lens flares, fistfights, snappy dialogue (including people trying to talk over one another), deftly handled interpersonal conflicts, a complex but fast-moving plot, and plenty of bonding moments. Friendship makes the world go 'round, and on the Enterprise, people aren't just friends: they're family.

The Enterprise itself retains much the same feel from the 2009 film: as one critic cracked, the bridge looks like a Mac store, all curves and glass and gleaming white surfaces. The engine room still has its old-school, beer-plant ambiance, but this time around, Scotty isn't there much. At the same time, we get to see the Enterprise in some novel situations. At the beginning of the movie, for example, the Enterprise is under water, concealed from the sight of the planet Nibiru's primitive natives as the crew tries to save Nibiru from a world-splitting volcanic eruption without violating the Prime Directive (roughly: no influencing the evolution of primitive cultures by exposing those cultures to advanced technology). We also see the Enterprise airborne, streaking through the sky like a jet fighter; we even get to see it in a demolition derby with a much larger warship while in warp space. We also get to see it, riddled by torpedoes, plunging toward Earth and belching streamers of smoke.

As was true of the older Star Trek movies, STID continues the storyline from its predecessor, teasing out the implications of what has gone before. Mr. Scott's transwarp equation, which the elder Mr. Spock had brought back with him into the past in the previous film, has been appropriated by Starfleet, with disastrous consequences. Jim Kirk continues to be the maverick he was in the 2009 story; Spock is still both friend and foil; Spock and Uhura still have a good thing going, although Spock's willingness to die, early in the film, proves a sticking point between him and Uhura.

And—how can I say this without revealing anything?—STID puts forth an idea from "Battlestar Galactica": in the alternate universe created by the events of the earlier movie, the same actions occur as in the original universe, the same decisions are made... but those actions and decisions are made by different people. The Cylon Leoben Conoy put it this way in the BSG episode "Flesh and Bone":

Each of us plays a role: each time a different role. Maybe the last time I was the interrogator and you were the prisoner. The players change; the story remains the same.

In Cylon metaphysics, time and history are cyclical, eternally recurring, though not precisely in the same way with each iteration. In the Star Trek universe, time isn't cyclical so much as it's ramifying: we've jumped from Branch A to Branch B since the 2009 film. Despite the alternative timeline, though, similar events do still occur, and it's fascinating to ponder what this might mean. Are certain events simply bound to occur, no matter which possible universe we're in? Abrams seems to be arguing that this is the case, given the way that characters—different characters, mind—recite lines almost verbatim from ST2.

I'm still pondering the effect that this narrative technique has on the movie. I suppose it's positive insofar as it reassuringly evokes the 1982 Shatner/Nimoy classic. At the same time, it's negative in that it makes the movie's conclusion somewhat predictable.

Overall, STID is a visual treat and a rollicking adventure. The story takes us into Klingon space and briefly exposes us to Klingon culture (Uhura even has the chance to show off her linguistic skills and speak some Klingon; I had to wonder whether Abrams's Klingons were using the language developed by linguist Marc Okrand), which seems to have much in common with that of Peter Jackson's Uruk-hai; it then takes us to the moons of Jupiter and to near-Earth orbit. The Enterprise's warp engines now produce a Disney-style pixie-dust effect that will either delight you or appall you. The 2009 movie featured orbital skydiving; this movie ups the ante with space-jumping through debris.

The acting is once again spot-on: Chris Pine's Kirk runs the gamut from wounded pride to insane vengefulness; Zachary Quinto's Spock goes through an emotional roller coaster of his own; Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy is as solid and foul-mouthed as ever; Zoe Saldana's Uhura is a perfect blend of sexiness and steely competence; Simon Pegg's loopy Scotty is once again the comic relief. Special mention should be given to Benedict Cumberbatch, Mr. Cheekbones himself, for his performance as ostensible Starfleet agent John Harrison, a mysterious man whose frightening agenda will become only too apparent. I loved what one critic wrote about Cumberbatch's sonorous line delivery in this film: "So sepulchrally resonant that it could have been synthesised from the combined timbres of Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart and Alan Rickman holding an elocution contest down a well." Alice Eve, who looks a bit robotic, ably plays a British-accented Dr. Carol Marcus. Peter Weller (yes, Abrams managed to snag Robocop) lends gravitas and suspense in his role as a Starfleet admiral with ulterior motives. Finally, Leonard Nimoy as "Spock Prime" is a welcome sight, even though his role, albeit absolutely important to the plot, is brief.

The movie isn't perfect, though. There are some moments of "Hollywood physics" that could have been cleaned up. One problem is the inconsistent performance of a hand phaser set on stun: at one point, it takes down its target with one shot (even if only temporarily); later on, that same target doesn't go down until he's been shot five or six times. Another inconsistency is with the Enterprise's thrusters: thruster flames are visible later in the film, but invisible at the beginning of the story. (I thought the Enterprise floated on "Star Wars"-style antigrav repulsorlifts.) Perhaps the most disturbing moment of Hollywood physics comes when one character is severely irradiated but suffers no visible radiation burns.

All in all, though, I'd call STID watchable, and I'll likely see it again before it leaves theaters. When I saw it Thursday night, there were only three or four other people in the theater with me. That was too bad: this was obviously meant to be a big-audience movie—the laugh lines, the "wow!" moments, the scares... all these things were wasted on us, the happy few watching the film.

Those of us old enough to remember and cherish the older Star Trek movies will appreciate JJ Abrams's tribute to Nick Meyer. This is the second movie to follow the Meyer template, though; I hope that whoever helms the third movie decides to move on to new territory. Even a winning formula can be beaten to death.



Charles said...

Finally coming back to this now.

I would have to agree that if the film has a flaw, it would be that it is a bit too predictable. That being said, I think M. Night Shamalamadingdong has proven on numerous occasions that twists are not everything.

Overall, I enjoyed the film. I thought it was quite well done. the acting was very good, and I thought the interactions between the characters were powerful.

A little devil's advocate on the phaser inconsistency: is it possible that Khan was caught by surprise the first time around (and it becomes pretty apparent that the blast doesn't keep him out for very long) but was able to prepare for it the second time? At least, that's how I interpreted it.

Anyway, big BC fan here, so it was nice to see him in this role. I thought he knocked it out of the park.

And I had always thought the thrusters were actual thruster engines for atmospheric maneuvering. I thought that Federation ships had three types of propulsion: warp, impulse, and thrusters (with impulse being used for maneuvering in space). I could be (and probably am) mistaken, though.

Kevin Kim said...


Yeah, I think Cumberbatch owned the role of Khan. It was a performance worthy of Ricardo Montalban's scenery-chewing turn, although it was disappointing that, this time around, Khan didn't quote any Melville ("From hell's heart, I stab at thee... for hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee.").

You're probably right about the types of propulsion on the Enterprise.

re: stun phaser

I think that's a good theory. Another theory might be that, in fighting Spock, Khan was faced with someone who was nearly his physical equal, so he was pumped with adrenaline, which made him harder to take down.

John from Daejeon thinks I misunderstood the situation, and that Khan was merely playing possum when Scotty shot him. That's not my reading of that scene at all; I think Khan was legitimately felled, but his tough constitution meant that he woke up far faster than a normal human would have.