FanPost

OT: J.J. Abrams and Star Trek: Into Darkness

From time to time we allow interesting off-topic Fanposts during the off-season. As long as they're clearly marked "OT", of good quality, will generate intelligent discussion, and don't crowd out the basketball talk we might even encourage them. I wanted to offer one today covering the newest Star Trek movie release, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek: Into Darkness. I've seen it twice now and I'd like to share some thoughts and hear those of other people.

This is not a movie review as such. It's certainly not the kind you'd read if you're deciding whether to see the film. It's pretty good. Go see it, then come back and discuss. I'm not going over the whole plot here but there are spoilers, so be warned. This is for people who have seen the movie.

Here's what I like about the Abrams Trek movies so far:

Character Portrayal

I love how Abrams and the actors have updated the characters. You find endearing connections to the old, iconic characters combined with new reasons to root for all of them. This was a landmine waiting to explode. From Kirk's new vulnerability and desire for command to Spock's wit to the kick-butt style of Uhura and Sulu you can't help but saying, "Yeah! Fun! And funny!" In two films these guys have done more to bring life to Star Trek characters than the 10 films before them combined. Of particular note: the supporting cast. Original cast Chekovs and Scottys (not to mention Next Gen Crushers and Trois) would have killed for scenes like the new supporting characters are getting. This was the trickiest part of the transition and they aced it. Brilliant choices, brilliant work.

Special Effects

The special effects are nothing short of amazing. They're neither overwhelming nor flat. They're pretty, well-timed, and fit in. Yes, I even enjoy the lens flares. They remind me that I'm watching a new thing, not just the old thing redone. I have a small logical quibble in that Star Fleet's ship designers must have gotten tired with all the AutoCad work because they wasted a TON of space in this version of the Enterprise. "Yes...we, uh...need Engineering to be 50 stories high with huge open spaces! The warp engines are...air-cooled? Just draw a huge circle in the blueprints on every deck. Done!" But I understand that the ship is movie-big so things can fall a long way and go boom inside of it. I'm good with that.

Not Being Afraid of Change

In fact that's the other thing I admire, that Abrams and company just went balls out and said, "Look, we're making a movie here." They cast "Into Darkness" as a summer action flick with Star Trek characters rather than a Star Trek movie with action bits. Whatever you think of the philosophy, you have to respect them sticking to their guns. Trying to jump the movie/TV fence all but killed the earlier Trek films. They seldom felt right. And to be fair, it may not have been possible to take two casts you felt comfortable with in your living room for years and splash them up on a cinema screen without losing intimacy. It'd be like seeing your own family up there. Even if they did a cool movie it wouldn't quite feel right. With the reboot they rightly said, "Film, film, and only film!" The linear aim and coherent conventions make a huge difference. Bravo for having the guts to do it.

Many of the objections people make to the new films have to do with already-established Trek canon. I give the filmmakers a near-total pass on that as well. Many of those things were just writer-producer decisions convenient to telling a particular story. If the new stories are different then these writers and producers shouldn't be bound to non-essentials. I'll not complain that Carol Marcus was never in Star Fleet but now is, nor about Kirk going directly to the Enterprise Captain's Chair without serving aboard previous ships. You couldn't make the moves these guys are making otherwise. If their story is good, put the Trek Bible away and embrace the alternate universe-ness of it all.

I explain that because I do have some complaints/critiques about this film. I want you to understand that I'm not trying to hold the filmmakers to standards or stories that they aren't already using and depending on. In addition to the praise above, I'm going to argue that a few unnecessary and/or sloppy moves took the film down a few notches from what it should have been. The reviews, while generally positive, tended to say, "Something was missing here." I agree, although I think the "something missing" had more to do with a few facile (and ultimately incorrect) choices than it did with any omission.

The most glaring choice was the level of violence portrayed. Again, I'm cool with the "Summer Action Flick" motif and I understand that a superhero movie is going to have some punching and shooting. Gene Roddenberry tried to avoid all that stuff but he's at peace now and the franchise was dead in the theaters before this incarnation. I'm fine with a little revolution in the violence department. I'm cool with phasers firing staccato punches instead of long, lazy beams. I was cool with Kirk's bar fight in the beginning of the first Abrams movie. It had context, humor, and it showed that New Kirk wasn't going to be the perfect superhero of the old show. They needed to parse out his attributes: heroism to Spock, taking care of business to Sulu, swagger to Uhura, etc. It was like they apologized for four decades of William Shatner's Kirk in two minutes of haymakers, announcing to the world that this was going to be a true ensemble crew. Got it. Appreciated it. Make his nose bleed.

But "Into Darkness" took the violence to another level, portraying it with little purpose but itself and/or its shock value. Just considering hand-to-hand combat you had:

1. Kirk punching Khan 5-6 times across the jaw without remorse after Khan had surrendered.

2. Khan crushing the skull of the Admiral with everything shown except the decisive moment, which was portrayed by a sickly crunching sound effect and the camera tight on a female character screaming in shock.

3. Spock breaking Khan's arm by snapping it backwards over Spock's shoulder

4. Spock raining blow after blow to Khan's face/head while straddling Khan after Khan had gone down stunned. The swings were shown full on.

5. After Uhura called off Spock from that rampage, he took the still-helpless Khan into custody with a huge uppercut which made the screen go black with a sickening crunch.

The key here is that these characters weren't Wolverine-like superheroes with metallic claws whom you might expect to rampage and whom you'd never meet in real life. Rather these characters were portrayed with witty, endearing dialogue designed to draw you into relationship and very human empathy with them. Then without remorse or pause those same characters were unleashed in frightening, uncontrolled, even sickening moments like this. It's like getting to know a kid as a friend and then watching him get mad at another kid, deck him on the playground, then straddle him and punch him until his head starts to cave. You know what? No matter how nice that kid seemed 20 minutes ago you need to get away from him and never go back, cuz that kid needs help.

The filmmakers could have conveyed the same message with a more subtle portrayal and still kept the characters Trek-level-close. They chose not to.

Other scenes of gun violence appeared to last forever as well. These weren't so much objectionable as tired. Khan's decimation of the Klingons looked like it was lifted straight from Rambo or Predator. The Star Fleet Headquarters massacre was lifted straight from Godfather III. It's worth noting that those movies were Rated R. Trek wasn't, but not because the violence itself was less, simply because they didn't show as much blood or bodies exploding from it. In every other way it was every bit as jarring...and derivative. As I said, I don't mind a little re-working of Roddenberry's views on violence, but this would have left him aghast...like you massacred his whole vision of the future. You can go there, but you better be really innovative or have a really good reason for it. Neither happened here. The cost-benefit ratio of these scenes didn't add up.

Speaking of cost-benefit ratio, can anybody tell me what Spock's Vulcan identity means now? One of the strong messages of Into Darkness was that Spock was letting loose a little bit, allowing himself to be affected by Kirk and Uhura. But that mission was accomplished wonderfully the moment he shed a tear in the Wrath of Khan Radiation Reversal. That should have been his crowning emotional surrender. Instead the ultimate fruit of his emotion was him beating Khan's face again...and again...and again...then grabbing a metal object and hitting him again...then delivering an uppercut to knock him out before taking him into custody. I get the revenge motif, but most "highly illogical" human beings wouldn't give in to that impulse even if somebody had been responsible for the death of a friend. We might want to, which was the purpose of the moment on film I suppose. But here we got to live out our most base, revenge-filled instincts through...Spock?

Forget whether the message and moment were appropriate, just ask what this New Spock is good for now? What does his logic mean? How about protestations of non-violence and restraint and the moral high road? Can he ever play those cards with a straight face again? And yet 15 minutes before that scene and 5 minutes after he was back to his same old dialogue. The filmmakers put in a scene like that and then expected us to act like it changed nothing. If it changed nothing, then what was the point? Why spend that kind of capital on a non-consequential moment, leaving it as the culmination of Spock's journey in the film?

The filmmakers have created a problem for themselves here. In the old series Spock's logic was a fully-formed and closely-held philosophy which then led to entertaining banter with characters of different philosophies...at once entertainment and a mirror for our human condition. In one, poorly-chosen scene Abrams has now revealed that New Spock's logic exists for the sake of the entertaining banter but runs not much deeper than that. As such, the scripted back-and-forth drifts away from revelation into banal formula, becoming far less entertaining in the process. They're subverting the very thing they're trading on.

Granted, the Spock tradition is embedded so deeply into our culture that we'll probably just accept that he's still logical no matter how many punches he throws, but the filmmakers took away all support for his logic from their films and left us leaning on the bare and cracked ice of the original. That was a mistake, especially when they're so freely deconstructing and re-purposing the conventions of the old series elsewhere. It feels manipulative.

In any case, judging just by the new movies, there's now no reason or purpose for Spock to be Vulcan. The ears are his only distinctive racial feature. Other than the points he might as well be an odd human with extra strength and some kind of logic disorder. That Zachary Quinto plays a FANTASTIC Spock--far better than Leonard Nimoy does at this point--rubs salt in the wounds.

The sad part here was that they had a much richer scene right in front of them. Earlier in the film Uhura had been upset with Spock for being, in essence, too logical, making their relationship difficult. She wanted more open emotion from him. They fought, they resolved, at least tenuously. Now Spock's on that transport thing getting his lunch handed to him by Khan in a really cool Confrontation of the Superheroes that never happened in the original because it was always Khan vs. Kirk. But then here comes Uhura beaming down to stun Khan, playing a little bit of the hero herself and saving her man. Great reversal, great scene so far!

In the actual movie Uhura had to shoot Khan, like, seven times to actually get him down (which made no sense because Scotty had stunned him with one shot earlier in the film), which left Spock coming in to mop up with his punches. That stunk. Uhura wasn't really the hero and you fractured Spock's character for the sake of that violent mop-up.

The resolution hanging right in front of their faces was to have Uhura down Khan with one shot as usual...hero lady saves her man. Go 24th-century equality! But then half because he knows Khan won't stay stunned long and half because he's screaming for revenge inside, Spock goes to beat down Khan while he's prone. You see it in Spock's eyes. You read the tension in his fists. His arm goes back. Quinto gets a great moment to play this revenge motif, except instead of doing it with blunt fists raining down we have to see it in every line of his body...a great acting challenge. You know he's going to do it. He's going to cave in Khan's head right there. Then Uhura realizes what's about to happen and what a betrayal it would be to everything that makes Spock who he is. So she yells, "Spock!" Maybe she jumps and grabs his arm before it descends and/or wraps him in an embrace to snap him back. Then Spock says, "I thought you wanted me less logical." To which she replies, "What are you talking about? I adore logic." (Or something to that effect.)

Not only have you avoided breaking Spock here (even though you know he wanted to abandon everything he stands for in that moment) you have brought home a bigger point about Uhura and Spock and relationships. She may think she wants her guy different but really she loves him because he's like he is. She's confronted right there with the horror of seeing what such a change would create in him. She realizes she wouldn't love that more overtly emotional Spock as much as she thought she would. The price of having--and being able to trust--the guy she loves is letting him be him...which means occasionally watching him be a little too dispassionately self-sacrificing inside of a volcano. That's a good deal, actually, as it would be for all of us who think we want our significant others to change but don't think through what that would mean for them or us.

Khan gets bagged up, Spock remains Spock while showing that somewhere inside there's still another side to him, Uhura looks even more boss, and Spock + Uhura gets more depth and meaning. In the end an emotional, human relationship kept him Vulcan. He needs these people (and particularly Uhura) after all.

You're really telling me that any sick thrill of watching Spock throw down on an already-downed man was worth sacrificing all that in the balance? It wasn't. It was just sloppy, following the action motif too far.

The film had some other sloppy mistakes of internal logic and film-making both. A few:

--Judging by the return trip the distance between the Klingon homeworld and/or Klingon Neutral Zone and earth is apparently about 15 seconds by warp in this universe. This leads to all kinds of political (and credibility) problems.

--Distance came into play again when the Enterprise got stuck dead at about the moon's distance when trying desperately to return to earth--announcing that they couldn't make their destination--but then when the final ship explosions were done, without ever having regained engine power or moved, they found themselves falling into earth's atmosphere. You can't make distance an important plot device in one scene and then ignore it in the next.

--The whole torpedo-and-cryogenic-tank thing was convoluted. If they were Khan's freezers, why were they armed with explosives? Wouldn't he have removed the detonation devices? But if he did that and the Federation fixed them, how did they not discover the bodies in there? One side or the other had to be pretty oblivious to make that work.

--Speaking of, how stupid were the people on the Admiral's ship to let Scotty on board in the first place and then never find him when he was sabotaging the joint left and right? Nobody ran an internal sensor scan or, you know, just called roll? The one incredibly stupid security guard I can almost live with, but the whole technologically-superior ship being run by a crew with an IQ of 30 is hard to swallow.

--I hate it when writers drop in a serious analogy to real-world stuff as a side matter in a script and don't resolve it. The torpedoes were an obvious comparison to long-range U.S. drones going after enemy targets. Spock was against that, I guess? Then Kirk came around to his way of thinking? But then they had no trouble following their baser instincts into other things. Were the drones good or bad or what? They just kind of morphed into something different and then the writers appeared to bail out with, "Well this is just an action flick!" OK, then don't bring up the obvious and clumsy deeper comparisons to begin with.

--Benedict Cumberbatch had an interesting take on Khan. I was quite relieved he didn't try to follow in Ricardo Montalban's footsteps. He was great...except the camera totally exposed him in a profile shot when he was in sick bay. From the front or back he was striking. From the side you saw that he was incredibly skinny and that his chin was weaker than month-old tea. Having that weak of a profile totally subverted the Khan image and the camera folks should have protected him better.

--Similarly in one scene on the Enterprise when Spock was running his hair (wig?) bobbed up so profoundly it looked like Black Adder or a Bobby Moynihan bowl cut when he's playing a kid/fool in a Saturday Night Live skit. The comedic value betrayed the urgency of the moment, which was when he was running down to find Kirk in his death throes.

There were a few more, but I'm not trying to bag on the film too much. I actually liked it both times. My points are two:

1. There are good reasons people are getting the impression that it was a little bit "off" even if they can't name what the "off" was. In most cases it's the filmmakers subtly (or not-so subtly) betraying some of the same foundations on which they are trying to build their film and its characters. The problem isn't them betraying the old canon, but their own assumptions. People sense when you're not being consistent even if they can't name exactly why because they're distracted by the flash and pop.

2. In almost every case these things were unnecessary--not really being integral to the story--and avoidable. Either they got stubborn and went with action movie conventions even when they didn't fit or they just went for a couple of lazy outs.

I once had a math teacher who said she got madder at students who got a 97% on their tests than those who got 75%. If you got 75% you legitimately didn't know some of the material. But if you got 97% you knew everything. You could have gotten 100% but you just got sloppy.

I'm not sure Star Trek: Into Darkness was a 97% film but the filmmakers knew their stuff. They made a good picture but a problematic one as well. With a little more attention to detail, creativity, and integrity they could have registered an easy "A". That they didn't is frustrating. But maybe they'll pick up on some of this for next time.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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