Monday, June 3, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Several weeks ago I enjoyed a delicious piece of cake. Exquisitely layered and textured, it exploded a starburst of sweet delight. The other day I ate a piece of cake which looked very much the same, with its creamy exterior and fluffy innards. This piece, I soon discovered, was an elaborate forgery! It had the appearance of cake, but none of the depth or detail, thus eating the dull concoction was akin to watching a cheap magic trick. I say cheap trick and not simply one whose secret you've figured, because even when you know how a trick is maneuvered, if the performer has enough skill and panache, if he can sell it, you're entertained.

So which cake is Star Trek Into Darkness?  I'm sorry to say it's not the real deal. Like it's rebooted predecessor from 2009, Into Darkness is a Trek forgery, albeit a polished one. Yet where Trek '09 succeeded because of its simplicity, clarity, and sheer verve, the flimsy plot of Into Darkness falls under the weight of its incongruous parts.


It's not even that there's so much wrong with the plot, about a rogue Federation operative, but rather that throughout it, nothing important happens. Since nothing happens, the movie's just an elaborate manhunt. What do I mean when I say that "nothing happens?" Well, I mean that nothing happens in the development of an idea. Let's look a few examples.

First, the opening sets up the theme that Kirk doesn't follow orders, so you would think this might become the theme. Instead, Kirk saves they day by continuing not to follow orders. Even that lack of movement might have been justified if the script had set up a principle which Kirk subsequently vindicated, which it did not.

Second, nothing happens in any relationship. Kirk saves Spock twice. So? Spock didn't change at all except to get angry, which he had done before anyway. It's not as if Spock didn't care that Kirk saved him the first time, but rather that Spock thought following orders more important. At the end of the film, it's not as if in chasing down the bad guy Spock has decided to break any orders. So what's the point, other than catching him?

Third, the Khan reveal was a big let down. The fact that the rogue agent turns out to be Khan has no weight in the movie because it's unsupported by the rest of the story. When we learn of Khan's plan to free and awaken his crew of supermen, the news doesn't feel important, and for a few reasons. First, the character, either as the "rogue agent" or as Khan, has not been developed. So who is this person? Should we empathize with him for being manipulated by Starfleet and Admiral Marcus or is he really a bad guy? Is he crazy or just vengeful? Second, the only motive which Khan himself declares is that he wants revenge on Admiral Marcus. As far as his motives qua Khan from previous Star Trek incarnations, these are announced by another character in only one line, which is neither followed up nor elaborated. Then based on this one line, not even from Khan himself in a traditional bad-guy monologue, we're supposed to fret that these people we know nothing about are going to take over the entire federation and kill anyone they deem imperfect. Why would they do this? Are they crazy too? Why? Besides, if Khan is any indication, the genetically enhanced people are going to be better than everybody. Are they going to kill everybody, by themselves? I guess it's more likely that they'd take over and rule, a possibility which could have made for some interesting political possibilities, but that's not what the writers put in the movie. I'm not asking for heady philosophy here, just a little something about the motivations of the main characters.

So the plot's virtually meaningless: what's left? Today's cliches: the enemy getting captured on purpose, a big bad enemy ship, a surprise reveal. For the Trekkies we get reference after reference to the original Trek: aggressive redshirts, womanizing Kirk, tribbles, Khaaaaan! Finally we have the elements that writers have to throw in to get the booboisie in to a nerdy Trek movie. So we get the completely undeveloped and implausible quasi-pseudo-relationship between Uhura and Spock for the ladies, a blonde in her skivvies for the frat boys, and a ridiculous chase scene for the teenagers. That J. J. Abrams was at all able to direct these cheap ingredients into a popular movie is a testament to his status as the new Spielberg. 

Even the technical elements flounder this time. We've already seen the swooping views of the Enterprise inside and out. We've already seen a big bad ship. Yeah we're on a Klingon planet, but it doesn't feel different because it doesn't look unique and no one does acknowledges the change in setting by what they do. They just start shooting again. Yes, we're on the border of the Klingon Empire, but there's no frisson of danger because we again only get one line of dialogue establishing the Federation-Klingon tension, and because the movie moves so quickly that it doesn't build suspense. Worse than this indistinct sense of setting, though, is the finale's indistinct sense of narrative. No climax builds up to the end so who cares about the big action set piece?

So on its own terms, Star Trek Into Darkness is flat and vapid. How does it fit in the Trek tradition?

Well, it's a soggy hodgepodge of half-a-dozen other Trek movies, peppered with nostalgic bits from the television shows, and larded with the junk du jour. Only Michael Giacchino's soaring, dauntless take on the classic score retains a sense of wonder and grandeur for the promise of the stars. The fate of everything else from Star Trek is pretty sad. What began with Gene Roddenberry as a romantic, even foolish, vision of a future in which technology and peace have liberated the best of man and sent him from home in the hope of finding himself and his brothers amidst the stars, has degenerated into noisy pop culture claptrap spliced together by technicians and packaged for the popcorn munching masses just to gross a buck. How bold.

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