Thursday, May 16, 2013

STAR TREK Into Disappointment

Opening today at nearly every multiplex in the galaxy:

(Dir. J.J. Abrams, 2013)

At first, it seemed that it was just that this sequel was just messier and less fun than Abram’s 2009 reboot. That the freshness of how that movie so entertainingly re-established Star Trek’s most iconic characters with new faces had faded.

But as the quick-cut convolutions of the plot swirled around my head, aided by the heavy lens flare (now in 3D!), I began to shudder. Abrams, along with screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, were no longer simply paying homage, they were blatantly ripping off scenarios, dialogue, and the emotional pull of what many consider the best of the original run of STAR TREK movies.

Of course, I’m talking about STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (from here on: STII: TWOK).

Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel to Robert Wise’s STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) was a game changer for the franchise. The first one, which brought the cast back from the popular '60s TV series in part to capitalize on the STAR WARS craze of the late ‘70s, was seen as too cerebral, and worse – boring, but the second one was a terrific action adventure that appealed to both fans and a mass audience, without sacrificing the smarts (largely thanks to an excellent screenplay by Jack B. Sowards and Meyer).

Abrams had already touched on STII:TWOK in his first installment of STAR TREK, with the Kobayashi Maru element (the no-win scenario Starfleet test) and a few lines, but here the allusions are out in full force starting with Benedict Cumberbatch as a villain from 300 years in the past that, c’mon, everybody knows going in who he’s going to turn out to be.

The entire cast returns headed by Chris Pine as Captain Kirk, who again lives to ignore Federation regulations, have sex with alien women (he’s in bed with two of them early on), and perform death defying stunts at early possible chance.

Their amusing rivalry has died down, so Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock are settled into the friendship as seen on the old series, and Spock’s romantic relationship with Uhuru (Zoe Saldana), something that was somewhat shocking when it was introduced 4 years ago is also background fodder here. As for the rest, Karl Urban as McCoy, Simon Pegg as Scotty, Anton Yelchin as Chekov, and John Cho as Sulu, they’re around mainly to say their character’s classic lines (McCoy: “Damn it Jim, I’m a Doctor not a torpedo technician!”).

So the movie has Kirk being demoted for breaking the Prime Directive (you know, the deal where Starfleet can’t interfere with the development of an alien civilization) in the film’s big ass opening volcano sequence, then made First Officer under Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood, also returning from the previous film). When Pike is killed by Cumberbatch (who has some effectively sinister moments but is no Ricardo Montalban) in a gunship in a violent assault in San Fransisco, Kirk and crew chases him down with the Enterprise to the Klingon territory of Kronos.

With the Klingon entanglements, sometimes confusing negotiation tactics, and muddled back story about Cumberbatch’s people each encased in hollow photon torpedoes, I got a bit drowsy, but I snapped too when I realized they were not only trying to replicate the high points of the 2009 reboot (revealing that they can do something new with warp speed, Leonard Nimoy cameo, etc.), they were mounting a re-approximation (with an obvious variation) of one of the highest points of the entire franchise, i.e. Spock’s death scene in STII:TWOK.

No doubt, some folks are going to enjoy that they did this. The film goes so by fast, with a lot of kinetic energy surrounding the immaculate CGI, that movie-goers are likely to get caught up in it all, and then love that they recognize the set-up with some of the same dialogue as it unfolds, but when I saw that they were so transparently aping what worked so well in the past it felt forced and a bit desperate to me.

I also didn’t buy the extra villainy of Peter Weller’s (ROBOCOP!) angry Starfleet admiral Marcus (father of Alice Eve as Carrol Marcus, another element from STII:TWOK), who threatens to destroy the Enterprise and everybody on it just to get to Cumberbatch.

On The Daily Show earlier this week, Abrams admitted, as he has many times before, that as a kid he was never into Star Trek, adding that “it always felt too philosophical to me.” Here it really shows that his STAR WARS-ified sexed-up version of the world that Gene Roddenberry created just aims to be mindless entertainment. 

At its previous best, say in STII:TWOK, Star Trek was never mindless, even in its most failed forays, say the William Shatner-directed STAR TREK V, it had an aim to question and seek out new possibilities.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, surely to be a blockbuster knocking IRON MAN 3 out of the #1 position at the box office this weekend, is a disappointment on many levels, the biggest one being that it retreads sacred ground with no new purpose.

Now Abrams will go off and reboot STAR WARS (set for Summer 2015) for probably even bigger box returns. That franchise is obviously better suited for him (and he’s actually a fan of it) so I hope the Force is strong with him in that galaxy, because he really broke the Prime Directive of this one.

More later...

1 comment:

Wes said...

Great review! I disagreed somewhat, possibly because I was caught up in the flashy CGI & action and/or possibly because I never saw the original Star Trek movies, but I don't think Into Darkness is devoid of meaning. While this may be disappointing (I don't know what kind of philosophical questions the original series aimed at answering) I think the film has something to say about anthropology & how we deal with the other and about the stakes of a militarized government especially with regard to the war on terror and recent tactics of the US. Anyway I dunno check out my review if you want but I hate to advertise myself so yeah. Keep up the good work!