Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Slow Invasion

“I can’t take any calls right now,” he barked to Marvin, his assistant, while wiping a bit of guacamole ranch from the corner of his mouth. The tail of the chicken lettuce wrap, a trade name for a boring burrito that his firm had actually trademarked a few years back, had disintegrated into a gooey mess inextricable from the rest of the silvery foil crumpled by his keyboard.

“She says she’s your cousin.”

“My cousin?” he replied, scrunching up his face. “Okay, will you get that door then?” Marvin rolled his chair away from his desk and swung his long arm backward to slam the door shut.

“Yeah, hello?” he said after finally punching the blinking light on the office phone.

“Stephen?”

“Yes, who’s this?”

“Mathilde.”

“Mathilde! Hey, great to hear from you. How’s your mom doing? Oh, and the kids–Hunter and…um…”

“Stephen, listen to me,” the voice on the other end of the line said earnestly.

“Huh?”

“It’s time,” she said after a pause.

He scrunched up his face again. “Time?” he said puzzled. “Time for what?”

The time, Stephen. The word is going out.”

“Wait…you don’t mean…that time?”

“Yes, that time. The time of reckoning.”

“Wait a second…is this a joke? Did your brother put you up to this?”

“Dammit, no. This is it.”

“No it isn’t,” he said, forcing a chuckle.

“Yes, Stephen it is. It’s time for us to bring the plan to fruition.”

“The plan? Come on. The plan–”

“The plan. Our destiny. This is it.”

“Matty–you don’t really believe that stuff, do you?”

“My father just called me, Stephen. This is happening. This is what our family has planned for millennia. This is our time.”

“But…come on–”

“This is why our family line was created!” she practically shouted into the phone. “We have to play our part now and then we–our family–will be the lords of the Earth.”

“Seriously?”

“Of course, seriously!” she yelled again. “This is god-damned Armageddon from which we will emerge masters of all human kind.”

“Jesus, you sound like crazy Uncle Frank.”

“Frank was a Grand Inquisitor of the order! He wasn’t crazy.”

“This is just some crazy legend. We’re not really descended from divine beings sent to Earth to subdue it. Come on. It’s not real, Matty.”

“Of course it is. Why do you think for generations our family has pushed all of its children into positions of power. Me, finance. You, media. Jerome in the Senate. We’re all pieces in the puzzle. This is what we were groomed for.”

“Matty, every rich family sends its kids to Yale and Harvard. It hardly means we’re ready to take over the world. Come on, be serious. How many others have you called?”

She went silent for a moment.

“You’re the first I’ve talked to after my dad called,” she answered weakly.

“Well, come on. Be reasonable.”

“This is the plan, Stephen,” she said, recovering her assertive tone. “We have to do this. This is the agenda for the eons. There will be a time of darkness and bloodletting and then we, we will emerge as the power in the world and hold it for all of eternity.”

He glanced at the artifacts around his desk–photos, computer screen, calendar.

“Armageddon,” he repeated. “But the stock just split…and Suzanne has her ballet recital next month.”

 

 

Wall

It began rather simply. Darren sat down at his desk on the morning of May 22nd intending to write a piece about the president. He typed out the title first, “The Failed Presidency,” and then found himself writing and deleting several beginnings before giving up and trying at the middle.

Often when he was stalled for an opening, going right at the heart of the thing would get him moving, let him find his footing. Several times he tried to work at what, precisely, he was trying to say about this president and the way in which dogged opposition seemed to have stymied every positive gain of the administration.

But again and again, he repeated the same steps of typing and then erasing every thought.

So he went to lunch. He and his usual crowd sat about, chatting about politics, basketball, the secretary with the nice tooshie (though they did not use that term), and all the usual male banter. Darren didn’t notice–nor did his friends–that he had less to say than usual that afternoon.

Returning to the office, he decided to try the next tier of his strategies for fighting a block. He wrote without deleting, without censoring his thinking, and without paying any regard whatsoever to how well his words were shaping into anything substantial.

Usually this would allow him to find some footing and once he had traction, he could go back and edit out the extraneous material.

For most of the rest of the afternoon, he tried this. As the afternoon wound on, though, he felt that his pace was slowing, that even without deleting or double guessing his choice of words, his output was diminishing. Finally, after finding himself staring at the pulsing cursor for several minutes without result, he decided to go back through what he had written so far.

From all of it, he liked only a few phrases, such as “dueling scandals” and “wet dreams of impeachment.” Most, though, seemed mired in cliche, such as “spin control overdrive” and “smelling partisan blood in the water.” What was worse was that in all that he had written–a few thousand words–there was no thread he felt could lead to a better article. He had even caught himself hemming and hawing so much in the course of his argument that he’d contradicted his own thesis.

At home that evening, he thought little about the problem. It wasn’t the first unproductive day he’d had on the job, after all. He didn’t even mention it at the dinner table.

After two more days, though, he was becoming quite unnerved by his lack of progress. He had tried to launch other articles, but again found he could not even begin. He read and reread the president’s speech on Thursday, searching for inspiration. None was forthcoming.

For only the third time in his career, he told his editor he would not be able to make a deadline.

“It’s alright,” he’d been told. “I’ve got too much material on these freak storms anyway.”

Now he did not want to tell his wife because it made him feel impotent, uncertain of himself. Still, she noticed something was amiss. “Are you alright?” she asked on the way home from dinner with friends that Friday. “You hardly said a word all night.”

Quite despite himself, he only shrugged and said nothing more.

After the three-day weekend, he decided to change direction completely. He was not going to attack the president, but laud him. He planned on building his entire article around a heckling incident during his Thursday speech when the president had defended his own heckler, arguing that it was important she was passionate about the issues involved and that he understood her reservations. This would be the center of his new article, arguing that this was precisely the kind of president the country needed. He settled again on a title, “The President We Don’t Deserve.”

And the title was all that he found himself able to compose.

Beneath it, the curser blinked inexorably, pulsing in ever slower cycles, until he was sure he was watching it appear, pixel by pixel, out of the aether.

His friends called on him for lunch. He mumbled he’d catch up with them, but never did.

For the entire day, he watched the empty white page–not a page at all, just an abstract, computer-generated image of a page–and added nothing to it. He knew, somewhere in his bones, how easy it would be to add a word, just one word to that white space. Any word. Just “the.” Simply type “the” to prove you can, he told himself.

Yet he didn’t. Couldn’t.

It was the office manager who found him, some six hours later as the red light on his desk phone blinked insistently to alert him to his wife’s several recorded messages.

“Darren?” the office manager said meekly from the doorway.

He did not, could not respond. He simply sat in a ball in the corner of the room, his lips and fingers twitching.

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Sunshine

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So far in this little series of geektastic posts, I’ve only dealt with certified blockbusters or cult classics. Danny Boyle’s 2007 Sunshine, though, is much more rarified fare. Boyle, of course, has since become quite the big deal, what with Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. This little sci-fi gem really shows his chops, though, and I recommend it. As always, though, the comments below will include spoilers…

Ratings:

As I’ve been writing these reviews, I’ve found myself reflecting on the motley crew trope in science fiction a great deal. Alien, The Thing, Prometheus, even the new Star Treks all toy with personality mismatches among their crew to drive tension in their narratives–and all with varying success. Sunshine’s characters are astronauts chosen from the world’s elite to crew a mission to save the sun–more on that mission later–so one would expect something more like the crew of the Enterprise than of the Nostromo. You expect professionals. Boyle’s principal interest, though, is the psychological trials of both extended space travel and, more importantly, bearing the weight of the world on one’s shoulders. Screenwriter Alex Garland said that he wanted the story to come down to a moment when one man held the fate of all humanity in his hands, which is exactly what it comes down to for stellar physicist Robert Capa. Like Alien, the film spends (dare I say “wastes?”) no time feeding the audience canned exposition about the characters and their backstories. We learn about them through their interactions and conflicts with each other. Those conflicts are mild at first–mostly between Chris Evans’s Mace and Cillian Murphy’s Capa–but build as the crew faces greater and greater difficulty. This movie owes so much to Alien that it’s almost impossible to evaluate it independently. Boyle takes a radically different set of space goers and uses the same basic technique to develop them. The instruments of their psychological duress, though, are much more complex than those in Ridley Scott’s film, and that allows them to face more interesting moments together–from choosing who goes on a dangerous space walk to who is left alive when oxygen starts to run out.

Characters… 9

Real physicists and astronomers have gingerly poked holes in the science of the film. The idea of a dying sun was inspired by real science, but since the universe’s heat death is billions of years away at the earliest, it wasn’t a viable plot for the film. Eventually, Boyle and Garland concocted an explanation for the sun’s demise using real physics (Q-ball, anyone?), but it wasn’t enough to satiate hard-science purists who noted that the film’s portrayal of gravity and movement in the solar system was inaccurate. Still, the film takes much greater pains than most science fiction to create a believable, grounded story of space travel. This is hell and gone from a space adventure, and Boyle’s detailed (if imperfect) world within the Icarus II is compelling because it is so contained–as any real venture out into space in the foreseeable future would be.

Semi-plausible science…5

For most of the movie, the conflicts come from space itself. Human error leads to calamity and the crew must push themselves to accomplish their all-important mission. Later, though, an actual antagonist emerges. Now, the crew should have known that the original mission’s commander would turn out to be evil. He was played by Mark Strong, after all. If Mark Strong is in your movie, FYI, he’s your bad guy. Thematically, this twist allows Boyle to face the last obstacles facing the scientific worldview in his plot by injecting Strong’s character, Pinbacker, as a fanatic, warped by the hardship of space travel and the burden of saving the human race. In the original cut, Capa’s last words to Pinbacker’s religious ranting were to have been, “I don’t believe in God.” There’s a certain arrogance in the astronaut’s mission–to change the course of human destiny–and for much of the film, we are meant to wonder if we are truly up to the task, if we should be trying. Pinbacker’s emergence frames that arrogance explicitly in the last act, but ultimately, his literally faceless villain is less compelling than the earlier challenges the crew faces.

Theme…6
Plot… 5

Just yesterday, I mentioned Ridley Scott’s visual aesthetic in Prometheus. Now, Scott is one of my favorite directors by far, but Boyle’s visual style is more distinctive still, and Sunshine’s visuals are every bit as striking and powerful. As with the plotting, this only breaks down when Pinbacker arrives. Boyle hides his burned antagonist in jerky shots and pours in acoustic noise. It’s a little too film-school and it subtracts from what is otherwise a sensory feast.

Visuals… 7

Total: 32

Nitpicks:

  • The opening voiceover, like most voiceovers, seems wholly unnecessary. It was clearly not part of the original screenplay since Evans’s Mace later provides all the same information to orient the audience.
  • The computer for the Icarus is pretty smart. I can certainly see artificial intelligence advancing that far within the timeframe projected in the film. What I’m wondering about, though, is why the computer didn’t mention when it detected a new, unknown crew member boarding the ship. That would’ve been a helpful head’s up, Icarus.

Nice touches:

  • At one point, the film would have featured a romantic subplot between Murphy’s Capa and Rose Byrne’s Cassie, but Boyle wisely thought better of it. He even decided to deprive Ms. Byrne of make-up to deflate any such expectations in the audience (which is a total fail–come on, it’s Rose Byrne).
  • Boyle also limited the humor in the film, but there’s one great line that acknowledges the film’s debt to Alien while also marking its own territory as a more plausible sci-fi thriller. After Harvey says that splitting up might not be a good idea, Mace counters, “You’re probably right. We might get picked off one at a time by aliens.”

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Prometheus

Prometheusposterfixed

Expectations were high last summer when Ridley Scott’s return to the universe he helped create in Alien came to the big screen.

Sadly, what we got was a deeply flawed film that suffers from one of the greatest blights in modern Hollywood: Too-Many Cooks Syndrome. Prometheus was passed between screenwriters while Scott also tinkered with his concept for the film. It shows. Even my kids, who usually tell me I’m being way too critical when I nitpick movies, had a field day pointing out the problems with this stinker.

Ratings:

First of all, the good. Prometheus is a beautiful piece of cinema. Visually, it is rendered gorgeously from beginning to end. This ship (though clearly derivative of Serenity) is luxuriant. It’s a marked contrast from the dark caverns of the Nostromo in Alien. The Prometheus itself is closer to the starship Enterprise in its pristine corridors and high-tech displays with floating holographics and lush colors. The sweeping vistas of the opening are absolutely breathtaking. As Scott revisits the imagery from his original film, he injects fascinating new life into what we saw as relics and fossils before.

Visuals…10

And, that’s pretty much the last of the good things I have to say about Prometheus.

In my review of Alien, I commented on how poorly Prometheus’s characters compare to those in the original. We are positively surrounded in this film by characters we don’t care about and barely understand. You’d think a mission like this would call for professionals, but we get xenobiologists who run from dead bodies, but cuddle up with clearly hostile looking eels. We get a corporate snake-woman (with daddy issues) who doesn’t believe in the mission she’s given up years of her life to join, instead of running papa’s company back home her way. We have a ribald space captain who wants to bang the boss because…well, because she’s Charlize Theron. If the leads redeemed this motley crew, maybe it would be tolerable, but alas, it was not meant to be. Charlie Halloway becomes petulant and despondent when he learns that there aren’t any live aliens to explain all the mysteries of life to him. This is shallow character development to say the least. Hell, it’s callow character development. This man is an archeologist who has spent years digging in the dirt for the clues that led him to this distant planet. One would not expect him to be such an impatient little baby-man. Also, he’s a total jerk to David for no reason. Likewise, the development of Shaw is equally shallow and predictable. She’s conflicted about faith because of her own daddy issues. She also feels inadequate because she can’t have children. Come on, Ridley, your exposition is showing left and right here. It’s a trend in Scott’s later work. Whenever I see empty characterization like this, I think of Brendan Gleeson dancing around and sneering in Kingdom of Heaven (a film that I think succeeds despite such clumsy moments). Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender do admirable jobs with the material they’re given, but it’s just not enough.

Characters… 4

Truly disappointing, though, is the “science” in this science fiction. Oh, the bad science! Magic flying balls. Magically resuscitated heads. Scientists stupid enough to examine biological samples without masks–much less full biohazard gear. But it’s really the central premise of the film that insults the intelligence the most. We see at the outset one of the big white guys ingest the mystery-goo that’s the film’s über-MacGuffin, presumably launching earth’s evolution toward their chosen form–humanoids like them. Except shorter and with hair. Now, at one point, one of the characters chides Shaw and Holloway for “disregarding 300 years of Darwinism,” but this opening asks us also to disregard three-hundred million years of life on earth that were most definitely not heading toward the human form in some sort of pre-programmed sequence. We’re a late arrival, so unless these giant white humanoids planted their super-goo much more recently, this just doesn’t make sense. But that’s the whole problem with the movie. Ridley Scott wanted to ask the question: What if we are created things? That’s a what if that pretty much everybody has an answer to already. Either we evolved or you believe in some sort of religious explanation for our origin. Those two alternatives, though, leave little room in our imaginations for Scott’s speculations. Now, if we’d learned more about the civilizations that Shaw and Holloway studied, Scott could have built this into a theme asking about the legacies we owe to past civilizations and the big white aliens could just be allegorical stand-ins for various past figures. But there’s no room in this busy, messy script for that level of thematic development…

Theme… 1

Because this movie doesn’t know what it wants us to do: think or be afraid. Scott continually throws in his hamfisted “big” questions, but then the scene quickly changes to some monster/action scene. We are treated to an alienish snake attack, a zombie bloodbath, a squid abortion, and a giant white dude rampage–none of which seem to fit together into any coherent whole. It’s a jumbled mess of threats because deep down, Scott wants us looking elsewhere for an antagonist. Is it David, who is coldly following his orders and condescending toward the flawed human beings around him? Is it Vickers and her calculating single-mindedness? Or late-comer Weyland whose greed for life is supposedly driving the entire enterprise from the belly of the ship all along? In the end, none of them is particularly compelling, leaving us feeling like protagonist Elizabeth Shaw’s real enemy is bad screenwriting.

Antagonist(s)… 1

Total: 16

Nitpicks:

  • The black goo seems as wildly improbable as it is inconsistent. Even assuming that the stuff we see the first “Engineer” drink to seed life on (presumed) Earth is a different formula, the effects vary widely from scene to scene. It turns the little worms in the giant head room into snakes, which then try to jam themselves down the biologist’s throat. Based on what happens to the last Engineer, you’d think that’s a prelude to a chestburster, but none is forthcoming. Charlie’s infection is primary and leads to him siring a monster, but then a primary infection in the geologist makes him into a really, really unfriendly zombie-type thing. Basically, the only consistent principle of the black goo seems to be: make everything worse!
  • The Engineers have some interesting design aesthetics and a really crappy understanding of ergonomics. Their biological storage labs are laid out like temples with murals and giant head sculptures. Meanwhile, their control panels require the user to lean way forward out of his ginormous chair to touch the goey, egg-shaped buttons–oh, and the on switch is a flute, go figure.
  • So, um, where did the aliens who burst out of all those Engineers’ chests go anyway?
  • Like I said, everything in this movie looks sumptuous and convincing…except for the god-awful old-age make-up on Guy Pierce.
  • Whoever at Weyland Robotics wrote David’s passive aggressive dialogue sub-routines needs to be fired.
  • The really sad thing is that there was a better movie than this on the cutting room floor. The deleted scenes really fill in some of the gaps that left audiences scratching their heads. The biologist, whose conflicted reaction to alien life was so conspicuous in the release version, would have earlier shown his excitement over finding living worms on the planet (hence making his appreciation of the snakey thing later somewhat more believable). In an alternate version, the zombie version of Fifield that attacked the ship was much more like the traditional alien xenomorph in both appearance and movement, evoking more menace and connecting Prometheus to its cinematic lineage. The last Engineer’s nature is seen more fully in cut scenes. He talks to David at greater length, with subtitles that seem to give credence to his outrage. He is also humanized further as he enters the remains of the Prometheus, before finding Shaw, making him less monster and more the “maker” he was meant to be. These changes wouldn’t have completely transformed the film (ala I Am Legend‘s original ending) but they would have strengthened it. It’s absolutely puzzling why Scott left us with this cut of the film.
  • And just what is with that final crash sequence? First of all, thanks for ruining the climax of the film in the trailer, Hollywood. More importantly, though, the Prometheus is not a really big ship. We see the bridge’s relative size to the exterior in the opening sweep over it. Likewise, we know the alien doughnut ships have HUGE internal volumes from the scene in Alien when Cain descends into the egg chamber. So really, the Engineer’s ship should dwarf the Prometheus, but instead, it looks like a fair fight when the human craft crashes into it. But what happens next is the real problem, though I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that filmmakers so comfortable throwing out every rule of biology would also pay no attention to gravity. The damaged Engineer ship free falls slowly enough for Shaw and Vickers to make what would, in the real world, be a futile effort to run away. The shockwave from the crash would have killed them no matter how much sprinting they did, but the ultimate insult to the audience’s intelligence, though, comes when Shaw is saved by…a rock.

So why am I writing about Prometheus now? Well, because we just rewatched it. What’s that? Why would we rewatch a movie we’re so deeply disappointed in? Um…well…gee…

 

 

the damage i’ve done

clutch the hardened ivory
and go tattoo-deep with the needle
long lines crossing the squamosal suture
carve a legacy into the parietal bone
acid-etching all the things I meant not to say
onto the smooth surfaces you will carry with you
all of your days

untitled, to avoid the obvious

I say you are a clear pool
and the confines of the metaphor
start to ping a bit at every edge
in the still, not-blue of the water
and the idea of rays resounding through refraction
forever and ever like firefly tails
And I will lurch into hyperbole
and make of you a fountain of goodness
crediting you with every decent thing
every dropped penny
every winsome sigh
creating some sadly sappy fable of the two of us
because this is what it is to need
and need no more
to be full, like the pool

of course
it’s a fool’s flattery
you say, no
I am gravity

 

Kilgore

I have a penchant for certain words. I have 82 poems titled “regret.” And 17 called simply “cobblestone.” I think I’d like to imagine these are trademarks, and not collectively a rut. Still, it worries me. “Worries?” No, that’s no good. Vexes. It vexes me…in the wee hours…no, um…it vexes me in the cold, solitary hours when the world does not exist but for me and my pen. Yes, that’s it.

I wonder how much I really have to offer. In all my stories, I see the same resolution unfolding. Even when I sit down, determined to write a different arc for some new character, I find invariably that the characters demand their logical conclusion and that conclusion is always the same.

In all of my stories, the protagonist has to kill himself to get the girl. Even Raymundo Caligular, the gay sea captain, ended up cutting his own throat to impress Bernadette Von Trudeau, the mermaid queen. You’d think at least he wouldn’t want to make a grand gesture for a woman, but nope, in the end, it was the only end he could want. The plot demanded it, as it always does in my stories.

For me, the hero always has to die with so much left to do, with some colossal store of kinetic energy. Whole volumes that will go unwritten. And of course I know what it all means. I know what it says about me, and I’m not sure whether to be proud of myself or not. After all, this pattern reveals that lowly I, humble me, have escaped the one great fear of every human breast.

Oh, dear, I’m really overdoing it. It must’ve been mentioning Raymundo that got me going like that. He always was too longwinded.

What it means is that I’m not afraid of death, right? That’s good. But it also means that I’m living in fear of the other ending. I’m terrified of that place at the end, the place without any words left.

Inertia

What I don’t get is the surgeries. Bariatric stomach-stapling gastric-bypass banding of the digestive reservoir surgeries. Why? It’s intellectually dishonest. It runs counter to the whole direction of the enterprise of Western Civilization as exemplified by the American Dream of mass consumer consumption.

Take the blue bins. Recycle. Recycle? Why would I bother recycling something? This morning I ate a processed food pastry out of a cellophane wrapper. A machine in a plant somewhere in Singapore wrapped this individual three hundred calorie gastric bomb in its own little plastic sleeve just for me. This thing was not a Twinkie, mind you, because there are no Twinkies now and I cannot wait for some company to buy up the recipe and start stamping Twinkies out again in their nice, little static hydrocarbon packages. So anyway, I take this supposed food out of its plastic and of course the creme-smudged, razor thin wrapping cannot be recycled. It’s trash. Trash that’s looking, sniffing like a truffle pig, for a hole in the earth so it can burrow in and later be back-hoed over and rest in darkness and seclusion for eons until some evolved octopus archeologist digs it out and holds the precious Twinkie logo-emblazoned cellophane in its suckers and wonders, “What is this wondrous thing?”

I gave that gift to some nameless future archeologist-thing this morning. If I’d recycled it, what would he/she/it have? Nothing? And would humankind be any further from extinction? Of course not. It’s too late for that.

Or best of all, let’s look at the cup. After the Twinkie, I drank a soda. I drank a big cup of brown, semi-toxic sludge through a plastic straw poked through a plastic lid. This whole ensemble was made of the miracle material of the twentieth century–old dinosaur goop turned into a 7-11 Gib Bulp Supreme cup. Miracle! This plastic will last for ten thousand years. Nothing can erode it. Nothing can consume it. Even the sun–engine of all creation, the sun–can only hope to fade out its logo, nothing more. It is eternal, this cup. It will outlast the fucking pyramids.

And you know what I did with it?

I threw it away.

This thing that would endure for generations if I let it. This thing that my children’s children’s children could revere as a family icon–the cup he procured on the 21st of May, two thousand and thirteen, in the time before the great rising seas and before the coming of the octopus overlords! This miracle of engineering.

I threw away.

What else was I going to do? Suddenly treat it like the blessing it is? Suddenly ignore the whole thrust and velocity of my drive-thru, buy-buy, buy-some-more lifestyle? Go hippie and treasure the earth? Waste my breath shouting at hordes of placid consumer cows about the fragile world we live in and resources and all that crap?

No, of course I threw it out.

What do you take me for?

 

Out of Time

as in an exit
slipping hands, greased fingertips
frictionless
sliding in the clutches of gravity
past the matchstick pylons
holding up the thing you used to think was the world
you are left, after the long fall
out in open fields
no trace of the superstructure behind the sky
just daisies
and endless sun
the days wear on
buoyant and serene
so you forget to wonder any longer
about the lies behind the firmament

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Star Trek Into Darkness

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Spoilers, Spoilers, oh-so-many Spoilers! Seriously, do not read this unless you’ve already seen the new Star Trek movie or you have no interest in ever seeing it…and if that was the case, why on Earth would you be reading this at all?

Ratings:

Alright, if you’re a dedicated follower of every geeky thing I write (and I know there are actually three of you out there somewhere) then you’ll know I have already written obliquely about this film. First, I bemoaned its spoilery trailer and then more recently, I predicted that J.J. Abrams basically did not get what Star Trek is all about and was turning the saga entrusted to his care into a flashy action franchise. Based on the trailers and the hit-or-miss fealty to the Star Trek legacy in the first film, I predicted that Star Trek Into Darkness would be a loud, bright, engaging film that nevertheless followed the recent trend of Hollywood movies emulating The Dark Knight. The villain is super-maniacal, the good guys are basically strung along the whole time, and their victories in the end are pretty hollow. In the ads, we’d even seen the antagonist of the film played by Brit Benedict Cumberbatch locked up safely inside a Starfleet brig–just as the Joker was safely locked up in MCU in The Dark Knight, Loki was safely locked up on the helicarrier in Avengers, and Javier Bardem’s baddy was safely locked up in MI6 in Skyfall. Hollywood can be one hell of a reductive crap factory and the trailers gave us every reason to believe that the stink of it was going to spew out of the Enterprise replicators like a tribble infestation.

Let me digress for a moment to talk about why this matters to me. Star Trek geekiness is such a well-worn punchline that it’s practically a cultural touchstone, but for me, there’s a deep personal dimension to my attachment to these stories and characters. My right ear has a little bump of cartilage and the joke growing up was that it was because my father had watched too much Star Trek. When that same father told me he was leaving, I distinctly remember taking my teary, eleven year old self out of the moment by watching the show. This series, probably more than any other, enlivened my pre-adolescent imagination and I don’t doubt that my worldview was shaped partially by the positive and optimistic outlook of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a future where humanity had solved its problems and become the best we could be.

So what J.J. Abrams was making of this newest Star Trek movie mattered to me.

Thankfully, though, J.J. and his screenwriters hit it out of the park. This is not the Dark Knight in space. In fact, it’s the opposite. After the immense success of the second Christopher Nolan Batman movie, a lot of people saw some fittingly dark parallels between Batman’s battle with the Joker and America’s War on Terrorism. It was more than possible to read Batman’s positioning himself as savior, martyr, and scapegoat as a vindication and validation of the Patriot Act and all of the despicable dimensions of Bush’s endless war.

Well, Mr. Nolan, the crew of the Enterprise has something to say back. Benedict Cumberbatch described his character as a one man “weapon of mass destruction” in an interview before the film’s release. That wording was clearly not accidental. After both a terrorist bombing and a brutal assault on the high command of Starfleet, Captain Kirk jumps at the chance to race off into space after Cumberbatch’s then-unknown terrorist threat. He does so with orders from a surviving top admiral to use a new, long-range torpedo that can be fired remotely to snuff out their single, human target.

Sound familiar anyone? Kirk, already chided for his previous brashness, listens to his crew–especially hyper-rational Spock–and realizes that a drone strike across space would be immoral. Instead he leads a bold mission to capture the terrorist and bring him to justice. In the process, he discovers that he and his crew have been hung out to dry by the admiral who is looking to start a preemptive war with the Klingons using secret weapons developed via nefarious means. The destruction of Vulcan in the presebootquel Star Trek has become the September 11th for the Federation and at least one admiral took a big dose of Cheney-juice in the wake of the tragedy. The movie becomes a struggle to protect the Federation from this corrosive lack of faith in its founding principles. Just as Star Trek VI was a political allegory for the end of the Cold War, Into Darkness establishes itself as an allegory for moral rectitude in the face of terrorism. Unlike The Dark Knight, this film reminds us that it is only by being moral and rising above the darkness that we can be the people we want to be.

Theme …10
Thwarting my negative expectations (it’s my scale, I can give points for whatever I want)…9

From the initial casting there was speculation that Benedict Cumberbatch was, in fact, playing original Star Trek villain Khan in the film. I suspect now that his casting–with absolutely no physical resemblance to Ricardo Montalban–was part of Abrams’ attempt to hide this big surprise from the fans. I don’t know how many fans walked into the film confident that he was actually the same character from the original series and the (until now) best Star Trek film, Wrath of Khan, but I wasn’t really leaning that way. I didn’t make it to the big reveal, though, before I mumbled to my wife, “He is Khan.” Watching Kirk wear himself out trying to beat on a wry Kahn who had just single-handedly wiped out a couple of Klingon patrols, it was obvious that Cumberbatch’s “John Harrison” was some sort of genetically enhanced super-soldier. So, yeah, duh. But whatever was lost in surprise was more than made up for in excellent execution. Cumberbatch plays Khan with a sinister edge that is no less effective just because we’ve seen so many villains aspire to the same lately. Khan in the original series was a charismatic leader–so much so that he wooed an Enterprise crew member to become his wife in like, a day–who became twisted by revenge after Kirk’s exile of him proved disastrous for his people. This Cumberbatch is a committed leader as well, whose end goal is to captain the dark-hulled anti-Enterprise he helped the twisted admiral build with his genetically superior followers at his side. He is not evil, per se. He is ruthless. He is cunning. But he is not a caricature of revenge (cough, Skyfall, cough) or a free radical bent on chaos (so, not a Joker, then) who has the magical ability to predict the good guys’ every move and set up Goldberg-esque traps for them at every turn.

Antagonist …9

Another fear I had from the trailers was that Kirk’s character arc in the movie would be too simplistic. The trailer seemed to set us up for: Kirk is an ahole (check) who rushes off on his own (nope, he had orders) into a dangerous trap (ah, by listening to reason via Spock, he avoided the worst of the trap) and then had to turn to his crew and apologize for his own stupidity which was about to cripple his ship and result in their deaths. Some of the broad strokes were there, but Kirk isn’t so much put in a situation to redeem manifold faults as to grow a bit more into his role. The entire cast is given similarly respectful material. Spock and Uhura get some time to work out their feelings a bit (by the way, wouldn’t there be some sort of regulations against shipboard romances?) while Scotty gets to save the day and Sulu gets to sit in the big chair. Only Chekhov comes off as useless, but he always was anyway (he should just be glad Khan doesn’t put any monsters in his ear this time).

Characters … 8
Plot…7

Total: 43

For those of you keeping score, you’ll note that I just gave Star Trek Into Darkness the same rating as Alien. Yeah, it was that good.

Nitpicks:

  • I know that the arrival of the Naratu in the first movie (well, not the first movie, but you know what I mean) changed all of the expected events of the original Star Trek timeline, so I can see how Carol Marcus, who resented Starfleet and was definitely not an officer in Wrath of Khan, might have ended up in uniform after all (I also guess this explains why she had such a negative view of Starfleet in the first place; since her father was secretly a militarist at heart, he probably gave her the wrong impression). Most likely the loss of Vulcan spurred recruitment the same way 9/11 did, right? Loads of young Federation citizens like her probably signed up to do their part after such a tragedy. What I don’t get, though, is how suddenly, in this timeline, she’s British.
  • Toward the end, Checkov can’t beam Khan up as he runs through the chaotic streets of San Francisco. Okay, nevermind that he was the one who successfully beamed up Kirk and Sulu in free fall in the last movie, but once they realized they could beam down folks, why only send Spock and Uhura to apprehend the madman? Why not surround him with red shirts sporting phaser rifles?
  • I’m confused by Starfleet’s construction capacity. At the end of the movie, it takes them a solid year to fix up the Enterprise, she’s so banged up. In Star Trek, Kirk gazes longingly at the Enterprise as it’s being built in Iowa and then it’s barely being commissioned three years later when he’s graduating from Starfleet Academy. However, in the time since the first movie, Admiral Marcus has had the USS Vengeance, which looks to be three times the mass of the Enterprise at least, built in secret. How long has it been exactly? No matter how you cut it, it seems like they built this ship a lot faster than the Enterprise in the first movie. Hmm, we Trekkies complained when they showed the ship being built on the frickin’ ground instead of in space like in every other Star Trek story ever. Looks like gravity really did slow down the construction.

Nice touches:

There are so many geeky nods to the fans that I’ve got to mention a few.

  • Tribble!
  • Kllingon honor!
  • Prime Directive!
  • The five-year mission!
  • And the biggest of all, the cute inversion of the death scene from Wrath of Khan, where it’s Kirk on the other side of the glass and Spock shouting “Khan!” vengefully. Though it did ring emotionally hollow since we knew McCoy had a solution sitting in that tribble experiment all along, it was still quite gratifying to my geek sensibilities.

Oh, J.J. You do care after all.