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.

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