Thursday, May 16, 2013

Some Spoiler-Riddled Thoughts On "Star Trek Into Darkness"

"Star Trek Into Darkness" is fun. It's a muscular, rousing piece of summer entertainment of the sort that J.J. Abrams has mastered.

I find it almost impossible to say more without spoiling the myriad of plot surprises built into its plot. Others apparently aren't having this difficulty, so feel free to read them if you're spoiler-phobic.

Believe me, this movie has surprises.

So seriously, if you don't want to have your surprises stolen, stop reading. I'm not talking about a spoiler here or a spoiler there. I'm going to spoil the whole darn thing, right till the end. Might as well go whole hog here.

This is your last chance.

OK, so here it goes: John Harrison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is Khan. Yes, the Khan. KNS. Khan Noonien Singh. There, I said it. The rumor from at least a year ago, which seemed too obvious to be true, is true. I was absolutely convinced he wasn't, just as I was absolutely convinced that Joseph Gordon-Levitt wasn't playing Robin (he was), or that Marian Cotillard wasn't going to be Talia Al Ghul (she was too.)

It's a very curious decision to resurrect Khan, remembered as one of the best antagonists in the Trek universe. No doubt, Abrams and his writers were inspired at least a little by Chris Nolan's handling of the Joker character in The Dark Knight, which created -- with more than a little help from Heath Ledger -- one of the most unsettling and memorable villains in movie history.

The thing is, Nolan knew he was doing a balls-out ambitious thing, and if it didn't work there'd be hell to pay. It's hard to remember now, but before 2008 a lot of comic book fans saw Jack Nicholson's performance in 1989's Batman as an iconic fantasy villain. But Ledger's Joker was so good -- and so different -- that, the instant he appeared on-screen, we all knew he was worth it. By the time the movie was over, you'd forgotten that Nicholson's Joker ever existed. Whereas Into Darkness keeps reminding us that Cumberbatch isn't the original deal here.

Cumberbatch's Khan is distinct, but not so distinct. And he is good, but not so good that it quells our questions on why it should have been done in the first place.

First of all, there's a source material for the Joker character, the 70 years of comics since the character was first introduced in 1940. Both Nicholson's and Ledger's performances were interpretations of that. Whereas the "source material" for Khan is Ricardo Montalban's performance itself, from Space Seed, the original episode introducing the character, and more famously in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Remember, the idea of 2009's Star Trek was that Nero's time traveling created a timeline disruption, creating an alternate reality -- but still rooted in the same overall continuity as all the rest of Star Trek. So things are different after Kirk's birth, but before then everything -- including Khan's reign on Earth and his expulsion into space -- is the same. Whereas Nolan's Batman movies were a total rebook or remake, whatever your preferred label. It started the legend anew, pretending that the earlier movies didn't exist.

Ledger's performance wasn't a criticism of Nicholson's, or an improvement, or a re-interpretation--Ledger had the advantage of being able to totally ignore Nicholson's Joker. Cumberbatch doesn't have that luxury.

Well, not exactly. His Khan has been through a different life experience than Montalban's Khan, especially after the latter spent 20 years marooned on Ceti Alpha V, training Ceti eels and seething in Kirk-hatred. Montalban's Khan was an operatic, swarthy foe, whereas Cumberbatch is an introverted, calculating villain who keeps his cards close to the vest for most of the movie. (Montalban was Mexican, Cumberbatch is British, although Khan's actual ethnicity is so vague and complicated -- he was genetically engineered, after all -- that it doesn't really matter.) In fact, had he never been revealed to be Khan, I'm not sure I ever would have caught the similarities in their personalities. Which is odd, because he's supposed to be -- literally -- the same person.

At least, I thought that was the idea. Now I'm not so sure. Which makes me wonder why Abrams bothered with all this alternative timeline business, if this is just going to be a remake anyways.

It goes beyond Khan. The entire movie is littered with constant references to earlier movies -- repeated lines, similar scenarios, even entire scenes. It's odd, because I thought Abrams' desire -- which I totally support -- was to use the rejiggered timeline as a chance to forge a different path. With "Into Darkness," it seems more like he wants to make muscular box office entertainment, with enough sly references to make sure that Trekkies don't feel like they're being left out.

I've complained a lot about Hollywood's obsessions with remakes, reboots, franchises, sequels, and the like. What is so hard about an original concept these days? (I should point out that upcoming movies like Gravity and Elysium seem to show that directors are finally resisting this.) "Into Darkness" takes this one step further -- not only is it the continuation of a 50 years-long franchise, but it feels compelled to constantly remind you of its history. It can sometimes feel like a dog chasing its own tail.

Take the near-death scene between Kirk and Spock. Intentionally filmed as an homage to "Wrath of Khan's" famous ending, the scene is almost identical, except with Kirk and Spock's roles reversed. And it ends with Spock yelling "KHAN!" the famous and eternally imitated cry from Kirk in a (different) scene in "Wrath of Khan." For me, the scene almost worked right up until Spock's yelp. I was drawn in to Spock's sudden show of emotion and Kirk's selflessness. But then Spock yelled, the audience in my theater laughed and cheered, and the spell was broken.

At that moment, and at many others, "Into Darkness" felt halfway in between a remake and a parody of "Wrath of Khan." Another moment was when the old Spock -- the one played by Leonard Nimoy -- shows up in an inexplicable sub-space message to warn the younger version that Khan Noonien Singh was the most fearsome opponent he and Kirk ever faced. As if we needed to be told that. (I'd think that Gary Mitchell and Charlie X would have been scarier due to their omnipotent powers, but I'll buy it.)

Which Khan was so fearsome -- Montalban's or Cumberbatch's? Or are they they one and the same? If so, why are they so different? And why does Abrams feel the need to remind us of how cool the former villain was, as if the current one isn't good enough on its own? The constant reminders of Montalban's character make it hard to focus on Cumberbatch's.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that Abrams' "Star Trek" movies are coasting on the goodwill from the earlier ones, rather than creating their own. That's a careful, calculating strategy that will likely work with audiences. But the kitschy references to Star Treks past takes the place of the sort of meaningful dilemmas that made the series so memorable in the first place.

It's not that "Into Darkness" is totally lifeless under the hull. The relationship between Kirk and Spock is growing and becoming more meaningful. There's a theme of the increasingly militarization of the supposedly peaceful Federation -- perhaps, it is suggested, because of the timeline-skewering attacks of Nero -- which is interesting. There's even a nod to current events with some dialogue that parallels current debates over drone killings -- although it's brief and doesn't really go anywhere, and feels more in service to the plot than the other way around. ("The Dark Knight" did a much, much better job using genre fiction to examine the existential questions of the age of terror.)

But overall, I detect an unwillingness to boldly go where this franchise hasn't gone before. I don't need a remake of "Wrath of Khan." I need a good, new Star Trek movie.

I guess it's for these reasons that I found "Into Darkness" to be, simultaneously, very entertaining and very frustrating. It's in a different galaxy from the franchise's worst entries--"Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock," "Star Trek: Insurrection," to name its unforgivable offenders. Trekkies generally place far, far too much importance on plot continuity, but I didn't sight any glaring errors--aside from Carol Marcus' inexplicable British accent. The acting is uniformly solid.

The ending--with a newly built Enterprise beginning its five-year exploration mission, the plot of the original series--is a nice touch, and also a nice point for Abrams to relinquish the franchise to someone else. (He should have his hands full resurrecting "Star Wars," anyways). Abrams has created a really interesting and exciting universe. Now it's time for someone else to make something really interesting happen there.

My dream pick for a new director would be Philip Kaufman, the talented director of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Right Stuff, who nearly directed the first movie and would have taken the franchise in a drastically different direction. (His big plan was to write out Kirk and focus on a duel between Spock and a Klingon played by Toshiro Mifune--wow.) Since that's not going to happen, my realistic pick would be Duncan Jones, who showed a talent for pure sci-fi parables in Moon, and showed how to combine them with excitement in The Source Code. Of course, he's working on an adaptation of Warcraft, complying again with Hollywood's laws of economics.

Again, it's not that Abrams hasn't been a good steward of Trek. In a way, he's saved it from the joyless, reductive navel-gazing that has tended to happen when the show focuses on its die-hard fans. Like Nicholas Meyer before him, he's infused it with a certain irreverence that the franchise has needed from time to time. But I'm worried that his vision has played out, and that it could devolve into self-parody.

If I could have somehow forgotten all this and just watched it as a movie, I would have been riveted to my seat. But the movie seemed determined to remind me.

1 comment:

  1. Can't really disagree with a word of that. So here's an addendum:

    They needed to focus on the long term ripples of the opening scene in Star Trek, the death of Kirk's father. So Carol Marcus sounds British now? Well they had to shuffle crews around because of the loss of the Kelvin, and Carol was brought up in the UK, that sort of thing.

    Yes, you could use that to do a Khan analogy, but as it is it feels uncomfortably close to a Wrath of Khan remake instead of a natural continuation of Abram's first film.