Monday 15 July 2013

Film Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

You've probably seen this movie by now but I'm a little late to the party. You probably formed your own excellent and worthwhile opinions while I was still trying to find time to slip out to the cinema. That's probably best because this review contains a lot of spoilers and I'll be pulling no punches.

That's right: I took time out of my busy schedule of idle intoxication and ass-grabbing to take my squeeze down to an old-timey movie-house where they projected STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS through coloured strips of celluloid onto a slightly grimy silver screen, the whole affair accompanied by the nostalgic chatter of the reels in the booth behind us.

For this and other reasons INTO DARKNESS was a trip back to 1982.

In the early nineteen-eighties Nicholas Meyer was brought into Harve Bennett's cinema-version STAR TREK fold in part in order to counter the dull optimism of Gene Roddenberry's increasingly forced utopian science-fantasy.

Meyer, Bennett and screenwriter Jack B. Sowards promised to liven up the franchise with a taut, claustrophobic battle between submarine commanders in space, each an Ahab of their own dick -- a excitement-ratcheting antidote to the ponderous Robert Wise (THE SOUND OF MUSIC) direction of the first cinema-scale outing for the Enterprise crew in 1979. Inspired by STAR WARS, Meyer knew that to compete in the movie arena STAR TREK had to be louder and more pyrotechnic.

Thirty years later we've come full circle.

J. J. Abrams is the new Meyer, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are the new Bennett & Sowards, and there is no new Roddenberry because he died and the studio evidently didn't feel that was a vacancy in need of filling. Who needs some aging idealist trying to weigh the screenplay down with any kind of ethnical or scientific principles? Dude didn't know from funny.

Which leads me right into the heart of my feelings about STAR TREK 12: THE REVENGE OF THE WRATH OF KHAN: it's the worst kind of remake. It borrows from the original picture liberally with one hand while twisting it nonsensically with the other. It isn't a reboot with a fresh perspective, it's a rehash attempting to make the same high scoring jump without the same solid foundation beneath its feet. WRATH (1982) was a response to the pacing issues of THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) and the stilted limitations of the TV series (1966-1969). It was fresh.

In contrast, INTO DARKNESS is just more of the same hyper-physical w00t! pyro we saw in Abrams' initial outing in 2009, except themed with a thick layer of confusingly reorganized nostalgia call-outs and a brief, token insertion of an ethical dilemma (Q: Is it morally appropriate to use military force to perform extra-judiciary assassinations on foreign soil? A: No.)

This new version's aversion to quandary is evidenced in its ham-fisted wasting of Dr. "Bones" McCoy, who in previous incarnations served as a (sometimes hysterical) moral critic for Kirk, and a foil for debates between Spock and Kirk. The 2013 update has rendered Bones merely a grumpy naysayer Kirk casually or comically ignores. Instead of an impassioned humanist he's simply Waldorf & Statler from the Muppet Show. And, like a total Pulaski, his only plot-relevant function in INTO DARKNESS is to introduce and perform the prestige for the deus ex machina saving-throw that ends the film. "I do believe in fairies -- I do, I do!"

While it's never been easy to be Chekov (he's probably the one who reminded Abrams that if he shows a magical cell-regenerating elixir on the mantel in Act I he'd sure as hell better make sure it reincarnates the central character by Act V), his wastage is less consequential. Sulu gets some wink-wink moments for fans who know he grows up to have his own spaceship and a sassy, catty wit one day. Scotty settles in nicely as jester in the meantime.

The real concern here, in 2013, is what this movie does with its women. In the old days Uhura was a firecracker, a singer and an independent fox who didn't take no guff. She kicked ass and she smiled while she did it. The new Uhura is a willowy waif who spends her time on screen swooning or pining over Spock, clutching her pearls and biting her lip. She has a brief shining moment speaking confidently to Klingons before being rescued by men.

You've come a long way, baby.

Carol Marcus is stood-in for by some blonde hair and a brassière. Her significance beyond a brief and climactically irrelevant spat with Admiral Dad in which she becomes an incapacitated virtual hostage is not at all apparent. The only way to grok why the camera lingers on her and why the script bothers to include her at all is to remember back to 1982. In Meyer's outing Carol Marcus was a no-nonsense brilliant scientist and baby-mama to Kirk's grouchy crotch-fruit, David. I can only assume they're setting up the younger Carol Marcus to get graphically laid in the next sequel, as foreshadowed by the achingly gratuitous scene of her underpants in INTO DARKNESS.

And that's pretty much it for representatives of 51% of the human population. Oh, sure, there are some skirts in the background but our foreground cast reduces women to gasping, sighing, crying things who are demanding to know why men have hurt their feelings. Apparently Admiral Dad (played with scene-chewing class by Robocop) hurt his daughter's feelings because his heart is black and his shoes are too tight or something. He never really elaborates. And apparently Spock hurt Uhura's feelings because he favours emotional suppression as a measure of self-protection against being sad.

Spock's vice-like control is shaken -- in stark contrast to his composure while Uhuring -- by the death of Kirk. Much like in his experience of the raw pain of seeing his race genocided in all defiance of the laws of physics, Spock is so overwrought by Kirk's death that cannot help but indulge his feelings. He openly mourns and then (in a reprehensible break of cinematic immersion) comically rages.

This scene is pinnacle to a plot thread that begins firming up right at the root of the play. Evidently in love with how informed they are by slash fiction, the screenwriters chose to charge Kirk and Spock's interactions with a very heavy-handed dose of homoeroticism.

While this angle of appeal may go some way toward explaining why the film is such an unabashed sausagefest, I don't think a strong case can be made for INTO DARKNESS being a particularly gay-positive piece. If Abrams wants to help validate homosexual love, why be so coy with Sulu? Why not just make him openly gay rather than heaping gay subtext into the relationship between the two men we waste the most screen-time trying to prove they're into chicks?

So I guess my impression is that the Kirk-Spock love in INTO DARKNESS is among the most homophobic homoerotic relationships portrayed in recent years. It displays gayness titillation (perhaps for the benefit of heterosexual female audience members who pine for Pine) while still showcasing a heteronormative society centuries in the future.

I've heard tell Abrams left a scene of Khan in the shower on the cutting room floor. Despite all the homoerotic undercurrents the audience is deprived of seeing an athletic superman's bum. Are gay men an audience target here or aren't they? It seems like they're not, reinforcing to me the theory that the titillation is aimed at heterosex ladies.

In other words this movie has something for everyone, running the total audience gamut from frat boy to cheerleader.

Ah - but what about geeks? Surely there are offerings for the noble nerd!

Geeks might geek-out on seeing a lot of Enterprise inside and outside realized with cutting-edge compositing and match-move tools, making a seamless experience between live action and animation. The space scenes are atmospheric and dynamic, the environments lush and lit credibly, the extraneous lens flares severely reduced.

But you're duty-bound to hand in your nerd card if you're not bothered by the physics at play.

I'm not talking about plot-utility MacGuffins like the Red Matter from the first film. I'm talking about how, in this case, having even the haziest knowledge of physics detracts rather than enhances the filmgoing experience. Basically the geekier your knowledge the less concerned this movie is with your suspension of disbelief.

The hardest culprit to ignore is the climactic set piece in which an Enterprise deprived of power "falls" a quarter of a million kilometres "down" to Earth.

Yeah. You know. Like the way the Moon's orbit starts to decay whenever it loses power to its thrusters. Um. Or something. I hate it when the Moon falls to Earth.

So the Enterprise, from the environs of the Moon, loses power and instantly begins to plummet Earthward. The ship lists out of control and spins. For reasons beyond the powers of ordinary imagination this creates a whiplash of linear force throughout the ship which reverses itself periodically. It appears at times that the filmmakers might be trying to suggest that at least some of the forces experienced within the ship are not centrifugal in nature but rather the gravity field of Earth overriding the artificial gravity generated by the ship. From one hundred thousand kilometers away.


Back of envelope calculations suggest that from the original position of the Enterprise it would take the gravity from Earth a quarter of an hour to accelerate the crippled starship to a speed comparable to a special kids short bus. Nevermind that it took NASA ships firing thrusters three days to cross the same expanse -- the Enterprise in freefall coasts destructively into the stratosphere in a matter of minutes.

(Who ever said a sense of scale was integral to credible representations of space environments? Baloney.)

Luckily once power is restored the Enterprise is able to stop careening and draw itself into controlled vertical flight without torque forces tearing the hull apart. Because forcefields? No, they didn't even bother to toss us any technobabble. Physical stresses are simply not a factor in the future. Who cares? There was fire and smoke and shit and it looked awesome!

For some reason I feel more forgiving about the opening set piece when the Enterprise flies out of the ocean. I'm aware of the fact the physics are equally distressing in this sequence but as a fan it was really cool to see the ship do that with all that steam and water and shit. Awesome!

I have one final minor quibble. And it's a big one.

Again, this is 2013. When the character of Khan Noonian Singh was first introduced in 1966 the Indian superman was played by a Latino actor covered in skin bronzer. By 1982 Meyer and Bennett recognized that this was tantamount to blackface, so when the character returned he was again played by Ricardo Montalban but this time with unpainted skin.

In 2013 this juggernaut ethnic character is played by...a white British guy.

Don't get me wrong: it was a standout performance. But why would a production in 2013 opt to squander a shining opportunity to feature an Indian character who wasn't a hapless computer programmer or wisecracking street kid?

There are a hell of a lot of Indian actors out there. None of them were good enough to menace us with frowning expository monologues? Not one of them? Really?

The producers of the film have ostensibly thought hard about this issue and decided that because the plot revolves around terrorism having the architect of that terrorism be ethnic could be interpreted, they argue, as a racist stereotype referencing Afghans or Arabs.

Let's deconstruct that a bit, shall we?

The logic seems to be that the best way to avoid offending visible minorities by the portrayal of ethnicity in film is to simply avoid casting visible minorities in lead parts. The bad guy is white, the hero is white, the leaders are white, the Klingons are white, the token hot piece of ass is white. In this view, whiteness is treated as equivalent to "no ethnicity." Rather than put a foot into the viper's nest of ethnicity, let's just avoid the whole mess and have none.

It's 2013. If you haven't noticed, treating the dominant ethnicity as "default" is a pernicious kind of cultural-scale privilege. It's just that kind of thing that keeps visible minorities from feeling like part of the club.

Am I forgetting about Sulu and Uhura? No, but the screenplay pretty much did. Background characters like the bald navigator lady help fill out the tokenism. Nobody critical to this story has a vagina or much melanin.

INTO DARKNESS is a movie obsessed with looking backward. From lifting dialogue wholesale from Meyer's film (in a playful reversal of rôles clear only to hardcore fans), to harkening back to a time of triumphalist white machismo standing firm in the face of quailing women, to ethnic parts whitewashed to avoid provoking debate, this flash-bang phantasmagoria of visual effects splendour and quick-cut intensity is, hands down, the least Star Trekish Star Trek story ever told.

It's a fun romp. But Star Trek it ain't.

If you always found Star Trek to be weighed down with stodgy talking heads and high-concept encounters designed to highlight an ethical or scientific conundrum, this is the movie for you. If on the other hand you actually liked core aspects of Star Trek this movie hurts a bit to enjoy.

Especially when the Enterprise warps off into the distance leaving a trail of blue sparkles. Because Tinkerbell.


Mark said...

Nice piece. I see your points, and although I was able to enjoy the movie for the most part, I was disappointed that they didn't at least come up with an original story. There is a LOT they could do with what they have, and they chose to re-hash something already done better than most could have hoped.

In re-watching the original series with my son -- my first time doing so as an adult -- I find that Uhura isn't really much of a badass. Not so far in the first season, anyway. She sings and looks great in a very short skirt, and makes a heck of a receptionist, but she also quails a lot. Nichols deserves credit for being on that show in that era, but the Uhura character so far has not left the impression on me that so many seem to have received.

I must now go read "The Profiteers," because I'm badly behind on my CBB.

pso said...

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Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Mark,

I'll grant that Uhura's TOS badassery is faint compared to the angry glow of modern badassery, especially during the first season in which everyone was just hoping she could get away with her complexion. But she did eventually end up with Mr. Adventure eating out of her hand.

Ultimately they probably managed not to wreck her character totally simply by never having her have a serious love interest. That would've deflated Uhura in a heartbeat. For example, see rebooted STAR TREK. No matter how much attitude she may project she's still playing second fiddle to a man. And he's not even seven feet tall and blue.

If my memory on this front is flawed I'll say only that a 21st century Uhura should be able to easily -- EASILY -- best my rose-tinted recollections. In 2013 an allegedly strong female character should be *beyond comparison* to a bit of progressive pushing from the 1960s. But instead they're in the same league, and it's arguable which horse has a nose ahead.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cecile said...