Monday, May 20, 2013

"Star Trek Into Darkness" Boldly Goes Where Better Star Trek Movies Have Gone Before


Whether or not you're not a Star Trek fan, you might enjoy "Into Darkness" as a fast-paced adventure story. I've read numerous comments and reviews that support this. But if you're anything like me, you might walk away scratching your head. I've read a number of comments from moviegoers who say they really liked the movie but the story wasn't very good. My response to that is "how the hell can a movie be good without a good story?"

The Prime Directive: don't screw it up

I love good movies of all kinds. And good movies, whether they be Star Trek or not, rely on key universal elements: excellent stories, good acting and solid direction.  Two out of three won't cut it. Unfortunately, "Into Darkness" can't offer that much. Is it exciting? Yes! Does it make sense? Not at all.

In the beginning there was... confusion

The intro scene of the film perfectly demonstrates the huge problem the film has throughout: the plot ignores basic logic. The film starts out on an alien planet with a volcano that is about to erupt and wipe out the indigenous primitive population. The Enterprise crew has launched a rescue plan – place a device within the volcano that will basically diffuse it. To that end, Sulu is piloting a shuttle over the volcano while Uhura sends Spock down a line into the fiery volcano to place the device, set a timer, and get back out. Nothing goes right of course, with Spock falling into the volcano and the shuttle crew helpless to retrieve him. But that aside, let's look at the situation.

Why not just use the transporter to beam the device into the volcano and be done with it? We eventually find out that the transporter does indeed work, so there's absolutely no reason for Spock or the others to risk their lives! Or fly an unmanned Shuttle into the volcano with the device and activate it remotely. The plot holes begin!!

While all this is going on, Kirk and McCoy are inexplicably being chased by the very natives they're trying to save. To get away from these natives, the duo plunges off a cliff into the sea, and we get one of the dumbest elements of the movie. The pair swim underwater to – you guessed it – a submerged Enterprise! Why is it submerged? To hide the ship from the natives, of course. After all, if they saw the Enterprise, it would be a violation of Starfleet's Prime Directive which states there can be no interference with the development of alien civilizations. So naturally, they put the Enterprise under water instead of – oh, I don't know –  KEEPING IT IN ORBIT. With the transporter and shuttles, there's no reason for the Enterprise to EVER land on a planet. Indeed, over the lifetime of Star Trek, we've been led to believe that it's not even possible due to it's huge mass. After all, it's a SPACE ship. It operates in SPACE. But director J.J. Abrams never lets established Star Trek rules get in the way of a great special effects shot. And that is the ONLY reason the Enterprise is under water – so that we can see her majestically emerge from the ocean. It's a great shot! But it defies logic and should have never been there unless there was a far better reason other than "it's the money shot". It's lazy storytelling and that kind of thinking plagues the film throughout. "But it looks cool!" many will say. "Have it make sense, then" is my reply.

Note to Star Trek writers: "cold fusion" isn't really cold.

As a result of the Enterprise's position under the water, the only way they can save Spock from the volcano is to raise the ship from the water and fly to the volcano (suddenly the Enterprise is a helicopter) and beam him up. But that will be in the full view of the natives so it's not allowed. But Kirk does it anyway, directly violating the most important law of the Federation. He saves Spock but contaminates the natives who are reverently drawing pictures of the Enterprise as she flies away. The whole scene shows us that basic reasoning skills are beyond Kirk (stay in orbit!) and that he's willing to break his oath when the going gets tough due to his own bad decision-making. Great start.

Screw the starships – I got me a transporter!

Which brings me to the next stupid moment of the film. After the volcano episode, the Enterprise returns to Earth where the crew discovers that a terrorist attack in London has occurred. During a Starfleet briefing on the subject, the attendees are attacked by the film's villain, John Harrison, played wonderfully by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Floating outside the meeting in a small gunship, Harrison opens fire, killing many in the room. Kirk gathers his wits during the slaughter and dispatches the villain's gunship which crashes to the ground. But wait, the villain got away! How? By transporting himself off the ship before the crash using a portable transporter. Cool idea. He probably beamed himself to a hiding spot or ship, right? Nope. Not even close. He used a "transwarp transporter" to beam himself lightyears away to the Klingon homeward of Kronos! And he left behind the evidence that told where he went.

Here's the thing. The "transwarp transporter" was introduced in the last film as a way to quickly get Kirk and Scotty on board the Enterprise from a planet. It was a stupid idea then and it's a phenomenally stupid idea now. Why? In Star Trek, as in real life, there are limitations put on the fictional technology, and for good reason. If anything is possible, then there's no challenge. Given the device as we've seen it in two films, the "transwarp transporter" makes starships obsolete. Now you can simply beam yourself to another star system INSTANTANEOUSLY and do away with that pesky ship altogether. Imagine if Neil Armstrong could have pressed a button and instantly shown up on the Moon. There would be no need for a space race, or spaceships at all. That's what this new Trek has given us – the Enterprise and her crew are now obsolete. And Abrams doesn't care. Whatever plot device facilitates his story, no matter how ill-conceived, is good enough for him.

A Tale of Two Khans – one is from Brighton

And now I'll get to the heart of the biggest problem that I had with "Into Darkness": the villain. The character of John Harrison is revealed to actually be none other that Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically-engineered superman from the 20the century made famous in the film "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" as well as "Space Seed",  the original series episode on which the film was based. In both cases, Khan was played wonderfully by the great Ricardo Montalban. As the name implies, Khan was written to be an Asian dictator who ruled over billions before leaving Earth with his followers, and Montalban's performance of Khan was to become legendary. The character is generally believed to be one of, if not THE greatest foe in all of Star Trek, and every film is still compared to Wrath of Khan even now, some 31 years after its release.

So naturally, when you want to recast such a role, you go right for – a white British Guy. Cumberbatch is a wonderful actor, and commands every scene in which he appears. But he's totally miscast since, first and foremost, Khan should never be played by a western caucasian! Montalban was Mexican-born, and both his appearance and accent gave the character an authentic, exotic flavor. And while I would never want to see them cast an actor who would try to do a blatant Montalban imitation, nether should they cast one that totally ignores the established ethnicity of the character. 

When casting the 2009 film, the producers made sure they used actors that had at least a passing resemblance to the original actors, especially in terms of ethnicity. Would moviegoers have accepted a Swedish, white Uhura? Or a French Sulu? How about a Scotty from Alabama? Of course not, and a blue-eyed Brit as Khan is just as absurd. Apparently, the producers tried to get Javier Bardem for the role of Khan. A perfect choice, in my opinion. But when they couldn't get him, instead of going with either another "exotic" actor, or doing a different storyline altogether, they had the bright idea of casting Cumberbatch. He's an excellent actor, but Othello should only be played by a black actor and Khan should only be played by a non-American/Brit. The fact that the producers didn't get that tells me a lot. You can't respect what you don't understand, and apparently they don't understand Star Trek. Or basic story-telling.

And then things really go south

After Harrison/Khan reveals his identity, the film really goes down hill. We're told that Khan was found and unfrozen by a Starfleet vessel and was being utilized by a secret Starfleet lab to help create new armaments. After all, who is going to know more about building super weapons than a guy whose science is 300 years out of date?!? After all, if we could thaw out Hitler, that's what we'd do, right? Also, he's apparently a genius, but can't figure out how to thaw out his followers who were being stored by Starfleet, despite having full access to them. Riiiight.

And let's not forget the ten-minute long LITERAL remake of the Wrath of Khan climax which reversed the roles of Kirk and Spock. I suppose it was meant as an homage, but it came across to me as a case of the writers being unable to come up with something great on their own so they borrowed from the best.

Oh, and there's also Khan's magic blood which can cure anything – even death! Don't get me started on that. Nor how Khan is apparently from Krypton. Originally, Kirk beat him with the TOS equivalent of a wrench, but here he's freakin' Superman!

Been there/seen that 

So there you have it. If you've never seen Star Trek, you might enjoy the film as pure nonsensical escapism. But Star Trek should at least make sense, in my opinion. And it should take us to where we've never been before, and maybe, if we're lucky, show us some new insight into the human condition. 

This movie definitely does NOT go where no one has gone before. Quite the contrary.



1 comment:

  1. As much as I enjoy Cumberbatch in his Sherlock role, he is not Khan.
    Also, what made the wrath of Khan so great was that they encountered him on their first 5 year mission (1967/2267) and placed him and his crew on Ceti Alpha V. 15 years of being marooned on a now barren world provided a perfect Revenge for Khan's character (1982/2282)
    He hated Kirk for good reason. With Into Darkness there is no time for Khan to really want Kirk's head.

    Maybe in JJ Abrams 10th Star Trek film, they will have the Wrath of Sherlock, eehhh Khan and THEN he will have reason to annihilate Kirk and crew.