Saturday, June 8, 2013

Signal Watches (and spoils) - Star Trek: Into Darkness (the title that made no sense)

Y'all know I love my Captain Kirk, Uhura and McCoy.  I have and wear a shirt with the image of Leonard Nimoy that reads "Spock is my homeboy".  My clock at work bears the image of the Enterprise.  I was ridiculed in 4th grade Reading class for wanting to be on Enterprise away teams when I grew up.  By the teacher.

I understand that one must reboot and refresh a franchise from time to time.  For goodness sake, I'm a Superman fan.  The trademarked character is more about how he's been interpreted in various incarnations than he is about any particular story.

I just don't think JJ Abrams is much of a writer or director.  And its possible Chris Pine isn't much of an actor.


What is true is that by the time Star Trek: Enterprise aired, the Star Trek franchise had become so insular and inward looking that it was basically extended fan service.  I don't even know if the show was good or not, as I found myself just... not caring that it was on as I saw it jumping back through the hoops I'd found all-too-familiar after multi-year runs of ST: TNG, DS9 and Voyager (a show I wanted to like, but found everyone but Janeway kind of perplexingly flat.  At least she got to make command decisions and wrestle with saving her crew).

So, sure enough, with the demise of Enterprise, Paramount has wrestled the franchise away from the likes of Rick Berman and sensibly returned to the roots of what made people like Trek in the first place - the adventures of the crew under the command of James Tiberius Kirk.  I'm just not sure anyone involved ever actually watched the original Star Trek or the many movies associated with the show (enough).  And what they did use feels more like a lack of ability to think creatively or cleverly, a lack of ability to reference knowingly, and more like dumb kids not quite understanding you don't just obviously rip off something better because you liked it when you saw it.

Abrams has set up the new Star Trek in the mode of the modern action movie, which requires massively CGI'd sets, and a Geoff Johns-like method of storytelling that insists everything that happens occurs as the main characters run from fight to fight, yelling exposition to each other.  It all feels like someone dancing as fast as they can, hoping to God you don't notice this isn't very very good.

I don't get offended by a Captain Kirk who ignores the Prime Directive in order to save a pal (spoiler), or the lack of philosophical underpinnings to the new series (except when I do).  I'm more offended by the dubiously and explicitly expressed motivations and arcs for each character and the failure of the script to really get them there.  Abrams tries to tell the story of Kirk realizing the responsibility of running a starship, and instead its really just the story of the Spock/ Kirk bromance in which Uhura - as Spock's ladyfriend - is clearly just there to deflect accusations of a gay relationship between the two.

The movie gleefully digs up the bones of The Star Seeds episode of Star Trek and tramples all the hell over Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - and this is where things get weird.  I'm used to ham-handed winks and nods to prior incarnations of a franchise, but I am not used to feeling as if source material is being exploited and puppetized like Star Trek II's emotional core is being held up and danced around like the titular character of Weekend at Bernie's.  Clearly Abrams not only doesn't have respect for the story material he exploited, he doesn't really get that this was going to make the fanbase a bit uncomfortable.  Or, at least, me.

I'm not sure I don't believe in high-culture/ low-culture the way I used to.  I'm actually probably a lot more open to the idea these days, or at least trying to differentiate between what's a successful piece of work versus what is not by how a book, movie or film communicates ideas, what those ideas are, and the impact I can take away.  Star Trek II, which is a flawed movie and which resided in the ghetto of a summer-release science fiction movie upon its release, has since gained traction through seer repetition of showings and an acknowledgement of the core story of lifelong friends and old enemies, and the pasts we carry with us.

It may not be Shakespeare, but it does rely on a familiarity with these characters over two decades at the time of its release, and builds on an earned history.  The exploitation of the radiation-contamination sequence stripped not just the scenes from the original movie of their meaning, it ignored the deeper themes conveyed by a major character's self-sacrifice and what it meant to the story, to the themes put forth, to the 20 years of Star Trek and to the characters.  Here, it just happens, and then is magicked away.  In a lot of ways, that sequence is completely irrelevant to the rest of the movie.  Its not like Spock wouldn't have pursued Khan at that point if Kirk hadn't fake-died.

Yeah, the new movie is a summer popcorn flick, and it is exciting with lots of neat FX.  It just does so by exploiting the source material rather than honoring it, like a rich kid blowing his folks' money and good name to get into the "bottle service" section of a shitty nightclub.

The best thing I can say about the movie is that, at the end, I believe Abrams is done and out and after 4.5 hours of Star Trek movie, we're finally going to get on with the actual TREK part to the STARS instead of just running into stock characters from prior Trek episodes and shooting at them.

Some additional notes:

Look, Trek fans are a meticulous bunch.  Nothing about the scale of the new Enterprise is working believably. Get a blueprint together for your imaginary (and, frankly, completely amazing looking Enterprise) and figure out how big a shuttlecraft would have to be next to it, how big a person would be, where your atrium would be, where your massive engineering complex would fit, etc...  because right now its a mess.

Chris Pine plays Kirk less like a devil-may-care leader and more like frat-boy-in-chief.  By the next installment, he needs to quit seeming like he's focused on about four people and on the actual safety of his entire crew.  Older.  Wiser.  Still willing to take risks, but not looking like a lost kid in half his scenes.  Where's my Kirk that loves his ship so much he wants to get knocked down a few ranks so he can get back to piloting?  Where's my Kirk who knows his home is out there among the stars with an intreprid crew, not someone who seems tied to Starfleet HQ?

I'm not sure Benedict Cumberbatch was all that good as Khan.  He was...  no more over the top than Ricardo Montelban but he looked like he was stage-acting and visibly over-enunciating every line like he was playing to the back of the house.

Loved seeing Peter Weller.  Loved less knowing exactly that he was going to be the villain the moment he showed up, the way I knew Miguel Ferrer would be a villain the moment he showed up in Iron Man 3.  It was just all part of how badly this movie telegraphed plotpoints, like the "I'm just injecting this tribble with Khan's blood because: science" scene with Bones.

But, yes, that Enterprise is gorgeous.  The only reason I don't have a model is due to lack of space on my sci-fi franchise shelf.  I will never lot love seeing what they can do with the design for the Enterprise.

In the end, what's frustrating is that there are so many paths you can take a Star Trek reboot and remain basically faithful, and Abrams seems like his formula is "let's not make this better, let's just make this clumsily sexier, rely on popular knowledge of Star Trek to paste it together, and make a movie that's eye-candy".  the complaints about Trek movies from non-Trek fans often were about the hokeyness and how long in the tooth the actors were by the 5th film or so.  It just seems like there was a way to better retain the integrity of the Star Trek philosophy, the point of Star Fleet and the show, and not get mired in trying to distract the audience from the actual mission of Trek - which the movie seems to remember in, literally the last scene.

Better actors.  Tighter scripts.  Less relying on fan knowledge.  Who knows... maybe we'll get a better movie on the next go-round.

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