Saturday, May 18, 2013
Benedict Cumberbatch's Star Trek Into Darkness
I should point out that personally, I'm not a Trekkie, I really haven't ever been a huge Star Trek fan. I've only seen a handful of Star Trek episodes across all seven or eight series that this franchise has had, and I've seen bits and pieces of most of the movies. To prepare for this review, I made sure to watch the first two Star Trek films, because somehow or another I have lived this long in this universe without having seen all of "Wrath of Khan"* from beginning to end. At the very least, I needed to understand the original personality and meaning of classic Star Trek, in order to understand what J.J. Abrams was trying to imitate. By this point this shouldn't be spoilers but "Star Trek Into Darkness" is a remake of "Wrath of Khan", only featuring the new cast and a brand new Khan played by Benedict Cumberbatch. However, to "Into Darkness"'s credit, it actually had its own original story and brought new dimensions on the characters... for most of the running time, until it started parroting whole scenes - and I think you can guess which ones.
"Star Trek Into Darkness" is at least, a watchable movie, its made slightly more than mediocre, mainly thanks to its villain. If you've seen the trailers and think that this film is just going to copy "The Dark Knight" or "Skyfall" formula or a ridiculously super-intelligent villain who plans everything perfect and gets himself captured as a big surprise coup, you'll be pleasantly surprised that they didn't follow that route. Khan is actually a pretty dimensional character, which has the side-effect of also making him by far the most sympathetic character, and the guy I was rooting for, even beyond my petty desire to see Chris Pine's face stomped in by Benedict Cumberbatch's boot. "Into Darkness" is actually a funny movie with some fun moments, though some of the laughs are at the movie's expense.
The opening of "Star Trek Into Darkness" is, to put it mildly, horrifically stupid. Its an action prologue featuring our heroes on some alien world with red vegetation trying to stop a volcano from erupting to save a civilization of weird white-skinned savages. Those same savages are currently chasing Kirk and Bones through the red woods. Immediately this conflict has no stakes since we've seen no set-up, we have no reason to care about these white aliens since they seem to be nothing more than an alien breed of the cannibals from "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest", and we know that nothing of significance can happen here because its the prologue and the movie hasn't even started yet. Kirk eventually has to save Spock, which requires showing the Enterprise to the savages by lifting it out of the ocean where its been hiding**, and violating the Prime Directive, which states that Starfleet should never interfere with developing civilizations. (Of course, they've been violating that directive this entire time, for reasons that aren't well explained.) Why is this directive important? Why is this civilization worth saving? Why would one erupting volcano destroy an entire alien species of intelligent life? Why the Hell do Starfleet captains always put themselves and the rest of their high command in danger when there are hundreds of other dudes on the boat who are less important who could do the dangerous jobs?
Luckily the movie quickly gets more intelligent. That prologue is best forgotten as a bad dream. However, that's not to say the rest of this movie suddenly stops being stupid. It fluctuates between dumb and tolerable back and forth, with a few brief flashes of genius.
The plot this time sets the crew of the Enterprise against Benedict Cumberbatch's Khan, a terrorist mastermind who is hiding out on the Klingon home world. Turns out this adventure isn't quite as simple as it seems though. Cumberbatch is a certified badass, a man who ran out of bubblegum back in the 20th century, and can scissor his way through entire Klingon legions. So at first it seems like his surrender is ridiculous, it is impossible to imagine that he'd ever actually give himself up to measly Captain Kirk and his squabbling crew. How do you corner a superman? Well, there's a reason, and a rather good one, which would require spoilers to actually explain. As it turns out, this Khan isn't simply a madman throwing away his life and everything else in order to get revenge, he's actually a sympathetic and even honorable character***. Perhaps too sympathetic, since usually villains are already the coolest characters in movies, but they can at least stay away from stealing the show by being horrible people. Khan steals this show.
I've said bad things about J.J. Abrams' concept for the new Star Trek and generally dislike his interpretation of the characters, however, he does at least have a team of very talented actors who can elevate the mediocre material. The movie has a high enough budget to be exciting and is willing to be fun and entertaining above all else, so it keeps your interest and even manages to stay outside of predictability. However, "Into Darkness" lacks a certain discipline. The movie tries to give a new perspective on Khan and his relationship with Kirk and the possibilities that could occur with an alternate timeline. Then it finds itself very poorly imitating "Wrath of Khan", turning into a true remake. And like nearly all remakes, its existence is impossible to defend and its ultimately inferior. The highest dramatic moment in this film is well-acted, at times well-shot, but completely murdered by a single line - make that one word - borrowed from "Wrath of Khan", but delivered so poorly as to be simply hysterical.
One thing I do like about the new Star Trek is how colorful it is. I think that's what most audiences found so entertaining out of the 2009 film, was how youthful and energetic it seemed, but also how willing it was to be purely entertaining. That's both a blessing and a curse, as we're never going to see anything nearly as interesting as the V'Ger entity from "Star Trek: The Motion Picture", or even a SciFi concept with as much possibility as the Genesis Project. But it does mean you can look in virtually every direction and see a weird alien or something going on. There's one scene between Kirk and Khan that features a picked-headed creature in the background, it hilarious. You really do get the sense that J.J. Abrams doesn't even want to make Star Trek, he wants to be doing Star Wars, and he'll get his shot in 2015.
However, I am still worried about that. If "Into Darkness" has shown me anything, J.J. Abrams will probably do his best to imitate "Empire Strikes Back" with his new film, and ultimately not even really understand what made that movie powerful. I don't think he understood "Wrath of Khan", I don't think he understands Star Trek - and I'm not even a Trekkie, I barely understand it. But I respect its power, what it could mean, how revolutionary it was back in the 1960s, he doesn't. To Abrams and the soulless studio system behind him, Star Trek is a label to slam onto action adventure movies that happen to take place in outer space. "Into Darkness" is probably as good as you can hope for from that perspective, its certainly better than "Oblivion". But its still... a Big Mac, not art.
Really though, Benedict Cumberbatch. That's why anybody wants to see this. And they deliver on him. So there you go.
* Shockingly though, I found the original "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" to actually be a massively solid movie, and in fact, superior to "Wrath of Khan". I really have to recommend that one, even though most people hate it for being slow and boring. It is indeed slow, and some of the space scenes go on for several minutes too long, but they have a dramatic purpose. Its okay to have a five minute build-up of Kirk reaching the Enterprise, because is shows the scale and power that is that ship and the size of this film. What I was even more shocked was that "The Motion Picture" actually was a SciFi film with interesting concepts and a great mystery arc. Some people might find that pretentious, but pretty much every other Star Trek film I've seen has been a blank action film, so I really use some pretensions to do something greater than just "entertain". Now, that's not to say "Wrath of Khan" is a bad movie, its way superior to anything J.J. Abrams could ever dream of making, and its still a great SciFi action film.
** Has the Starship Enterprise ever been able to land on planet or oceans? Since its built out in space, flies around outer space, I assume it can't actually survive the stresses of going through a planet's atmosphere. It makes sense for a starship to only need to exist in space, I actually respect how most Star Trek creators have resisted the temptation to have the Enterprise land on planets. Landing in an atmosphere is whole unnecessary since they have smaller craft for landing and beaming teleportation devices. So what the hell is the point of bringing the space ship into the ocean in the first place?
*** Spoilers: I'd even argue that Khan never does an overtly evil thing throughout the entire movie. Or at least, never performs an irredeemably evil act. Yeah, he's a terrorist, but he's targeting people just as evil as he is, and he's got very very very good reasons. I'd also point out that in the climax Khan never attacks the Enterprise or until Kirk orders Scotty to shoot him in the back. Yeah, he's ruthless and willing to kill thousands of innocent people, but never outside of the framework of a war against Starfleet, which they initiated.