the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

To Professionally Go

Pity the director who must take on a ‘Star Trek’ movie. The suits want ‘box-office’ while Trekkies want a worshipful adherence to an established tradition. J.J. Abrams, the wunderkind scion of a screenwriting family, deferred to the suits - there is a reason it’s called showBUSINESS. The result is coolly professional film.  It won’t please conventioneers or people who know how to speak Kligon... but who really cares about them anyway..... Unfortunately this is exactly what is wrong with ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’.  It manages to be a solid piece of action Sci-Fi filmmaking; but technical prowess was never the thing... at least for those who climbed aboard the maiden voyage in the 1960s.

For the uninitiated : Star Trek began as a TV series in the late 1960s.  The network wanted to cancel the show after the second run. In the end a letter writing campaign by female viewers forced the studio agree to a third (and final) season.  This proved decisive as only shows with 3 years worth of work were syndicated.  It is ironic that women would come to the rescue as the original series has a ‘Mad Men’ misogynistic view of the fairer sex. There are a myriad of episodes where aliens in low cut dresses fall for the sexually insatiable Capt. Kirk.  However this isn’t a show merely about sailors on shore leave. The plots are really  idea driven narratives. This was a show about the wider world, not explosions and special effects. Whereas the husbands might be craving Steve McQueen tearing up the road in “Bullitt”, their spouses were taking in the larger lessons of this groundbreaking sci-fi TV show.  How groundbreaking?  Well the first interracial kiss on prime time television features Kirk and Lt. Uhura locking lips. Yes her outfit was Barbie-ish, but how many African American women were featured as high ranking officers of military/exploration organizations?  Answer: NONE.  We couldn’t even imagine such a thing in 1960s fiction with the exception of Star Trek. This show was special. It has garnered the type of pop culture devotion which borders on being a religious cult.  It’s not just dressing up for Star Trek conventions... Trekkies, metaphorically speaking, put pen to paper - there are thousands of pages of fan fiction dedicated to the original series alone. No doubt JJ knows all this and more.... and he gave a nod to the old guard of fanatical fans: this film touches on the very current topic of military overreach into civil society. The problem is that all this build-up is merely an excuse for the fx crews and pyro-techincal staff to have a field-day. JJ unknowingly seems to illustrate that when it comes to Star Trek - “the plays the thing” and not the phaser.

One of the odd things that ham-strings this film is the choice of Chris Pine as Capt. Kirk.  JJ reprises his coupling of Mr. Pine with Zachary Quinto as Spock to echo the original pairing of William Shatner as the Captain and Leonard Nimoy the first officer. He got it half right. Quinto can shape the taciturn half-vulcan to his own image whereas Pine is locked into mimicking the original item.  He is neither himself or William Shatner but rather himself aping Shatner. Unfortunately the end result is a talented actor play-acting a histrionic icon.  Whereas there was a professional wrestling bravado to Shatner’s sexual swagger,  Pine seems to be faking it.  He hits his marks but somehow it lacks the levity and camp-believability of the primogeniture.  There is also a dearth of chemistry between the new pair.  A fair amount of the original fan fiction focused on the buried eroticism between Kirk and Spock - as if they were a couple. It would be hard to believe anyone would day-dream about the new pair getting together. Without this elusive bond the events fall into fairly predictable set-pieces of victory being snatched from the jaws of defeat at the final moment. This motif was a Star Trek standby but once again it was the characters bonds which held the show together.  In a sense the whole series might be summed up by a moment in one of the original episodes where the pair return to Vulcan.  Spock and Kirk are forced to fight to the death in order to satisfy the sacred local customs. Spock is beamed back to the ship believing he has murdered his friend and captain. It turns out that McCoy has cleverly given a drug to Kirk in order to feign death.  The denouement occurs when Spock sees his beloved ALIVE.  He breaks his cool Vulcan demeanor and exclaims: “JIM!”  The women who wrote those letters to extend the series weren’t interested in explosions, costumes leading to dramatic rescues.  They wanted to see the way Kirk, Spock and McCoy et al... reacted to EACHOTHER.

The opening sequence of “Into Darkness” illustrates the stark contrast with the original.  The film hits the ground running - literally.  Our heroes are incognito drawing the natives away from a volcano that is about to blow in order to safeguard this developing civilization. Meanwhile back in the center of the volcano Mr. Spock is trying to avert a cataclysmic eruption.  It’s about to blow and the Captain must balance the cumbersome regs and saving his friend.  Don’t forget the ‘prime directive’: there can be no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations. In other words the natives aren’t supposed to see you or know you’re there.... what to do?  Well don’t worry it all works out and the planet is saved and our protagonists triumph... except when they get back to headquarters.  Spock, with his usual ‘missing the forest for the trees’ cluelessness, unknowingly betrays his friend.... literally almost costing Kirk his commission for violating the prime directive.  Contrast this with one of the opening episodes in the original series where Spock deliberately violates orders in order to secure a homeland for his friend, a Capt. Pike.  JJ’s script violates the prime directive of Star Trek: Spock is cold, ruthless and non-human - except when it comes to his beloved friends.  In this case the overall give and take between the new pair makes Spock’s error almost believable. In other words Lenard Nimoy would throw himself on his sword for William Shatner; but Zachary Quinto is less concerned with Chris Pine.... and who could blame him.  They do ‘get along’, in professional way - and it all makes sense, in a professional way.... but where is the magic that made this the most successful movie franchise in the history of cinema?

“Into Darkness” zips along at warp speed: the Federation under attack, Vulcans burning for war, spies are amongst  the crew..... Abrams does an admiral job of translating the original ‘Cold War’ dynamic into contemporary political concerns. The original show cast the Federation as a stand in for liberal democracies.  the Klingons and Romulians were the Russians and Chinese.  Our current dynamic sees us chasing enemies from within; hence an evil Federation Admiral who places his judgement above those of the people his is serving.  The script presents a credible story of what happens when we forget our core values. It has solid action sequences and solid performances... and yet.  I guess I wanted to go “where no one has gone before”. Instead I felt a familiar dull coldness of material produced with calculation rather than heart. It is said that Abrams is going to be involved with a ‘Star Wars’ project. A bean counter would lump ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ as similar Sci-Fi outer space narratives.  A real ‘fan’ of either franchise could speak for hours on the difference. The bean-counter would point to the fact that ‘Stark Trek Into Darkness’ has grossed over $400 million worldwide and was the #1 grossing domestic movie on opening weekend.  Abrams ‘Star Wars’ endeavor might prove equally financially rewarding. Unfortunately it will be equally lacking. I can’t explain... you need to ask the women who started the letter writing campaign.

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