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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Summer Sampler: Fun Movies

This post was originally planned for the 21st to ring in the summer, unfortunately summer decided to ring in by way of a flood event that led to me having to evacuate to higher ground.

Anyway, the evacuation order has been lifted, my apartment is undamaged, and it’s time to embrace summer, with all its fun, up to and including its entertainment.

I made reference in my Star Trek: Into Darkness review to the term ‘fun movies.’ That’s an expression that my family uses for what are effectively B-action/fantasy/science fiction movies that, by rights, should be completely forgettable, but can somehow grab your attention anyway. If they’ve been around a while, they might also be cult classics.

Exactly why this is the case can be hard to pin down. The character arcs are usually cookie-cutter predictability, and if you had to sum up the plot in one sentence, your listener would almost surely say “that sounds terrible.” The stories are usually coherent if simple and probably not apt to stand up to close scrutiny. The acting and dialogue is usually corny.

But somehow ‘fun movies’ seem to always have something that make them enjoyable. In a word, I suppose I’d say ‘imagination.’ Most of the ‘fun movies’ I’ve ever watched have a story, or an aesthetic, or world-building or even a soundtrack that make them greater than the sum of their parts. Crucially, a true ‘fun movie’ should, I think, be fully aware that it’s in no danger of being the major blockbuster of the season, and isn’t going to try to be anything but what it is. On the other hand, while it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it also manages to be engaging because it’s laid-back enough to not stop and make fun of itself as it goes along. Indeed, most of the films I think of as fun movies are not comedies. It’s not a cocktail party with sophisticated music and conversation, nor is it a noisy house party with beer and hard liqour and loud music. It’s more like a cozy evening with a few friends, maybe some board games, chips and salsa, and amiable chit-chat. Just the thing on a geeky summer’s evening with friends or family.

So with that in mind, let me recommend a few of my favourite examples.

Sucker Punch: There’s not a whole lot I can say about it that I didn’t say in one of my early reviews. Indeed, I’m not even sure this surreal adventure of courage and perseverance qualifies under the criteria I just listed. Sucker Punch certainly looks like a fun movie on the surface. But Baby Doll’s harrowing voyage of liberation and sacrifice as she struggles to outwit the forces trying to exploit her body and soul has a streak of profundity that puts it one step above its peers. Still, it is a gripping spectacle with cool music, memorable characters and great action. I recall my Dad (who is a karate blackbelt) noting that somebody clearly went to a lot of effort to figure out how a fighting system that incorporates a katana in one hand and a pistol in the other would actually work. I can see how it can be read as a female-empowerment story, but more broadly it can be read as empowering to anybody who recognizes the power and appeal of imagination.

Van Helsing: Hugh Jackman plays Abraham van Helsing, hatchet man for an interfaith order that combats the supernatural evils that beset the world. Sent to Transylvania to aid the gypsy queen Anna Valerious in her family’s quest for salvation, he confronts his ancient nemesis, Count Dracula, and races against the vampire lord to discover the living product of the research of Doctor Frankenstein before Dracula can harness it for his own wicked purposes.
Van Helsing is an example of what I shall call a ‘Public Domain All-Stars’ story. Van Helsing is a centuries-old action hero with a missing memory, not an aged physician, but he’s still going up against Dracula and his Brides, plus werewolves and the treacherous Igor in the hunt for Frankenstein’s creature, and he’s introduced chasing Mr. Hyde through Paris.
It’s a steam punk adventure film with pretty neat special effects, a theme of redemption and human decency informing it, and an intelligent, charismatic villain well aware of what a bastard he is. It’s best illustrated in this exchange between a prisoner and Dracula:
“I would rather die than help you!”
“Oh, don’t be boring. Everyone who says that dies.”
Its comic relief is also quite entertaining, not least because its source, Van Helsing’s jumpy, nerdy gadgeteer sidekick Karl is played hilariously by David Wenham of all people. The pity is that it was clearly planned to be the first in a series, since the fate of the creature and Van Helsing’s lost memories are left hanging, but even for a fun movie, it wasn’t successful enough. Forsooth.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: In full disclosure, I have yet to read Alan Moore’s comic series, and know full well that the movie that shares its name is not well-liked by fans. For what it’s worth, though, on its own merits the movie is very enjoyable. Like Van Helsing it’s a steam punk Public Domain All-Stars lineup of some of the 19th Century’s most famous literary characters.
Sean Connery plays Alan Quartermain. Spending his declining years in his beloved Africa, he’s dragged unwillingly back to London when bizarre war machines begin raiding the secrets of many nations threatening to tip Europe into all-out war. He is initiated into the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a society of unique individuals charged with hunting down the mastermind. The brilliant and vicious Mina Harker, the suave but shifty Dorian Grey, the conflicted but intelligent Henry Jekyll (oddly enough captured in Paris again), the noble Captain Nemo and his first mate, Ishmael, an invisible gentleman thief, and a certain American, Special Agent T. Sawyer, set forth on a global quest to avert one villain’s apocalyptic and thoroughly tangled plot.
Possibly the great saving grace of this movie is that, given the fundamental silliness of the premise, the actors rise to the occasion and make it a truly enjoyable experience. The talent makes the best of the willfully campy script, although Connery seems to be sending up his own accent throughout. Besides that, the special effects and the late Victorian steam punk visual style are charming. Sadly the writing noticeably breaks down in quality towards the end of the movie. Cap it with an enticingly open ending and all the touches thrown in for the well-read and it’s just…neat.

Hellboy: Another one based on a comic I’ve not read. Hellboy tells the story of the title character, a foundling child from some other dimension, adopted by the leader of a supernatural task force originally founded to counter the occult machinations of the Nazis. A rookie member of this agency is partnered with Hellboy who, now in his young adulthood (he ages much more slowly than a human) both struggles with relationships with his adopted family and must meet a new challenge as the last holdouts of the Nazi occultists, led by their elder, the renegade sorcerer Rasputin, plot to unleash the cosmic horrors from beyond upon the world at last.
Hellboy probably claims the greatest star power of all of these, with Ron Perlman starring, alongside John Hurt and David Hyde Pierce. They’re all old-school actors who always put their best effort forward, and this is no exception. The director made the movie in part to make the point that Perlman, usually a supporting or villainous figure, could be a leading man, and by Jove he can. His hulking demonic character’s sardonic, laid-back personality, oddly childlike outlook and fondness for kittens are so unexpected as to make him quite unique. Add to that the stakes of a mystery-heavy plot making use of the subtle, creepy elements of Cosmic Horror and you have a recipe for a true fun movie.

AVP: Alien vs. Predator: Paul W.S. Anderson is no stranger to adapting video games. The director of the Resident Evil movies brings us an expert mountaineer, brought in to lead an expedition to Antarctica, where Weyland Industries has located the buried ruins of an ancient pyramid. Joined by engineers, mercenaries and archaeologists, she discovers that the pyramid is a relic of an alien civilization, built to facilitate their ritual hunt. Not of humans, but the other iconic horror of science fiction film, which the humans must help defeat or else become breeding stock for this ‘ultimate prey.’
The creatures of the Alien franchise and those of the Predator films have crossed over in video game and comic for years, and the conflict is brought to life with exhilarating action and really excellent special effects and set design in this action flick. The juxtaposition of the Aliens’ disgusting creepy viciousness and the Predators’ badass warrior grandeur is exhilarating. I root firmly for the Predators and watching them slaughter the Aliens and take pride in it is weirdly uplifting.
Our human character is a badass in her own right, and the fact that she’s a capable, independent and intelligent woman of colour in a starring role makes this shallow cheesy action flick more progressive than most every Hollywood A-list title going! Lance Henriksen performs marvelously as the founder of the corporation who overshadows events in the original Alien films. Strangely, it’s almost too bad that the movie is such a love letter to its namesakes. Given the vibrancy and diversity of the cast, to go through the usual Alien motions of slowly killing off everyone but the star is kind of a bummer. If, like me, you have any training in archaeology, a lot of that content in this film will give you a massive headache, but once it wears off you’ll realize you were cheering all the way.

Krull: A cult classic if there ever was one. Released in 1983, Krull is a little like ElfQuest in that it hedges its bets beween being science fiction and fantasy.
The world of Krull is a medieval world of swords, castles and strange ancient magics. But it is under threat from the Beast of the Black Fortress, who descended upon them from the stars to despoil and enslave.
When the newlwed Prince Colwyn’s beloved Princess Nyssa is kidnapped by the Beast to prevent the prophesy of salvation their marriage fulfills, the aged lore master Ynir sends him on a quest to claim the Glaive, an ancient magic weapon, and raise an army of mercanries, with a bumbling sorcerer and a gloomy but noble cyclops for good measure, who risk everything to assail the Black Fortress and defeat the Beast once and for all.
A hero leading a ragtag bunch of misfits to storm the evil tower, kill the bad guy, rescue the princess and save the world. Can’t get much more archetypal than that. Still, the fact that all this occurs in what seems to be a head-on collision between an Arthurian-style epic and a Space Opera makes it unique enough to be memorable. It’s in the same offbeat tradition as contemporaries like Dark Crystal. Personally, I also have a fondness for pre-CGI special effects. Throw in the frankly amazingly awesome score by James Horner and it ends up being really cool. Also, watch for Robbie Coltrane and Liam Neeson as secondary characters!

Cowboys and Aliens: This movie more than any of the others genuinely surprised me. Daniel Craig plays an amnesiac stranger wandering into an Old West cattle town, drawing hostile stares both because he’s apparently a wanted man and because of the strange iron bracelet on his wrist that won’t come off. After picking a fight with the local ranch owner (Harrison Ford) the crowds gather for a showdown just as strange flying machines descend on the town and start whisking people away. The various factions in town put aside their differences to pursue the kidnappers, joined by a mysterious lady who seems to understand these beings and our hero a little too well.
By the time I was a third of the way into this film I was thinking, “Now wait just a minute, who gave this movie permission to kick ass?” Because it does. The characters are shockingly relatable, the dialogue is above-average (slightly) for this kind of movie, and the spirit of ‘we’re all in this together’ that informs the plot and the fact that the final battle runs on actual strategy rather than the winner being whoever the plot needs it to be, makes it worthwile. Olivia Wilde’s nude scene was kind of jarring, beautiful though she is; the aliens’ motivation is pretty bland, and the aliens themselves not terribly memorable (more Men in Black than Star Wars, alas) but the Cowboys side of the equation makes up the difference.

John Carter: Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic John Carter of Mars novels, this is probably the most badly-served movie ever. Its marketing was hopelessly half-hearted and it’s too bad because it is actually really cool.
John Carter is a disaffected ex-soldier and gold prospector on the run from the law in post-Civil War America when he accidentally stumbles upon a secret gateway to another world, Mars, or Barsoom, as the natives call it. Stumbling through this world of conflict and harsh backstabbing politics, he becomes the wild card in an ancient overlord race’s plot to wipe out the peoples of Barsoom and harvest the planet for themselves.
Making friends among different peoples, winning the regard of Princess Deja Thoris, John Carter redeems himself as the savior and uniter of Barsoom.
John Carter is similar to Krull in premise and scope, and Carter is besides a quite faithful adaptation. It lacks the level of bleakness in the original material but pays lip service to it. Deja Thoris is a fairly badass character but generic and two-dimensional compared to the formidable leading ladies of AVP or Sucker Punch. Besides which, the world laid out by Burroughs’ original stories left a big opportunity for racially diverse casting (for the characters that weren’t ten feet tall and/or green at any rate) which was tragically missed. For what it’s worth, though, the story, dialogue and the themes of friendship and unity really make the difference, a weirdly charming cross between Narnia and Mass Effect.

Fun movies are necessarily very subjective, so I make no guarantee about how you’ll feel about any of these. There are others worth looking into: the Diesel Punk adventure Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, camp horror films the Mummy and the Mummy Returns, or Ray Harryhausen classics like Jason and the Argonauts are well worth inquiring after as well.

Have a nice summer.

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Posted by on June 29, 2013 in Movie

 

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Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Star Trek

Since I put my cards on the table in my review of J.J. Abrams so-called Star Trek film Into Darkness, I feel that, as a fan, I should explain for those only broadly aware of Star Trek where I’m coming from and how we got here.

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Star Trek is so ingrained into the popular consciousness that you can ask someone to draw the starship Enterprise and they probably can even if they can‘t remember ever seeing it. Along with Star Wars and Doctor Who, it is one of the benchmarks of popular science fiction and has a storied history behind it.

In the mid-1960s air force and LAPD veteran Gene Roddenberry presented Paramount with a new, idealistic vision of the future, reflecting both the sky’s-the-limit spirit of its time and the grand adventure of Flash Gordon or Horatio Hornblower.

And so was born Star Trek, which, while the first series had its intended ‘five year mission’ cut short by executives, proved a late bloomer in popularity and has since swelled into a franchise incorporating twelves films, five television shows, and a vast range of paperback novels, comics and video games.

The shows that form the core of it proceeded thusly:

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Star Trek: aka Star Trek: the Original Series or TOS was the first, obviously. In the 23rd Century, the Enterprise is a starship of the United Federation of Planets, dedicated to exploring unknown worlds, making contact and forming good relations with alien civilizations. Captain Kirk, Science Officer Spock and Doctor McCoy form the core of a diverse team who tackle the dangers and wonders of these discoveries. Often, they play the tense games of a Cold War against the militaristic Klingon Empire.

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Star Trek: the Next Generation, or TNG skips ahead 70 years to a new crew on a successor Enterprise, led by Captain Jean-Luc Picard to continue the mission of their predecessors, confronting personal conflicts and political puzzles, as well as new tensions with the sly Romulans and fascistic Cardassians, while far beyond the Federation, the implacable Borg Collective threatens sentient life as they know it.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or DS9 overlaps with TNG, taking us to a remote outpost, the space station Deep Space Nine, where world-weary widower Commander Ben Sisko leads the Federation efforts to help reconstruction and integration of the people of Bajor, lately freed from oppressive Cardassian occupation. Selected by the alien energy beings who are as gods to the Bajorans to be their emissary, Sisko pulls together dispirate elements of Bajor, the Federation and the station community to set an example for cooperation, even as a shadowy new power, the Dominion, creeps into their affairs and threatens to make Bajor the centre of a war that will engulf the galaxy.

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Star Trek: Voyager features Captain Katherine Janeway of the starship Voyager and her ad hoc crew. Sent in pursuit of a group of anti-Federation colonists, both groups are swept up and carried to the Delta Quadrant, seventy years distance from home. Pooling their resources under Janeway’s leadership, both crews begin to integrate and begin the journey home. As they go, they make new friends, new enemies, fight the Borg on their own turf and challenge the limits of Starfleet ideals as they face these obstacles alone.

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Star Trek: Enterprise is a prequel series. Captain Jonathan Archer leads the first crew to go on a mission of exploration. As they do so, they learn the basic principles which will someday drive the Federation, learn to fight and to be at peace as needed, and become the wild cards in a fair few interstellar conspiracies.

The great thing about Star Trek in most every form it took was that it embodied a progressive and positive vision of humanity and its future. This is most obvious in the Original Series, where, among other things you have a crew of senior officers including a Russian, an Asian and a black woman. This seems quaint now but at the time their mere presence was revolutionary. Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura, was so revolutionary that, when expressing an intent to leave the show, was talked out of doing so by none other than Martin Luther King! Her example inspired Whoopi Goldberg (who famously screamed to her entire household ‘come quick! There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!’) to enter acting. Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, likewise took inspiration from Uhura.

TOS and TNG both used analogies for current poltical issues like the Cold War, displaced peoples, cultural meddling and personal liberties. These dilemmas were almost never a case of shooting the bad guy. Wits, not weapons, were the choice tools for many situations. When fighting did take place, it was usually when no other choice was at hand (although it might explain why Trek battles often seemed dreadfully stilted). TOS episodes like “Let That Be Your Last Battelfield,” “Errand of Mercy,” “Day of the Dove” and “Balance of Terror” are among my favourites and all cover different angles on this.

The sad thing about TOS, alas, is that all anybody remembers about it is stuff like this:

TOS was born in the midst of 60’s camp culture, and a lot of the ways it tells its stories arouse contempt today. A principle gripe I, my fellow WordPress blogger Lady Geek Girl, and others hold is that Abrams’ films seem to be building on the pop-culture stereotype of Star Trek, not on actual Star Trek.

Enjoy or ignore the camp as you please, but you can reliably find the point they were trying to make about peaceful coexistence, futility of conflict, or any of the other Star Trek morals. From a historical perspective, it’s now a fascinating look into the culture and ideas of the period it came from. Crucially, the friendship dynamic of Kirk, Spock and McCoy carried the series through deep analysis of what being human meant, a dynamic recreated time and again in later series.

TNG brought things up into the 80s-90s and continued the tradition of challenging and cautionary tales, interspersed with rollicking adventure and comic relief. The concept of the Prime Directive of non-interference was brought to the fore and used to create a moral dilemma that resonates with a globalizing world to this day. Whereas TOS lived in a black and white age and was determined to paint some grey on it, TNG explored various shades of grey in a post-Cold War period.

Up to this point, Star Trek was doing well but was in definite danger of stagnation. The series’ episodic structure limited character development and forced a certain shallowness on the setting (although this improved later in TNG). The writing had evolved a lot by the time TNG ended in 1994 but could still be a little pretentious and certain plot-convenience fallbacks like the holodecks were beginning to get a little too frequent. Still, it did introduce Q and the Borg as recurring villains, which drove some of the most memorable stories like “Best of Both Worlds,” and the performances of a well-balanced cast led by Patrick Stewart secured its widely-held status as the best Star Trek series.

Deep Space Nine represented a change toward a darker and more cynical spirit. It started out with a TNG leaning toward political intrigue, and put a twist on by keeping the show in one place and making an ongoing arc. By going out to the Federation’s frontiers, it started deconstructing a lot of the utopian vision of Star Trek, both showing that there must always be exceptions and compromises, and suggesting that the Federation has gotten a bit cocky about its own wonderfulness. DS9’s female characters also achieved new heights. TOS and TNG had tried at that, but a certain chauvinism still haunted them. The fact that Counsellor Troi was arguably TNG’s least-well written (and, for no apparent reason, least-dressed) main character reflects this. While TNG is often regarded as the best series, Deep Space Nine produced a number of Star Trek’s best-regarded episodes.

Its main failing was that its writers, keen to give their show the cutting-edge morals of its predecessors, started tackling religion seriously for the first time, but often muddled it a bit, due to either timidity or ignorance. Still, it had shown the best character development, the dialogue became more naturalistic and it brought in a Captain of colour to Star Trek’s roster.

Voyager had a lot of potential to challenge Federation ideals further, throwing a Starfleet crew and a group of rebels together in a near-hopeless situation. It was a series with a million good ideas but a return to episodic format and inconsistent writing kneecapped it almost immediately. When Voyager was good, it was very good, but it wasn’t good often enough. Characterization was either hopelessly static or all over the place. The introduction of the first female captain was undercut because the writers couldn’t get straight what kind of person she was. Her actress, Kate Mulgrew, has remarked that she often thought Janeway seemed to be mentally unstable. Several other actors in the series also voiced dissatisfaction with the writing. The aliens encountered got quite bland after a while, and the Borg, once the shadowy menace from beyond, devolved into a common and easily-evaded nuisance. The introduction of Seven of Nine, a liberated Borg, represented a new exploration of the human condition in the tradition of Spock and Data, but it kept getting snarled up in the agenda of showing off the actress’s cleavage.

I didn’t stick with Enterprise for long. After four previous series it seemed very by-the-numbers; the Captain had gone back to being an all-American white guy and a few quite interesting stories early-on were outnumbered by numerous frantic attempts to recapture the glory days, goofing around or playing to the cleavage-seekers. It got worse when the second season introduced a massive attack on Earth and our heroes rush off into the galaxy to seek the evildoers. This was a couple of years after the World Trade Centre was destroyed, keeping in line with the popular spirit of the times. But Star Trek is supposed to examine and even subvert the popular spirit. After an attempt to reinvent itself, Enterprise quietly passed away.

In fairness to those who thought Trek a bit tacky, some signs of rot were showing early on. Being the work of many hands, Star Trek had trouble staying consistent. In world-building details like the exact logic of the Prime Directive, the cultural minutiae of the Vulcans or Klingons, and how exactly Federation society and Starfleet protocol work, the writers couldn’t seem to make up their minds. TNG started to show the first signs of pushing morals that the story writers didn’t think through properly, or else were ham-fistedly executed. Increasing reliance on techno babble and recycled plots like holodeck and transporter malfunctions began to look pretty absurd, and there‘s only so many times you can do aliens who look exactly like humans with weird foreheads. Oh and I might add, civilian clothing in Star Trek always looks bloody ridiculous. With Enterprise they even started ignoring their own canon and coming up with events that didn’t gel with the other series.

And sadly, after a while, the commentary at the heart of Star Trek started to fizzle. The marketing image of a sci-fi fan as a sexually repressed male meant that profound stories of the human condition occupied the same space as a lot of fan service, the plots and morals started to repeat themselves to the point of meaninglessness, and TNG, DS9 and Enterprise brushed up against LGBT issues but never seemed to work up the nerve to tackle them head-on.

I stand by what I said before, that the Star Trek reboot is futile if it doesn’t maintain the franchise’s original mission statement; let me amend by saying that I think rebooting Star Trek is futile anyway. It’s not because Star Trek isn’t worth it. It’s because Star Trek is over. It’s run its course. There’s no place left to boldly go. It did great and memorable things but eventually ran out of steam. Anything it couldn’t do (or didn’t do properly) has been left to others. A lot of the potential Voyager in particular had was achieved later by shows like Farscape and Firefly.

I love Star Trek. I miss the days when an optimistic vision of the future was the going thing. But it told its stories, it made its mark. Rather than trying to resurrect it incompletely, better to remember it for everything that made it a classic and bid it a respectful farewell.

“I have been, and ever shall be your friend. Live Long, and Prosper.”

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2013 in Saturday Supplemental, Television

 

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Star Trek: Into Badness

This is probably the most difficult review I’ve written so far.

Well, half an hour just passed and I’m only now writing a second line, so you see what I mean.

See, I’ve been a Star Trek fan more or less my entire life. The odd thing is that being a fan of something seems to automatically invalidate one’s opinion when you find fault in the direction it chooses to take. That being the case I’m going to have to work very hard to make a clear distinction between what I see as shortcomings as a story and shortcomings as a piece of a franchise in J.J Abrams second Trek-reboot film.

That having been said, Star Trek: Into Darkness is a load of piffle.

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Notice all those stars for us to go explore? Me neither.

In the 23rd Century, the crew of the Enterprise are threatened with being disbanded, but just as Kirk loses his captain’s position, Starfleet suffers a massacre of its top brass by Khan, a genetically engineered terrorist left over from Earth’s war-torn past who then flees to the Klingon homeworld, sending Kirk and crew in pursuit, risking war with the Klingons. Kirk, Spock and company begin to notice some inconsistencies in their mission which leads to a conspiracy within Starfleet to militarize itself in response to the aggression of the Klingon Empire and a blood-soaked coverup resulting therefrom.

Believe it or not I actually caught myself enjoying Into Darkness every so often. Kirk shows signs of a character arc: he wakes up to the fact that Starfleet isn’t about revenge, even if he has a personal stake; there’s balancing between Spock’s by-the-book logic and Kirk’s screw-the-rules-I’m doing-what’s-right and the acting isn’t too bad. Zachary Quinto seems to have studied Leonard Nimoy’s performance very carefully. I thought that Simon Pegg did well, despite the fact that I usually can‘t stand him. And I was pleasantly surprised that in this whiz-bang explodey action flick it was considered acceptable for male characters to cry or say they’re scared without it being comical. Intentionally, anyway.

The Original Star Trek was very progressive in the 60s but has noticeably dated since then, so a lot of scrutiny was placed on its ability to get with the times. Zoe Saldana’s performance as Uhura is a major sticking point. Uhura’s mere presence on the original Enterprise was a huge deal in its day, but she never got a day in the limelight. She certainly does now, but the writers display a lack of boldness in choosing ways of involving her. She’s a love interest – for Spock, no less – and most of her role is representing Spock’s human half. That is, her character is defined by the man in her life. And, though this was in the previous movie, we were apparently required to see her in her underwear at some point. It happens again in Into Darkness with Alice Eve’s character, where for no particular reason we have to see Kirk ogling her in her undies.

It bespeaks a lack of confidence in the characterization, and apart from issues of female objectification, It’s insulting that Abrams and co.’s opinion of us as sci-fi fans is so low that they think this has to be in here just to make us watch the movie.

I got excited when the crew were confronted with a team of Klingon commandos and it fell to Uhura (a linguistics expert) to talk their way out of it, which would have shown her agency in the crew and been a very ‘Star Trek‘ thing to do. Except it doesn’t work. The Klingons just decide to attack anyway and then Benedict Cumberbatch swans in and starts shooting things.

Which reminds me: Cumberbatch as Khan Noonien Singh, who was of course the villain of the Original Series episode “Space Seed” and the film Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan. Abrams claimed for a while he was playing someone named ‘John Harrison’ but I can’t believe anyone fell for that, because what kind of name for a villain is ‘John Harrison,‘ honestly?

Anyway, I was all prepared to get angry about the fact that we’ve regressed from casting Mexican Ricardo Montablan as Khan and passing him off as Indian to Khan being played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is even whiter than I am (no small feat, since we’re both redheads) but it turns out I was wrong: Benedict Cumberbatch is not playing Khan. He’s playing Benedict Cumberbatch. Or rather, the fan girl ideal of him.

Seriously, I am not at all convinced that Abrams cast him because he was the best for the role; it’s because he wanted to showcase him. He fights like Jason Bourne, Space Marine, he monologues in that hypnotic voice of his, sheds manly tears and stares intensely at the camera with his big beautiful eyes. And I swear this is true: his ‘game on’ moment is him donning a swishy black coat with a turned-up collar. At that point I lost all decorum and cried, “Ye gods, Abrams, you’re not even trying, are you?”

Which segues nicely into the biggest problem with Into Darkness’s storytelling. There’s plenty of action, dramatic moments and twists, which is fine. A good story uses those elements to build a compelling plot and characters. A bad story, which I submit this is, is one which uses the plot as an excuse to stitch together a lot of action and mawkish drama scenes. Taken in context only with themselves, there are some excellent scenes in the film, but in the larger story they don’t work because I don’t have a feeling of them having been earned by anything previous.

Kirk suffers a lot for this: in some scenes he’s principled, sometimes he’s a jackass, at others he’s a bad boy, and others he’s an action hero. The character development does happen, but it’s very stilted and abrupt. Spock’s human vs. Vulcan conflict isn’t so much middle ground as it is flipping a switch back and forth as the plot demands. Khan, despite how he’s played up, is utterly two-dimensional.

There was something about Kirk’s arc that didn’t add up to me: this journey of growth and learning might have worked if he wasn’t already the commander of a ship. These are the struggles of someone working to earn a position of power and responsibility, not someone who already has it, or indeed expects to keep it. Again, Abrams couldn’t make the things he wanted to happen happen if Kirk wasn’t the captain so he had to snap the willing suspension of disbelief to bits to get him there.

All of this, I believe, is visible whether or not you are an initiate of Star Trek. Now I want to make a point as a fan. This is a fun movie of action, adventure and suspense. But the problem is: it’s not Star Trek at all.

I think I’m an unusual case as fans of the Original Series go because I don’t embrace the cheesiness. I’ve been a Trekkie for about as long as I’ve been able to walk so by the time I was old enough to notice the camp I just rolled with it. I actually find calling attention to it quite irritating because I want to engage with the stories and constantly calling it out it is like kicking the back of my seat.

I bring this up because even by 60’s standards the dialogue is mind-numbingly corny. The climax is in the tender life-or-death moment between Kirk and Spock that ends with a line that makes the “NOOO!” at the end of Revenge of the Sith seem like Shakespeare.

I said earlier that the actors are actually quite adept but nothing could save the lines they have to deliver. Relegating Dr. McCoy to the support cast in favour of Uhura was an understandable choice to break up the all-boys club, but what shocks me is that McCoy, Scotty and Chekhov aren’t new takes on the characters or glimpses into their early days. Every word they say is a parody of their characters. Chekhov’s accent, McCoy’s contrariness, and Scotty’s hysteria are played for cheap laughs every step of the way. The continuing presence of Leonard Nimoy’s alternate-Spock as an exposition dispenser is at once shameless pandering to the fans and a convenience to keep the plot moving where it has no business doing so.

While action was never forbidden in Star Trek, it was never the point, and it was always used sparingly, while ideas and friendships were the main forces behind the story. It’s bewildering that both movies end with the famous “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations,” because the characters are never shown doing that, and Kirk isn’t characterized as the kind of person who would aspire to it. Peace, learning, new horizons and the enriching spirit the Federation was meant to idealize isn’t evident.

The action itself is frequent and thus cheap, and Abrams’ continuing love affair with bloom and lens flare means I have trouble seeing most of it anyway.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve misunderstood what Abrams is doing. I thought the idea was to refresh and reboot Trek for a new generation, but there’s so much callback to the Original Series, including, at points, ripping off Wrath of Khan literally word for word, taking for granted we know who the Klingons are and parodying old standbys like McCoy’s “Dammit Jim!” that wouldn’t make sense unless you’re already a fan. And there’s so much he could have fixed about the Original Series: the corny dialogue, the sexy fan service, the plot-convenient technical failures, but they’re all still here while the idealism, intelligence and character depth are what’s been removed! And it disturbs me that newcomers to the franchise might look at this and read it as saying, “Laugh at this stupid, stupid show we all used to watch!”

To my friends who enjoyed it, I see where you’re coming from. It falls under the heading of what my Dad calls ‘fun movies;’ light but exciting flicks in the vein of Alien vs. Predator or Van Helsing, and as a Trekkie, I’d love for you to come play with us, I just feel this is the wrong first impression.

To my fellow Trekkies who liked it, because at least the franchise is carrying on and that it is fun and exciting, I understand 100% where you’re coming from, but is this really all you want? There are constellations of action sci-fi movies out there, indeed a whole six films devoted to Wars among the Stars. What is the point of calling this Star Trek if it takes out everything that made Star Trek unique and solves none of its problems?

In summary, then, Star Trek: Into Darkness is a movie that has glimpses of good ideas and is fun, but all the good is stitched together in a disjointed patchwork that carries no weight and is washed out by excessive explosions. The characters belong on a college campus, not a ship’s bridge. The contrived melodrama, half-stolen plot and over-the-top action is like – no, is – the very dorkiest of fan fiction. And calling it Star Trek is meaningless if we’re not going to maintain the franchise’s mission statement:

“To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before…”

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2013 in Movie

 

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