Wednesday, 22 May 2013


In the tradition of Jack Sparrow:
I am by no means a Star Trek fan (I refuse to call them 'Trekkies' since I've heard they hate the term) although if pressed I couldn't tell you why, given that the various TV series are built around using heavy sci-fi as a means to explore the human condition, something I find fascinating, and also they're full of spaceships, which I also find fascinating in a different sense.  My distaste for the series might simply be down to seeing the wrong parts of it; the one series I've been most exposed to is Voyager, which is apparently the worst of the lot by some margin, and after that I watched a bunch of The Next Generation, which I'm told swings sharply between great and awful.  So, maybe I don't know what good Trek should feel like.
Even so, I'd wager heavily that Star Trek, the pseudo-reboot movie released in 2009, wasn't hitting the sweet spot either.  Deploying a 'parallel universe' plot device to excuse a clean-sweep of the franchise's continuity and bringing back the original series' crew in their rookie years, Trek '09 was a competently made and usually exciting bit of blockbuster filmmaking that neither achieved higher plaudits nor made the effort to reach for them in the first place.  When it wasn't borrowing from the franchise's own history, it was borrowing from Top Gun as Kirk/Maverick gets told off repeatedly because he DOESN'T PLAY BY THE RULES and is a LOOSE CANNON until he (theoretically) gets his act together enough to impress Spock/Iceman.  And also there is a super-old clone of Iceman from the future who tells Maverick how to win because Maverick is too dumb to figure this out for himself.  That last part was omitted from Top Gun when the writers realised it needlessly threw the character under a bus, but the makers of Top Trek left no stone unturned.  Good work there, fellas.
Whatever the case, that film made enough money to warrant an immediate sequel, which became less immediate when JJ Abrams forgot he'd made a Star Trek film (fair enough, I forgot I'd watched it for a good while...) and wandered off to do something else.  Eventually though, Paramount dragged him back, and here we are with the ominously titled Star Trek Into Darkness.  "SHALL WE BEGIN?"

Feel free to stare at this pic for 10 minutes.
That's more than you'll see of Kirk in the gold shirt in the whole movie.
The Plot:  It is once again an indeterminate amount of time since the events of the last Trek, and the crew of the Enterprise have been tooling around doing whatever Starfleet's actual job is in the meantime; as we rejoin them, we find Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) running away from a tribe of body-painted primitive aliens while Spock (Zachary Quinto) takes a techno-bomb into a nearby volcano to cool it down and prevent this new civilisation being cremated.  Alas, by rescuing Spock from the eruption, the Enterprise is seen by the natives, violating the Prime Directive and requiring a new leader of the Autobots be chosen.  Imbued with the Matrix of Leadership, Rodimus Spock proceeds to...wait, no, I've got my notes mixed up here.
So Kirk gets busted down a few ranks, but not so much that he can't still blag his way into a meeting of Starfleet high command assembled by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) in response to a suicide bombing in London.  This attack, though, was just part of a larger gambit, and the meeting is interrupted by disgraced shady Commander John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who kills many of the officers in the room, including Kirk's mentor Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood).  Kirk bargains his way back into captaincy to lead an assassination mission against Harrison, who hides on an off-limits world, but as the Enterprise (boldly!) goes to murder the terrorist, things spin out of control and the crew find themselves embroiled in complicated machinations...

Even remorseless avatars of PURE SAVAGERY find the
UK weather hard to handle without a darling turtleneck.  Bless.
The Good:  The ensemble cast was smartly built in the last movie, and basically everyone returns for this one, which is great.  Chris Pine has the right sort of exasperated responses prepared for every single thing Zachary Quinto does, Karl Urban gets the lion's share of the one-liners and spits them out with droll enthusiasm, Simon Pegg's fake accent still cracks me up and he gets both some great 'hero' moments and actual dramatic acting to handle this time, and Zoe mostly just there, with the Uhura character still kind of occupying the uncomfortable zone between the no-mark telephone operator from the TV series and the more 'empowered' modern woman the filmmakers want her to be but can't quite realise yet.  Still, she gets plenty of lines, and sometimes a gun, so it's not like she's invisible or anything.  Bruce Greenwood also does well with his reprise of Pike, short-lived though it is; he's stuck with some of the worst, most expository dialogue in the script, but he manages to make it sound nearly natural, which is damn impressive.
As for the new arrivals...well, their characters leave a lot to be desired, but the acting is pretty great.  Cumberbatch veers smoothly between glacial calm and leering, lip-curling malice at a rapid rate that somehow manages to feel organic, and he handles himself well in the surprisingly many action scenes required of him.  Peter Weller's odd verbal cadence does give the Admiral's lines a certain ring of authority they'd otherwise lack, and he tries very hard to make the man's train of thought seem believable.  And Alice Eve, stuck with probably the emptiest role of all, smiles and screams and chirps with the best of 'em, which makes me really wish she gets cast in something better soon.
Regular Abrams collaborator Michael Giacchino returns to handle the score, and he's outdone himself again.  He recycles the same gloriously triumphant main titles theme (and ending reprise of the original TV theme) from the last film but works it into scenes in new ways, and he keeps the pace of all the sturm and drang cracking along.  It's hard to overstate just how key Giacchino's input is to how this film works.

Likewise, the various VFX teams worked overtime here.  It's kind of a given that a film like this will be stuffed to the gills with CGI, to the point where it's easy to forget that constructing that material is time-consuming and demands artistry and attention to detail; so a big group hug to all involved for making spaceships, faraway planets, future cities and every other damn thing, and making it so my mind never jars at anything being 'fake'.

Above: Kirk attempts to kill the lens flare, fails.
(also, how does Chris Pine look so much like Philip Glenister here?)
The Bad:  The story is a Roberto Orci/Alex Kurtzman special (Damon Lindelof, late of Prometheus and all its portentous tripe, is also credited but it's hard to see his fingerprints here) so naturally it boils down to a very simple goodies-vs-baddies chase while also being insanely convoluted and difficult to follow on the surface.  It starts off with the Enterprise crew chasing Cumberbatch's character - who, in deference to Abrams' ridiculous marketing schemes, we shall call Mr. E. Box - and then defying orders by capturing him rather than killing him.  Then we learn that a traitor within Starfleet was behind Box' terrorist business and was going to get the crew framed for attacking him in unfriendly territory (the planet Q'onos, misspelled as Kronos in the film) to deliberately incite a war with the Klingons.  THEN, we learn that Mr. Box was counting on the crew to not kill him as part of HIS plan to get some payback and rescue some friends...AND THEN! Spock calls Box a genocidal maniac so Box shrugs and decides to act like a genocidal maniac because...because I guess he always was, but he forgot it earlier while he was playing along and showing compassion for his old comrades?  Argh, I don't know, it's just a lot of narrative confusion masquerading as 'surprise twists' to make the film feel dramatic, but all it succeeds at is confusing the audience and making them wonder who they're meant to be cheering for.
Now, while I stand by the compliments I paid to the cast, the characters they're stuck with are unfortunately either wafer-thin or locked in a holding pattern.  Most of the dramatic meat (if that's what you want to call it) is based around Kirk learning responsibility and Spock accepting his more human side, which would be really interesting if it weren't the exact same arc both had in the last movie.  A movie which wrapped up those arcs well enough, so I guess in the time between then and now both men regressed to their dumber past selves?  How convenient, and shit.  Bones is sidelined to the point where he offers nothing but jokes, save for his participation in the ending (oh, we will get to that later).  John Cho as Sulu gets to sit in the big chair but does nothing whilst there, and he doesn't get a swordfight this time.  Anton Yelchin's Chekhov is demoted to engineering and mostly spends his screentime giving increasingly complicated explanations of 'the engine is broken'.  Admiral Marcus just doesn't carry the weight needed to pull off his second-act reveal, and Carol Marcus is...well, she is certainly in the movie, but when her 2 most notable moments are getting her kit off and having her leg broken, something is clearly amiss.
Hooray for the demeaning portrayal of women in fiction!
And then there's Benedict Cumberbatch, Mr. E. Box himself, who is secretly ~INSERT FANWANK HERE, a reveal so botched I expected the music to pull a little 'womp womp waaaa' noise at Kirk's deadpan reaction to hearing the name.  This whole secrecy schtick around Box has been way overdone, but I could forgive it if the character deserved such attention.  He doesn't.  Box has no real consistent characteristics save for Cumberbatch's appearance and voice, which works great when he's making bold threats but is completely out of place at the points when the script decides Box needs to be sympathetic and - and I can hardly believe this happened - team up with the Enterprise mob against a common foe, something he does with very little hesitation or conflict.  He's just this weird amorphous blob that shifts from one dynamic to the next between appearances, with the only constant being that he's kind of evil, and even that isn't a guarantee.  And that mystery name?  Yes, it is exactly what you've heard it is, or suspected it was, and has no bearing on anything.
The pacing is shot to hell, too.  Whereas Trek '09 might not have been smart, it kept things moving fast, and held together well enough on the surface that the material joining the setpieces together seemed logical at first glance.  Into Darkness manages to shoot itself in the foot almost every time anyone speaks, punching holes in all its connective tissue and killing its momentum stone dead.  That a few of the setpieces feel interchangable with ones from its predecessor ('space-jumping', the Enterprise being caught by a much bigger ship, Kirk and a pal quietly boarding the bigger ship to sabotage it, etc.) doesn't help matters, nor does the baffling decision to follow up the film's most tense sequence with a fairly flat on-foot chase through traffic and call it a satisfying finale.
And then there's the ending...yeah, I know, spoilers, but honestly, if you could read this far and still think this movie's worth seeing for anything beyond research purposes, this won't break it for you either.  Basically, the Enterprise is wounded and crashing, and in order to save it they remake the most well-known sequence from The Wrath of Khan, which is either terribly obvious or stupidly bold depending on how you look at it.  Except this time, it's Kirk who goes into the reactor core and kicks the engine back to life (literally, he kicks it - apparently 25th century spacecraft work on the same principles as second-hand Ford Pintos), then dies as a result, complete with the whole 'touching hands through glass' bit with Spock.  But then the writers chicken out of even sticking with that sequence to the end, and reveal that Mr. Box has magic blood with a Wolverine healing factor powerful enough to raise the dead (foreshadowed by Bones injecting it into a dead Tribble - which makes me consider using 'Bones' Tribble' as shorthand for events similar to 'Chekhov's Gun' except monumentally stupid), thus necessitating that Box be captured alive again so he can potentially return in future.  It is a spectacularly dumb resolution that undermines any gravitas from Kirk's sacrifice - resulting in his 'death' only lasting ten minutes onscreen - and leaves Starfleet going forward with an infinitely-respawning supply of miracle cure blood.  So I guess no-one will ever have to worry about dying ever again in this universe.  There's another reason why this ending is dumb, but I'll leave it to anyone who still feels like seeing it to find out for themselves.
Bonus bad:  Hat tip to the concept artist for the super-ship Revenge.  However daft-looking Nero's Romulan mess of spikes was in the last film, it was at least unique and not just 'the Enterprise again except bigger and black because BWAHAHA EVIL'.
Bonus bonus bad:  Nice work on revamping the Klingons...not so nice that they're around for all of ten minutes and amount to nothing.
"THIS is the script they went with - ?!"
The Verdict:  Star Trek '09 was a thousand miles from perfect, but the ending - quietly promising that the Enterprise crew will be doing something more Trek-like in future - mollified me and kept my whining to a minimum.  Into Darkness fails to deliver on that promise to a dizzying degree, confusing faithfulness to source with haphazard fan service, and it can't even manage to get fan service right.  It's bloated, confusing, contradictory, and time-wasting, to the point where it concludes with the exact same conclusion as the last one.  And why the hell should I believe the same lie twice?  This is what happens when a sci-fi movie tries to get by on heart instead of brains and belatedly realises it has neither of these organs.  It is $200million-worth of Christmas tree lights and empty explosions.  2 out of 10 for mechanical competence and nothing more.
Live long and prosper?  More like die swiftly and be forgotten.
After being wiped out by Cobra Commander in G.I. Joe 2,
London somehow managed to be rebuilt even uglier.

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