Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Space, the final frontier.  These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  Her five year mission: to explore strange new worlds.  To seek out new life and civilizations.  To boldly go where no one has gone before.

(I could not think of a way to talk about this movie without spoiling it.  You have been warned.)

J.J. Abrams' 2009 reboot of Star Trek was (mostly) a triumph of outside-the-box thinking.  Tasked with both honoring the copious continuity of the already-established Star Trek universe, and allowing the beloved characters from the original series to have fresh new adventures, Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman cut the Gordian Knot with a time travel plot that, while it may not have made a lot of logical sense, created a universe which honored the past while not being beholden to it.

Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and company return in Star Trek Into Darkness no longer having to justify their own existence, able to simply have their own adventures, wherever they may take them.  A new threat to Starfleet in the guise of cadet John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) emerges, first blowing up a Starfleet intelligence outpost in London and then, when the top brass gather together to determine how to respond, attacking the meeting and in the process killing Kirk's mentor, Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood).  Harrison escapes to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos and Kirk is sent on a clandestine mission to assassinate him by Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller).  But neither Harrison nor Marcus are what they seem, and Kirk is faced with a series of difficult choices as he slowly uncovers the truth.

Harrison, of course, is no such thing, and is in fact the infamous Khan Noonian Singh, genetic superman and primary antagonist of Star Trek II.  Where the Khan of Star Trek II was completely driven by his hatred of Kirk, this Khan is mostly indifferent towards Kirk, and seeks his revenge against Admiral Marcus, who awoke Khan from cryosleep to help Starfleet develop weapons to use against the Klingons, and holds his colleagues hostage to force him to comply.  Kirk and Khan develop an enmity towards one another as the film progresses, but their relationship lacks the depth that "Space Seed" gave to Star Trek II.

Star Trek (the film) pointed towards a future for this franchise that was free from the series' continuity, that could blaze its own path in whatever direction it desired.  I saw a version of Star Trek Into Darkness that honored this idea, very briefly, when Khan and Kirk team up to take down Marcus' enormous prototype ship in the 2nd act.  That was a scene that said, we do not have to be defined by the past.  Perhaps Khan doesn't have to simply be a villain, perhaps he can be something more than that, a character who exists in an all-too-unusual grey area within the Star Trek universe.  Khan had done terrible things, granted, but so had Marcus, and maybe the script could have figured out a way to thread that needle, to at least partially justify Khan's actions and make him into something different, a character who wore neither white hat nor black hat but could be useful in certain circumstances and would be, going forward, a wild card out on the edges of space, always in the back of our heroes' minds.

But then it all fell apart, as Khan returned to the previous status quo, seeking petty revenge against Kirk and being foiled by the crew of the Enterprise.  "Where no one has gone before", it's the last goddamned words of the intro, the ones right before the music kicks in.  Did no one pay attention to this fact?  Did no one think, at any point, that this movie so thoroughly and completely refuses to boldly go anywhere but the same place that previous people had already gone?  We have Khan running through the same character beats, with a brief respite in the middle before the plunge back into outright villainy.  We have Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), inserted into the franchise at the exact same time point that she was in the first film series, here mostly just taking up space aboard the Enterprise but I swear to God I expected her final scene to reveal her to be pregnant (it didn't, which is something I guess).  We have a death in a radiation chamber, and the film practically begs audiences to be impressed by the fact that it inverts the scene from Star Trek II, putting Kirk in the chamber and Spock angrily screaming for vengeance against Khan as Kirk dies.  And the emotional response to this scene is completely muted given the realities of 21st century blockbuster franchise - there is no way that a second film in a series is going to kill off its hero, so the only reason that this scene exists is to remind audiences of the earlier film.  Everything here, ultimately, relies so much on the goodwill of audiences who loved Star Trek II that it forgets to actually create an interesting and believable story for its heroes to play around in.

In the end, this is a movie that posits that we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, that people are incapable of changing in any meaningful way and we are all fated to play the same roles, in the same way, with the same people, again and again and again.  That would be alright if the film cared to explore that idea with any sort of depth, but this is a movie that seemingly couldn't care less about anything but to make cheap references and remind audiences of an old movie that it actually loved on its own terms, rather than just as one enormous exercise in self-referencing.  Star Trek put together a new cast of actors playing a beloved set of characters, and discovered that those characters could still seem fresh in the 21st century.  Star Trek Into Darkness puts them together again, and weighs them down so thoroughly with the stale remnants of the previous century's stories that it suggests the filmmakers have already given up on the idea of boldly taking this franchise anywhere but backwards.  C-

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