Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Official Black Owl Review of "Star Trek Into Darkness."

Ok, you need to know right now, there's going to be spoilers, oodles and oodles of spoilers.  If spoilers were tribbles they would be pouring out of a grain storage cabinet onto Kirk's head.  If you don't want to be spoiled, let me give you this little bit: there's a few little problems, but I loved it.  If you want to see why, keep reading.  You have however been warned. Spoilers, approaching at Warp 8.  Also, I am going to assume if you do read ahead you HAVE watched the film, so I will comment on the plot points without providing context.  Honestly, if you haven't seen it, just come back later (please).  

You may remember that when JJ Abrams first Star Trek movie came out, I went into it with every intention of hating it.  I WANTED to hate that film, but found instead a savvy and shiny new mythology that played the appropriate service to what had gone before while promising me a bright new future.  That promise almost derailed this film for me. You see, I got advanced word of the true identity of the bad guy.  A whole new universe open to them and instead they want to remake Khan?  I was disappointed.  I wanted new, I wanted to be surprised.

What they did, which I never imagined they could, is not rehash the Khan story, but extend it.  This new universe, and the changes that came about in the 2009 movie, has some unforeseen ramifications, ones that to a degree grow out of what we had seen before.  I want to address more of that later on, but it turned out not to be the Khan story, or the twisted mirror reflections of his story that bothered me at all.  The similarity is part of the story, the events that repeat are inherent to these characters in ANY universe, and to a degree fated.  If you didn't like the fact that the universe WANTS to happen a certain way--as seen in everything from "City on the Edge of Forever" to "Parallels" to "Cold Front" to 2009--then you may not like it here either.  It has however been inherent in Trek storytelling since 1967, so you may want to get used to it.  

Again, I am very impressed with the fact that events in the first film really come into play here.  Kirk as a stowaway cadet saved the world, and Starfleet's a little concerned how cocky that made him.  Old Spock bringing Scotty's "transwarp beaming" equation into this timeframe is being exploited by Section 31.  Spock--and the Federation--is still dealing with the loss of Vulcan and the Narada incursion.  It is not however just Trek 09 that resonates into this film, but the Prime Universe with Spock's warning to his younger self regarding Khan, and indeed the understanding of the Augments from the series "Enterprise."  Patterns of events from other worlds coming into play in this story, and nothing is happening in a vacuum.  Starfleet, and Admiral Marcus are different because of the Narada, while Kirk--who knows he must in fact be Spock's friend following his mind meld with the older version of the Vulcan--is trying to make this universe like the Prime, and not necessarily succeeding.  The ripples travel far in both directions.

The story plays out in such a way as to give us a true evolution of the relationship between Kirk and Spock.  This comes to fruition with each character reacting to a major crisis as the other would have done, or wanted their friend to.  The filmmakers choose to demonstrate this to long term fans by showing a reversal of fates for these two, something that is apparently sitting poorly with many fans.  That's a shame, as I saw it driving home the circumstances rather than aping them; again an extension rather than a rehash.

So what is great in this film?

This film has the two things great Trek before has had: a moral lesson, and a heart.  The moral is one that would at first seem a little behind the times, dealing with how we as a people reacted to the September 11th attacks.  However, recent events have brought that paranoia back to us, haven't they?  As well, the entire plot regarding sitting in neutral territory to send an unmanned weapon into a sovereign power's airspace to kill one of our citizens who turned against us certainly has some resonance.  As much as people tried to tell you Roddenberry Trek was only about our utopian future, that was never quite true.  Trek at its best is an allegory that gets us to examine ourselves, and this story has that in spades.

At the heart of the film is the development of Kirk as a real hero, Spock as his stalwart friend, and the crew as the team that will spend five years going boldly.  Yes, this is a Kirk/Spock film, but everyone gets their moment as well, reminding me of "The Undiscovered Country" in that respect.  McCoy learns how to turn Kirk's death into a fighting chance for life.  Chekov get a chance to get his hands and face dirty holding together a sabotaged engine room.  Scotty becomes a saboteur himself reminiscent of his work on the Excelsior in "The Search for Spock."  Uhura gets to negotiate face to face with the new Abrams Klingons (which are fantastically well rendered).  And Sulu gets to prove he has the mettle to one day have his own big chair to sit in.  There's one more character who goes through hell here, but keeps coming back: The Enterprise.  I have come to really love the design of the Ryan Church Enterprise, and she gets some spectacular scenes on Nabiru, and stands tall after a near death experience in the clouds over Earth.  Perhaps one of the most important relationships we see here involves the Captain and his ship as she holds together under the onslaught of a mammoth Dreadnaught, while he later crawls into her very heart to literally kickstart her.  She doesn't fire a shot in this film, but she proves she will always bring you home, like a lady should.

Then there's the villains, though one could argue there are not villains in this film, but victims of circumstance lashing out.  Peter Weller brings great gravitas to Admiral Marcus both when sympathetic and vicious.  I have more to say about his character later, but his performance is a delight.  Have I mentioned Benedict Cumberbatch yet?  He is truly amazing in this role. I completely believe he is the superior being genetically engineered.  Words like "intensity" somehow don't seem strong enough to describe his performance and physicality as the character we find out to be Khan, himself somewhat victimized.  I could have spent two hours just watching him deliver lines and been pretty entertained.  Thankfully, THANKFULLY, they don't kill him in the end, breaking the trend of damn near every movie I have watched in recent memory (except perhaps Cobra Commander's escape in GI Joe).  When you see him lying frozen again in his tube, it's not like he is a villain subdued; he is rather a lurking threat, just waiting to be unleashed again.

The look of the film is again fantastic.  We get a new Warp effect, and some neat new sets.  I love the new warp core, which is apparently a real particle collider.  Every alien, focused or background is wonderful.  The specific Starfleet uniforms are great, though evocative of the change that Starfleet has undergone, one at the core of the moral center of the film: are we explorers or soldiers?

Little Trek Easter eggs are all through it: models of both the TMP ringship Enterprise and the NX-01 make appearances.  The trade ship Kirk uses to approach Kronos was confiscated in the "Mudd" incident.  Section 31 appearing at all.  Mention of Christine Chapel and the appearance of Carol Marcus.  A tribble!  There's obviously some fans involved here, though perhaps that lends to the problems as well.

So, given all that gushing, why isn't this film perfect?  Though I don't think the Khan plot points come off as a rehash, I DO feel the "Admiral out to help the Federation by subverting its values" is well overplayed.  Marcus eventually comes off as a cross between Cartwright in "The Undiscovered Country" and Dougherty from "Insurrection."  TNG in particular took advantage of the scheming Admiral as a heavy, and THAT to me does feel rehashed.  It does however fit with the story, and the performance is strong. 

Also, Uhura, a very strong character in '09, gets played a little too weepy girlfriend here. She has good moments, but her concern for Spock and that little catch in her voice at the drop of a hat gets really old and relegates her to Spock's girlfriend once or twice too many.

There's some little in-universe nitpicks I have as well: JJ again uses some time compression in his trips between worlds, but that to me is an artifact of his storytelling method, which trims fat.  Not the first time Trek has done that either though.  I also am not sure how the Earth's gravity grabs the Enterprise so quickly when she is obviously at least beyond the moon.  They should have had quite some time there.  I also have to ask why they parked the Enterprise in the ocean on Nabiru rather than keep it in orbit…which would have solved the whole line of sight transporter problem.

Now, I don't usually do this in my reviews, but since I did write this before I watched this film, I feel compelled to answer the complaints I see out there on the boards.  There are things that I don't understand people complaining about.  Yes, everyone is of course entitled to their opinions, but I want to give you why those things didn't bother me.

A lot of people complain about the USS Vengeance being a big ugly ship that looks like the Narada.  It's something the Federation would never build, and an affront to Roddenberry and Trek science.  Indeed, it is big and ugly; that's part of the allegory that we have lost our way due to the need for Vengeance.  Starfleet, Marcus in particular, in response to the Narada, the destruction of Vulcan, the impending Klingon threat, he becomes that which he hates.  Perhaps cliche, it is a powerful allegory, relevant to where we are today, and visualized wonderfully by the USS Vengeance.  It is supposed to be big and ugly, reminiscent of the Narada; that's the point.

I keep hearing that the JJ Universe is not what Gene Roddenberry would have done.  He made a perfect world where humans are explorers and not soldiers, and his crew is infallible.  Really?  "The Omega Glory."  "Bread and Circuses."  "Dagger of the Mind."  "Court Martial."  "Patterns of Force."  All Classic episodes with a corrupt diplomat or Starfleet Officer acting against the Federation's values.  Drama comes from conflict, and Roddenberry loved to wrap his admittedly humanistic message in drama.  Into Darkness, in my opinion, gives us that in spades.

There's a lot of talk about how ridiculous transwarp beaming for Harrison/Khan is to go from Earth to Kronos.  Teleportation is in general a pretty ridiculous concept.  The only reason Trek has transporters at all was to save production costs on the original show.  I liked the fact this was an extension of the last movie, it showed the poor intentions of Section 31 by having them confiscate it for their purposes, and it's yet another indicator that no one is going to push a temporal reset button on this universe; it IS developing differently.  I look forward to seeing how this affects the Federation.  Some people have mentioned it eliminates the need for starships.  How exactly will you use that planetary teleporter when the Klingon battle fleet arrives in your system?

Khan's magic blood.  In the context of the greater Trek universe, we already knew augmented blood/DNA was special.  Star Trek: Enterprise used Augment blood to rewrite the entire Klingon species DNA, explaining Classic Trek smooth-browed Klingons.  In the context of this film, there is no Deus Ex Machina: the film shows us Khan's blood used to repair a Section 31 officer's little girl's diseased body.  Dramatically, it is established, waiting for that thread to be picked up at the end.  My personal interpretation of the incident was not that Khan's blood brought Kirk back to life, but rather that it repaired the cells damaged by radiation.  That's why McCoy has to put him in cryo, to keep his brain from deteriorating.  When people die, it's from a lack of oxygen to the brain.  What ever has "killed" them has somehow prevented oxygen from getting to the brain, hence out current ability to revive someone whose heart has stopped.  Khan's blood will repair Kirk's damaged cells.  McCoy will have to work other miracles to get his heart and brain working again.

Finally, I have seen complaints about the writers just rehashing older, better plots. My personal interpretation which I hinted at above was that this continued to build a new universe for Trek with new stories, while maintaining its interwoven status with the Prime Universe.  I basically see people complaining that it is too different and too derivative at the same time!  Those are strengths to me, giving me the new, nested in the old.  Khan is a great example of that.  Yes, he's British and white.  But he's Khan, new and old all at once, bringing the universes together.  

I suppose I should address that last point as well.  Yes, Khan has been "whitewashed."  If you're going to use one of the most hated and dangerous men in human history in a world where (as we see in the film) everyone's face is catalogued in images, do you think maybe you should indeed change his face?  On classic Trek, McCoy made Kirk look Romulan in minutes.  Surely Section 31 has the ability to change his appearance.  And, if Khan is from India originally, once a British colony where schools in the 20th Century taught British English, we shouldn't be asking why nuKhan speaks with a British accent, but rather why Prime Khan speaks with a Spanish one!

Though not perfect, Star Trek Into Darkness is a very worthy addition to the Trek library and moves this new version along smartly toward where we want to see these characters.  Much as "Skyfall" made me want to go watch "Doctor No," this film makes me want to throw in the first season of Classic Trek.  That's exactly what any new Trek should do, serve as a gateway to the old.  I'm on board.

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