Saturday, April 12, 2014

Star Trek Into Darkness

It's Ongoing Mission:
To Explore Strange New Worlds, 
To Seek Out New Life and New Civilizations, 
And to Shamelessly Retread Where the Old Series Has Already Gone Before.
(Oh, and Lens Flares.  Lots of Lens Flares)

I'm disappointed.

The first Star Trek (Beta Two) did a great job of re-imagining the '60's sci-fi mythos of a 23rd century, and dragging it, shouting and flaring and shaking the camera, into the 21st Century. It shook the faithful, too, reinforced what was great about the series (the characters, frankly) and what wasn't (a little too Hornblower and "Wagon Train to the Stars," too-vintage TV concepts, and the Enterprise corridors always seemed like a circular Ramada Inn). 

The 2009 Star Trek of J.J. Abrams was a game-changer. It completely exploded (and sometimes imploded) the Star Trek Universe that was starting to harden (the way it did with the Star Wars Universe) with continuity. That's the way it goes with science fiction series: everything that seemed fresh in the first go-'round, becomes rote and repeatable and formulaic, given a timeline and a structure, and the creativity becomes more about stretching the budget as opposed to stretching the possibilities, or the minds of the audience.
Star Trek Into Darkness remains true to the Roddenberry vision of over-sexualizing female crew-people.
It was ever thus, with "Star Trek." After its first season and a half, that saw scripts by some of science-fiction's best and brightest, "Star Trek" (the original series) was becoming rote, concentrating on relationships (there was a rotating "crewman-in-love" every week with the exceptions, significantly, of Sulu and Lt. Uhura) and planets that had remarkable resemblances to Earth. When the movies came along, all of them (including the "Next Generation" movies, which had strictly prohibited the habit in its TV run) settled into the "Khan" pattern of having a central antagonist, rather than dealing with a cosmic crisis or ethical problem dictated by a planet's sociological peculiarities.*
Haven't I seen this somewhere before?
But the Star Trek retro-fit changed the rules. By altering the Trek timeline, the series could literally "go" anywhere to the "strange new worlds"—or old ones—of the mission statement from the "series bible." So, for me, it's something of a lost opportunity that the first adventure out of the space-dock is a re-visit, tinkering with a too-obvious choice of what to "fix" and particularly re-writing one of the films to mixed results.

Not that Star Trek Into Darkness isn't fun—let's say that upfront—and never short of entertaining, taking full advantage of the shifted relationships of the Enterprise's new-old complement, but never straying from them that much to incorporate anyone new.  
Maybe there's a rip in the space-time continuum?
This crew is more squabbly than the one from the Shatner-Nimoy-Kelley days. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) have an uneasy truce, still getting to know each other, and wondering why they should take a mutual mentor's advice that their alliance is mutually beneficial. Kirk and Scotty (Simon Pegg, still delightful) are at odds over Kirk's motivations for a trip into Klingon territory and Mr. Scott takes a leave of absence from the crew, briefly, to be replaced by Mr. Chekhov (Anton Yelchin, who is underutilized, and frankly needed the job) as Chief Engineer. And the unlikely romance between Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Spock is going through some warp-turbulence**—seems she thinks Spock is a little too aggressive in doing his duty and passive in accepting death, a nice little argument against the events of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is further touched on throughout the movie.
Oh, that mission across the Klingon Neutral Zone mentioned earlier is to take out a terrorist,
John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, quite brilliant in this),
who seems to be on a personal revenge campaign against Star Fleet, blowing up a London facility, and seeking asylum among the newly imagined bumpy-headed warriors on Kronos. Kirk is charged by the hawkish Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to find Harrison and fire some specially designed photon torpedoes at him with extreme prejudice. 

...or the writer's room is in a chronal loop...wait, is that a tribble?
To say anything more in the way of plot would be to spoil all sorts of little surprises and one big surprise in the film, which would be some sort of violation of the Movie Prime Directive. I say that with some irony as once things start being revealed, the movie doesn't go off the rails, but rather travels a little too closely on them. Oh, it has its own spin, and one that makes a shade more sense than ... Damn. I can't even say that. Let's merely say that for an alternate universe, this one sure provokes a sense of deja vu.*** For me, it seems a bit like the franchise is playing it very, very safe, which is particularly sad after its terrific (and risky) relaunch. Not a good sign, especially as Abrams is moving on (to helm the first Disney "Star Wars" film).  

We need to go a bit more boldly next time.
I said "boldly", not "quickly"

* Even Star Trek: First Contact took the brilliant conceit of a collective-mind tribe like the Borg, and created a never-before-seen "Borg Queen" as its antagonist, diluting the very neat "Borg" concept, in favor of a singular "Bad Guy," who could be defeated. Yeah, but...

** Small trekkie annoyance: Throughout the movie, she calls him "Spock." Aren't they intimate enough that she can use his first name? He has one, and the joke in the series was "You couldn't pronounce it." Okay. But she's an alien linguist.  So, if anyone could... Oh! And another thing—at one point Kirk accuses Spock of "throwing me under the bus."  How archaic a reference is that? Especially considering that seemingly everything floats in this universe. Go ahead, throw him under a bus, it's going to sail right over him! Now, if he'd said, "throw me into the warp-core"...heh, that would have been more appropriate. 

 *** Unrelated to those thoughts, but along the same lines: Cumberbatch's villain is the latest in a recent line of what should now be considered a new movie trope—the villain who lets himself be captured, following in the heels of The Joker in The Dark Knight, Loki in The Avengers, and Silva in Skyfall.  Okay, screen-writers, "you just don't get it, do you?"

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