Thursday, June 5, 2014

Star Trek Into Darkness - the Ultimate Problem

The thematic core of Star Trek Into Darkness is the friendship of Kirk and Spock.  Star Trek is an ensemble, but Kirk and Spock have been the focal point since very early in the original series – the wild, irreverent emotional spectrum of Kirk vying against the logic and calm demeanor of Spock and the way they grow to understand one another to become the closest of friends.  It’s a wonderful dynamic that evokes many heartfelt, and human, moments within the crazy – and sometimes not so crazy – ideas of its science fiction milieu.    

So, it seems to make sense to focus on this important relationship with the second “new” Star Trek film … if one does not consider the fact that these are different characters.

The primary emotional beat of the original Wrath of Khan (the original second Trek film to which this second new film calls back, often with too heavy a hand) is an intensely touching moment between Kirk and Spock, after Spock has sacrificed his life to save the Enterprise.  It works, incredibly well.  Why?  Because the weight of this friendship has been built up over the course of dozens of episodes from the original series.  Fans got to watch the relationship

between Kirk and Spock evolve and grow and became invested in it through all those hours of television.  There is a history for these two characters, as imagined by William Shatner (that’s for you, Brad) and Leonard Nimoy, which allows for just such a cathartic scene.  We, the viewers, have grown to love these characters just as they have grown to love one another, and to see that all rent asunder by Khan – who, it should be noted, also has a history with these characters from the original series – hits us in the gut.  It’s tragic. 

J.J. Abrams and co. thought it would be good to rehash this with Into Darkness.  They understood there were new fans to the franchise, but they also knew that many of the diehard fans who’ve been along for the Trek ride all these decades would also be in attendance when the movie opened.  I think they counted on that.  And I think they counted on those fans imbuing the same emotional intensity with the new Spock and Kirk as they had with the classic characters, though there is a part of me inclined to believe they didn’t think anything through at all, other than:  KHAN!!!!!!  That, ultimately, is where they failed. 

***SPOILERS FOR Into Darkness AHEAD***

As I stated above, these are new characters.  They have only been on one mission, as far as the audience is concerned.  We have not grown with these characters, as we did with the classic Kirk and Spock, and so, there is no emotional release when Kirk sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise, eliciting a raw emotional rage from Spock that lands flat.  Flat.  Flat.  Flat.   


Again, I must compare this new iteration of Trek to the reboot of DC Comics – the new 52.  Like the new 52, this new Trek reshuffled everything, created a divergent timeline that kept all of the history of the Enterprise and its crew intact (which, if you believe Dan DiDio, is actually not a possibility within the new 52), and could have moved off in a brand new direction.  Each company responsible for these initiatives proclaimed how different the new status quo would be.  (And though I find the new 52 to be an abject failure, aesthetically speaking, I must commend DC Comics for continuing to try and publish books in myriad genres other than superheroes). 

And yet, they have crafted stories reliant upon the decades of backstory already built up, which is supposed to have nothing to do with these new versions of familiar characters. 

By way of example:  Forever Evil.  We are not quite three years into the new 52 initiative – certainly not enough time to build up the relationships necessary for many emotional beats that might have more weight given a fifty or seventy year history of a particular character, especially when stories are stretched across multiple issues rather than the single issue stories (or multiple stories within a single issue) prevalent in the golden and silver age of comics.  But, with the culmination of this series, the big bad turns out to be the Anti-Monitor. 

o_O  What??????

This “reveal” has no impact unless one has read Crisis on Infinite Earths from 1985, and even then, that story is no longer canon within DC continuity because of the new 52 reboot.  Star Trek does this same thing with Into Darkness, declaiming about these new characters who can surprise us, while relying heavily upon the continuity set up by the classic characters.  Infusing an emotional tether onto new characters because they have a tenuous connection to well-known classics … that doesn’t work. 

The other piece of this equation pertaining to the relationship of the new Spock and Kirk can be viewed through the lens of the Star Wars prequels.  In those films, particularly the second and third ones, viewers are told that Anakin and Obi-Wan are good friends and as close as brothers.  Yet, we never actually see them interact in a way that might suggest this (remember:  show, don’t tell).  There was that opening film, then we got an older Ani and Obi-Wan but were given none of the experiences that formed this supposed friendship.  It didn’t work. 

Compare this with the real Star Wars films.  (yeah, I went there)  In that first film, Han and Luke must blast out of Mos Eisley, make their way through the Death Star without being caught, save Princess Leia from the detention block, make their way back to the Falcon (after escaping from the trash compactor and evading Storm Troopers), launch their way off the Death Star, and are then forced to battle with the Death Star at the rebel base on the fourth moon of Yavin, wherein Han appears to leave with his reward but returns to shoot out of the glare of a star and take out Vader’s Tie Fighter, allowing Luke to blast the Death Star and win the battle of Yavin IV.  Star Wars is two hours of action, and through all of those obstacles the bond between Luke and Han strengthens, even as we move to Hoth in Empire.  It was a neat trick that George Lucas and his fellow creators pulled off, making us believe in the strong friendship of Han, Luke, and Leia, with merely two hours to do it. 

Abrams and co. failed in that respect, and the entirety of Into Darkness fell apart for me.   


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Star Trek Into Darkness - what didn't work

I really wanted to love Star Trek Into Darkness.  And there were many things I enjoyed in this film, as noted in the first part of this short series.  But, overall, it completely fell flat for me. 

1.      First:  where the hell were Bones, Uhura, Scotty, and Chekov?  Yeah, they were in the film, but their roles were so diminished that it felt as if they were totally absent and, for the most part, superfluous with regard to the overall narrative.

Into Darkness and the 2009 reboot, Star Trek, had similar run times, but that first one felt like all the characters had their parts to play – integral parts to play – and we also got to know them as characters, with many older fans filling in what we knew of the original crew to accentuate them just a bit.  Certainly, that was essential to that first film, but it’s important to note that it was something the filmmakers achieved, admirably so.  But with this second one, they focused on the friendship of Spock and Kirk, which is the thematic core of Into Darkness, while leaving the rest of the crew to flounder about while the writers attempted to shoehorn them in somewhere.  As a result, the rest of the crew felt tacked on, unnecessary, and though Kirk and Spock are the centerpoint of the franchise, focusing in on them, at the expense of the other characters, missed the point of what makes this fictional universe special.
2.      Khan’s introduction:
For anyone who didn’t see the ads for Into Darkness, thankfully we got an overblown, ominous musical cue when Benedict Cumberbatch’s character was introduced.  Nothing like hitting the audience over the head with an orchestral hammer.  This was irritating.  And it seemed a missed opportunity.  We learned that Cumberbatch was given an identity that incorporated him into Starfleet, and wouldn’t it have been great to believe him to be one of the “good guys” and then have him turn?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  And probably not a fair argument, but the heavy-handedness of his introduction was the first, big indication that I was in for a ride I probably would not enjoy.

3.      Kirk is demoted for, what, two minutes:
This quote-unquote plot point … this one really irked me.  If you’re going to shake things up, so to speak, in a fairly significant manner, then just go for it.  Don’t pussyfoot around and ostensibly change it, only to have it revert back to the status quo minutes later.  You’re cheating your audience, and you offer them nothing within the overall narrative when you do this.  Revealing character comes through how they handle adversity, through action and consequence.  With this quick scene from Into Darkness, there was no real consequence for Kirk, not if it wasn’t a lasting consequence.  One might argue this demotion is the reason Kirk took responsibility later in the film (which yields no result, since Admiral Marcus doesn’t care to offer mercy to Kirk’s crew), but it did not ring true because of the limited time span of the demotion.  It wasn’t earned, and even if many in the audience were unable to articulate that point, there were many who realized, in an intuitive sense, that something was wrong.

4.      Khan was hyper-intelligent …
and he put his crewmembers into photon torpedoes to hide them, and eventually save them.  Chew on that one for a bit.
5.      Carol Marcus:
Did she have a purpose in this film?  Other than showing off her futuristic underwear?

So, what point did that scene (the underwear scene) serve?  None.  We already knew Kirk was a cad, a womanizer.  Ummmmmm.   Nope.  I got no other reason for it.  Moving on.

Marcus was able to get onto a major starship merely by lying to the captain that she had orders to be there?  (It’s possible I missed something here; so correct me, if that’s the case).  This was a major naval vessel (or at least a major starship within a large corporate-type entity).  There have to be protocols for accepting new crewmembers.  And, yes, Kirk isn’t one to stand on protocol, but it completely undermined his character.  If he was deemed responsible enough, even with his inability to follow regulations to the letter, for the captaincy of the Enterprise, Kirk must have shown some semblance of this responsibility before.

This just irritated me.  It circumvented any kind of rules already set up in this fictional universe.  Like Highlander III, where Wesley Snipes’s character fought on holy ground, just because he was super-evil, you can’t break the rules of your fictional reality without breaking the narrative.  It’s like a first grader’s superhero story, where whatever needs to happen just happens, because it has to happen.  Rules are set up to keep writers honest, but also to infuse their narratives with obstacles that require thought and ingenuity, rather than the laziness evinced in this scene, and many others.

6.      The Two Spocks:
Continuing on from setting up rules, only to break them.  When new-Spock contacted classic-Spock, he (new-Spock) asked about Khan.  Classic-Spock began his response with the disclaimer, which I’ve paraphrased:  “I said I would never share information from our timeline…”  This is supposed to make it suspenseful, I guess.  But then, immediately, he followed the disclaimer with a big BUT, and then went on to share information about Khan.  Just.  That.  Easy.

This wasn’t suspense, or drama.  This was, again, just ignoring the rules because it was too difficult to figure out how to inventively get around this obstacle.  Poor writing.

7.      Don’t allow accidents to get your characters out of a jam:
This happened at least twice, that I remember.  First, we had Bones and Carol Marcus go down to a planetoid to disarm one of the torpedoes.  When Bones inadvertently armed it, Marcus had thirty seconds to stop it from detonating.  She opened an access port, began acting as if she knew what she was doing, and, ultimately, just ripped the thing – whatever it was – out of the access port … amazingly shutting it down just in time.  There was no ingenuity, no expertise exhibited by Marcus, just stupid, dumb luck.  *sigh*

And then we had Scotty on Admiral Marcus’s ship.  Lucky for us.  (wipes brow)  Now, I’m sure there are some who would argue this is a result of actions and decisions made by characters beforehand.  But the path for Scotty to get here was so intricate and relied on so many little “chance” occurrences, along with the fact that so much else, up to this point, happened that I found wrong-headed, that it felt too neatly tied up.  Sure, this is something we expect from our fiction, but it also needs to feel natural.  This did not. 

Call this sour grapes, or whatever platitude you want to insert here, but my reason for getting this down is to examine why Into Darkness didn’t work for me, from a writer’s point of view.  What lessons can I take from the movie?  And are these the correct lesson?  [Feel free to interject and offer counterpoints to my own above.  I’m not closed against being persuaded I’m wrong] 

That said, I have one more piece in this short series to share, which will tackle the biggest problem I found in this film.  That will be next. 


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Star Trek Into Darkness - what I liked

STAR TREK - the 2009 movie that rebooted the Star Trek universe, from J.J. Abrams & co. – was one of my favorite movies of the past few years.  I saw it in the theater and had chills as soon as I heard that first ping, before anything other than a star field was onscreen.  Loved it.  The story took parallel timelines and made it work.  The audience was given slightly altered, but still recognizable, characters.  And the goodwill that came from this reinvention afforded these creators the opportunity to go off in whatever direction they wanted. 

But, as with the “New 52” relaunch from DC comics, it appears Abrams, et al. merely want to rehash what has come before, rather than attempt something bold or inventive, as evidenced by Star Trek Into Darkness

I wanted to love this movie.  I think Benedict Cumberbatch is a great actor.  I love science fiction (and am a fan of the original Trek) and have been left wanting more with much of the recent sci-fi filmic fare (see:  Prometheus).  Even with the backlash online, I was ready to be a contrarian (by way of example:  despite its flaws, and there are many, I love Return of the Jedi). 

But no … didn’t happen. 

[tangent:  Sure, this piece will look like click-bait.  Fair enough.  But, for me, someone who writes and is always trying to learn and improve and make my own stories better, this is an exercise in trying to parse out what it is about this movie that did not work for me.  And, by putting it out here on the internet, it is possible someone with a different point of view will read it and offer some counterpoints that might allow me to re-evaluate Into Darkness.  Maybe that’s an overreach on my part, but it would nice if that happened.]

First:  what did I enjoy about this movie? 

A lot, actually.  The scenery and effects were wonderful.  The starships felt very much a part of this futuristic world.  They had weight and dimensionality and belonged in this milieu.  In short, they felt real.  And the settings also, with the possible exception of the area on Kronos where Khan is hiding, felt fleshed out in a way that allowed you to immerse yourself in this world and this story.  Similarly, the costuming of the crowd scenes on Earth was very well done.  The fashions were different enough to feel futuristic, while also being recognizable enough that, again, you weren’t taken out of the film because of the oddity of the clothing.  It’s a fine line that is navigated smartly by the costuming crew. 

Many of the scenes – the opening one with Spock in danger, the scene on the shuttle as Spock and Uhura argue (which almost fell into slapstick, but, to my mind, clung to that precipice without tumbling down), and others – were well conceived.  Despite what I knew was coming, I loved the scene as Kirk and Scottie ran through a listing Enterprise to get to the warp core.  Running along the walls, jumping across side corridors, working to stay upright – I thought that was well shot and an exciting and novel scene.  I also appreciated it when Kirk made the decision, as they are setting off for Kronos, to apprehend Khan rather than kill him, as Admiral Marcus had ordered.  It was a nice character moment that did not waste the argument between Kirk and Spock from moments before. 

There were some great scenes – scenes that looked wonderful and worked well narratively – in this movie.  But with too many that fell flat, within the parameters of the “rules” of this particular narrative, the whole of the film failed to cohere in a way that worked, to my mind. 

Next time:  what didn’t work, and why.