Sunday, June 09, 2013

Where Eleven Films Have Gone Before

It's entirely possible that there's an interesting movie lurking inside Star Trek Into Darkness (2013, directed by J. J. Abrams). The movie frames a terrific moral dilemma early in its running time that serves as an overt allegory to the current security state of the world's major powers (especially Bush and Obama's USA). To wit, it gives Kirk and company an overtly immoral mission to engage in an extra-judicial killing, one colored by high emotion and a desire for revenge and excused because of the vague exceptionalism of "terrorism." Further, the movie TELLS Kirk that it's an immoral mission, putting objections into the mouths of both Spock and Mr. Scott in scenes that remind me of Robert McNamara's assertion in The Fog of War that "If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merits of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning. " But then the entire enterprise, if you'll pardon the pun, completely shits the bed. That moral dilemma would be interesting if this film wasn't so irredeemably stupid.

Nota bene: spoilers abound herein.

The story here finds Kirk suspended from his command of the Enterprise for breaking the Prime Directive: he revealed the Enterprise to an indigenous species in the course of saving them from an exploding supervolcano. As penance, Kirk is busted down to second in command under Christopher Pike, while Spock, having spilled the beans, is exiled from the Enterprise entirely. A rift between Kirk and Spock over Spock's slavish adherence to the letter of his duty. Meanwhile, a terrorist attack on a Star Fleet facility in London sends the heads of Star Fleet scrambling. The convene a meeting of senior commanders in order to assess the threat posed by the man who engineered the attack, one "John Harrison." At the meeting, Harrison enacts the second phase of his plan by assassinating the attendees with a shuttle. Kirk, attending the meeting with Pike, survives and begins to have suspicions about Harrison and his motives. Also surviving is Admiral Marcus, who puts Kirk back in command of The Enterprise and tasks him with the destruction of Harrison by any means necessary. To this end, Marcus equips Kirk with 72 prototype torpedoes that were being developed by Section 31, the shadowy intelligence agency that was the initial target of Harrison's attacks. Harrison, for his part, has hied out to an abandoned Klingon planet just across the neutral zone border. Both Spock and Mr. Scott smell something fishy. Scotty refuses to use weapons he can't inspect and stays behind after Kirk relieves him of duty. But their doubts gnaw at Kirk and instead of blowing up Harrison as ordered, he captures him instead, and in doing so, uncovers a plot by Marcus to start a war with the Klingons. Harrison for his part, has his own agenda, stemming from the fact that "Harrison" isn't his name. It is, rather, Khan, and he's a eugenic superman with vast regenerative powers who, along with 72 others, was discovered floating in space by Marcus, who chose to use Khan as a weapon. But that weapon turns on him, leaving Kirk to face Khan in a ship that has been crippled.

This is a film constructed of false climaxes and fabricated crises. It starts on this early, in media res, where Spock has been tasked with detonating a "cold fusion" device in an active volcano in order to keep the planet they are studying from exploding. Transporters don't work because of magnetic fields or whatever other convenient excuse forces the Enterprise to do things by hand, so to speak. This sequence is sublimely ridiculous, because it presupposes that other, more mundane real-world physics won't work to the crew's advantage. The technology available to Star Fleet seems conveniently inadequate sometimes. Here's how I'd do it. I'd rig the device with an altitude sensor, then I'd beam the thing into space over the volcano's caldera so it would plummet to the specified point in space and detonate. If the rules of ballistics and gravitation make this operation available even to me--I can do the calculations assuming I know what value to assign "G"--something the Enterprise would have to know to be able to take off and land on the planet in the first place. Instead they fly several of their command officers into a volcano that's about to explode. Man, that's just dim.

I should note: I'm not a scientist by trade, but the fact that I can think of this and a trained crew of science officers and engineers can't does not speak well of them, or, rather, speaks ill of the scientific illiteracy of this film's screenwriters (something that is abundantly clear in Damon Lindelhof's screenplay for Prometheus, as well). And this doesn't get into the sheer idiocy of what they think "cold fusion" actually is. Or the sheer idiocy of a starship with teleportation technology hiding underwater so they can conveniently create a false crisis with the Prime Directive. Underwater? Really? I call bullshit on that.

Why is this important to me? I mean, I love to joke about bad movie physics. Well, because this is fucking Star Trek, a show that has a history of at least making a token effort to get its science right. And because it shows the hand of the filmmakers: they're not making a movie about anything other than action sequences, and while that may be alright for an action film qua action film, it's not right for Star Trek. Star Trek traditionally has more on its mind.

But let's move on. Let's talk about Khan and his magic blood. Early in the movie, Khan is shown helping a man with an ailing son by giving him a vial of his blood, containing fabulous regenerative properties. This sequence isn't bad, per se, though I do wonder about the RH rejection of the blood, should the type not match--nobody mentions blood type in this movie, by the way. This is a nice little vignette that details Khan's methods: he exchanges something that his agent desperately wants--the life of his son--for an act of violence. He makes him an offer he can't refuse, in other words (the movie references The Godfather III elsewhere, more overtly). Fast forward: Kirk has sacrificed himself to fix the warp core in a scene ripped off from Star Trek II, but Dr. McCoy has discovered the regenerative properties of Khan's blood. Khan himself has escaped to San Francisco, where Spock has pursued him out of a misplaced sense of vengeance. They need to capture Khan alive in order to save Kirk's life. Except, of course, they don't. They have 72 other supermen on ice at this point. They don't need Khan for anything except an excuse to stage an action scene. This is all so very contrived. The film has left its fly unzipped and the deus ex machina is visible. Incidentally, this is yet another Star Trek film where the end is contingent on a fistfight.

The echoes of The Wrath of Khan reveal the creative bankruptcy of this film. That was the "best" of the Star Trek films, hence, the filmmakers bend over backwards to reproduce that film's plot points. Their idea of creativity is having Kirk and Spock switch roles at the end, with Kirk in the radiation chamber and with Spock shouting "Khan!!!!" In other words, they're pandering to fans rather than challenging them with something new. And, again, this is a problem. The movie also restages the plot of Star Trek VI, too, in which renegade elements of Star Fleet want to start a war with the Klingons. This is a movie that's so risk averse that it robs the audience of anything like a new experience. The brief scene where Alice Eve is asked to pose for the camera in her underwear is pandering to the audience, too, by the way, though in a more traditional variation of fan service.

I've seen a lot of apologetics for this film since its release, but to my mind, this is hopeless. "At least it isn't Star Trek V," I've seen it said, but do you know what? Star Trek V may be goofy and inept, but at least it has actual ideas.

If I didn't already hate this film and everything it represents, the recasting of Khan as a white dude--however honeyed his voice may be--would seal the deal, but that's another post entirely. The fact that this film taints Star Trek with even a hint of racism should be an affront to any fan of the series, given its original vision of radical diversity.


Jim Shelley said...

Nice review. I think you take the film to task pretty fairly for being more concerned with doling out action scenes and fan service than anything else. It was like watching someone play a Star Trek video game set at Van Helsing level.
I almost wonder if the whole Alice Eve scene wasn't some brilliant meta comment on the movie as whole. Stripped of the things that marked her as a true member of the Star Trek series and reduced to just an abrupt meaningless visual.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Given Damon Lindlehof's recent backpedaling on that scene, I think it's just meant to pander. These guys aren't that bright.

Laura said...

I've been kinda iffy on the reboots ever since the contrived Spock/Uhura hookup. I assume that's still a thing here? Giving her a love interest for the hell of it isn't beefing up Uhura's character, writers!

And yes, Cumberbatch as Khan? NOT OKAY, HOLLYWOOD.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Laura,

Yeah. Spock/Uhura is still a thing, and it's SOOOOOOOOoooo leaden here. No chemistry at all.

Cumberbatch would make a splendid villain. He has the same kind of voice as Alan Rickman, after all. I'm looking forward to listening to him ams Smaug, actually. But just not Khan. NOT Khan.