Into Dorkness

I was expecting the new Star Trek film to be a mediocre blockbuster, and it’s fair to say I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s a series of meaningless special-effects action sequences, strung together by an incoherent excuse for a plot, and glossed with geeky references that seem to aspire pretentiously to meaning; but, for this viewer, those postmodernish references simply jar with what little underlying emotional tone the movie manages to communicate in amongst all the kinetic CGI.

Perhaps my brows are lowered a little too much in the direction of this franchise, though. I seem to be in a minority of one when it comes to disliking the preceding big-screen Star Trek offering from 2009, which I felt was a genuinely bad film. Bad, in the sense that it came over to me as a fascist morality play, in which conformism to Mittel-American social values and military discipline is rewarded, while Otherness is punished brutally, usually fatally, and often to the cheers of the multiplex audience.

Like I said, maybe I overreacted?

Still, at least I didn’t find Into Darkness as actively offputing as its precursor, but I’d hesitate to say that the change is due to any deliberate attempt to question and deconstruct the message: perhaps it simply replaces an obnoxious narrative attitude with an incoherent one. I also found myself coldly unmoved, unable to find any entertainment or emotion, or any particularly intelligent plotting or subtext.

There are a few good moments. The sight of the Enterprise rising from an alien ocean in front of awestruck natives is undeniably impressive, silencing all objections with the impact of the sheer vast size of the starship compared to any human being. Similarly, the “beauty shots” of the NCC-1701 flying through space look beautiful, even in old-fashioned 2D. There’s a Tribble, which coaxed a half-smile from me, and there’s a nice touch in one scene with Scotty, where it looks as though a Space Nazi thug has the drop on the Enterprise Chief Engineer, but he turns out to have been just stringing along the bad guy until the exact right moment. The production values are consistently high and classy, and the acting is universally excellent, too – even if I wonder whether the cast produced quite the same tone and subtext that the script expected.

Overall, though, I was underwhelmed. The main problem is the plot, or rather, the varied excuses that the script provides for stringing together the action sequences. Quite why Khan uses a “top-secret transwarp transporter” to teleport directly from San Francisco to a bombed-out and abandoned Führerbunker on the Klingon homeworld, I don’t know, except that it provides the excuse to send Kirk, Spock and Uhura to an abandoned Führerbunker on the Klingon homeworld for the next big action sequence. Quite why Starfleet decides to send the Enterprise to the Klingon homeworld for that action sequence rather than using the top-secret space battleship USS Vengeance, I’m not sure either, except obviously, if the Vengeance had just assassinated Khan with a long-range torpedo strike from the far side of the neutral zone, there would be no film.

The long-range torpedoes are a double McGuffin, since they need to have a second, insanely implausible, McGuffin built into them that’s designed purely to prevent the heroes using them… until it’s rapidly removed so they can be brought into play, which means, of course, that they could have been brought into play sooner, and once again, we would have no film, because the Enterprise would have blown up the bad guys.

It doesn’t help that many of the segues that pass for story here require literal plot-devices – “transwarp transporter”, “long-range photon torpedoes”, “genetically-engineered blood”, technobabble machines that exist purely to facilitate the arbitrary jumping around of the characters, and which generally move at the speed of plot. The torpedoes, any one of which is supposedly capable of laying waste to the Klingon equivalent of Berlin from several light years away, do remarkably little damage when seven dozen of them go off simultaneously aboard the Vengeance – just as much as that particular scene requires, before the angry space battleship comes tearing out of the sky in a later scene like a kamikaze trope.

Similarly, too many of the VFX scenes also rely on frankly dubious and arbitrary plotting. In one scene, Kirk has to skydive through a massive debris field that seem far larger than the Enterprise‘s battle damage should actually provide… or maybe it’s the wreckage of a larger space battle that they didn’t include because they ran out of dollars and runtime to add in the other ships. Who knows? The Enterprise‘s warp drive appears to have been constructed entirely from insanely dangerous and unsafe components, many of which will malfunction or plunge from a great height when the ship is slightly damaged, simply to provide a dramatic obstacle course to threaten any important characters who make their way into the engineering section.

For some reason, the finale consists of two men punching each other a lot on top of a flying garbage truck as it speeds through downtown San Francisco.

It’s not exactly the Mutara Nebula.

The less said about the scene after the finale, the better, since it destroys any tension and credibility when it comes to the danger the heroes have purportedly been put through. The tribble might have raised a half-smile, but as a silly piece of set-dressing, it was rather more interesting than the supposedly pivotal plot-point it facilitated, which was completely undermined by the fact that it lampshaded the ending the moment it showed up.

You saw it as quickly as I did, right?

Were we supposed to laugh?

On one level, of course, this movie is a very deliberate and extended riff on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the movie which has come to be seen as the best of all the preceding big-screen outings for the Enterprise; but while I felt a momentary flicker of admiration at the cleverness that inverted Kirk and Spock’s roles in stopping Khan, it really comes over as intellectually out-of-ideas. Cumberbatch’s character bears little or no relationship to Ricardo Montalban’s charismatic, brilliant, but ultimately target-fixated alpha-male. The use of lines and scenarios reprised or adapted from the earlier movie doesn’t really bring either humour or emotional effect, and it’s hard to know if the creative team really knew what they were going with any of this, rather than showing off their to their fellow geeks (or is it nerds? I never can tell).

To make matters worse, the imbalance between attempts at pathos and attempts at postmodernism sends this film lurching from one mood to another with the speed of a jump-cut. When I saw the climax of The Wrath of Khan for the first time, I cried briefly (I was twelve, I think), and then I laughed at the incongruous bagpipe solo that struck up as Spock’s coffin was launched from the Enterprise. That was fair enough, with enough mood and pacing and camera-angles between the reactions to make both of them valid; but I felt nothing at the parallel scene here where Kirk “dies”, and any hope of getting impact from that moment was shot down by Spock’s immediate use of a much-lampooned line from the original move.

KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!

After that, it was just two men fighting on a flying dumpster, passing the time until, as we could have all guessed in Act II, Kirk was revived by the genetically engineered blood that Bones had previously injected into a dead tribble for no obvious reason.

That seems to be this highly-regarded creative team’s idea of a respectful homage to The Wrath of Khan. Or something.

On another level, however, there are alarming similarities to Diane Carey’s 1986 Star Trek tie-in novel, Dreadnought!, in which Lieutenant Piper (the trope-defining Mary Sue) and her Vulcan OTP have to stop a fascist admiral who’s built a massive space battleship in order to save the Federation from itself and the Klingons. This leads the Enterprise into Klingon space, where a three-cornered space battle ensues, and the antagonist eventually takes his ship on a botched kamikaze run against his opponents.

That’s right – the parts of Into Darkness that aren’t a misconducted riff on Khan are more-or-less a direct parallel of the plot of Dreadnought!, if you can get your head round the idea that Jim Kirk has been shipped into the Mary Sue role (oh! The postmodernist irony!), and you aren’t bothered by the fact that Pine and Quinto don’t really summon any genuine tension into the Kirk/Spock interaction.

I’ll admit that this jerk of recognition may be limited to longstanding fanboys with eidetic memories and a reasonably high tolerance for Sue-‘fic (I am, as I’ve intimated before, a lapsed Trekkie), but even so, I’m not alone in noticing….

I’m really not sure what to make of that.

And whether or not the movie contains a bizarre extended homage to an obscure tie-in novel, whatever it’s trying to say with the way it plays with reused plot elements to no particular effect, the result doesn’t work. The three-cornered Klingon Standoff between Khan, Kirk and the fascist admiral, made necessary by the intersection between two disparate storylines, is where this movie really breaks down. Sure, when Khan breaks Carol Marcus’ ankle with a casual stomp, and then crushes the admiral’s face between his bare hands, there’s a certain visceral effect, effect but it’s about the only real impact the movie has.

It didn’t have to be that way, of course. The switcharoo that sees Khan seize control of the fascist admiral’s space battleship could have been efficiently handled, without the convoluted plotting (and kinetically unlikely action sequences) that fail to produce any moral or dramatic tension whatever.

But that would have required the sort of brisk, coherent movie that relies on pacing and surprise for impact, rather than attempting to impress with fancy special-effects sequences.

I’m not really sure why this movie’s called Into Darkness, either, unless it’s a reference to the collapse of meaning that seems to be inherrent in the shaky plot and pointless effects, as a metaphor for the vast and dangerous emptiness that serves as the movie’s backdrop, and the cold pointlessness of existence expressed by Admiral Pike’s unflinchingly unheroic death in Act I. I don’t know. Maybe that is the point. Maybe that’s what Into Darkness is supposed to be about. It would at least explain why the whole nihilistic setup is so ridiculously and fatally subverted by the weight of Kirk’s Westley death in Act III.

On the other hand, if that is the point, then it’s subverted in turn by the unresolved question of whether it’s the point. Early on in the movie, Kirk figures out the bad guy’s next move, but a later scene implies that he reached the right conclusion for completely the wrong reasons, and I’m not sure whether that’s meant to be clever storytelling, or just evidence of slipshod rewrites.

Either way, it doesn’t matter.

I suppose I should emphasise that I’m not as profoundly antipathetic to this movie as the details of this review might suggest. I think J.J. Abrams can make very decent movies — or at least, I loved Super 8, though that may have been something to do with having been in a very good place emotionally with my favourite ex-girlfriend at the time, and for that reason, being very predisposed to be enamoured with the movie’s romanticization of Americana.

But whether it’s deliberately deconstructive or not, Star Trek Into Darkness still seems like a not very good movie to me. Sure, it looks pretty, in an incoherent Valley Girl sort of way, and I didn’t feel I’d wasted ten dollars going to see it. It’s a thoroughly “good” movie in terms of all the technical aspects of filmmaking – acting, design, CGI, cinematography and editing – and the way it brings them seamlessly together; but it seems to be hiding its crippling insecurity and lack of anything fun to say behind a sparkly mask of unconnected geek references and violent special effects.

And that’s true whether or not it’s fooling itself by aspiring to a deconstructive meaning of some sort, too. In the end, Into Darkness failed for me, because whatever it was trying to do, it didn’t convince me in the slightest.

Maybe that’s just because I’m a snob, though. I don’t know. But the roller-coaster of effects sequences and knowing pop-cultural references did absolutely nothing for me.

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