Thursday, 16 May 2013
Great Bird of the Galaxy, this is going to take some unpicking.
Basics first, then. Yes, I enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness. The set pieces are impressive, there are some nice lines, and if it still isn't entirely managing to juggle its large cast effectively, it's at least doing a better job than the original films ever managed.
Still... there's something missing. Or maybe it's the opposite. Maybe all the polish lavished on the actions scenes and the dialogue have left the film as bright and sleek and soulless as the new Enterprise bridge. It's like there's a layer of Pledge over everything, making it all sparkle but bleaching out more than a little character in the process.
To the extent that so outrageously successful a man as J.J. Abrams can be said to have a problem, this is a big part of it: he assembles films that feel like less than the sum of their parts. Everything does what its supposed to, true, but the end result feels less like art and more like the end product of an assembly line. For me at least that causes a kind of background hum of irritation even when what's been assembled is proving perfectly enjoyable.
Added to this is what I admit up front is probably a very geeky objection, which is that Abrams, not unlike Joss Whedon, has a tendency to play around with sci-fi without really knowing its conventions.
Some conventions are just begging to be broken, of course, and the "it's not realistic" argument can generally only ever take you so far when we're talking about giant airtight metal canisters flying around at the speed of light. Even so, at a certain point, you just start to look lazy. The idea that a major antagonistic alien civilisation lies apparently two or three minutes away from Earth is fundamentally ridiculous, but its included here so that the list of set-pieces can be rolled out without having to worry about concepts like travel time. I'm remaining spoiler-free above the fold, so I don't want to give away specifics, but it's roughly equivalent to deciding you want to have your characters hunt down a man in Australia, and then have a fight up in Greenland, and you set the whole thing over a period of twenty minutes.
In part, this is an objection about how much of the established history of Star Trek the new films continue to jettison, even whilst insisting (via Leonard Nimoy if nothing else) that what we're seeing is technically a continuation of the same universe, albeit following some major time-travel authored departures from what was known. The question of why this is being insisted on instead of just fessing up and calling it a reboot continues to raise its head. The best example of this comes somewhere around the halfway point of the film, when that thing happens.
Right. So, Khan. This is a terrible mess, for more than one reason. Let's start with the most obvious one: the Khan we saw in "Space Seed" and Wrath of Khan was an Indian played by a Mexican. He is now a white guy played by a white guy.
The racial aspects of this need to be carefully considered, because it can I think get tangled pretty easily. Number one: as I've said, it has been clearly stated that this is supposed to be the same characters we remember from the '60s TV show and its spin off films. If that's your standpoint, you don't get to swap races around like its no big deal. This had already reared its head when they cast an American Korean to play an an American Japanese character, but George Takei said it was all good, so at least there was that, as well as the fact that casting a white actor as another ethnicity is uniquely problematic.
Point number two: whilst a potential defence of the decision to cast Benedict Cumberbatch as an Indian is that it's not like Ricardo Montalban was from downtown Mumbai either, this doesn't go far enough. On the other hand, it's not so weak an argument as it might initially seem. The most obvious response to this is that thinking Mexicans are "close enough" to Indians in the '60s cannot possibly be used as a justification to repeat the mistake in 2013. Which is entirely correct, but it sort of smooths over the nature of the problem facing a 21st century Khan: do you hire an Indian actor or a Mexican actor to play him?
Both options present both narrative and political problems. Cast an actual, honest to God Indian actor and reveal him as Khan and you'll be met with total confusion. The number of people who know the character is ethnically Indian is vastly, vastly smaller than the number of people who know he was played by Ricardo Montalban, who very clearly wasn't. In the process, you're using the continuation of a show that was (or tried to be) exceptionally progressive in many areas to focus for a fundamental mistake which they probably never even realised they'd made.
On the other hand, casting someone who actually looks and sounds like Montalban might give the game away far too early - that's the narrative problem - whilst still retaining the original problem of having an actor playing a character of very different ethnicity.
Point three: just because bringing Khan back would cause problems no matter what one chose to do with him does not mean the film is off the hook. The central problem here is not that Khan should never have come back as Benedict Cumberbatch, it's that he should never have come back at all.
But frankly, I would argue this was true even if "Space Seed" had established Khan was a Home Counties guy who went to Eton (until he had it destroyed, of course). Even with the racial concerns sidestepped, the big problem with Into Darkness is its sheer laziness. The first half of the film reads basically as a slight re-working of its predecessor: major threat to Federation arrives, all the experienced captains are killed, Kirk is left to pick the pieces up. This carries smaller problems within it, as well: the massacre of the starship captains has no emotional resonance beyond giving Kirk something else to be upset about. We don't even learn what happened to Spocks new captain (perhaps he was shown clearly to have died and I missed it in all the explosions and running around). It's one more thing to be reflected in our main characters, but it has no dramatic weight of its own; it's just a way of clearing the decks so that Kirk is once again Our Only Hope. The degree to which the film contorts logic to justify this is ridiculous, by the way. "Starfleet can't go after him, but I can." What does that even mean? Kirk is still Starfleet, he's using a Starfleet vessel to get to Quo'Nos. What magic maverick powers does he think he possesses?
So the first half of the film causes problems, basically being a re-run of the first film with a little bit of Insurrection Federation in-fighting sprinkled on top (oh, and the Alice Eve underwear scene? Fuck right off). Where the film really gets into trouble is post-reveal, however.
Now, I say "gets into trouble", but there are some great ideas in here. Having Kirk and Khan work together is exactly the kind of bizarro-world idea this post-Vulcan iteration should be aiming for. Khan himself is well-drawn; his total devotion to his own people providing a good contrast to his utter disdain for every other being in the galaxy. The fact that Kirk is the one to break their alliance first was a great touch, and the scene where Khan and Spock get in a viewscreen staring match is absolutely wonderful.
Indeed, the idea that Khan is a villain more suited to be Spock's nemesis than Kirk's is inspired, and what provides the final minutes with its true drive. The problem is what happens before that; a ridiculous half-hearted attempt to basically remake Wrath of Khan, with Marcus' dreadnought standing in for the Reliant, and Kirk getting himself killed by radiation in saving the Enterprise instead of Spock. It's not just the decision to repeat the past that's at issue here - though really, if you're going to imply twenty four years of TV and films have been jettisoned in favour of this new reality, you'd better have a better fucking idea for what you want to do than just remake what you just threw out - it's that the writers seem to have no idea why Wrath of Khan worked in the first place. Khan worked perfectly because of his history with Kirk, which no longer exists. The battle against the Reliant worked because it was a contest of wits between two men in battered, dying vessels; giving Khan what can best be described as the Galaxy-class USS Evilbastard removes that entirely. Lastly, the sacrifice of Spock works because it highlighted the difference between his character and Kirk's, namely that the latter will risk everything on the off-chance of victory (his refusal to accept there is no way to win), whereas Spock will guarantee his own death rather than risk the loss of the ship.
Of course, it also worked because he stayed dead, at least for the remainder of the film. Throwing in regenerating super-blood (why oh why didn't Bones say he'd gotten that tribble from Chekov? If you're going to be ridiculous, at least lampshade it) cheapens the whole affair. 
In short, the film desperately wants to be iconic, but it's trying to do that by borrowing iconography it doesn't understand. If this had been an honest to God reboot, it would simply have been evidence that some things cannot be replicated - or at least you have to work harder to do it than this film was willing to. By trying to package this as a continuation, it just makes the whole endeavour feel creatively bankrupt.
Two films in, that's a real problem.
 It also raises two very good questions: why go to all that trouble making sure Spock doesn't kill Khan when they could just get blood from one of the seventy-two others. And what's to stop Starfleet reanimating Khan or one of his mates every time they need to give someone a miraculous blood transfusion? Why did Admiral Robocop even put the GM-torpedoes on the Enterprise anyway, as oppose to just destroying them himself? A lot of this starts unravelling very quickly once you start poking around.