Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into Darkness
As a Star Trek fan I was cautiously optimistic about Star Trek Into Darkness. I liked the 2009 Star Trek reboot a lot when I first it in theaters but watched it a couple more times and enjoyed it less and less each time. I'm glad '09 Trek brought back the joyful optimism and fun of the original series but just wished it had more substance to it. I was hoping that the sequel would fix this problem now that the crew has been introduced but we still don't get much social commentary or philosophy here. I'm not asking for a dissertation, just something to think about while leaving the theater.

I didn't like the clunky title since it was first announced. I guess they wanted to avoid using numbers or the one word subtitles of the Next Generation movies but is this really the best they could come up with? It also doesn't help that the acronym is close to both STD (sexually transmitted disease) and STI (sexually transmitted infection)!
Star Trek Into Darkness was actually better than I expected and I liked it more than '09 Trek. The villain of this movie is much better than the over the top Eric "Fire everything!" Bana as Nero. I also liked how each main character had more to do this time around. I understand that this was partially because '09 Trek had to set up the characters but it was still nice to have Scotty do more than simply be comic relief. The opening scene felt like classic Trek to me and I would've liked to have seen more of it. I enjoyed this cast the first time around and thought they did a good job with the roles again. I particularly liked the addition of Peter Weller as Admiral Marcus, the father of Kirk's love interest, Carol Marcus. The Klingons are re-introduced and while I was glad to see them back instead of the Romulans yet again, I was not a fan of the re-design. It looked too CGI to me and if it ain't broke don't fix it. The planet Vulcan was destroyed in '09 Trek which I thought was interesting as it opened up a lot of new story telling possibilities. However, the idea is never followed up in this film other than a line from Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy does make a brief cameo, probably so his last movie didn't have to be Transformers 3!) about helping Vulcan survivors. I have a bad feeling that the destruction of Vulcan was not done as a commentary on attempted genocide or displaced persons but just because Alderaan blew up in Star Wars and to show that anything can happen in this new timeline.

Now it's time to get to the elephant in the room. By this point anybody who is a Star Trek fan and hasn't seen Star Trek Into Darkness yet probably knows that the villain of the movie is Khan from the original series episode "Space Seed" and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, one of my all-time favorite films. Unlike a lot of Star Trek fans, I had no problem with Khan being used in a reboot. In fact, I actually thought it could be a good idea as long as it was handled in a "what if" way. For instance, Khan could be discovered by a different Federation ship and then start to build up a new empire. This could shake things up in various ways by for example, causing a split in the Federation or making peace with the Klingons or starting a war with the Romulans. Into Darkness certainly does things different such as how Khan and Kirk interact as well as the lack of the Genesis device subplot. However, simply using Khan at all forces an unfair comparison. This isn't like when a comic book movie uses a well-known villain since Khan only has two canonical appearances while a character such as Joker for instance has had many incarnations over the years.

It also doesn't help that Khan is played by a white man when the character is supposed to Indian. Ricardo Montalban was not Indian either but first played the role in the 1960s when actors like him played a wide range of ethnic characters so it's understandable in that context. I don't think the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch was racist since the character is never referred to as Indian and really is a new character merely inspired by Khan. It seems to me that Cumberbatch was cast more for his marketability than fitting the role, even though he is a fine actor and does a good job here. Still, I don't know why somebody like Faran Tahir couldn't have played the part. Besides fitting the ethnicity of Khan, he is not unknown to audiences as was in Iron Man and even very briefly at the beginning of '09 Trek. I doubt that most viewers would've remembered him from the last film, and casting the same actor in different subsequent roles is nothing new for Star Trek. But what I really don't understand is why the marketing and movie go out of their way to make the reveal of Khan (who is referred to as "John Harrison" for half the film) a surprise. Maybe they were afraid of the fanboy backlash but if that was the case then why do it at all? I think this is just J.J. Abrams' mystery box at play but after all the buildup whatever is in the "box" will seem underwhelming no matter what.

I felt that Into Darkness was an improvement over the last one and had fun with it. But like '09 Trek it wasn't as memorable as other Star Trek movies, partially because it plays off of Wrath of Khan more than it tells a brand new story. I didn't have a problem with the callbacks as they usually changed things up from Wrath of Khan or other episodes/movies, but would've rather had something completely different than anything done before. I'm surprised that many Star Trek fans hated Into Darkness yet had no problems with '09 Trek as the tone, style, and characters aren't much different. If you couldn't accept Star Trek as a popcorn movie the first time around then Into Darkness won't win you over. However, if you liked '09 Trek I think you will enjoy this one as well. I liked Into Darkness as a sci-fi action blockbuster. But as a Star Trek movie, like '09 Trek, it still misses the mark.

While there have been some very good Star Trek movies it really works best as a TV show and I hope to see it return to that medium at some point. In the meantime I just hope that the next Star Trek movie more evenly balances ideas and exploration with the action and villains. Many recent movies have tried to copy how The Dark Knight accomplished this but in the wrong ways ("dark" in the title, focus on the villain, etc.) instead of doing so in a unique and organic fashion like TDK did.
Fun Fact: Two actors in this movie have voiced Batman (Bruce Greenwood and Peter Weller). We also have Robocop (Peter Weller), and Judge Dredd (Karl Urban).

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