One of the chief complaints I have about Star Trek Into Darkness is the way it treads old ground. It was a fear I had going into the movie that turned out to be justified, and while I still enjoyed watching the film, the overarching problems I have with the very core of the narrative continue to bother me. It’s an endemic issue I have with a lot of genre films, and I think it’s not limited to those, so let me get right into it.
Sequels. Reboots. Prequels. We see more and more of these cropping up throughout Hollywood, from mindless iteration of the most basic, lowbrow, idiotic comedies to what was once high-concept science fiction. There are some that do it right – Nolan knocked it out of the part with his Dark Knight trilogy and I have higher hope than I thought I would for Man of Steel – but for the most part, there’s at least part of this storytelling that feels lazy. I may be inclined to like Marvel and its superheroes, but they’ve been around for decades, and as much as their big-screen realization continues to satisfy, and while I’m curious to see what’s next for them, I’m not as thoroughly intrigued by them as I am by other titles coming our way this summer.
Consider Elysium and Pacific Rim. Both are coming from writer/directors that have been described as visionaries, and rightly so. Neill Blomkamp of Elysium gave us the fantastic District 9, and Guillermo del Toro not only brought Hellboy to the big screen, he also crafted the haunting original vision of Pan’s Labyrinth. Not only are these films powerful stories with excellent execution, their ideas are practically brand new. On top of the fact that neither is a derivative work, they come from different cultural perspectives – Blomkamp is South African and del Toro is Mexican – which color the nature of their ideas differently than those that come from Hollywood’s old and somewhat creaky idea machines.
These story ideas are best described as breaths of fresh air. I have to wonder, however, if their novelty is actually enhanced by the amount of derivative drek that permeates the media. I consider it a shame that new ideas are so scarce, but at the same time, their rarity may lend them even more weight and power. This may be a paradox intrinsic to the entertainment industry: as much as there’s nothing new under the sun, there’s only so many ideas that can be shifted or reborn in new ways to really capture the attention of the audience.
What do you think? Are new ideas more powerful for their rarity? Or would they be just as welcome if every idea was brand new?
Fair warning: I am going to spoil this movie. Forget Abrams and his mystery box, there really isn’t any mystery at all with Star Trek: Into Darkness. He likes to pretend there is – he always does – but if you still haven’t figured out the BIG TWIST of this movie, I’m about to “ruin” it for you. Seriously, jettison all of that stuff. Let go of your hatred, as another now-Abrams sci-fi franchise would tell you. Take this one on its own merits. Because it does have merits. Some good ones. They’re there, and you can see them, if you can look past the overarching disappointments that still cling to this Star Trek and make you remember the previous iterations of it even more fondly.
Since the first new Star Trek film, the crew of the Enterprise has been doing some surveying and scouting work. Captain Kirk is eager to be considered for Starfleet’s first five-year mission, but his inexperience and constant flouting of regulations have put his entire career in jeopardy. Admiral Pike is willing to go to bat for his protege, but first an imminent threat to the Federation must be dealt with. That threat takes the form of John Harrison, or as he was known in his time, Khan Noonian Singh.
At this point, it’s really difficult to consider that a spoiler. A cursory look at even the movie’s IMDB page reveals the true identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. To get the bad news out of the way first, this laziness is perhaps the biggest extant problem with Star Trek: Into Darkness. While the use of the genetic super-people from the TOS episode “Space Seed” is not without its cleverness and interesting moments, the blatant copy-paste of the character of Khan invites several questions. If he is Khan, and is named Khan, why is his actor a British man, instead of someone from India or southeast Asia? If he is like Khan but not the same as Khan, why is he named Khan? The use of the same name for a villain who is only somewhat similar to the other is laziness for the sake of name recognition, and the whitewashing of the character is extremely unfortunate. Taken as a whole, it’s clear that the creative minds behind the new Star Trek are mostly working off of old themes, ideas, and even names just to get butts in the seats, rather than trying to tell a new story, and this story in general and Khan in particular suffer for that.
A perfect specimen of the 21st century superman, preserved here in the most comfortable of iBrig units.
The only thing that really saves the character is Benedict Cumberbatch himself. He is electrifying in his role. He plays the canny, manipulative villain very well, holds his own in action scenes, and steals most of the moments he’s in. The cast overall is excellent, even more settled into their roles and deepening the dynamics established three years ago. Joining the cast is Alice Eve as Carol, an indirect parallel to another of Wrath of Khan‘s characters, and she manages to hold her own in the presence of the veterans. The main draw, however, and the best performances come from Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Kirk and Spock. As good as everyone from Karl Urban to Simon Pegg are, their dynamic is rock-solid by this point and they are a delight to watch together.
Good acting, however, is only part of the equation. A bad script or director can ruin even the finest performance. Thankfully, Kurtzman and Orci spare us the problems they suffered from in the Transformers movies, and as lazy as they are, they can write decent dialog when they actually try. I maintain that they do decent work when under Abrams as opposed to other directors. And Abrams seems to have throttled back on some of this more bombastic tendencies, allowing the human elements and powerful performances of his actors to come through the lens flares and dubious mysteries. For all of the fears some may have had about this director, his vision, and the future of other sci-fi franchises, I personally think it could have been a lot worse.
When the captain says, “Put on a red shirt,” you’re gonna have a bad time.
For all of its failings in rehashing plot and characters, sometimes in an extremely lazy fashion, Star Trek: Into Darkness delivers a story that is both light enough to convey the space opera sense of the original series and serious enough to get real moments out of its players. It surprised me in a few places, most of which were unrelated to the overarching plot. It feels like it’s trying harder than its predecessor, both in being a good story by itself and in being amenable to Trek fans. If nothing else, it is admirable for this effort.
Stuff I Liked: There are multiple nods to continuity here, both to the old universe and the previous film. Alice Eve’s character feels like more than just a plot device, and she’s not bad in the role at all. What is done with the original “Space Seed” concept and the role the war criminal supermen play in this new universe is interesting, and reflects a discussion that’s been going on between Trek fans for decades. Stuff I Didn’t Like: So many things in the film just feel lazy. Khan’s name and backstory most of all. Also, you couldn’t come up with a better name than USS Vengeance? No legendary heroes or conquerers came to mind? Not even Caesar or Alexander or Ghengis? Really?? Some parts of the story were a touch predictable and none of the plot twists were terribly surprising. I still don’t know what Scotty’s little friend is supposed to be or do. I still have some trouble with a couple pacing moments: Kronos and Earth should feel farther apart than they do. Stuff I Loved: Pine and Quinto are fantastic. Cumberbatch is downright legendary. The rest of the hero cast gets their moments, and not just action-packed ones. I adore what they do with Uhura. This film feels more geniune, deliberate, and structured than the last, and that feeling of cohesion leads to an overall better watching experience.
Bottom Line: Is Star Trek: Into Darkness a great film? I wouldn’t say so. I would say, however, that it’s very good. It stands with some of the better films of its previous franchise, and while it will never, ever, in a million years, live up to its spiritual ancestor, it has enough good moments and does enough things right that saved from being an aimless and shallow action flick with a familiar name super-glued to it. This Star Trek is definitely a cinematic animal, nowhere near as cerebral as earlier films or the television series could get, but as a straight-ahead sci-fi action-adventure, it works. Abrams sets out to make films for everybody, and this is definitely one of his more well-rounded and enjoyable successes.
Oh, And… Now that Abrams and his crew have this out of their systems, I really hope they can go in a new direction. Like they should have done last time. Seriously, guys. Give us something new.
It’s coming up on two years since I last wrote in-depth about a Star Trek series. And it was even longer between our last discussion, on The Animated Series, and the return of Star Trek in the late 80s. I was 8 when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, and sitting down with my parents to see the 24th century come to life pretty much blew my fool mind. Looking back, there’s still a lot to love about the show, but it had more than its share of growing pains.
The starship was still named Enterprise, but this vessel and crew were a far cry from the rickety Wagon Train to the Stars we saw back in the 60s. No, this was a more advanced time, when mankind went to space in floating shopping malls. But don’t use that word, because the United Federation of Planets (or Earth at least) has evolved past the necessity for things like money and material goods! When you can replicate or reproduce via holodeck just about anything you’d want, I guess money sort of becomes obsolete. Not that it stops other races from using money, like the Ferengi.
We can’t talk about antagonists without protagonists, though, so let’s start with the man in charge. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is not a two-fisted adventurer like Kirk. He’s a diplomat, strategist and history nut charged with exploring the edges of the galaxy on one of the best ships in Starfleet. Most of the adventuring, lady-bedding and quipping is done by first officer Will Riker, from whom we learned the power of growing the beard. Once he let that chin curtain set in around season 2, the show began to improve.
Good thing, too, because for a while things floundered a bit. It took the show a few years to figure out what to do with Worf, and even longer to finally write Wesley Crusher off of the show. Creative differences required them to replace the chief medical officer in season 2, which caused such an outcry that they all but begged Wesley’s mom to come back. And the ship’s counselor had to find things to do during episodes outside of pouting her lips and moaning about how much pain the crew was in. Seriously, go back and watch a few season 1 episodes. You’ll either laugh or cry.
Season 1 also floundered a bit with the character of Q. Introduced in the pilot, the writers seemed to have difficulty deciding if he would be a distant, authoritarian judge with omnipotent powers, or a trickster spirit in the vein of Coyote, Loki or Mister Mxyzptlk. It would be a few seasons before he settled into something of an odd mix, but developing a relationship with Picard I’ve discussed at length previously.
While the new series did bring over the old foes of the Klingons and the Romulans, the Klingons were now allied with the Federation (as evidenced by Worf being on the bridge) and the Romulans kept to the shadows. We were, instead, introduced to the Ferengi, who thankfully were evolved beyond base, venial savagery quickly into profiteering, scheming chaotic neutral scavenger-merchants; the Cardassians, an authoritarian but charismatic people who clash with the Federation ideals of fair justice and individual freedom; and the Borg, a cybernetic hive-mind race bent on the assimilation of all technology they do not already possess.
While the Ferengi and the Cardassians don’t really come into their own in Next Generation, the groundwork is laid for later development. And on its own, Next Generation is nothing to sneeze at. The crew does have good chemistry and their performances and staying power allowed them to rise to the realm of Kirk and Spock, overcoming the walls of genre fiction to be recognized by the mainstream. It delivers powerful stories within its own universe (“Best of Both Worlds, Part I & II”, “Cause & Effect”), and plays well on themes of individuality (“I, Borg”), willpower (“Chain of Command, Part II”), the precious nature of the moments of our lives (“Tapestry”) and unique ways to explore the human condition (“The Inner Light.”).
The best of the series, I feel, emerged when it shook off the trappings of the old series and attempts at overt preaching. “The Naked Now” was a shameless callback to a weaker Original Series episode, “The Neutral Zone” had a misfired treatise on materialism competing with some more interesting things and episodes like “Justice” and “Code of Honor” were full of unfortunate implications as well as showing some of the seams in the budget of the show. Some of these things faded more quickly than others, and towards the end of the series the spectre of technobabble began to creep into the dialog of these characters we came to know and love over seven seasons.
As I mentioned, Next Generation rose to similar heights to the original Star Trek series in the eyes of the general public. Most folks who know who Kirk and Spock are also know about Picard and Data. The success of the series paved the way for more feature films and several new series. One of which I’m in the process of watching again as I write this. And by “watching”, I mean “watching my mailbox and hoping the next disc doesn’t get lost the way those Magic cards did. CURSE YOU USPS!”
“Science fiction” is a broader term than you might think. It covers a wide variety of stories, from the space exploration and future cultures of Star Trek to the time-travelling shenanigans of Doctor Who. In the best cases when it comes to science fiction films, these stories use their outlandish or otherworldly settings to tell us something about ourselves here on the mundane, present-day Earth. In the worst, they dump the latest special effects technology on the screen to make a bit of money and distract the audience from the lack of plot or multi-dimensional characters. Of course, special effects tech can be expensive, but Titan A.E. proves that sometimes the oldest tricks work the best. A bottle of ink and a little paint, after all, has got to be less expensive than a room full of top-flight computers and all of the Red Bull necessary to keep their operators going.
The A.E. in the title stands for After Earth. This animated film begins with a malevolent alien species, the Drej, scouring our long-suffering mother world of all life. One of the survivors is Cale, whose father leaves him on the eve of Earth’s annihilation to undertake a mysterious project. The only memento Cale has of his father is a ring. Adrift and alone as one of the few remaining humans, Cale takes odd jobs as a mechanic and salvager until a rugged ship captain named Korso tracks him down. No sooner does Korso tell Cale that his father is out there waiting for him, and that his ring is the key to the project “Titan” that can rekindle the human race, the Drej show up and start blasting things. Not one to stand around and get disintegrated, Cale joins Korso and his crew in a quest to find his father, the Titan and possibly hope for his entire species.
Don Bluth is no stranger to the otherworldly and fantastical. He is, after all, the animator who gave us The Secret of NIMH, the Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace video games, An American Tail and The Land Before Time (but not its bazillion sequels). While much of his style is clear in Titan, the sheer oddness of some of the aliens and the behaviors they engage in feel much more in line with Ralph Bakshi. There’s a bit of an edginess to it, which isn’t uncommon for works from the turn of the millenium but may surprise those of you who know Bluth only due to talking cuddly dinosaurs.
Akima: All this and brains, too.
Further pushing Titan away from the realm of children’s movies is the sheer amount of violence present. Sure, it’s mostly bloodless and taking place in the same sort of universe where you might find Luke Skywalker or his even whinier dad, but there were a couple times where I found myself gobsmacked in an “I can’t believe that just happened!” sort of way. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as savagely violent as anime entires like Ninja Scroll, but it’s a far cry from the wide-eyed optimism of Fivel the immagrant mouse.
While we’re on the subject though, Titan A.E. immediately reminded me of one of the first anime features I ever saw, Lensman. Given that the anime is an adaptation of the sci-fi novels of one E.E. “Doc” Smith, I consider this a good comparison. Titan aims to be an old-school two-fisted space western, harkening back to the days when Star Wars was unsullied by major merchandising. It’s mostly plays like Flash Gordon without the camp, but at the same time has the good sense not to take itself too seriously. A more cynical way of putting it is that they keep the story and action sequences moving so you don’t think too hard about the science.
Somebody turned off the gravity? Korso’s shirt is unimpressed.
Since we’re in the sort of story where space is the open range and asteroids might as well be tumbleweeds, you shouldn’t expect to get a whole lot of hard science out of Titan A.E. – it’s no 2001, in more ways than one. I mean, this has plot beginning to end, instead of bookending a 20-minute character-driven tragedy with two hours of model spacecraft dancing to classical music. Anyway, while some of the things that happen do have basis in science – weightlessness, exposure to vaccuum, etc – one might be forgiven for wondering how Cale is able to safely eat extra-terrestrial food, for example. Or how the “wake angels” emit dolphin-like song in that one superfluous scene they have. It’s really not the sort of thing that detracts from this kind of story. Titan A.E. is definitely on the softer side of science fiction, as most of the technology exists primarily as a backdrop and mechanism to drive the plot. And on that level, it works. Even if we have no idea how they broke the faster-than-light barrier.
If Titan A.E. has a potentially crippling flaw, it’s the Drej. Given that this is a 2000 film, the decision to mix hand-drawn animation with CGI was innovative for its time and half the time it’s not too much of a disadvantage. The Drej, however, are so decidedly different from every other character involved in the story that they might as well not be from this story. Then again, maybe that’s the point? Anyway, the big problem with the Drej isn’t really their animation, but their motivation. They fear the potential power of humanity. Why? I mean, antagonists lose some of their mystique when their motivations are laid out for us in plain English, but at the same time little hints would be nice. Especially given the way the movie ends, it seems that the Drej were just as responsible for their inevitable defeat as Cale and the surviving humans. If they had a prophecy that drove them to scorch the Earth, shouldn’t it have included something along the lines of “Let the human race die out in peace” or “Keep destroying planets when they settle but don’t go after them when they’re transient, desperate and heroic”? There’s certainly nothing wrong with the actions of a malevolent alien race driving the plot of a story like this, but the Drej run after humanity so fast with the intent to end the race that they run themselves smack into a brick wall and brain themselves. They certainly can’t hold a candle to the Cylons. Hell, I think the Romulans could probably give them a bruising. At least Nero had a bit of charisma.
“So, Akima… you, me, some simulated candlelight…” “Cale? You remember I have access to large weaponry, right?” “…We’ll talk later.”
The hero cast, on the other hand, is pretty well done. None of the characters really fall into the realm of stereotype. Co-screenwriter Joss Whedon’s trademark snarky banter shines through in some of the scenes, and there’s never a moment of over-the-top emotional dramatics from the ensemble. In fact, the heroes strike that precious balance of being both well-developed enough for us to care about their well-being and wish them success in a general sense while not trying to turn a rock-em sock-em space romp into a Greek drama. It’s a lot like the hero cast in Independence Day. And hey, that’s Bill Pullman as Korso! Coincidence? I think not!
When all is said and done, Titan A.E. can be best summed up in the word “solid.” Solid concept, solid story, solid screen-writing, solid animation and solid execution. It lurches a bit here and there, and the Drej could have used a bit more work to become truly effective, but those are mostly nitpicks. If you like the sort of action-packed space adventure where a young hero has to learn something about himself while dodging blaster fire and trading quips with an attractive and capable young lady who’s clearly no slouch when it comes to shooting back at the bad guys, you could definitely do worse than Titan A.E. and it’s worth adding to your Netflix queue for an evening’s light entertainment. It’s old-fashioned space-based fun. And I for one have to respect a movie that doesn’t screw around and blows our planet out from under us in the opening scenes. Apparently they lost track of their books in the future, though, because I didn’t see a single human being fleeing the Earth who had the good sense to take a towel with them.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
Catapulted to the edge of known space by an incident in the Mutara Nebula, the USS Farraday is now under the command of the ship’s untested former first officer, Anthony Lennox. With limited supplies and uncertainty among the crew, Lennox has made it his first priority to find a planet that can provide enough supplies to give them a decent start on their journey home.
Author’s Note: I’ve had to cut my time writing this portion short. I apologize for the delay in finishing section “b” but it should be up around this time next week.