Saturday, January 26, 2013

Coming This Year, Part I: Star Trek: Into Darkness

Star Trek: Into Darkness, the sequel to the 2009 big-screen reboot of the half century-old Star Trek franchise, is of course one of the major events of the upcoming year in genre film as far as fans are concerned.

I remember enjoying the 2009 movie as a big, loud, flashy summer blockbuster, brisk and slick and spectacular and full of grandly operatic dramatics and viscerally exciting action. And the central twist, which had this story branching off in another timeline from Star Trek as we knew it before, was clever and well-executed. However, I also remember feeling that it dispensed with almost everything that made Star Trek, Star Trek.

I have already mentioned the film's refusal to provide even a nod to the humanism and utopianism of the originals, or their intellectual aspiration - and also conceded that there may be no going back to it. The movie even destroyed significant pieces of the Star Trek universe outright, Vulcan not surviving the film's first half. One result was that the use of the characters at the core of the original series became the main link to the franchise, without which the film would have been a generic space opera with a well-known brand name slapped on.

However, this was an intrinsically problematic approach. The original cast, whatever the limitations of the material it had, or the performances it gave, occupied their roles for three decades - in Leonard Nimoy's case, from 1964's pilot "The Menagerie," to 1994's Star Trek: Generations. This means that we watched the cast assume these roles in their youth or middle age, and continue in them into old age, along with their characters, Bones becoming Admiral McCoy, Spock Ambassador Spock in their appearances in Star Trek: The Next Generation's two-parter "Unification" - trajectories without any parallel in screen history. Naturally actor and character became closely identified down to their quirks, like William Shatner's theatrical delivery of his lines (so notoriously susceptible to parody), which I can't help but feel is the only way anyone playing James T. Kirk can or should speak.

Such images are not easily displaced within a mere two hours of screen time - even with ideal writing and casting, something the writing and casting of the film was not. Hiram Lee, a reviewer clearly well-acquainted with the original series, and with some apparent affection for it, wrote of the "charm and camaraderie" that the original cast managed, something in short supply here - the script at times going in the extreme opposite direction in an attempt to be "edgy" (which I suppose the shallow regard as being almost as good as "dark and gritty").

As you might guess, the rude, crude Uhura annoyed me. Her reply to a barroom pickup attempt by a young, pre-Academy Kirk with a bestiality joke (which is also a rather ugly insult to rural people) should have been beneath her - and it was unfortunate, since I suspect that with better material Zoe Saldana might have fared reasonably well. I am less convinced that the forgettable Chris Pine would have done the same, but his less than witty rejoinder didn't help matters, and on the whole he ended up being much more convincing as trouble-making idiot than galactic hero in the making.1

Of course, not every detail was so poorly thought out. I rather liked the way they worked Sulu's fencing into the action, for instance - but at the end I saw John Cho and still thought of Harold Lee rather than the senior helmsman of the Enterprise, while Simon Pegg was an implausible Scotty. Anton Yelchin's Pavel Chekov and Karl Urban's Doctor McCoy made little impression on me, though I suppose they had little chance to do so (and Urban, at least, seemed to have some potential).

Ultimately, the only one who really managed was Zachary Quinto in the role of Spock. Without denying Quinto the credit due him for that, his success was also a matter of the greater material he had to work with - the character's famous idiosyncracies (the Vulcan demeanor, Spock's divided human-Vulcan nature), the fuller use the film made of his backstory (like the alienation he experienced as the product of a mixed-marriage), and of course, the appearance by Leonard Nimoy as an older/original timeline version of that character, acknowledging Quinto's Spock as a younger/alternate timeline version of himself.

Will the second film change all that for viewers with reservations like mine? The increasing familiarity with the newer actors in these roles will have its effect, but probably not a very big one. Just as movie-watchers still remember previous James Bonds and Supermen, so will confirmed old Star Trek fans continue to remember the original incranations of Kirk, Spock and the rest, as well as the elements of the series' universe and style that have been completely tossed overboard, for a long time to come, and compare them favorably with the newer material. As the treatment of Spock's character in the first film demonstrated, the filmmakers were not unmindful of that audience, but reboots are about winning over new fans (less attached to the older version of the series, if attached to it at all) rather than pleasing old ones, while the strongly favorable response to the 2009 movie all but insures a scaled-up version of what it offered. Naturally, the current trailer promises an even bigger, louder, flashier summer blockbuster, at least as brisk and slick and spectacular and full of even more grandly operatic dramatics and action - and not necessarily anything more.

1. Like the film's product placements (remember the Nokia carphone?), the crudity is a reminder of the series' loss of its sense of the utopian (or even of the twenty-third century as a different place) - with that exchange an interesting contrast with that between Kirk and Spock on a San Francisco bus in Star Trek IV regarding the prominence of "colorful metaphors" in the speech of twentieth century Earthlings.

Predictions for Genre Fiction and Film in 2013
My Posts on Star Trek

1 comment:

glennjacob said...

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