Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Darkest One: I Don't Think It Means What You Think It Means

A couple months ago I made a pilgrimage to witness STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, the latest installment in the long-running, multimedia Star Trek franchise.  My mission: to seek out new plots and new characterizations.  I had been left to my own devices for the week and decided to seek out this strange, (semi-) new movie.  Initially I had not been excited for this latest trek, but a slick marketing campaign and a third of a bottle of Crown Royal can soften even the hardest of resolves.  Bolstered by my corporately inspired confidence and just-under-the-legal-limit-as-far-as-the-cops-are-concerned level of inebriation, I set out to boldly avoid paying the premium for 3-D at all costs.  And so I found myself sitting in a semi-crowded theatre on a Wednesday night partly because I'm a fan of all things science fiction, partly because of my Star Trek fandom in general, and mostly because they have yet to produce a full-length, live-action Mass Effect movie.

Even now, months later, I'm finding that STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is a strange beast to pin down.  This is in large part due to the jaded mentality of which I have become a part of due to the fucking deluge of sequels, prequels, reboots, reimaginings, remakes, spin-offs, and every other conceivable cinematic circle jerk that creatively bankrupt and dick-hardeningly rich Hollywood leeches have tried to drown us with in recent years.  Despite my love of both the Star Trek and Star Wars universes in general, I'm experiencing a kind of cultural claustrophobia now that it seems that audiences of science fiction are doomed to constant rehashings of these two franchises.  These two, aging juggernauts have become tired champions, shadows of their former selves, the victims of fight promoters creating a false market and using all available means to keep any genuine contenders from gaining any real foothold in the business.  Both Star Wars and Star Trek have come dangerously close to collapsing under the weight of trying to recapture former glories (and indeed, if one were so inclined, one might be able to effectively argue that this threshold might already have been breached).  For some, it seems, that the notion of retiring with dignity has given way to bleeding them dry...  

But they are juggernauts still, and STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS still has enough of that something you can't learn in school (let's call it ZAZ) to engage the audience and, which, if not quite enough to ignite a burning conflagration in their collective imaginations, was at least still able to offer some small spark still.  Much like Harvey Dent, I am still of two minds about this movie.  It was frustrating insofar as director J.J. Abrams seemed capable of simultaneously squandering and fulfilling the promise he made with the first STAR TREK reboot movie back in 2009.        

Despite the whole concept of the previous STAR TREK film and creating an alternate timeline thereby preserving the original continuity for the most hard line (and annoyingly vocal) fans while opening up vast possibilities for future iterations, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is filled with meta-considerations that unnecessarily influence the plot of the movie.  It's like making a sandwich and choosing condiments based on what type of fertilizer was used to grow the grain for the bread.  These considerations are further muddled by obviously conflicting ideologies, none of which involve my dick getting sucked by a beautiful blonde with big tits and an ass that tastes like French vanilla ice cream.  The main example of this is the revelation of Khan Noonien Singh as the sort of main villain.  In the movie, the revelation of the character's name is dropped with the gravitas of a photon torpedo on an unarmed civilian population.  But the thing is that this "big reveal" is not really a reveal in the typical sense like Darth Vader being Luke's father or Bruce Willis being a ghost.  To illustrate, let's consider the reveal of Khan's identity framed in the following three contexts:

1) Fans of Star Trek, or those with a passing knowledge of Trek lore
2) The general movie-going public with little to no knowledge of Star Trek cannon
3) The context of the movie universe itself

Now, the only context that the reveal of Khan's identity has any relevance or impact whatsoever is in the first, where people already aware of who and what Khan was and what he did (which, admittedly, wasn't actually a whole lot) in previous iterations of the Star Trek universe.  The general movie-going public, at which this latest series of movies is explicitly being more geared towards, couldn't expected to give a shit about this guy's name, because for them the character hasn't been established yet.  Ditto for the protagonists of the film.  I mean, Khan name-drops himself in this really impassioned speech, and the other characters are like, "Yeah, so what?  Is that supposed to mean something to us?"  Any tension that the filmmakers were hoping to build from this meta-knowledge is lost because it is irrelevant to a large cross-section of the audience and also to the protagonists of the narrative itself.

What do you mean they don't have Netflix any more?
Even more baffling is the fact that the character refers to himself only as "Khan" and not "Khan Noonien Singh."  Khan is a pretty generic name, and there's a high probability that with the Enterprise's diverse crew there must be at least a couple of dudes with "Khan" as either a first or last name.  I mean, if the goal is to intimidate your enemies a la Heisenberg in Breaking Bad ("Say my name!"), then the point is to allow your opponents to associate your name with a specific reputation.  In order for this strategy to be successful, specificity really is the key.  Otherwise you're just another scenery-chewing schmuck whose skull I couldn't give two shits about phaser-fucking.

Compare this with the reveal of Darth Vader as Luke Skywalker's father in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  That reveal was relevant not only to fans of the first movie, but also to the general movie-going audience and the characters themselves.  Because major threads of this complex relationship were sown in the movie that the reveal actually took place, any fucking jawa stepping in off the street could understand the significance of that reveal.  It's kind of a psychological cluster-fuck for the antagonist of the film to be revealed as the father of the protagonist, and it's also a dilemma tied to larger repercussions that (almost) anybody in the audience could understand or empathize with (i.e., the greater good in being forced to potentially kill a family member to prevent the suffering of countless other random strangers).  It's also of extreme significance to a number of characters in the narrative and influences their development.

In STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, Khan had no previous interaction with the main characters in any meaningful way.  Yeah, he killed Captain Kirk's (Chris Pine's) on-again-off-again-mentor and parental figure Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), but he did it from afar and in a way that didn't allow for any kind of personal connection that would have made later interactions more complex or meaningful.  He's just this guy they have to track down and assassinate.  And it's not like Khan couldn't be a hugely fascinating character.  What he represents is a certain sort of transhumanist view of improving humanity through eugenics and genetic engineering, which would be a pretty prescient theme considering the current scientific and social landscape.  What makes us human?  That's a pretty fucking compelling theme, and the heart not only of Star Trek but also science fiction at large.  If Khan really was better "at everything," then how did he stay under the thumb of Admiral Marcus for so long?  The dude is obviously capable of singlehandedly raising shit on an intergalactic scale.

In the original series/timeline, Khan takes control of a Federation starship and imprisons her entire crew in a couple of days.  I know that the whole issue was that Marcus was holding Khan's crew/genetically modified tyrant superfriends hostage, but along with his whole "reveal" speech, he also touts one of his strengths as opposed to Spock is his willingness to "break bone."  It seems like he's saying that he's willing to make sacrifices for what he considers to be the greater good, which would fit in with the whole "needs of the many > needs of the one/few" theme they were trying to resurrect from START TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN.  Maybe he couldn't have saved all 78 or so of his crew, but he could have at least saved half a dozen or so, which - judging by Khan's own demonstrated mental and physical capabilities - would have been more than enough to start building a new army of genetic supermen.

It would have been really cool if the terrorist attacks and whatnot were a way of inspiring fear into the masses, then Khan and his posse step in as the new big swinging dicks on the block offering hope to people.  INTO DARKNESS aptly demonstrated that Khan's massive intellect also makes him great at influencing/manipulating people.  In the original Star Trek television show, the members of the Khan Club were seen by history as a bunch of despots all trying to carve the world out into a bunch of kingdoms.  Khan himself was heard to remark that they "offered the world order."  Then you can work in the moral debate of what if some kind of benevolent dictatorship by some kind of genetically enhanced demigod would actually be a good thing if it saved/enhanced the lives of more people. So Khan steps up with evidence of Starfleet's corruption and their inability to keep them safe, and people start flocking to him, so there's a whole rogue faction of Federation citizens that Kirk and all have to contend with.  So when Kirk comes in to bust up his party there's some personal stakes when they meet up later and it's more emotionally charged when they have to team up to take down Admiral Marcus.

Then at the end, Kirk actually takes what Khan says to heart, and where Khan was willing to sacrifice other people, Kirk was willing to sacrifice himself exposing Khan's bullshit.  Then you can work in some kind of Star Trek feelgood rhetoric about the power of the human spirit, and about how there's a strength inside of us that's greater than anything genetic enhancement can achieve, and so on and so forth.

But I guess that's neither here nor there, because what is, is, and there's nothing really that can be done about it.  I guess that like the makers of INTO DARKENESS themselves, I am caught up in the current cultural pastime of "what-iffing" shit to death. I also derive pleasure from the fine art of Ragging on Stuff I Actually Enjoy as, despite my criticisms of START TREK INTO DARKNESS, overall I actually did enjoy this latest Star Trek movie. Or at least, I'm fairly certain that I did. I still need at least one more viewing to render final judgements in the case, but at least for now I find the defendant innocent of being a stinking shit house and guilty of being mildly - moderately entertaining, if lacking a bit in depth. Despite cries from some corners of the Internet for lynching INTO DARKNESS with the moniker of "worst Star Trek movie ever" (a title rightly still held by STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER), it is not even close to the territory of my classic dilemma of having to balance the quality of my movie collection versus owning complete sets of films/TV shows, otherwise known as the ALIEN: RESURRECTION Conundrum.

While under the direction of J.J. Abrams (and whoever the fuck directed the Next Generation movies (aside from Jonathan Frakes for FIRST CONTACT)) the Star Trek movie franchise has definitely skewed more towards the action side of affairs as opposed to the social, political, and philosophical commentary that the various series were known and loved for. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as swinging the pendulum too far in the pedantic philosophizing direction produces boring-ass shit like STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. However, to me the key to Star Trek's draw has always been the substance (with the glaring exception of ENTERPRISE and 99% of VOYAGEUR). Luckily, though INTO DARKNESS is evidence of the driving forces behind the franchise having submerged up to their balls in the philosophically frigid waters of Pure Spectacle, the film still managed to include just enough substance to prevent it from capsizing. (Though INTO DARKNESS is getting dangerously close to the McDonalds Threshold: containing just enough actual meat to classify it as genuine foodstuff.)
Only one prime directive? Fucking pussies.

There is some political intrigue with Admiral Marcus conniving a convoluted plot to incite war with the
neighbouring Klingon Empire to turn Starfleet into a military organization instead of the scientific endeavor it was originally intended to be. Then there is some minor philosophical debate as Captain Kirk is first sent to assassinate Khan, which he is more than willing to do to get some revenge for the loss of Admiral Pike, and then realizes that as a civilized member of an enlightened society he can't in good conscience go around randomly killing people. Faithful old Scotty (Simon Pegg) also leaves the Enterprise due to conscientious objections to both the murder mission and bringing on board a bunch of untested, unlicensed weapons of mass destruction.

(On a side note can we for once have at least one admiral or high-ranking Starfleet official who isn't totally corrupt as fuck?  This is the kind of trope that should be used sparingly, if at all, because various Star Trek movies and TV shows have abused it to the point that you basically have to be a soulless monster to qualify for a position in the upper echelons of Star Fleet.  Yeah, it's great that we see the guys on the front line know what's up and that bureaucrats living in their ivory towers don't know shit and make selfish decisions that don't take into consideration the needs of the many, and yadda, yadda, yadda.  But, speaking both as a fan and as a lover of cinema, it would also be nice to see that this organization, which is supposedly guided by a spirit of exploration, scientific discovery, peaceful co-existence, and fucking hot alien babes, isn't merely a breeding-ground for legions of corrupt officials.  There must be at least a couple of non-assholes on the Federation Council.  Or at least a few who are making some tough calls but who carefully balanced out the pros and cons and made the best decision in the worst situation.  Maybe none of the writers for any of the Star Trek shows or movies never had a boss or parent who wasn't an asshole to model some kind of positive authority figure.  Then again, maybe not.  Who knows?)

Also, Khan finally lived up to all of the potential they kept slinging around in the original series and WRATH OF KHAN.  Part of it was Benedict Cumberbatch's performance (fucking Sherlock dude!), which was superb as always.  The other part was that the character was finally allowed to demonstrate so much of the genetically modified hype he kept building up for himself was back on Stardate 1967.  Despite all of Khan's bluster, though, all that he really managed to do was briefly take over a Federation starship before getting exiled for life on a random planet, overcoming the inventor and master of Kirk-Fu in a head to head fight, lifting Chekov off the ground with one hand (with the help of a conveniently placed handle), and escaping his lifelong exile only to die later the same day in his blind pursuit of revenge.

In INTO DARKNESS, Khan is finally taking names and kicking ass in a way that he always never did before.  In this movie he launches a terrorist attack, eliminates a number of high-ranking Federation officials, single-handedly takes out a squad of klingons with a Jess Ventura-worthy laser gatling gun, endures Kirk's rage beating with nary a flinch, mind-fucking the Enterprise crew into actually helping him, brutally murdering Admiral Marcus in front of his daughter (OK, in all fairness, that one might have actually warranted a Spoiler Alert), out-logicing Spock (Zachary Quinto), and crashing a state-of-the-art starship into a major urban centre causing even more death and destruction.  All in all, the new and improved Khan was a far more dangerous and engaging character.  That's not to take anything away from the originator Ricardo Montalban.  I mean, the dude was amazing with what he had to work with, but Cumberbatch was just given a lot more to work with.

Can I cook in my underwear or can't I?
In a lot of ways, though, Khan was the perfectly emblematic of everything that was both right and wrong with the STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and the latest incarnation of the Star Trek franchise as a whole.  It's frustratingly on the verge of coming into its own and being entertaining in its own right, yet it disappointingly can't quite shake the burden of the source of its inspiration.  Again, it's the line between inspiration and imitation.  On the one hand while it was great as a longtime fan of the franchise to see call-outs like the whole Redshirt Death paradigm, allusions to Sulu's (John Cho's) promising career as a future Starship captain, the introduction of Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) the potential love interest of Captain Kirk and mother of potential children, and references to tribbles and gorn and whatnot.

But on the other hand, we also have scenes ripped line for line from WRATH OF KHAN.  And the aforementioned references to classic Trek moments were "neat" for longtime fans, they kind of missed the point of the "spirit" of what Trek was all about.  And it is important to note that in the hands of a lesser cast, what substance there was might have been lost entirely.  As interesting of a thought experiment as it is to rearrange all of the old familiar elements, what I would really like to see is for the caretakers of the franchise to "boldly go" where no filmmakers have gone before.  Not an easy feat, but as with all ideals their value lay not their achievement (for ideals by their very definition are unattainable) but in the struggle to reach as close as possible.  I guess the other problem, though, is to what ideal one wishes to set his sights.

Until further viewings the highest I could possibly rate STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS would be a 7.5/10 = One Genetically Modified Head With a Scheming Mind and an Incredible Head of Hair



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