Thursday, May 16, 2013

Edith Keeler Must Die

Don't copy-paste legends
I saw the midnight premiere of Star Trek: Into Darkness early Thursday morning. The initial 2009 reboot of the franchise was an intriguing blend of classic Star Trek motifs through a 21st Century sensibility, so I thought I'd enjoy this continuation of the new films even more than the kickoff  movie.

 As I soon discovered, that idea was a colossal miscalculation.

Yes, it's obvious that the franchise needs to be geared toward a mass audience, and a market of Star Trek aficionados simply can't pay enough in ticket purchases to offset the costs incurred by Paramount every time the studio mounts one of these productions. The movies, therefore, have to follow a strict diet of predictable action, adventure, pretty people, and explodey stuff in order to maintain ticket sales and repeat business.
This is a mandatory, yet completely unessential, three-second scene that fulfilled
Paramount's requirements for "a sexy new Star Trek."

   Yet, there still has to be something of the heart of Star Trek-type stories to consider these films part of the Star Trek universe. Director J.J. Abrams doesn't seem to agree with this idea, as evidenced by the plot of the latest adventure of Captain Kirk & company.

Abrams famously stated he was never a Star Trek fan growing up, and really never watched much of the series until he was hired to direct the first reboot film. It's almost a matter of pride to him that he had no love for Trek as a child, and this lack of affection seems to percolate through the latest film.

Note: before I continue any further, I want to assure you that I do not want to spoil any plot elements for people who haven't seen the movie, so I'm going to talk in general terms about the problems in this film. My criticisms will probably make more sense after you've seen the movie, but I think it's important to view the film without having any plot surprises ruined for you.

The attitude of the script seems to be that it was written by someone who screened several key episodes of Star Trek and watched a few of the films, but had no idea about the personalities of the characters mentioned in the shows. It's as if they had watched "City on the Edge of Forever," and then decided to rewrite Edith Keeler as a Romulan spy. Sure, everyone in the film is saying  the same catchphrases that resonate from earlier episodes and films, but the screenwriter Damon Lindelof doesn't seem to understand why the characters say the things they do. The ignorance of the why part turns the phrases into gibberish, or worse, unintended comedy.
The Squire of Gothos? Cadet Finnegan? Sure, pick a TOS villain and cast Cumberbatch in the role.

You don't have to be a Trekkie to know the basic rules of Star Trek: Kirk makes bold decisions, Spock's favorite word is "logic," guys in red shirts don't live long. But the characters and their interactions were more complex than superficial features. Even the guest stars on the old TV show had backstories that explained their reasons for doing things: Commodore Decker was driven by guilt over the loss of his crew to attack the Planet Killer in a shuttlecraft; Khan Noonian Singh was the pride-drunk leader of a remnant of 20th Century supermen whose weakness was his arrogance; Commander Balok was a master of deception because his diminutive  race had previous run-ins with aggressive species. The aliens and opponents the crew of the Enterprise faced each week had motives and desires that made sense in the context of the plot of every show. 

May the Force be with you, Frodo. Epic misunderstanding of a franchise.
Star Trek Into Darkness? Not so much. The biggest failure of the film is the outright looting of previous Star Trek characters and situations in order to evoke audience nostalgia for those original TV and film moments. We're given a bad guy named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) who turns out to be a character from the TV show - - except this character doesn't act anything like the original character. When dialog from the original character's appearance is repeated in this film, then, it doesn't quite make sense with what we see on screen. Imagine, for example, having a Klingon suddenly appear on screen without introduction and shout "HARCOURT FENTON MUDD!" at Mr. Spock - - - it's almost at that level of incoherence.

The motivations of the villains are breathtakingly shallow. They are bad guys simply because the script needed bad guys at certain points in the film. New locations crop up only because the Enterprise crew required a new place for fight scenes scheduled at regular intervals in the movie, and the previous venues had been destroyed during earlier fights. Ships are destroyed, crash, and somehow fly again because they're needed for the next battle scene. In one particularly absurd moment, a starship, already blown up by six dozen photon torpedoes, reappears for another barrage of phaser fire.

Don't worry, it's only a scratch.
The biggest problem (and I'm going to be as vague as I can so as not to spoil anything) is the lack of loss in this film. Yes, there are deaths of characters, but the solutions to otherwise fatal situations are telegraphed so early and often in this film that the audience doesn't care when people fall off the roofs of speeding cars, or get shot, or have their ships blown up around them. There is no peril that can't be erased, and without the high stakes of life or death, character mortality is no more of a concern than losing a turn during a Super Mario Bros game.

I could continue with nitpicking the howling continuity errors, the usurption of the laws of physics, and the over-reliance of jam-packing every single scene with floating debris and shuddering camera angles, but those points don't begin to match the immensity of the ineptness of the script. This is a Star Trek film, mostly in the sense that Paramount owns the intellectual property and that the character names are the same as those used in the original Roddenberry series. It is not a Star Trek film, though, in any aspect where it's supposed to match the quality of the original series' story-telling, or show respect for the characters and their motivations. It's an auto-tuned version of Star Trek, replete with mandatory set pieces to please the ticket-buying audiences of the world. I'm not saying it wasn't a fun movie - - it's just not really about Star Trek anymore. If Edith Keeler must die, the reason shouldn't be so that there's a satisfying explosion at the end of the film.

Let's cram some more merchandise onboard, shall we?


  1. Having now seen the film I appreciate your insights very much and feel just a shade more charitably toward it than you do (partly because your opening-night disappointment tempered my own expectations). When the first "New Trek" movie came out I told friends it was an enjoyable sci-fi film about characters named "Kirk" and "Spock" aboard a spaceship named "Enterprise," but it wasn't "Star Trek." The latest movie tries very hard to be "Star Trek" and paradoxically misses the mark even more widely than the first. I'm still glad I saw it--I didn't leave the theater shaking my head as I did after, say, "Star Trek V" or "Insurrection"--but I hope Abrams & Co. can now go on to tell better, all-new stories in this universe and leave the old-school nods to cute little Easter eggs like tribbles and passing mention of "the Mudd Incident" without trying to balance an entire shaky plot atop them.

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