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Five years ago
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Star Trek Into Darkness

I confess I was worried. I had imagined having to talk Silje off some ledge or other (especially after this horrendous promo video), but this was on the whole a pleasant experience. And if you do not leave the theatre loving Spock and Scotty even more, there is something wrong with you. The film has at least one major problem, however. And I am not entirely sure that it achieves what it sets out to do. (But seriously: Spock? So cool. Scotty? Rocks my world.)

Warning: Here be SPOILERS.

Serious SPOILERS.

The SPOILERS J. J. Abrams doesn't want you to see.




I meant that stuff about the spoilers.

They go beyond the fact that there is a TRIBBLE in the film.


I have long been a little wary of J. J. Abrams and his cronies. Part of the reason for this is his tendency to think of the box office rather than the integrity of the canon (I'll get back to that). There is also the fact that he seems to think Star Trek lends itself well to the action movie genre. He may not be entirely wrong; and while there are entirely too many action sequences in this film for my taste, I am willing to forgive it because the film still manages to retain the emphasis on the characters, which I associate with Star Trek. It also helps that they are visually very appealing (the action sequences; not the characters -- or, actually, both).

I think this action movie mentality detracts from the film, however. It is not helped by the fact that Abrams has ended up with a very episodic plot, and the action sequences end up emphasising it rather than covering it up. The 2009 Star Trek on the whole gave a much more rounded impression. First there is the Save Spock sequence, then the redundant reassignments and demotions, followed by the main sequence of the film (which itself has an intermission of "oh no, we are being attacked by Klingons"), which had an altogether too predictable resolution for me to get quite swept off my feet. I can see why it took the episodic route, and I am aware that when I describe parts of it as redundant, I am focusing on plot rather than the attempt at character development. The film tries to do in 20 minutes what TOS did in three seasons: build a foundation for a friendship between Kirk and Spock. It was bound to feel a little forced. Happy as I am that Abrams and his cronies have finally turned their attention where it belongs.

I am aware that I am beginning to sound like I didn't like the film at all. This is not the case. I was wonderfully entertained; I laughed out loud several times; Scotty, as I have stated repeatedly, is great beyond words; Spock is given room to develop his wonderfulness; Uhura kicks ass in Klingon; McCoy is brim full of snark; there is a tribble onboard; and if I did not turn into a helpless ball of tears, like Silje did at one point, I did enjoy the way they tried to focus on and build the dynamic between Kirk and Spock.

I said the film had one major problem. This is disturbingly tied up with one of its main strengths, and it led to a rather interesting discussion on the nature of canon, alternate realities and postmodern licence on the bus on the way home.

This is an alternate timeline appropriation/adaptation/pastiche/homage of/to Wrath of Khan (and, as a corollary, the TOS episode "Space Seed"). There is Carol Marcus, the warp core and the death scene with the Vulcan salute against the glass (complete with the declaration of friendship).

That, in itself, is not the problem. I am all in favour of a bit of postmodern play, and nothing makes me happier than being able to spot geeky references in a text that manages the balance of repetition and innovation. It could have been Great. If done properly.

And, while it would have been nice to see them draw on the TV series a little more, I even understand why they chose to go with the most popular and famous Star Trek plot out there. Abrams is, after all, a fan of the box office, and they are catering to a mass audience, not just the Trekkies. I get it. But they did it wrong.

Khan Noonien Singh

The major problem in this film (and I never thought I'd say this) is Benedict Cumberbatch. Not so much because of Benedict Cumberbatch (who is wonderful, menacing and just down right Great), but because he is used in the whitewashing of Khan Noonien Singh. Khan was played by Ricardo Montalban, but in the original series, the character is linked (both through his name and his back story) to the Indian subcontinent.

This strange and disturbing choice cannot be explained by the premise of Abrams' Star Trek universe as it was set up in the first film. If the arrival of Nero is what changed the timeline, that cannot explain the changed ethnicity of Khan. This would not be as problematic if the change had been done in order to undermine a pattern or a convention; but the only thing this contributes (except Cumberbatch, and I'll get back to that) is to the disturbing Hollywood pattern of using white actors in non-white roles. Look it up. I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the reasons why Abrams kept such a tight lid on the identity of the villain was that he wanted to keep the discussion of this bizarre choice from marring the hype.

If they wanted to use Benedict Cumberbatch as a scary superman, it would have been better if they had done so without Khan at all (while that would also amount to whitewashing, it would not be as egregious; and I confess I really liked Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain): Khan was not the only superman on the Botany Bay; he slept alongside a number of others. Imagine if Admiral Marcus had woken up one of those others; if the villan had been John Harrison -- it could all have played out the same, possibly with someone mentioning that he was one of the supermen who took control alongside Khan after the eugenics wars of the 1990s, and finally, panning across the frozen bodies at the end, you could see John Harrison lying next to Khan. It would be kind of cool. And the fans would squeal, and the rest would be none the wiser.

And it would neatly keep Spock from bellowing "KHAAAAAAAAAN" into a communicator, which, fond as I am of the pastiche, slid steeply into parody.

And here we are at the heart of the matter. Why am I insisting on the integrity of the canon and the avoidance of parody when I am supposed to be a proponent of postmodern play (notice the plosives)? Why am I not completely taken with the fact that they mirrored the death scene and sprinkled the film neatly with parody? (I love parody! Both as a concept intellectually and as an artistic practice!) The creative approach to appropriation of the source text should make me ecstatic. And in that atmosphere, I should not object that much to the alteration of the canon, or necessarily hold the failure to conform to the source text against it. I think the problem is that there is not enough of it, and it does not happen in the right places (Spock's outburst punctures what is supposed to be a stirring emotional scene). It is as if the film cannot decide what it wants to do, so it tries to do it all at once, and in the end it fails to do things properly. Moreover, this type of play is at its best when it is in some way subversive. This does not happen in this film, as far as I can see.

It should be noted that Silje was markedly more enthusiastic than I was (you must imagine the following quote with some squealing, clapping and a sort of bouncing around):
Jeg gleder meg mer og mer til å se den igjen for jo mer jeg tenker på den, jo bedre liker jeg hvordan de både utforsker de mulighetene som ligger i en alternativ tidslinje for å gjøre karakterene ulike TOS (uten å endre dem for mye), og hvordan filmen spiller på TOS-kanon. (Men jeg liker selvfølgelig fortsatt ikke at Khan spilles av en hvit skuespiller.)

For those of you who have yet to learn Norwegian:
I am looking more and more forward to seeing it again, because the more I think about it, the better I like how they both explore the possibilities of an alternate timeline in order to make the characters different from TOS (without changing them too much), and how the film plays on the TOS canon. (But I don't like that Khan is played by a white actor.)


You see that Abrams? YOU MADE THE HAPPY CLAPPING AND SQEALING AND BOUNCING STOP! Or at least slow down.
Tor, Ole Petter likes this

Comments

Camilla,  13.05.13 09:46

that she did NOT stop bouncing.
Camilla,  13.05.13 10:03

(again) that I DID enjoy the film. I am just not bouncing.
Tor,  15.05.13 21:52

Both with the previous film and this one, I had a very strong feeling that I knew what I wanted from the film, but I couldn't really say what it was. I think I was looking for a sort of Star Trekky quality which I would know if I saw it, but which I couldn't describe in detail. Both films partially lived up to my expectations, the previous one perhaps a little more than this one, but on the whole there was too little Star Trek and too much action film in space with characters from Star Trek.
Ole Petter likes this
Camilla,  20.05.13 23:59

I know I called for Damon Lindelof to get a stern talking-to in my thoughts on the 2009 film, but I am fast losing faith in the efficacy of such a solution. A better option might be some sort of brain surgery. I did not go into it in the review (in part because I felt the whitewashing was a bigger issue, and I did not want to break Silje entirely with too much negativity in one go), but there is some deeply silly deployment of Carol Marcus' unclothed body at one point. Here is Lindelof's reply to the criticism.
Camilla,  23.05.13 18:58

I am aware that I keep commenting on my own post, while nobody else is joining the conversation. That is ok. Like Gandalf, I can have fulfilling conversations with myself.
Camilla,  01.06.13 09:51

This quite neatly sums up what is off about Kirk in the new Star Trek film. Granted, the timeline changes can account for a number of things, but I am not sure why you would want to make that particular change.
Camilla,  14.09.13 11:15

Dear Star Trek writing people: Can you please stop now?