Star Trek: Into Darkness (And Then Straight Back Out Again)

One tries to avoid them, but there is potential for some spoiler action in the following twaddle. 

Partway through JJ Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness (ST:ID), I hear the voice of Dan Hedaya’s character from Clueless “CHER!! Everywhere in space takes 20 minutes!!!”

Willing suspension of disbelief demands that one accept that the needs of the plot outweigh the need for veracity – that’s why it’s ok that Othello takes place over about 2 days (yo, O, kill your wife, she’s been jeepin’ on ya. Hmm, jeepin’ you say? Ok, she’s dead; you’re a good friend Kenneth Branagh).

In fairness, ST:ID doesn’t actually involve that much trekking across the vast expanses of the galaxy.

The plot is simple: the Enterprise crew must hunt down Benedict Cumberbatch’s terrorist, John Harrison.  It’s a capture/kill mission stripped of the ‘capture’ – a critique of current affairs written in crayon.

We open at a frenetic pace with a set-piece to re-establish the character beats of the main cast.  A classy set-up for Cumberbatch’s antagonist follows – a nice juxtaposition of mise en scène (and cinematography) with what went before.  I apologise for such language; it has no place here on Frood.

Before I tear the film apart like a misanthrope bear with an impacted wisdom tooth, please understand that I think it’s actually pretty good.  Call that the power of zero expectation if you must.

The cast are more comfortable in this film than the 2009 reboot, Abrams’ alternate universe trick releasing them from the ghosts of Shatners past.  Zachary Quinto has to be singled out for praise if only because there aren’t many ways you can play cool logic with a side order of emotional conflict and yet his take feels very different than Leonard Nimoy’s.

Abrams’ aim from the start was to recapture the optimism and spirit of adventure of the original (1960s) rather than the more staid, antiseptic feel of the spin-offs (1980s+); albeit with the budget to realise more ambitious action sequences.

In Star Trek: First Contact, Patrick Stewart shows off his spaceship to a wide-eyed woman from the past.  When she remarks that it must be pretty goshdarn expensive he condescends “the economics of the future are rather different,” setting out in one phrase more or less everything wrong with the spin-offs.

As an aside, when I were a lad I took one look at Star Trek: The Next Generation and decided that if the utopian future involved quite that much beige I wanted no part of it.  But at this point in the space-time continuum the spin-offs haven’t happened yet, so let’s not get sidetracked by superfluous chat.

Where the films were once talky now they’re explodey.  Or put another way, where once the characters traded in a lot of pretend science to explain major plot weaknesses, now they mostly just hit each other.

But it’s not all back-handed compliments in these here hills, no siree bob.  So here are some of the more glaring problem areas:

Alice Eve’s Secret

At one point, for no reason, Alice Eve takes her clothes off.  Now I can’t honestly say I’m not entirely in favour of gratuitous shots of beautiful women in various states of undress, but even so there should at the very least be the vaguest effort to make ‘em relevant.  Otherwise it’s just a bit sad.

Maybe it’s another of the movie’s many call backs to the old shows, maybe the intention was to satirise the trenchant sexism that dominated the show even into TNG.

Whatever, at the time I heard Patrick Stewart in my head reprising his character from Extras: and then her clothes fall off and I’ve seen everything.

Might need to see someone about all these voices in my head.

What Character? (it’s a blockbuster, what did you expect…)

Such characterisation as there is largely focuses on the Kirk-Spock bromance.  There’s a lovely moment between Kirk and Uhura as they share exasperation at the John Wayne stoicism of their mutual boyfriend.

But the film crams so much action and nods to the back catalogue that there’s little room for character work.  The references are a nice touch – a little game of ‘what’s your Trek score’.  A cynic might suggest that it’s partly intended as a way of winning back wayward diehards who still mutter darkly about the other space franchise.

But if it’s ok to sacrifice a little character development from the main cast, it’s less so with the newcomers.  Alice Eve serves a plot function, but little else, and there’s almost nothing to her character (apart from her good taste in undies).

And then there’s Cumberbatch.  He’s good in it, oozes menace.  Great lower-the-face-then-look-up acting.  But his character’s ‘badness’ is taken as a given, as though we’ve all seen enough blockbusters by now.  So he’s vicious and campy and an all-round bad ‘un, but you’re not really sure why.

He simply shrugs it off as being in his nature: I’m a monster, dude, nuff’ said.

It’s perhaps inevitable in a film such as this, which crowbars in so much stuff that something has to give.  Nevertheless, it’s a weakness, and a pretty big one for those of us who prefer at least a pretence of nuance.

On Being, Like, Totally Topical

And speaking of nuance…

Here’s a question, your premise is set up, you’ve done a bit of action, some banter, a ton of nods to placate the trekkie/trekkers who hate you for making their beloved look like Star Wars (not the younglings!?!?!?!).

What now?  Hey, what was that thing that Nolan did in The Dark Knight?  Oh yeah – American foreign policy, let’s do that.

Star Trek always had a liberal agenda, Roddenberry using the campy space show as a vehicle to sneak in political views that the tv networks would have frowned upon in any other context.  Just one of the reasons why the original series was actually pretty ace.

But.

In TDK, Batman spends a great deal of time worrying about the effect of his actions.  He worries about how far he can go in the name of ‘the good’ before he becomes what he was fighting against, or whether he’s just making things worse through his actions.  The rest of the cast join in, each throwing in their points of view.

The result is to touch on the notion that, whatever one’s conclusions, this stuff is pretty complicated.

By contrast there are a couple of different viewpoints in ST:ID, but one is from a stand-in for hawkish Republican types who’s so clearly into the idea of offing folks with extreme prejudice in the name of security that his viewpoint can be safely dismissed (he’s a straw man to tear apart).

Scotty gets upset, but that’s to serve the plot.  Kirk is vaguely conflicted but that’s because he is, to steal a phrase, sort of a dog chasing cars – it’s only when he’s forced to confront the issue that he thinks ‘hang on a sec’.

Cumberbatch doesn’t think – he just does, because it’s his nature, dawg.

Which leaves one character to make The Point: Spock.  To pop back into TDK for a second, Morgan Freeman’s character describes a course of action as just plain wrong, and makes a personal moral decision.

That’s ok, because the decision is grounded in Freeman’s character, in one man who may or may not be right.  And it comes against a backdrop in which everyone has had his or her say.

Because these issues are by their nature extremely complex.

But when Spock makes The Point – that a course of action is morally wrong, as he puts it, he’s doing so against a vacuum – his is the only real voice.  Further, because it’s Spock, he’s coming from a position of more or less pure logic, not emotion.  Yes, we’re playing by the rules of the story-game.

When he makes a point, it’s not an opinion, it’s the right answer.

And that’s not right.

__

But then again, maybe that’s the point after all – there’s a trend in cinema post-TDK to make things relevant, to engage with the darkness of modern life rather than stick to pure escapism.

Maybe the pointed, topical stuff is just another homage to a tv show no one thought would outlive the 60s.

By the end of the film they’ve dipped a toe in some darker, topical areas, resolved them and headed straight out of the pool.  The film ends where you might expect it to – on the brink of adventure, the sense of optimism restored:

Mission accomplished.

What’s In A Name?

A boring title can sink a film – a dull albatross round the neck that reeks of self-consciousness and lack of faith.  A boring title says nothing so much as ‘we have no ideas, but we don’t much care.’

Who is Aaron Cross?  An angry bystander name of Aaron?  A vengeful priest?   What if nominative determinism doesn’t apply?  Did you care to find out?  Universal didn’t risk an estimated $125m on that question and instead called their film The Bourne Legacy.

Who is Alex Cross?  Do you know?  Do you care to find out?  The tagline for the film says “Don’t Ever Cross Alex Cross”.   Do you still care to find out?

Well roughly $35m has been bet on you wanting to find out.  Did you know that the character has appeared in two previous films?  Morgan Freeman played him in 1997’s Kiss The Girls and Along Came A Spider (2001).  This time round it’s Tyler Perry in the now eponymous role.

What about Jack Reacher?  Or Jack Ryan?

Or John Carter (although he deserves a post all of his own).

The Bourne Legacy had a vested interest in maintaining links with the previous trilogy, a byword for quality actioner.  The film poster utilised an eye-catching, if mildly disingenuous, shuttering technique that slightly obscured star Jeremy Renner’s face.  At a casual glance you’d be forgiven for assuming it was Matt Damon again.

Alex Cross and Jack Ryan, however, represent reboots of pre-existing characters, clean slates.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan first appeared onscreen in The Hunt For Red October (1990), in which he was played by Alec Baldwin as a slightly gawky CIA analyst.  Ryan has since been portrayed by Harrison Ford in Patriot Games (1992) and Clear And Present Danger (1994) as a more straightforward action-oriented character.  Then there was The Sum Of All Fears (2002), in which Ben Affleck did for Jack Ryan what George Clooney did for Batman.

Certainly in Ryan’s case there seems to be some desire on the part of the film-makers to delineate between Chris Pine’s portrayal and previous ones.  The question is whether the name Jack Ryan means enough to people to convince them to hand over their hard-earneds at the mulitplex.  And given the wildly different portrayals of the character, I’m yet to be convinced that the requisite brand recognition exists.

Jack Reacher, on the other hand, is making his debut, based on the book One Shot.  The suspicion here is that the film-makers are making pointed overtures to the existing fanbase – Lee Childs’ creation has starred in 17 books to date.  In theory this should satisfy early box-office requirements, with the crucial word of mouth effect picking up the slack and carrying the film triumphantly into the black.

It’s a fairly high-risk strategy given that the rough and ready, 6”5’ Reacher – a male fantasy figure par excellence – is being played by Tom Cruise.

Tom Cruise is a fantastic talent, but Reacher fans have been notable by their dismay at the casting.  Qualms about the relative ages and heights of character and actor have been particularly prevalent.  This seems unfair, given that Reacher’s age is broadly immaterial – it’s enough that he’s experienced, even a little grizzled.  Likewise, his physical size is a device designed to imply his formidable nature – ‘an unstoppable force’ as Childs describes him, which wouldn’t be a bad description of Cruise himself.

The books themselves are reasonably high quality pulpy thrillers, Childs using punchy sentences and dropping otherwise necessary words like ‘the’ to up the pace and instil a sense of immediacy on proceedings.

Height aside, Tom Cruise would seem a good fit for the role – high octane, apparently indestructible with near boundless energy.  Nevertheless, his appears to have been a controversial choice.

The other criticism, however, is possibly insurmountable.  Jack Reacher is hardly Cruise’s first franchise, and from the trailer his Reacher seems indistinguishable from that Mission: Impossible fella, if a little more low-tech.

The risk then is that Tom Cruise may alienate the existing fanbase, while the name Jack Reacher will mean nothing to most people, who’ll assume it’s just another Cruise thriller – he runs around doing his own stunts, things explode, at one point he cracks out his blinding grin, the audience try to stifle their yawns.

Action-thrillers battle it out in a highly competitive market; the one link between all of these characters (John Carter included) is that they have deliberately bland names that give nothing away, especially not their careers or skill set.

And to be fair, when was the last time you met someone called Action McSoldiersson?

Trailers these days tend to give away too much plot and occasionally render actually watching the film in question a redundant exercise.  For these lads, however, an over-sharing cinematic come-on might be their only hope.  Otherwise these films might suffer at the box office, might well be ignored by virtue of ignorance.

James Bond was famously chosen because it was the most unobtrusive and unmemorable name Ian Fleming could dream up.  Today it’s one of the more recognisable monikers out there.  The suspicion lingers that someone somewhere has badly overestimated the affection and notoriety of Jacks Ryan and Reacher and Alex (not Aaron) Cross.