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.

My Pitch For Man Of Steel 2: Superman vs Batman

By now the coffee bean of news has percolated through the interweb so y’all will be aware that Superman 2 will feature Batman, probably in some sort of face-off-then-team-up-against-a-common-foe storyline.

Some of you may have met said news with weary resignation.  Of course ‘they’ did, even though it’s probably advisable to keep ideas under wraps at least until one has explored the feasibility of actually making them work.  And it’ll tie into the Justice League movie too no doubt.

Because Kal-El does journalism (it’s a make-believe world in which journalists can still make a living) and Batman is the world’s greatest detective.  So they can pool their resources and find the one who runs really, really fast, the camp one with the green jewellery and the one without a Y chromosome.

Conventional wisdom has it that in a fight betwixt the grumpy one and the underpanted one, the winner would be the one who gets the drop – if Batman can prepare and choose the venue he might well best Superman because he’s a) more intelligent and b) he fights dirty.

But otherwise…it’s over Bats.

Of course in movie terms they’ll have to end on some kind of draw in case they upset fans of either franchise.  Like in the Avengers.

Rather than get into the ‘merits’ of the mooted sequel, here’s my pitch for it:

“You know, I just hold her and think ‘I made this; I! Made! This!”

“Yeah, babe, you, a fifth of rum and that guy you met when your husband was out of town on business.  Am I right? World’s greatest detective, of course I am.”

Superman sighed – Batman always got this way after a successful patrol.  “I’m sorry, ma’am, my friend didn’t mean to cause any offence.  May I say she’s a beautiful little baby girl.”

She sniffed and turned back to her friend.  The superheroes joined the line for coffee.  Batman seemed to fumble with his utility belt, ‘every time,’ thought Superman.  He said “Couldn’t we just wait in line this one time like responsible citizens?”

Batman pulled a face beneath his mask.  He nodded to Superman but threw down a small smoke bomb anyway.  

By the time the smoke had cleared Batman was smirking at the front of the line.  He ordered a black coffee for himself and asked Superman what he wanted.  The question was redundant, for Kal-El was a creature of routine and habit.  “May I have a regular cup of joe, which is good enough for the good citizens, and therefore myself, and in keeping with my socially conscious roots in the 1930s.  With a little milk but no sugar, please? Sugar gives you cavities.”  Superman liked his little homilies; he felt they put others at ease.

Batman reached into his utility belt to pay – Superman had nowhere to keep change.  On the rare occasions he did have money it was always refused, even though he insisted. 

“Sorry, I haven’t quite got enough.  But y’know, we keep your streets clear of garbage, so…” he trailed off.  Superman felt a stab of annoyance.  This happened every single night – Bruce was easily the most tight-fisted person he’d ever met.

They took their customary booth by the window – after Batman had used a taser on the couple already sitting there.  Superman had tried to intervene but he knew that if he did Batman would sulk.  And he was unbearable when he was moody. 

“Tell me, Batman, why do you have to be such an A-hole all the time?”

“It’s more fun to be an asshole.  You should try it some time.”

Batman took a long swig of his coffee.  He pulled a face – being billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne on his time off meant that he had developed a taste for finer coffee grounds. 

“So that Lois is a tight piece, you hit that yet? Man I’d love me a slice of that action.”

“That’s a very derogatory way to speak about women, Batman.  And no.  Lois understands that she’s too fragile for me to risk it.  Besides, we’re unmarried.”

“You’re such a fu…” Batman was interrupted by a coughing fit (‘he should speak less when in costume,’ thought Superman).  Wordlessly Superman passed him a throat lozenge from the packet he kept in his boot. 

“Thanks.” The heroes sipped their coffee in silence.  Superman was impressed – this was a great cup of coffee, and they were always so consistent with it too.  He smiled with an easy homespun charm at the waitress toting a refill jug.  She immediately came over and filled his cup.  “Why thank you ma’am.” He said.  She turned to Batman who grimaced at her. 

Some unruly teenagers wandered in.  ‘It’s far too late for them to be in here,’ thought Superman ‘they should be at home in bed – young people need their rest.’  He looked back at Batman but Batman wasn’t there.

Superman looked back up to see Batman with the crowd of teenagers.  He flirted with the girls and made like he was playing nice.  Suddenly without warning the smile fell away – the boys were in for a beating, which took a few seconds.

Batman sauntered back. “Man I hate kids.  Goddam Robin always whining in my ear.” He affected a whining, effeminate tone, “Batman why can’t I have a car, why can’t I go out alone, why won’t you let me bring any girls home? Little bastard never shuts up.  Of course there’s that other one, whatshername.  I tell you Superman – when she’s 18…” 

Superman shook his head sadly – Batman had gone easy on the kids tonight. For once. Even so, they’d done nothing wrong – they were just in high spirits.  But they’d had that argument too many times before: it was one of the reasons that Batman always kept kryptonite studs encased in lead in his utility belt.  Just in case – flip a switch and bye-bye Superman.

They finished their coffee and left.  Batman said “I gotta’ use the can – don’t worry about the tip: I’ll deal.”

Superman thanked the proprietor and the waitress profusely for their service.  He stood outside in the fresh city air.  Batman wouldn’t leave a tip, he knew that much. ‘Just get through it, Kal-El,’ he told himself, ‘Just say goodnight, then you don’t have to see him until the next patrol.’

It was the only way he could keep calm.

“Here’s a tip – next time make better coffee – I got enough explosives here to level this entire block,” Batman shouted on his way out.  He turned to Superman “By the way, Kal, you’ll hear about it at work, but I thought I’d give you advance notice.  I bought the Planet.  Things are gonna’ be a little different – don’t worry, your 401K is safe, but maybe we’ll need to streamline.  Anyway, we’re gonna be work buddies for a time while I work out who to fire.”

Superman felt his fists begin to bunch of their own accord. 

“Oh, and the Ritz down there is a complete rip, so I’m gonna’ need a place to stay.  I was thinking we could be roomies.”  Batman put his arm around Superman’s shoulder, “I’m gonna’ teach you how to live – the casino, get some cigars, maybe some hookers.  Then after we can arrest them for solicitation – the looks on their faces when you do that.  Gets me every time.”

Superman made a decision.

“It’s go time.”

In the end it took no time at all.  And as Superman looked down at the pathetic, bleeding strip on the ground he thought ‘he’s right – it is better to be an asshole.’

THAT Speech In Full: The Matrix

Trinity: I know why you’re here, Neo. I know what you’ve been doing… why you hardly sleep, why you live alone, and why night after night, you sit by your computer. You’re looking for porn. I know because I was once looking for the same thing. And there’s a tissue stuck to your foot. And when I found porn, I realised I wasn’t really looking for porn. I was looking for an answer. It’s the question that drives us, Neo. It’s the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did.
Neo: Nope, it’s gone. Really sorry, mind just went. That’s really frustrating; it was on the tip of my tongue.
Trinity: The question is out there, Neo, and it’s looking for you, and it will find you if you want it to. And stop watching blue movies for 5 minutes.

Sam Rockwell: A Hagiography

Hagiography – noun, plural – phies

  1.  The writing of the lives of the saints
  2. Biography of the saints
  3. any biography that idealises or idolises its subject

There was at one stage an embryo that grew in a womb and which was birthed as a bouncing baby boy.  It was decided shortly thereafter that the boy was a ‘Sam’, a name that means ‘His Name Is God’ or ‘God Has Heard’.  This was clearly auspicious.  

Sam the embryo-that-was with the auspicious name makes for a nice story – the high school dropout turned rebel outsider who came good.

It’s a lie.

Sam Rockwell wasn’t born in the conventional sense, but the truth has been covered up, until now.  One night a comet, nearing the sol side of its orbit, shifted some asteroids into one another.  Well one thing led to another, as it does in space and on dates, and some of the debris and a few smaller asteroids were flung Earthwards where they caused a meteor shower.  The sky lit up – more pyrotechnics than a Rammstein gig.  One meteorite made it to the ground without burning up.  It caused an electromagnetic pulse that took out all the electronics and communications in a tri-county area and caused millions of dollars worth of other infrastructural damage, somewhere in Southern California.  When the authorities reached the crater, there, sitting at the very epicentre of destruction, was Sam Rockwell drinking a cocktail. 

The rest, as they say, is history.

You want a biography, use Wikipedia.  You want an accurate biography with facts in it, don’t use Wikipedia.

If the Academy Awards had any integrity, which they don’t because Braveheart won Best Picture, there would be an annual Sam Rockwell Academy Award For Superb Awesomeness. 

I’ll stop there before this mess digresses into a general, unfocused rant about the Oscars and what criteria they can possibly use to choose Best Picture.  Shakespeare In Love. 

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking why Sam Rockwell, why not all the other deserving men and women?  For example, why not Christopher Walken?

Walken is elevated beyond the realm in which trinkets and baubles can be accolade enough, like a super-evolved, supra-dimensional higher being made entirely of pure energy and facial tics.  That’s why.

Now we’re not about to call Sam Rockwell a saint.  This is a hagiography in the sense of unbecoming, fawning adulation.  The sort of thing one tends to regret the next morning when one has sobered up, rather like the Academy probably did when they woke up to realise they’d given Best Picture to Chicago rather than The Pianist. 

I know what you’re thinking now, you’re thinking that if we’re going to hagiographise and rhapsodise, shouldn’t we, you know, get on with it?

No we shouldn’t.

I think it’s what Sam Rockwell would’ve wanted.

Great art doesn’t bother explaining itself; it’s inscrutable.  You hardly expect me to point out how that applies to Sam Rockwell.  …And you can’t get much more hagiographic than that. 

Fine:

Moon, being the only part of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Martin Freeman aside, that the film-makers didn’t mess up, adding some element of subtlety to the lead role in Choke, being a grade A shit in Green Mile, not being shit in Green Mile, not letting on that he clearly only did Iron Man 2 for the money, improving every film he’s in, whatever the quality of the film, let’s gloss over that one where Daniel Craig David (bo selecta!) fights aliens while dressed as a cowboy, let’s not gloss over that other cowboy one he appeared in with the ridiculous title, suppressing his natural ability effortlessly to upstage other actors in Frost/Nixon, being described by Roger Ebert as his generation’s Christopher Walken (go-to guy for ‘weird’), being so much more than that faintly damning praise, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Lawn Dogs, being a serious professional without admitting it or being too luvvie about ‘the craft’, Moon.

Aaaannnd breathe.

Just don’t call him a poster boy for indie cool, because that’s the sort of phrase that ought to make one wonder whether we should ever have gone to the trouble of evolving from single-cell organisms.  The Academy’s judgement certainly doesn’t inspire hope for our ability to develop into more complex creatures: Dances With Wolves.

 Next time on Frood: back to foul-tempered histrionics.