By Bernie Jablonski
If Captain James Tiberius Kirk in the old (Uh, sorry. Original.) Star Trek lost control of the starship Enterprise to aliens about a dozen times, why was he never relieved of command? If Lieutenant Geordi LaForge of Star Trek: The Next Generation was phased into another plane of reality where no one could see him and he could pass through solid matter, then how come he never fell through the floors of all the decks of the ship and out into space? And for the love of all things Klingon, why do all the aliens in the universe speech English, possibly the most illogical, irrational language there is on this planet? If they wanted to learn an Earth language, why not a Romance language like Spanish or French? At least those have consistent rules of syntax and usage!
Have I begun to turn you away, non-Star Trek fans? That is not my intent. There are no answers to the above, just a passion among many fans for coming up with theories that will make logical sense out of issues that don’t really matter anyway. I am a great fan of just about all the incarnations of Star Trek, but don’t call me a Trekkie. Or a Trekker, the allegedly acceptable term for fans. My doctor found that out when he came to examine me two hours after my appointment time, saw the copy of Entertainment Weekly with the cover story on the movie, and called me a Trekkie. I asserted that I was no such thing. When he realized why I was really annoyed, he apologized and referred to me as a “Star Trek enthusiast.” That was OK.
Did you see the 2009 Star Trek movie, non-cultists? The fact that it has made nearly $258,000,00 domestic to date indicates that die-hards were not the only ones to have seen it. Remember how amazed you were when you realized that it was a great action picture that introduced characters and background that were new (yet definitely tied to ST: TOS) to all of us, equally? You know what? Director J. J. Abrams and his cast and crew have crafted a new film (finally) that is even better. Yes, on the sturdy foundation of the 2009 Trek, this movie runs full throttle (I am doing my best to avoid the obvious Trek metaphors like “at warp speed,” just like Dr. McCoy is instructed to do at one point in the movie), with a landscape ranging from fully realized characters that interact truthfully with each other to things blowing up real good.
To review: Jim Kirk (Chris Pine, one letter away from being the original captain of the Enterprise) is the young, brash member of Starfleet who was pressured Into a command position by the aforementioned Captain (now Admiral) Christopher Pike, who, fans of the original series will probably be happy to know, does not get to roll around in a futuristic scooter with flashing lights on it (and as Dupeche Mode might say, “he doesn’t look a thing like Jesus.” Get it? Get it?). His first officer Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto, whose resemblance here to young Leonard Nimoy is quite uncanny at times) is from the now-destroyed planet Vulcan, whose people long ago learned to suppress emotion to save themselves from their violent tendencies. Spock is having a serious, romantic relationship (!) with Communications Officer Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana, whom I now heartily forgive for Colombiana).
Helmsman Hikaru Sulu (John Cho, displaying both manly stoicism and boyish glee when he takes temporary command of the ship) and tactician (Anton Yelchin, barely holding onto his grace under fire when he becomes temporary Chief Engineer) bring their own richness to the crew through great performances, but it is Simon Pegg (as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott) who nearly walks off with the picture. Pegg is just so damn funny, with the Scottish accent so exaggerated (putting the Scotts Lawn guy to shame) and his energy so high, that if he weren’t so enjoyable to watch, one might say he was overacting.
The opening scene is a slam-bang action piece that sets the tone for the movie and even though it is similar to the sequence at the beginning of any James Bond movie, it does have ramifications for the characters. The Enterprise crew is hidden on an alien planet, trying to avert the destruction of a primitive race. What’s the tightrope routine that the crew has to contend with in executing this operation, die-hard fans? That’s right! The Prime Directive, which states that no member of Starfleet (at this point in its history an exploratory, not military organization) can alter the development of any civilization, even if that member has to die in the process. You’d think this would prevent things like starship captains taking control of planets and basing the government on Nazism, but hey, stuff like that happens anyway in the vast Star Trek Omniverse.
Kirk, as leader of the expedition, does violate that edict in spectacular fashion, and because of this loses command of the Enterprise. As part of his demotion he is made First Officer under Admiral Pike’s command, and at a meeting of the key admirals and captains of Starfleet, learns of a calamitous attack of an archives library in London. As Kirk is proposing a theory of why the attack was carried out, the building the current conference is being held in is fired upon. Surviving the chaos, Kirk convinces Admiral Marcus (played by RoboCop!), head of Starfleet Command, to reinstate Kirk’s command and the rest of his crew so he can go to an abandoned province on the Klingon homeworld to capture the suspected criminal, a rogue Starfleet officer (when is Starfleet going to invest in insurance for good psychological care of its members?) named John Harrison. The Admiral in charge gives Kirk orders not to capture him, but to kill him.
When the original Star Trek was at its best, its episodes were morality tales that did not hit you over the head with Meaning. Kirk is given a large number of newly developed photon torpedoes (non-fans, just know that you don’t want to get in the way of one of them) to use against Harrison, and as the weapons are loaded onto the ship, a number of crew members are alarmed at their radioactive instability and also question Kirk about if he really thinks that the issue is a point on his moral compass, but Kirk insists on carrying out orders. This leads to strong dissension among some of the crew; when Kirk finally confronts Harrison, he realizes that there is not just one moral conundrum here.
Harrison is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock Holmes on TV. When I casually mentioned to two female colleagues at work that I would be seeing this movie, one of them breathlessly asked, “Oh, the Benedict Cumberbatch movie?” This actor already seems to have cut quite a swath, and seeing his work in STID, it is not a mystery why. There has been much speculation on the nature of his role, and I certainly will not spoil anything for those Star Trek enthusiasts who haven’t been part of that conversation. Cumberbatch is magnificent. We witness Harrison committing atrocities at the beginning of the movie, then actually begin to sympathize with his situation, and then… Benedict Cumberbatch really uses his imposing figure and dulcet tones to command every scene he’s in.
Star Trek Into Darkness is filled with great production design, effects and music, never lets up, and is laced with humor, running from a lovers’ quarrel between Spock and Uhura to just about anything Pegg says or does. There was one thing that not quite bugged me, but left me puzzled about exactly what the filmmakers expected me to feel. Newcomers that I hope I’ve persuaded to see the movie, if you’re not knowledgeable of the series or movies, this next bit will have no meaning for you, so start calling Fandango for tickets now. For everyone else, relax. No spoilers here.
I realize that contemporary blockbuster or “tentpole” movies skew long, and at 132 minutes STID is longer than most but not as long as some (I’m looking at you, Dark Knight); one common reason for this is that a movie will sometimes have more than one climax, or emotional highpoint, and that is the case here. Fine. I’m used to it. With all that money for special effects, why not have a few vigorous battles before the dust clears? Didn’t hurt The Avengers, did it? If Into Darkness ended with its first climax (just shy of the two-hour mark), it would be a beautifully-balanced film with three concise acts. (When you see the movie, Trek fans, you’ll know that it wasn’t possible to end the movie after the first climax.)
The multiple-climax issue is not even the thing that is giving me all kinds of goofy feelings. The first climax scene is meant to be moving, and it seems to be an homage to one of the most iconic scenes in the entire Omniverse of Star Trek Movies, TV Shows, and Books. But the original scene is set on its ear, and I wondered if this new scene was a tribute to or a parody of the original. I was moved, but I also felt rather cynical watching it. The biggest jolt comes from the last word spoken in the scene. Who knows? Maybe I’m just turning into an old cumberbatch. I mean curmudgeon.
BTW: A lot of my high school students are excited about seeing the latest version of The Great Gatsby, and I’m sure that at the very least they will find the opulence (and soundtrack) very appealing. It is a Baz Luhrmann movie, so the sets are going to be huge, the music anachronistic and loud, and the tendency toward retinal fatigue high. I enjoyed the movie (particularly the performances), but when we got to the confrontation scene between Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan near the end, I marveled at what a wonderfully acted, beautifully sustained scene it was, and wished that the rest of the movie had been that way, minus the HUGENESS of it all. Thankfully, the songs that were not from the 1920s (Luhrmann defends using music styles such as hip-hop in a 1920s-set movie by pointing out that songs in the great Broadway musicals were written in the then-current styles, not in modes appropriate to the period depicted) were confined to the big noisy party scenes, where even though they were incongruous, aided the mood. But when a character is hit by a car, do we really need to see that character flying through the air in slow motion, brightly-sparkling jewels of broken glass forming an aura around the character? I’m all for a heightened sense of reality, but that exaggerated tone informs the whole movie, and I thought it was just too much.
Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.