Star Trek Into Darkness' origins and impact

25-May-13 11:09 AM by
Filed under Films, Star Trek; 6 comments.

Four years after J. J. Abrams rebooted Gene Roddenberry's original television show, the youthful crew of the original NCC–1701 have again taken to space in Star Trek Into Darkness. As is now our tradition, my father and I attended the film's opening night. Two hours later, I left the theater feeling a way no other movie had ever left me: overwhelmed. The layers, implications, and consequences of the Enterprise's latest mission are too complex to be boiled down into a simple recommendation. Although I do wholeheartedly recommend this film, it's not enough to say that it's a good film, as it's much more than that.

I'd walked into the movie having successfully avoided all trailers, teasers, rumors, and revelations. I cannot promise I will do the same in this review, so proceed with caution. For example, the latest trailer has a single word that would've ruined for me the identity of the antagonist, which some might consider an already poorly kept secret — but even as I watched the film, I was never sure of myself right up until the big reveal. It would be impossible to comment on the film without including that moment.

Spock in flames

What better way to start a summer blockbuster than with a volcano?

More broadly than those specifics, it's important to first acknowledge that this is no longer Roddenberry's Star Trek. Some have criticized Abrams for dumbing down Star Trek from its ideological origins into a generic action-packed blockbuster. But with these two films, Star Trek has undergone a natural evolution from philosophy defined to philosophy realized. Star Trek is no longer about debates around tables and in turbolifts, as it so often was in The Next Generation, a series I adored. Now it is about making difficult decisions in the heat of the moment — and dealing with the consequences. The most talkative we see this crew of the Enterprise is Kirk's confrontation with Scotty, which does not go the way either Scotty or the audience expected; the look on his face says, "Did we really just pull the pin on this grenade?" Other conflicts, such as Uhura and Spock's spat, seem almost comically timed and forced. But even these moments move the story and the characters forward through challenging times. Just because the set has moved from a conference room to the heat of battle does not make the decisions any less difficult.

That gravity is carried by the excellent acting of the cast. Although the credits list the actors in alphabetical order, implying an ensemble cast, it is very much Kirk and Spock's show. Most everyone else gets their chances to shine: Scotty is integral to the plot; Bones and Uhura have some fantastic scenes; and Sulu's moment in the spotlight is the first time I've seen a hint of the man who will eventually captain the U.S.S. Excelsior. Chekov, unfortunately, is mostly wasted in this episode, serving as a poor substitute for Scotty. But the movie is ultimately about Kirk and Spock's friendship and their diametrical approaches to situations, as indicated by McCoy's answer to Kirk's early question, "If you were here, Spock, what would you do?" The returning cast is joined by Alice Eve (Men In Black 3) as Carol, Peter Weller (RoboCop) as Admiral Marcus, and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) as John Harrison.

Harrison vs. Kirk

A new rivalry…
or an old one?

John Harrison? Yes, that is the name of our villain, at least at first. His early act of terrorism was brutally unwelcome here in Boston, where we had just suffered a similar tragedy. From there, his actions are pettier than I'd expect. His escape to the Klingon homeworld gave us a first glimpse at this re-imagined alien race, but they are otherwise a red herring. Harrison was neither conspiring with them nor enticing the Enterprise into a war with them. Given those missed opportunities, what was he going to do on Qo'noS — hide? It seems an unfitting and unambitious fate for the tyrant he eventually reveals himself to be. Had he succeeded, we might once again have had a movie where Kirk and Khan never come face-to-face — a missed opportunity from the 1982 film, finally realized in 2013.

Carol and Jim

Watch their love explode across the screen!

Cumberbatch's character is one of the film's many ties to the known Star Trek timeline. Another is Section 31, the brief mention of which elicited a gasp from this long-time fan. It indicates a familiarity with Star Trek lore, both the unaltered timeline that precedes Nero's incursion — Section 31, although introduced in Deep Space Nine, was alive and well in the age of Captain Archer — and the implications of what it could become in the future. The same occurs with the introduction of Carol Marcus: her introduction to Kirk produced little unique chemistry, but we know what it could become.

But no character, alien, or organization carried as much weight as a scene revisited from The Wrath of Khan. Kirk's rescue of the Enterprise came so suddenly that, when I realized what was happening, it hit me like a ton of bricks. "Not again!" I despaired. Leonard Nimoy's Spock had just said that Khan was defeated "at great cost" — a heavy statement: how many people can reflect on their own deaths, then be chilled by the knowledge that their murderer has risen from the grave? Now here we are, seeing it happen again, this time with Kirk as the human sacrifice. The captain who'd started the film with the proud proclamation of having never lost a member of his crew had more than a perfect record in mind; the agony with which he had, moments ago, apologized to the bridge for what he thought was their ultimate defeat was palpable. Kirk cares for every member of his ship as much as he cares for Spock — the latter being a friendship that is no less weighty for having been witnessed across only two films instead of two decades, as it was the last time Khan threatened the Enterprise. Kirk bookends the film by saving Spock's life, and the evolution we see is in Spock's reaction: from a detached betrayal of his captain to Starfleet, to a vengeance-fueled hunt his friend's killer. Through Kirk's selflessness, Spock has gotten in touch with the best and worst of his own humanity.

Spock and Kirk

Watch their love explode across the screen!… or not.

This scene, combined with using Khan as the film's protagonist, may suggest an unoriginality among the scriptwriters. Four years ago, Khan seemed the least likely candidate for the sequel, lest Abrams walk the same cinematic path laid out in decades past. But critics clamoring for this new generation of Star Trek to go on an original adventure need look only four years to the past, when the Romulan Nero arrived on the scene.

By contrast, this sequel is not a rehashing of an old plot but rather a brilliant exploration of destiny. How much of these characters' fates are their own to decide? Are Kirk and crew destined to always clash with Khan, no matter how much the circumstances may change? Just how far-reaching are the effects of Nero's destruction of Vulcan? The exhumation of the SS Botany Bay is a small change with dramatic consequences. Will the next film continue referring to the pivotal moment in time when a villain from the future set a new course for the galaxy?

With the full weight of Star Trek's history behind this movie, it is hard for me to say if this sequel is as much meant for a general audience as the 2009 reboot was. You can get away without knowing what Section 31 is, or who Carol Marcus becomes — but is Khan a good villain on his own merits? There is no reference to the Eugenics Wars, which may be too much backstory for one film to deliver, lest it become the preachy Trek it is trying to move away from. Not only his origin, but also his ambition, may be lost on an audience that is not as likely to respond to Khan's identity with "Holy crap!" than they are with "Who?"

Star Trek Into Darkness opening night

Star Trek: Generations.

For those filmgoers who take this film as just another summer blockbuster, there's still plenty to enjoy on just that level, and plenty to gripe about, too. As with any Trek (or even sci-fi in general), there are plenty of plot holes and technological inconsistencies. Some were elegantly addressed: when I wondered how Khan could beam himself to Qo'noS, they tied back into the 2009 film with a reference to Scotty's transwarp beaming technique, a direct result of Nero's temporal incursion. But then the question becomes: why send the Enterprise to Qo'noS when they could just beam there? Of course, the choice to plot a course into enemy territory furthered Admiral Marcus' agenda, but it still seems an oversight. Also, I think the film may've addressed this, but is within an explosive device the smartest place for Khan to have hidden his family? And, even if the Eugenics Wars was two hundred years ago, shouldn't at least one member of Starfleet have studied enough history to recognize the leader of the Augments? Or was plastic surgery part of Khan's transformation into John Harrison, that he might work alongside Section 31 without revealing the depths to which Admiral Marcus had plumbed for inspiration?

Still, most other scenes can be neatly explained. Marcus sharing the secret of Section 31 with Kirk seemed a faux pas, but I suspect Marcus never expected Kirk to come back from his next mission, taking the truth of the clandestine group's existence to his grave. The explosion of the 72 torpedoes first seemed heartless and cruel, especially given McCoy's involvement — what happened to "First do no harm"? When Kirk learned that the Augments had been extracted, his response took the words right out of my mouth: "I'll be damned." And the use of Khan's blood to save Kirk (which has its own implications for the future of Star Trek — is there anything Augment blood can't cure?) was foreshadowed not only by the tribble's resurrection, but also by the cure for the diseased girl, which was likely a dose of the same elixir. And sure, we knew Kirk wouldn't die, not so early in Pine's career in the role. But if only the admirable Pike had been afforded so heroic a death, or at least the peaceful one we can assume he was granted in the original timeline, rather than gunned down in cold blood — even if the latter was necessary to provide Kirk the drive to go after Harrison.

Whatever level you view this film on, it has special significance for its core audience. For someone who has seen all 726 episodes and 12 movies and read dozens of novels of Star Trek, I cannot take what J.J. Abrams has done here lightly. It is a powerful combination of fan service and creative license — a message of "I will use what you like, but you may not like how I use it." I almost cannot render judgment without seeing what comes next. Will Abrams continue to rely on the familiar, remixing it in unexpected ways? Or will he contribute something wholly original to the Trek universe? In a sense, he has already gone boldly, with his direction and pacing of this action-packed sequel. What more lies far beyond the stars for the Enterprise and her fans to discover?

Lost over Lost

22-Jun-10 1:02 PM by
Filed under Humor, Television; 3 comments.

Tomorrow makes a month since the series finale of Lost, and I still don't understand what the fervor was over. Having cancelled my television service a decade ago, I've relied on DVDs to keep me abreast of shows I'd otherwise miss, such as Heroes, Firefly, Big Bang Theory, and Enterprise. Given the financial and temporal commitments to these shows, Lost never made the cut, nor did it ever come recommended to me by anyone with tastes similar to mine. All I knew was that it was a show that demanded a viewer's utmost attention, sometimes even repeat viewings, lest a single but significant detail be overlooked. Lost didn't seem to attract fans so much as followers.

Fortunately, legions of YouTube artists have stepped forward to fill me in on what I've missed. First came a summary of the show, focusing on the finale, using Post-It notes:

Seriously? That's what the show was about? I thought it featured an evil corporation, secret laboratories, conspiracy theories, and sharks. It is in fact a fantasy/sci-fi show? That's… absurd.

So absurd, in fact, that it deserves to be retold with LOLcats:

If, after all this, I nonetheless became obsessed with the show and wanted a detailed chart of where everything on the island happened, my geographic wishes have been fulfilled.

Fortunately, none of this has changed my lack of desire to get Lost. Now, what else in TV land am I missing?

(Hat tip to ROFLrazzi)

Star Trek Warps to DVD

17-Nov-09 10:38 AM by
Filed under Star Trek; 1 comment.

Star Trek, JJ Abrams' successful relaunch of Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future, hits DVD today. Here's the trailer:

The movie is available in three physical editions: one-disc standard definition, two-disc standard definition, and three-disc high-definition. With wise shopping (and the previous sentence's links), you can find these formats for $10, $20, and $20, respectively. The standard def one-disc format has just the movie and gag reel, whereas the two-disc edition includes nine deleted scenes (with Klingons!), several featurettes, and a digital copy of the film you can put on your computer or mobile device. Many more features are exclusive to Blu-ray — which, despite being a higher-capacity format, needs three discs to hold it all. (Apparently the higher resolution of Blu-ray requires the digital edition to have its own dedicated disc!)

You can also download the film from iTunes for $15 standard definition and $20 HD. iTunes' online rental option won't be available until December 16, though Amazon has it now for $4.

No matter what format you get, this film is sure to be the perfect stocking stuffer this holiday season — or, if you can't wait for Santa, then share it with the family next week on American Thanksgiving. Though if you don't think you'd like the film at any time of year, then RiffTrax's audio commentary will be available this Thursday.

I've been to the movies 389 times in the last 15 years. Of all those films, a few were worth seeing twice, but Star Trek is the only movie I've seen three times in theaters. I can't wait until home video lets me add even more repeat showings to my record!

The Profits and Prophets of Star Trek

26-May-09 7:53 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; 1 comment.

Moviegoers have voted with their wallets: Star Trek is awesome. JJ Abrams' reboot of Gene Roddenberry's universe has been raking in the dough over the last three weekends. Box Office Prophets reports on the opening weekend:

… young Kirk and friends did blow the cover off the box office with an opening weekend take of $72.5 million, plus another $4 million from pre-midnight Thursday showings, which gives the movie a running total of $76.5 million so far. … The debut is huge for this franchise, as the opening frame is more than the combined total of the last three films' opening weekends (Nemesis — $18.5 million opening, Insurrection — $22.1 million opening, First Contact — $30.7 million opening). The debut throws out the trend of Star Trek films opening between $14 million and $23 million, when removing the top and bottom score. The average opening for Star Trek is about $19 million with all films included… The 2009 Star Trek outgrossed the last film (2002's Nemesis finished with only $43.3 million in domestic box office) in two days.

In its second week, Star Trek was second at the box office, where the "sci-fi staple earned an impressive $43 million, falling only 43% from its $75.2 million debut." It fell to third place over Memorial Day Weekend, ending with $183.5 million. Its fourth weekend will surely put it over $200 million. Previously, the Star Trek film with the highest domestic gross, and the only one to break $100 million, was The Voyage Home at $109.7 million; the film with the highest total gross (foreign and domestic) was First Contact, at $146 million.

Though it was agony a year ago to receive the announcement that this film was delayed from its original release date of Christmas 2008, it seems Paramount knew what it was doing. Star Trek is an excellent summer blockbuster, and I'm relieved the distributors showed faith in the franchise to position it to capitalize on the season. But it's not just my own hopes that were realized; earlier this month, my local newspaper reported:

While promoting an appearance at the Boston Super Megafest back in November, Jonathan Frakes (aka Commander William T. Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation) said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the new take on Star Trek. So are many area Trekkers who have been faithful to the 40-year-plus phenomenon.

This is a good article, and author Craig S. Semon has done well in representing geek culture at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. However, as you may recall, I too was at the Super Megafest and remember Mr. Semon being in the same audience I was for Mr. Frakes' session. My recollection of the occasion is a bit different, as I reported back in November:

[Jonathan Frakes] asked our opinion of the new Star Trek movie. I offered "cautiously optimistic", to which he replied, "I feel the same, except for the 'cautiously' part."

It was therefore not Commander William Riker, but Blogger Ken Gagne, that Mr. Semon was quoting. (It's possible the quotation was based on a separate but similar occasion for which I was not present — but unlikely.)

But I'll let this misquotation go. Not only do we share a common goal — the success of Star Trek — but if I'm going to put words in someone's mouth, it might as well be someone out of this world.

A New Star Trek for a New Generation

08-May-09 6:32 PM by
Filed under Reviews, Star Trek; 6 comments.

My father with his oldest and youngest sons

My father with his oldest and youngest sons

After years of cautious optimism, this is the week we've long lived and prospered for: the return of Star Trek to the silver screen. Much has changed in the seven years since the last film, including the cancellation of the TV series Enterprise, marking not only the end of a continuous 18-year run for the franchise on the small screen, but also a changing of the guard. A familiar cadre of talent had run Star Trek for decades — into the ground, some would say. The 2009 film, directed and produced by J.J. Abrams and starring mostly unknowns, could either invigorate or distort Star Trek. With my father (who introduced me to the show in 1987) and my oldest brother, we were there for last night's premiere. How did we — dedicated and casual Star Trek fans, young and old — react?

I'll answer for me: The first ten minutes had me in tears. That isn't hyperbole or dramatic effect; it's literal truth. This action-packed opening sequence is so tragic, yet so heroic; and what it does to the Star Trek universe is terrible, yet also elegant and necessary. This film is both a prequel and a reboot, documenting the first voyage of Kirk, Spock, and company — but it's not the same ship and crew we remember from 1966. There are differences, both subtle and profound, which the opening sequence makes possible, thus giving the creative team the leeway they need to make something both fresh and familiar.

Fans will find much to like here, such as in nods to Trek lore that don't feel forced, be it the death of a character or Chekov's accent. But there's more going on here than in the details, such as the recasting of the iconic crew. I found it surprisingly easy to accept fresh faces in roles that we've long identified with particular actors, and these newcomers' performances are mostly true to the characters as originally written, without being mockeries. Sulu, Chekov, and Scotty each get notable scenes; Bones and Uhura, a bit more. But this adventure is really about the young, brash Spock and Kirk. These aren't the older, wiser Starfleet officers we're accustomed to, yet I can imagine Chris Pine's Kirk acting and reacting just as William Shatner's Kirk would've under these circumstances.

(more…)

Star Trek Trailer: Past, Present, and Future

17-Nov-08 8:00 PM by
Filed under Star Trek, Trailers; 4 comments.

With still six months to go, Star Trek XI has already traveled a long road. The intention to develop the property was announced in April 2006, with the first poster coming out in June of that year. JJ Abrams (Lost, Alias, Mission Impossible III) signed on to direct in February 2007, and filming began in November 2007, with a wrap date of March 2008. The film-footage-free teaser trailer was released before Cloverfield in January 2008, back when we thought we'd be revisiting Roddenberry's future as early as this Christmas.

Now, with less than half a year until the May 8th release, the veil of secrecy under which the Star Trek reboot has until recently been conducted provides us with our first significant glimpse of what awaits in the form of this full-length trailer:

I was sorely tempted to not indulge in this trailer at all; if its purpose is to sell me on the film, then its very existence is superfluous. Why not leave that many more surprises until its silver screen debut?

But I'm glad I watched it, and gladder still that it is completely spoiler-free. Almost nothing of the plot or obstacles are revealed, leaving us instead with a more general look of the actors and their environment. I confess that even that little is not what I expected. The Enterprise has always faced the final frontier with a sense of wonderment, though here we find it in not the seasoned and mature crew of TOS, but a younger and less experienced crew. As a prequel, that only makes sense, but I worry that too much rebellious angst will fill the film, as suggested by the conflict between Kirk and Spock. Also, seeing Kirk on two classic means of locomotion lends an even lower-tech feeling than its temporal predecessor, Enterprise.

Other than these minor points, I have a surprisingly nondescript reaction. The fast-paced nature of the trailer left little opportunity to assess the characters in their roles, or even to get a good look at their ship, within or without. I find myself neither more eager nor more anxious about the fate of the franchise; only the final film will allow me that judgment.

Stills Trek

18-Oct-08 12:47 AM by
Filed under Star Trek; 4 comments.

The following pictures are taken from the JJ Abrams-directed film Star Trek XI, to be released originally on Christmas Day 2008, now May 8, 2009. These shots were widely distributed across the Internet earlier this week, but only tonight did Paramount lift the exclusive on the various sites that previously carried them, allowing Showbits to join their ranks.

As I'm already sold on this movie, a part of me regrets seeing these pictures. Nonetheless, I will share with you the source of my remorse:

What can we tell from these pictures? First, the bridge looks little like the Shatner's ship of the Sixties. Second, Spock seems indistinguishable from Sylar — at least to me, being recently off a weekend-long binge of the character. Finally, Nero sure knows how to brood, distinguishing him from every villain who has ever existed. (Not.)

Of course, it's almost impossible to judge a film from such context-free imagery, so I will reserve judgment. A full trailer is expected to be released in November, possibly prior to the new James Bond film, Quantum of Solace.

Of Gods and Men

22-Dec-07 11:33 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; 5 comments.

A recent article on CNN.com reminded me that the Web holds a bounty of fan films based on the various Star Trek properties. This wasn't necessarily news to me: I'd once tried watching an episode of New Voyages, which aims to continue the five-year mission of the original Enterprise, but couldn't get past the recasting of the original stars. William Shatner's portrayal of James T. Kirk was too engrained in my mind for me to accept anyone else in the role; even in science fiction, suspension of disbelief has its limits.

But to see on CNN that this series won TV Guide's 2007 Online Video Award for Best Sci-Fi Webisodes, chosen over Battlestar Galactica, suggested I should look again. I'd thought the only way to watch New Voyages episodes was via streaming video, which I generally eschew — but poking around their Web site revealed a slightly preferable BitTorrent option. The episode I selected for our reintroduction was "World Enough and Time", written and directed by Marc Scott Zicree (author of "Far Beyond the Stars", possibly my favorite DS9 episode).

World Enough and TimeAgain, I was assaulted by the casting of anyone but Shatner and Nimoy as Kirk and Spock, but this time I persevered. I'm glad I did, as even if the actors didn't nail the parts, I can't blame the writing, which comes across strongly. The sets are on par with the original series (which, despite being 40 years later, is pretty good for a fan film — authentic, too), and the sound effects and CGI are fluidly incorporated.

But the star of the show is none other than George Takei, playing the role of an older Sulu. Rather than looking out-of-place, this temporal anomaly is written into the story in flawless Trek fashion, in the spirit of "Time's Orphan". For this actor to have taken time away from Heroes to so accurately reprise this role for a free Web series speaks volumes of the integrity of both Mr. Takei and New Voyages. Yet newcomer Christina Moses almost steals the show, capturing the awe and innocence of a first-time space traveller with earnest mannerisms and subtle body language. As hard as the recast TOS icons worked, their best role was to frame these two actors' characters and performances. Altogether, the cast and story made every minute of the one-hour episode worth watching.

Looking through the episode list, it appears New Voyages' other offerings are equally star-studded. Story authors include David Gerrold (author of "The Trouble with Tribbles") and Dorothy Fontana (author of "Encounter at Farpoint", "The Enterprise Incident", and more), while among the actors are Walter Koenig as Pavel Chekhov and J.G. Hertzler as Harry Mudd.

Of Gods and MenThe CNN article neglected to make a timely mention of a similar project: Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, which finally debuted today. This feature-length production can hardly be called a "fan film" when you consider its weighty cast: Walter Koenig (Pavel Chekhov), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Grace Lee Whitney (Janice Rand), Lawrence Montaigne (Stonn from "Amok Time"), Gary Graham (Ambassador Soval), Alan Ruck (Captain John Harriman), Tim Russ (Tuvok), Ethan Phillips (Neelix), Garrett Wang (Harry Kim), J.G. Hertzler (General Martok), Cirroc Lofton (Jake Sisko), and Chase Masterson (Leeta) — as well as some alumni you won't recognize: Crystal Allen (an Enterprise Orion slave girl), William Wellman (a DS9 Bajoran officer), and Daamen Krall (a voice actor for the Star Trek: Starfleet Academy video game). Even "World Enough and Time"'s Kirk and Spock make appearances in other roles.

This dark, "Yesterday's Enterprise"-style mashup is every Trekkie's dream, though I worried it would've suffered from lengthy delays: the film was originally to be released back in April, and even now, only the first third, weighing in at 26 minutes, is available in low-quality streaming video. (Watch for a higher quality version once opening weekend demand dies down.) But what I've seen so far has me eager for more. These experienced actors are so comfortable in the Trek universe that watching them find new ways to play in it is a win-win for both sides of the camera.

The varying yet surprising quality of these "webisodes" has me looking at J.J. Abrams' pending TOS reboot in a new light. Both "World Enough and Time" and Of Gods and Men have demonstrated that a tight script and a talented cast can deliver an excellent story, regardless of the characters or the setting. But when that promise is exemplified best by Star Trek alumni, as is the case with the above two films, the concept of recasting the characters we know and love becomes a questionable proposition at best. I'm a bit more cautious now about the Christmas 2008 release — but I now know that, thanks to talented fans and actors, I have a wealth of new adventures to tide me over in the meantime.