Saturday, 6 July 2013

A Wroth Khan - a review of Star Trek Into Darkness

A review of Star Trek Into Darkness by Adam Manning

This is a review for the wonderful fanzine Strange Skins - follow them on twitter @StrangeSkins

Please note this review contains spoilers!

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, released in 1982, is often considered as having saved the Star Trek franchise following the relative failure of the first cinematic production, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The critical and commercial success of Wrath of Khan ensured that further sequels went into production. Star Trek: The Next Generation and the follow on series came into being as a result of this continued success and after the ending of Star Trek: Enterprise the whole concept was reinvigorated with the successful cinematic release of the simply entitled Star Trek in 2009. 

Wrath of Khan features one of the most well remembered of all Star Trek’s villains, the genetic superman Khan.  This character originally appeared in one of the most exciting episodes from the original series, Space Seed from 1967.  Here the U.S.S. Enterprise encounters a centuries old ship drifting seemingly inert in space. On board they discover a crew of beings from the 1990s, including their leader Khan. They are genetically enhanced beings from a period of global warfare.  The scant details provided are immediately suggestive of a history for the world of Star Trek that might have haunted the original Cold War audience.  Soon Khan and his followers seek to take the Enterprise for themselves.  Ricardo Montalban plays Khan, a Sikh warlord, in a wonderfully powerful, charismatic performance. Khan is a striking, unforgettable presence in comparison to the now seemingly dull, homogenous crew of the Enterprise. 

Ricardo Montalban was delighted to be invited to play Khan once again in Wrath of Khan and even suggested lowering his fee to ensure the movie got made.  After being marooned by Captain Kirk, Khan is obsessed with revenge.   Wrath of Khan is undoubtedly one of the best of the Star Trek films.  It has a literary theme, taking in references to Moby Dick as a parallel for Khan’s vengeance.  Kirk and his crew, his friends, discuss aging, family and the passage of life especially after Kirk meets a former lover and his previously unknown son.  This is reflected back later in Khan’s woe for his wife and the life he has had to lead.  The Genesis device, having the capacity to create life, not only explores this theme further but gives the film the added bonus of being about something rather than just a power play between protagonists and antagonists.

Wrath of Khan is also of historic importance as it contains the first fully computer generated graphic sequence during the demonstration of the Genesis device.  This was a point of great interest at the time.  The climax of the film is a battle within a gas cloud and the villain is dispatched in a way that is both good science fiction and a clever character point.  The film is also remembered for the death of Spock in scenes that are now fondly remembered and sometimes affectionately lampooned.  As well as a great Star Trek film it is also, I would argue, more broadly a great science fiction film.

Star Trek from 2009 was a sparkling revision of the concept after years of being trapped on the small screen.  Dazzlingly, especially with all that lens flare, collecting up so much of the joy of the original series it engaged audiences with the final frontier again and its success made a sequel a certainty. 

It’s easy to criticise the Star Trek  films for not pursuing the captain’s refrain of exploring strange new worlds but a moment’s reflection reveals that the best of the films, for instance Wrath of Khan, The Voyage of Home, The Undiscovered Country and First Contact, are not based on exploration as a theme. So we can put that point, often made with very serious import, to one side.

Instead, Star Trek Into Darkness maybe very loosely described as a reworking of Wrath of Khan for 2013 so that in outline, the theme is one of the fear, or darkness, of terrorism and the nation state’s response to it. 

After a ceremonial dressing down of the still juvenile Captain Kirk at the start of Into Darkness, we are taken to a future England.  In a rather lovely sequence we see a gorgeous depiction of this space age Albion, a combining of the bright optimism of the Star Trek future and the grand chronicle of old Europe.  A face so known to us from Doctor Who, Noel Clarke is this time a troubled Star Fleet officer. Looking handsome in his uniform we see him having to face up to a terrible dilemma as a loving parent.  Without doubt, Noel Clarke was the stand out performance of Into Darkness.  Although only a brief appearance with few words, his was a very real man in an otherwise fantastic and sometimes rather unconvincing world.  I can still see now almost every look on his haunted face.  There are many perfectly acceptable performances in this film, but our Noel is a whole order of magnitude better.

That said, the action taken by his character just didn’t seem to make sense.  As a Star Fleet officer living in a world where, in accordance with the Gene Roddenberry vision, humans are supposed to just be better than they are now, for him to suddenly turn suicide bomber even to save his child simply failed to convince.

This contrivance is only the first part in the dastardly plot by the villain of Into Darkness, a space age yet British Jason Bourne by the strikingly bland name of John Harrison.  For Noel Clarke’s bombing of London automatically requires the leading figures of Star Fleet to assemble in a particular room in a particular building in San Francisco. Taking advantage of this strictly applied yet apparently publicly known protocol, John Harrison attacks the building and kills a number of Star Fleet high command as a result.  Kirk almost succeeds in ending the rampage but Harrison beams away to escape.

Soon they work out that Harrison has, amazingly, transported himself all the way to the Klingon homeworld.  At this point, total incredulity sets in.  Star Trek is never going to be hard science fiction, that is depicting a certain amount of realism with technology based on science.  In fact this is one of the things that gave Space Seed its special air of excitement; the fantasy science fiction of Star Trek suddenly encounters a much more hard science fiction plot featuring cryogenic freezing, sleeper ships and genetic engineering.

Yet Star Trek always had a certain internal logic. Transporting had a fairly limited range. You could beam up to a ship in orbit and that was about as far as it went.  In The Next Generation  you could get up to almost warp factor 10 and that was about your lot.

Yet here, drawing on Mr Scott’s feat of transporting whilst ships are at warp speed in Star Trek, Harrison is somehow able to transport himself from Earth to the Klingon homeworld, seemingly many, many light years away in the middle of the Klingon Empire.  That would be fair enough by itself. But we’ve just seen Harrison have to go to all the trouble of persuading a noble Star Trek officer and parent become a suicide bomber in order that a number of Star Fleet admirals meet in a specific room so that he can attack them. 

A simpler and more effective plan with this amazing transporter technology would have been, for example, to set the transporter to transport the Star Fleet admirals onto the Moon whereupon they would have quickly suffocated.  At some point the internal logic of the plotting has just broken down rather markedly.  It’s too easy to say it’s just a Star Trek film. Wrath of Khan doesn’t cheapen the audience in that way.

It transpires that Harrison is in fact Khan, a genetic superman from centuries ago.  Khan here is played by noted Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch.  Benedict is as vicious and dastardly as the plot and good taste will allow him.  Apparently he worked out for the role and it shows.  For those of us used to his cerebral detective, Cumberbatch as Khan unexpectedly kicks and punches with authority, perhaps in a clever career move for our action orientated cinema of today.

Yet there is simply none of the grandeur and charisma of the original Khan.  The Khan of 2013 is a rather cross and admittedly slightly overpowering young man who dresses anonymously in a water proof jacket.  There is no grand vista of a glorious past, a tale of a world burning in a crucible of war, a glorious folly of remaking the world to one’s desire as with the original.  There is no particularity of an individual from a culture at odds with those of his new surroundings.  He has no customs or manners that seem redolent of meaning and thereby a threat to the gray setting of the space science Star Trek world.  If the 2013 Khan is a remaking of the original for our modern age, we clearly have lost much compared to 1967 or even 1982.

The new Khan’s terrorism is only half of the plot though. A hidden yet important part of Star Fleet revived Khan to act as its agent. Fearing a war with the Klingon Empire, secret Star Fleet officers are working with a previous age’s devil to arm themselves ready for battle.  Kirk is sent to dispatch Khan and almost before we can catch up, we find ourselves on the Klingon Homeworld.

Star Fleet insists, at the cost of Scotty’s resignation, on installing long range photon torpedoes in the Enterprise for this mission. They are to be used to kill Khan whilst he is still on the Klingon homeworld.  On reflection this is a fairly clever analogy for the USA’s use of unmanned drones in countries such as Pakistan.  Khan is Bin Laden, Star Fleet (or at least this secret bit) is the USA military.

The Klingons, like Khan himself, have a long and rich Star Trek history.  Their songs, their culture, their lives have been described in immense detail over Star Trek’s immense library of works.  A favourite of fans, like the elves of Lord of the Rings they are a race almost with their own existence so vital a force have they become.  Not many fantasy races are important enough to have Shakespeare translated into their own tongue.

So it was with a sense of mounting anticipation that their sudden and unexpected appearance in Into Darkness approached.  Surely with all the enormous resources at their disposal, no doubt J.J. Abrams and his friends would create something extraordinary for such a noted element of Star Trek as the Klingons.  It was a matter of great disappointment then that once their helmets were removed they were even less imaginative than the most unalien of races from Star Trek: Voyager  and its bumps on the forehead approach to other worldy life forms.

Wrath of Khan was clever in making Spock as important to the narrative as Kirk.  Zachary Quinto as Spock was one of the joys of Star Trek and here is no different.  Dare I say it, but I find myself wondering whether I prefer him in the role to Leonard Nimoy; a thought almost heretical to behold.  In a moment of rather forced contrivance, the previous Spock of the original universe manages to get his webcam working long enough to chat to his younger namesake. Let us hope this is not a regular occurrence in the Trek films.

Later scenes see the Enterprise in combat with an even larger Star Fleet vessel in near Earth space, possibly in Earth orbit.  It is surprising that no other space ships come to either or both vessel’s aid during this sequence or at least approached to find out what was going on.  Surely by this point in space exploration there would have been a large number of ships or space stations in Earth orbit? Again, the setting rather fails to convince.

Chris Pine is properly dashing as a young Kirk setting out on his career as Captain.  He handles the action sequences well and gives the proper attitude of an at times unsure cockiness to the role.  William Shatner’s melodramatic performance is the source of a lot of fondly derived ridicule yet his Captain Kirk managed to portray the anxieties and difficulties of command without reducing any of his authority. For all his Hollywood heart throb good looks, I’m not convinced Chris Pine is yet able to give this to the audience.  Shatner’s Kirk, perhaps by being an older character, seems more serious about the business of being a Captain than Pine’s does. 

The dialogue in Wrath of Khan is flavoured with literary quotes and it’s tempting to sniff at this as being pretentious and superfluous.  In comparison this gives the original a degree of interest sorely lacking in the bland, matter of fact Into Darkness.  The conclusion of Wrath of Khan is relatively clever, centring on Khan’s inexperience in space combat.  The eventual demise of the 2013 Khan by comparison comes when Spock whacks him on the back of the head in a punch up.  

Kirk dies towards the end of Into Darkness in the same way that Spock does in Wrath of Khan.

Spock’s death in Wrath of Khan and his consequent burial at sea, as it were, is one of the holiest of holies of Star Trek as a franchise.  Getting a reference in Seinfeld  for instance, it has stayed with the fans and wider movie going public.  To mirror this in Into Darkness  was a risky ploy and thankfully for all concerned Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are touchingly moving in these scenes.  Remember, Kirk and Spock do not have the same relationship here as they do with Shatner’s and Nimoy’s original depictions.  Their emotions are about what could have been rather than what was but like the original the scene is a powerful testament to the value of friendship. 

And then Spock screams, “Khan”, just like Kirk does in Wrath of Khan in a way that has been the source of so much affectionate ridicule. 

Once again it is horribly tempting to imagine that the producers for some reason outrageously and inappropriately believed they needed to send up the original film.  Shatner’s “Khaaaaaaannn!!” is the source of much memetic creativity amongst fans.  With relief again it is Quinto’s performance that manages to stop this being a parody.  Needless to say, Kirk is soon brought magically back to life by Doctor McCoy in one of the few bits where the good Doctor seemed to get to do anything apart from pad out the dialogue.

British actress Alice Eve plays Kirk’s love interest, Dr Marcus.  It is odd to find the appearance of a beautiful woman with an admirably toned body in her underwear as being grimly and almost painfully contrived but even the producer has admitted to as much. 

The computer generated graphic special effects in Into Darkness are extraordinary and there are some beautiful shots of the Enterprise to delight the fans.  In contrast to Wrath of Khan, computer graphics are now the default in creating special effects and in Into Darkness  they comprehensively create a total vision of the world in which the film takes place. Nothing looks wrong or cheap or anything less than perfect. 

Yet in this age where the visual aspects of film are so comprehensive and almost threaten to overwhelm the audience it is the inconsistencies of the plotting that stand out even more than at a time when special effects were not always so special.  Popular blockbusters from the time of Wrath of Khan often had odd leaps in the story line or characters suddenly taking uncharacteristic action. In Superman II  for instance Superman and the other Kryptonians unaccountably gain teleportation powers at one point that they never had before or since. Even as a child I thought this seemed odd and the effect is to bewilder the audience.

The enormous money now spent on blockbuster films and the efficiency of their production as works of sight and sound throw into sharp relief any deficiencies in the story they are telling.  If so much money, expertise and effort is spent on them, why do we still have plots that have such odd gaps in their logic?

Into Darkness as a homage to or mirroring of Wrath of Khan leaves a long term admirer of Star Trek feeling rather mystified.  The original is such a strong film, any attempt to go near it is taking on a challenge.  Why do it? Why not simply create a whole new plot with original characters?   

For all that though Star Trek Into Darkness is still great entertainment either for fans or for the general public.  It was enormously successful on its release, becoming the most commercially successful film of the franchise and we must hope this will propel into being a third film and more in this sequence.  I am certainly hoping that Star Trek fans have many more journeys into darkness. That is, the darkness of the cinema.

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