Friday, May 31, 2013

What's Up With Star Trek?

There have been quite a few Star Trek movies. The last two constitute a "reboot" of the franchise.

I haven't thought through what should and should not be done in a franchise "reboot," but I have some specific observations about the two movies of its reboot.

When you consider a fictional universe with as much that's been developed for Star Trek, there's a huge amount of backstory that's known. And where trekkers are fiends for trivia. So, the Star Trek reboot started out by demolishing all of it to build on a fresh foundation. Vulcan got trashed and the story got started before the start-point of the original show. This cleared the decks for the movies to tell all new stories in the reboot movies.

I hated it for many reasons, but trashing a Corvette Stingray in the opening scene was unforgivable.

When the second movie came around, all I knew was that Benedict Cumberbatch was the villain. And that was a huge source of interest to me. He's the actor who plays Sherlock Holmes on the BBC adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Any actor who can play Sherlock would do sociopath well.

At this point, I shall begin to disclose spoilers from the Star Trek movie "Into Darkness."

Tune out if...





Benedict Cumberbatch plays a villain who is delightfully evil. He is marvelously competent at villainy as he starts blowing stuff up and killing Star Fleet personnel wholesale.

One of my hobby-horses is how the writer finds suitable motivation for the villain.

If you watched Star Trek the original show, and the second Star Trek movie, the motivation of Khan Noonien Singh changed with time. In the backstory of "Space Seed," there was this thing called the Eugenics Wars wherein Khan conquered a significant portion of Central Asia, and before he was defeated, he skipped out on a space-ship called the Botany Bay.

In this chapter of his life, Khan's motive was mere power. He was in the warlord business and he was motivated to gain power and rule. This is a very easy motivation to understand and to depict.

Khan's motivation is unchanged in "Space Seed" as he goes about taking over the Enterprise. All he wants is power. That's cool. And when he's dropped off at a nearby planet he's cool with reigning in hell rather than serving in heaven.

When "The Wrath of Khan" comes around, we discover the nice planet he was dropped off at has become hellish, his wife is dead, and he blames Kirk for these unhappy events. Now, Khan is angry with Kirk and he is consumed with wrath. Grumpy villains intent upon revenge is also a good motivation for villainy.

With this in mind, let's consider "Into Darkness." Benedict Cumberbatch is doing all the mayhem but it is not clear to me why. In the movie, we learn that Peter Weller is worried about Klingons so he thaws out Khan and puts him to work dreaming up weapons to fight Klingons with.

However, it's not completely clear to me why Khan decides to start blowing stuff up. Sure, he could be mad at Peter Weller, but why?

After things start getting blowed up and Kirk's friend Captain Pike gets killed, the movie is clearly misnamed. It should have been "The Wrath of Kirk."

And that's what doesn't quite work in the movie. It's a neat concept. Take a movie that everyone knows, "The Wrath of Khan" and then swap all the roles: Instead of Khan being wrathful, it's Kirk. Instead of Spock sacrificing himself and getting a deadly dose of radiation, and dying while Kirk looks on, "Into Darkness" swaps Kirk and Spock. And instead of Spock getting resurrected by some plot device, Kirk gets resurrected.

It's a fun concept, but you can't get the joke unless you're a long-time fanboy.

This works today, but I don't think it'll hold up with time. I've said before that Han Solo shooting first worked because the viewers in the 1970s were familiar with Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" wherein Angel Eyes showed he was a bad man. It quit working when George Lucas became a bigger filmmaker than Sergio Leone and nobody except film buffs and old guys understood how Han shot first because Lee Van Cleef shot first. By that same logic, everyone today interprets "Into Darkness" in the context of "Wrath of Khan," but they won't thirty years hence.

Does Benedict Cumberbatch work as Khan? Oh yeah. Anyone who plays Sherlock must speak arrogant as his native tongue. The best line in the movie is when Khan tells Kirk he's "better." Kirk asks, "at what?" And Khan says, "Everything." He carries off Khan's superhuman competence and aggressiveness marvelously. I really believed this was a genetically-engineered superman.

His only weakness from a story-telling perspective was his motivation. The writers needed to show a link between Khan's murderous campaign at the outset of the movie and some specific betrayal by Peter Weller or injury at his hand.

It would be trivial to do. The Botany Bay set off with 84 souls aboard, only 72 survived--including Khan (in "Space Seed's" time-line). In "Into Darkness's" time-line at least 73 survive--72 inside photon torpedoes plus Khan.

Perhaps Peter Weller got to the Botany Bay with all 84 cryogenic chambers intact, but he killed nine of Khan's crew by experimenting on them before he thawed out Khan. And when Khan finds out, he gets the motivation to launch his campaign of terror.

More likely, Khan's plan was to manipulate Star Fleet into launching the photon torpedoes at Kronos and somehow they don't blow up and somehow he thaws out his buddies and somehow he takes over the Klingon Empire? Yeah, that's what Khan had in mind.

The unclear motivation is what prevents me from saying Khan is the best villain ever.

1 comment:

  1. That's a really solid point. Going to have to agree with you there.

    Still loved the movie, though. You know how a goal of moviemaking is to make the viewer get lost in the movie? Well there's a certain pleasure in delaying that sensation - in enjoying the _awareness_ of the movie for quite a while until you get lost in it. I felt that enjoyment intensely during this film (notably all before Khan was introduced).

    It felt like a "Concerto for Film" to me.


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