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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

This Is Why I Don't Do Ratings: Star Trek Into Darkness

I am having a very difficult time talking about this movie, because I find myself constantly reassuring people that I actually did enjoy it. It’s true, but maybe you shouldn’t have any reason to believe me, because as I watched the movie, every single observation that occurred to me was negative. I agree with Tarantino when he says “never hate a movie,” but that doesn’t stop me from saying that this movie is actually pretty terrible.

So how do I reconcile all this?

(by the way, there will be spoilers, if you care about those)

The first sequences we get in this movie are of Kirk and McCoy running across a vibrant red landscape. This opening is effective because of the punchy character interaction and flurry of images which give us something interesting to look at every few seconds.

The problem is that this movie never stops running. It never pauses to take even a single breath of air and keeps on running with more or less the same character dynamics, same editing style, and the same cramped framing right up until the end credits. I feel as though the film is yelling “I’m late, I’m late” as it passes by, leaving only a vague impression of a movie.

Khan’s character helps illustrate what I mean. The idea that he’s evil is telegraphed by camera angle and musical cues before the second act even begins. How do we know he’s evil? We don’t even have any idea of what he plans to do from one scene to the next, and the only thing Khan actually does is look intensely into the middle distance. He does nothing else, because the movie doesn’t dwell on any one scene - or even one shot - long enough to give us much information.

Part of this is the writing’s fault. In fact, most of what’s wrong with this film can be found in the script, because while the characters themselves are entertaining, the actual character writing is very, very lazy. I had trouble not giggling in the theatre during the first act while Kirk and Pike basically talked about each others character in the guise of having an argument. It’s easy not to notice it sometimes because the editing and acting is so out-there that you almost don’t notice what anyone is actually saying - as if what they’re actually saying isn’t important.

It’s not that the script doesn’t try to do some interesting things. Kirk and Spock discover some things about how each other face death, and about their characters, and those were some of the strongest moments in the movie for me. They’re interesting thoughts. It’s just that the movie doesn’t seem to have any time to dwell on them before it’s all swept up again in the overall plot, and overall, the script really doesn’t do much with the characters which isn’t strictly required by the plot itself.

On the other hand, maybe I’m not being fair. Star Trek is a latter day tentpole action movie, and when you’re making a film to those specifications, you can either have your characters be complete milquetoasts with guns, or vibrant but very broad. This movie, like The Avengers, goes for the broad approach, and it works. Orci and Kurtzman assembled some good actors, and JJ knew what to do with them. I don’t think any movie ever chooses to have boring characters, but the new Star Trek franchise seems to have chosen not to.

The plot itself, it seems, is concerned largely with connecting its action set pieces in a way that makes sense from moment to moment (and tries to make a statement about the war on terror, because that’s what smart movies do I guess). I don’t ask that a movie have a plot that makes sense, but the problem is that it informs the decisions characters make, and makes things feel inorganic. Characters end up doing things and showing up in places out of convenience and since nobody in the movie seems to notice how weird everything is, it takes a while for it to register with the viewer as well why everything feels like it’s taking place in some kind of weird, lens flare filled dream.

As much as it’s easy to make fun of the lens flare, I do think JJ Abrams can be a good director, but this movie is jarring visually, and it’s not just the editing. Simple sequences of characters walking or talking are shot at weird angles, and there are precious few anchoring shots to be had. Everything is very tight and very dramatic, and it’s all very weird and sometimes disorienting. The action sequences especially fall into the category of films that try to use disorienting montage to convey urgency a la Saving Private Ryan or The Bourne Trilogy without realizing the things that made it work in those films. They’re not exiting, they’re just there.

Some of the film’s most effective imagery is the imagery that it borrows from The Wrath of Khan, which also helps because this is also the point where the movie slows down the most. When Kirk dies a dramatic death after fixing the warp core (by kicking it a lot - I kid you not), the movie actually succeeded in making me feel something. It’s a good moment until the dramatic music starts and the sound fades out. After that, it’s just a matter of waiting until Spock has a fight scene with Khan and they bring Kirk back with Khan’s blood (which is telegraphed rather obviously towards the end of Act 2).

So the one most sincere moment in the film is cheap and kinda manipulative, even if it is effective. That alone is something praiseworthy, I guess. I don’t fault films for being “manipulative,” though on its own, I don’t think it makes a movie. It does not make this movie, in the end.

I guess I can sum up how Star Trek Into Darkness went for me like this: I sat in a theatre for 2 hours while stuff happened and I wasn’t bored but I had no real experience otherwise.

I’ve written far more than I thought I would, and honestly, I could probably write even more about how it shows how filmmaking has changed since 1982 when The Wrath of Khan came out, but maybe I’ll do that another time. After all, it’s been many years since I last saw that movie. Maybe it’s time to revisit it.

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