Movie review: Into Darkness and irrelevance

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I ignored the gaping holes in plot logic. I suspended disbelief as long as I could and tried to match my emotional responses with what the film was trying so hard to make me feel. But I gave up when rogue Starfleet agent John Harrison aka the genetically modified superman Khan Noonien Singh (and a very white Khan at that) says, “My name is Khan…” and members of the audience whisper in response, “…and I am not a terrorist”.

Director JJ Abrams has indeed made a science fiction film, but I would be loath to call it a Star Trek film. It has little of the mystery of space and the wonder of exploration that Star Trek stands for, not to mention a (very Hollywood) injection of what the scriptwriters believe to be socio-political relevance ala a universe on the brink of war.

Aside from the opening sequence of the film, which promised so much Trekkie goodness complete with kooky-looking aliens and a reckless mini-adventure into a volcano, Into Darkness is not about space exploration or the deeper questions of science, man’s existence in the Universe and the ethics of dealing with alien life forms. No, it’s your typical, tired Hollywood cliché of good guys versus terrorists versus corruption within the good guys. It is a political-war drama that resonates well with current times — but I didn’t pay for a political-war drama, did I?

To be clear, the film has some merits, and is worth the money for the ticket. The acting is generally solid despite the deeply flawed script, with particularly outstanding performances from Zachary Quinto as Spock and Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, who is the real treat of the 129-minute feature. The special effects and 3D are very good, and the film is a visual delight. Unfortunately, just like the recently released The Great Gatsby, fans will walk into the cinema expecting an intelligent handling of a mega-franchise, and walk away feeling entertained, yet hollow and let down. (Warning: spoilers ahead)

I am enticed with promises of a Klingon war. I get about four sentences of Klingon and a total of 15 minutes encountering any alien species at all! I am introduced to a super-hot Carol Marcus, the love interest of Captain Kirk, only to find out she’s less scientist more military-baby with the flimsiest of reasons provided for her motivation to be on board the Starship Enterprise. Keep in mind, Carol is one of a total of two female roles in the entire film. The only other female with a talking role is Uhura, who spends half the film being strong and independent, and the other half as Spock’s whiny girlfriend.

Much of the plot is focused on Captain Kirk coming to terms with what it means to be a true leader and stepping up to that role, all the while building his relationship with his crew, particularly Spock. While Chris Pine does a great job playing the young Kirk, the script lets him down again and again. What we walk away with is a Kirk who is too easily swept along by the events around him, often happening at such a frenetic pace that we cannot appreciate the few tough calls he does make. Also, it seems a true captain is defined by defying gravity in some truly spectacular physical feats, or as film critic Christopher Orr puts it, Kirk is played as “one part Han Solo and two parts Evel Knievel”.

The plot enters a downward spiral the further you get into the film. Is Khan a super-hero or a super-villain? He starts out evil, committing acts of terrorism, but we learn he is fighting a corrupt military regime for the sake of his family. I’m confused, but not the good confused in which you feel a character is complex. Rather, this is confusion borne of poor scriptwriting, and while we do indeed end the film with Khan being declared one of the most dangerous enemies the Star Fleet ever faced (really? That’s it?), I am still rooting for him and his kind.

In the end, Captain Kirk is killed off for all of 15 lackluster minutes in what is a massive dramatic fail. If Abrams had left him dead only to be reincarnated in a third film, that would have been a brave and exciting ending. Instead, what we get is a painfully easy and predictable return of Kirk ala Khan’s blood — and don’t get me started on how poorly executed and forced was the entire side plot of ‘Khan’s blood is magic that revives furry creatures and humans’.

It is clear that Into Darkness is designed to appeal to a mass audience, and that is where it has failed for anyone who is not part of this dumbed-down blob of humanity. For the rest, the film is entertaining enough, visually appealing enough, and in classic Hollywood form, forgettable enough to fade into irrelevance without a second thought.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 23rd, 2013.

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