Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (review)


(For the sake of all of my readers who do not want this movie spoiled, I have completely refrained from discussing the plot. You're welcome.)

Before I get into my review of Star Trek Into Darkness, in the interest of full disclosure I'd like to say that I don't consider myself a trekkie. I have seen none of the original Star Trek (television or movies), and only small portions of the Next Generation series (I have, however, seen Galaxy Quest more times than I'd like to admit). So if I'm being ignorant, or criticisms I make are already answered somewhere in the Star Trek universe, I apologize. Feel free to inform me in the comments, etc. That said, I really enjoyed this newest installation of the Star Trek reboot. (Also, I saw it in 2D so don't expect any commentary on the 3D version.)

Like 2009's Star Trek, Into Darkness is beautiful. The CGI is magnificent without being distracting (the lens flare machine seems to have been turned down a few notches), the set designs work wonderfully to create another world for the audience to escape to, and the costumes seem to adhere to their referents in the original series while updated slightly for the modern viewer (I especially liked the disguises worn by Kirk, Spock, and Uhura).

I also found the plot and pacing of the movie to be phenomenal. The people I saw it with agreed that it didn't feel like it was over 2 hours since it was never slow or labored. Into Darkness is a nonstop adrenaline rush almost to a fault: there is plenty of time left for character development and plot exposition, but the movie goes by so quickly that by the end you might leave the film slightly unsatisfied. All I know is that after I saw the 11 minute teaser preceding The Hobbit (which turned out to basically be the first 11 minutes of the movie) I remember thinking, "There's absolutely no way this movie will be long enough," and that's kind of how I felt leaving the movie itself. I left wanting more, and maybe that's the point of movies like this that are bound to have numerous sequels, but a small part of me wishes the movie was more self-contained. Maybe this is all just my way of saying I really enjoyed the movie and am ready for more.

The acting all around is superb, and while the movie is in general as dry as its predecessors most of the leads get a few funny jokes (and yes, Bones does get another "Damn it man, I'm a doctor..." line although it's hard to beat the original's "I don't need a doctor, I am a doctor!"). Benedict Cumberbatch almost steals the show as Khan (it's hard not to sympathize with him when he explains what happened to him and his crew), and Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto prove that they deserve their positions at the helm of both the enterprise and the Enterprise (although sometimes it looks like Pine doesn't know what to do with his hands).


From here I'd like to move from surface to substance, which means there's a slightly higher risk I may spoil things for those who have not seen the movie yet. Before I do this, however, I'd like to say that if you have trouble suspending your disbelief then maybe sci-fi isn't for you. Coming out of the theater I heard another moviegoer complaining about the realism of the physics in some of the scenes, which is one of the lamest and most frustrating problems to have with a movie. I understand it can be distracting for certain viewers, but I think this is their fault and not the movie's. Sci-fi is always going to be unrealistic (space travel and all that). Sorry if I'm being unsympathetic.

Now let's talk about the Prime Directive.

The mission of the USS Enterprise (a slightly modified version of the narration that played over the title sequence to the original Star Trek series) is "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before." I love that J. J. Abrams gender corrected this famous phrase for the reboot (from "no man"), but this makes the Enterprise into an anthropological vessel, and anthropology always makes me slightly uneasy. It's not that I think that anthropology in itself is unethical (although I did write that on my final exam in college, much to my professor's chagrin), but I think that it can and is often practiced in unethical or at least misguided ways, and this tension is played out in the first scenes of Into Darkness.

In an attempt to save a primitive species from extinction as a result of a volcanic eruption, the Enterprise intervenes and thereby violates the Prime Directive (which states that alien civilizations are not to be interfered with). This situation provides an easy example of the ethical implications involved in not interfering with societies under examination, but there's another problem at work here: there is no way to observe other cultures without interfering. In Living In The End Times (2010; p. 161-2) Slavoj Zizek tells an anecdote about a group of anthropologists who asked a tribe in New Zealand to perform a death dance they had heard about. No such dance existed, so the tribe created one to show to the anthropologists who took it as an established ceremony and reported back to their superiors.

The point here is not that this is happening every time we observe other cultures. The other is not literally inventing new rituals to show off to their observers. The point is instead that the perspective of the subject is always already included within the object observed. Our interpretation of the other's desire is always instead a reflection of our own desire. Zizek explains this exceptionally well in the opening of The Parallax View (2006; second paragraph online at lacan.com).

To return to Star Trek, any attempt to adhere strictly to the Prime Directive is impossible. I really liked that Kirk and Spock disobeyed the Prime Directive in order to save the alien species (while this position as the savior can become problematic, none of the characters in the movie try to adopt it), but the problem is that they did it unselfconsciously. They still believe in the Prime Directive even if they thought that, in that instance, it needed to be disobeyed. What we needed instead was a complete overthrow/removal of the Prime Directive itself.



While this removal may seem problematic since it would allow malevolent interference with other cultures, the alternative is worse. Again returning to Zizek's analysis (in an opinion piece for ABC), attempts to govern "harassment" of other cultures are a never-ending cycle:
Without any "organic" social substance grounding the standards of what George Orwell approvingly referred to as "common decency," the minimalist program of laws intended to do little more than prevent individuals from encroaching upon each other (annoying or "harassing" each other) turns into an explosion of legal and moral rules, an endless process of legalization and moralization, presented as "the fight against all forms of discrimination."... There is a problem with this liberal vision of which every good anthropologist, psychoanalyst, or even observant social critic like Francis Fukuyama, is aware: it cannot stand on its own, it is parasitic upon some preceding form of what is usually referred to as "socialization," which it simultaneously undermines, thereby cutting off the branch on which it is sitting.

This is admittedly a tiny fault for the movie and something that didn't bother me as much as it simply interested me. So, yeah, there are my thoughts on that.

One more thing before I let you go. Into Darkness presents a secretly militarized Federation with interesting parallels to current events. While most of this analysis is my own, the rest of it is stolen from this enjoyable article over at Popular Science magazine. They hilariously refer to the movie as Into Zero Darkness Thirty (why could I not come up with that first?) partly because of the similarity between Kirk's orders to remotely murder Khan with long range torpedoes (as punishment for what seems to be a terrorist attack) and the current controversy surrounding drone strikes in the US as a weapon in the always problematic War on Terror. In this analogy it seems the tyrannically militaristic Admiral Alexander Marcus would be the stand in for president Obama, which, for my money, makes Into Darkness much more honest and politically aware than Zero Dark Thirty was (here's my review of that movie for anyone interested).

Anyway, I give Star Trek Into Darkness 5 beers for being continuously entertaining (even my friend who doesn't like sci-fi movies said she liked it) and 4 Zizeks for being less ideological than last year's political thrillers but ambiguous with regards to its position on anthropology and the other.


10 comments:

  1. Nice review Wes. I honestly liked this movie more than the first movie and that says a lot, since Star Trek still ranks as one of my favorite sci-fi movies of the past decade or so.

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    1. Hey Dan thanks for the comment. As you can probably tell I also loved the movie, although I think as with many sequel pairings the two together are greater than the sum of their parts.

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  2. Your detailed review was very interesting. I sometimes wonder if aliens have appeared to us, breaching the Prime Directive in the past. And your comments regarding the War on Terror make me see the movie differently.

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    1. Hey Dan thanks for checking out my review! I had to postpone some larger projects I'm working on to write this so I'm glad you liked it. I think that often sci-fi has more to say about reality than political thrillers or documentaries.

      On the topic of aliens, did/do you watch the X-Files? My girlfriend loves it and sometimes I watch it with her and it's very enjoyable.

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    2. Never really caught the X-Files when it was on TV. But I've since discovered Fringe, Stargate SG-1 and Ancient Aliens. I recommend them all.

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    3. Yeah I watched quite a bit of Fringe and thought that was pretty cool. Never saw SG-1 but I did like the Stargate with Kurt Russell. Haven't heard of Ancient Aliens, what's that like? If you're interested X-Files is all on Netflix at the moment.

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  3. Ancient Aliens is a doco, highly theoretical but definitely imaginative and semi-plausible. (I've only seen season 1).

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    1. Oh cool now that you mention it that does sound familiar.

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  4. Wes, I enjoyed your review and thought you made some good points.

    My review on Film Babble Blog was largely based on a lifetime of seeing the original series since I was a kid, seeing the individual movies as they were released, and having all of them in my background. That said, and you might not believe this - I don't consider myself a Trekkie either. I don't own any episode sets or any of the movies, and don't have any memorabilia.

    My problems with IN DARKNESS are with a lack of originality, and putting large amounts of action where a more thoughtful sensibility used to be. If you were familiar with the original movies, specifically THE WRATH OF KHAN, I think you'd see my point more.

    So I ask - do you plan on watching those films?

    If I hadn't seen the original KHAN before I would probably most likely rate this new one higher, but that film had such powerful themes and one of the most important scenes of the entire Trek universe so it was frustrating that Abrams, who says over and over that he was never a fan, just ripped it off so blatantly instead of working to create something more original that would stand on its own.

    - Daniel Johnson

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    1. Hey Daniel thanks so much for reading my review!

      I totally see what you mean about relying on action over substance, and I think what it boils down to is that I was expecting it to be popcorn sci-fi and you were expecting it to live up to Wrath of Khan. If I had seen the original first I imagine my reaction would have been closer to yours.

      That said, watching Into Darkness did make me desire more of the Star Trek universe, so I wouldn't be surprised if I end up watching the original movies at some point (although I will probably begin with the Next Generation movies since I slightly miss the Borg).

      Also how is it I only get comments from Daniels? Don't get me wrong, I appreciate every comment I get, but it is a little weird.

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