Screen view: the latest Star Trek

Star-Trek-Into-DarknessWith my afternoon free yesterday, I decided to attend the early matinee showing of Star Trek: Into Darkness, the second installment of J.J. Abrams re-boot of the science fiction classic. The last film I saw at the theater was Prometheus about a year ago. I guess I like to see big-budget science fiction films on the big screen.

These two films share some similar flaws. Both play fast and loose with the laws of physics, and both rely way too heavily on characters behaving in irrational ways only to serve the convenience of the plot. Where these are fatal flaws in Prometheus, Into Darkness survives them due to the raw power of the characters.

In his first Star Trek film, Abrams wisely gave himself permission to wander outside the lines of the traditional Trek storyline through a time-traveling incident that changes the course of history. This gives him latitude to add and subtract — as he did by having the Vulcan home world destroyed and introducing young Mr. Spock to old Mr. Spock. I applaud this decision, but it should not let the filmmaker off the hook for at least attempting to make his physics look plausible.

To me, two things distinguish Gene Roddenberry‘s vision of the original Star Trek: Intriguing, interesting characters and a fascination with the wonder and beauty of the universe. For the most part, the TV series that have followed in Roddenberry’s footsteps have maintained both these attributes if not always to the same standard. J. J. Abrams, however, has eschewed the latter attribute in favor of dynamic, pulse-racing action. Whether this is his own preference or just the nature of Hollywood today, I don’t know. But one of the side effects is a complete disregard for the physics of the universe we live in and the nature of his characters’ motivations.

Let’s start with the opening scene, where we find the Enterprise lurking on the bottom of an alien ocean. The Enterprise is a  craft built to travel in the vacuum of space. It would not be able to bear flying through an atmosphere let alone handling the pressures from thousands of tons of water! But even if it could withstand such forces, the Enterprise is certainly not built to be able to “take off” from under the water. This is merely preposterous. The Enterprise does not have a means of upward propulsion against the forces of gravity. For that matter, the entire opening action set makes no sense, but I won’t go into all that.

Alice Eve as new character Carol Marcus is not one of the physics problems that plague the film.
Alice Eve as new character Carol Marcus is not one of the physics problems that plague the film.

Then there is the question of just how fast these ships travel. It appears that aboard the Enterprise you can make it from our solar system to the home planet of the Klingons faster than I can commute to my office 12 miles from my home. Yes, they have warp drive, but so do the Klingons. If we’re that nearby, why didn’t the Klingons conquer Earth centuries ago? In all the other Star Trek versions, the immensity of the galaxy is one of the key elements, but apparently the galaxy has shrunk in the new universe J. J. Abrams has created.

There are temporal problems, too, where the action taking place off camera should require days to occur, but happens during what seems just a few hours of the time in the main scene. The biggest of these issues is when Kirk calls from nearby the Klingon home world to Scotty who is in a bar back on Earth. Somehow, Scotty has the time to commandeer a space craft, fly it out to Jupiter, stow away on the super space ship he finds in dry dock there and is on board when that ship shows up in Kirk’s neighborhood within what seems like just a few hours from when Kirk makes the original call.

Another of my peeves with the movie is the tiring gimmick of the transporter being only effective enough at various times to be able to solve the next crisis with the maximum amount of suspense and tension. It would be much too easy to overcome obstacles if the damn thing worked properly all the time!

Oh, and did I mention the endless maze that engineering on the Enterprise has become. They would have to be able to warp space inside the ship in order to fit that goliath mish mash of phony technology onboard.

And finally, the motivation of the evildoers remains sketchy, at best. I simply could not believe that these characters would make the choices they do. They are not sociopaths, though they behave as if they are. Those who are capable of loving their families generally do not make random decisions to slaughter hundreds or thousands of innocent people. Yet, they do just that in this movie, because it is necessary to have characters who would. (While Kirk is trying desperately to save lives, thousands must be killed near the end of the movie when a space ship smashes into San Francisco, yet no one seems too perturbed by that.)

So, yes, there are lots of problems with this film. But what redeems the entire movie are the great characters and their relationships with one another. The creation of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty et. al. was the true act of genius by Gene Roddenberry. To his credit, J. J. Abrams honors this legacy, even building on it. And the cast pulls it off almost flawlessly. As in the first film of this reboot, I totally bought into these actors as those familiar and iconic figures created for TV almost 50 years ago.

Into Darkness is really just a vehicle for these characters to live and interact with one another, for their relationships to grow and develop. It helps that we know them so well, a factor Abrams uses to good effect. He doesn’t need to provide much back story, as we are already familiar with it. So when Kirk gives a look at one of Spock’s emotionless comments, we laugh, knowing all about the tension between Kirk’s fiery personality and Spock’s logical approach to every situation. Abrams leans heavily on this familiarity. He also takes things further, providing a sexual relationship between Spock and Uhura, who is a much more important and interesting character in these films. She joins the boys in a lot of the action sequences.

Benedict Cumberbatch: Imagine Sherlock Holmes crossed with Jason Bourne.
Benedict Cumberbatch: Imagine Sherlock Holmes crossed with Jason Bourne.

Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a good performance as the villain — or is he? — a kind of hybrid of his hyper-brilliant Sherlock Holmes character and a fighting machine like Jason Bourne. A new character, Carol Marcus, is introduced into the franchise, played by the lovely British actress Alice Eve. Marcus is a science officer and weapons specialist, and possible love interest for one of the other characters.

By the end of the film, order has been restored as the bad guys have been vanquished and we learn that these first two J.J. Abrams movies are just the prologue to where the TV series began, and the Enterprise and her crew are now ready to start a five-year voyage to seek out new life and new civilizations. I just hope that Abrams boldly chooses to obey the physical laws of the universe a little more closely in the future.

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